Serah bat Asher Part I: Immortal Secret Keeper

According to the Jewish tradition, there are three righteous people who never died. Or maybe it’s seven (1). Or nine (2). It depends on the source. But all the sources I know of agree on the first three. They are Enoch, who walked with God (3); the prophet Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (4); and Serah, blessed by God with wisdom and by her grandfather Jacob with eternal life. Jewish monster hunters should be on the lookout for Serah. Throughout her life she has been a wise protector and keeper of our forgotten knowledge. (And as I’ll write about next week, a werewolf hunter!) Wouldn’t it be something, to sit with her for an hour and learn from her stories? Or to offer her our company and aid?

Serah’s stories are high adventure! Grab some popcorn and let’s go!

Ephraim Moses Lillian’s “The Song of Life” (5)
While, as far as I know, not intended to be a representation of Serah, I think this image captures her perfectly.

Serah bat Asher & The Gift of Wisdom

Serah was the adopted daughter of Asher and the granddaughter of Jacob, the Patriarch. She was first mentioned in the Torah in the list of Jacob’s household that moved to Egypt, under the protection of Joseph (6). This mention, to careful readers such as Rabbi’s and Jewish monster hunters, is striking. While there is a long list of Jacob’s grandsons, she is the only granddaughter named. So why was she so important? Because, along with Joseph, she was one of two spiritual heirs of Jacob. Serah’s uncles (and two cousins) might have been founders of the 12 tribes, but they were mostly jerks. Eight of them sold her (ninth) uncle Joseph into slavery, right? And, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, her 10th uncle, Benjamin, was a werewolf! Nice family, right? Well, according to the Sefer Yasher, Serah was special from the start.

And after the death of Asher’s wife he went and took Hadurah for a wife, and brought her to ‎the land of Canaan. And Serah her daughter he brought also with them, and she was three ‎years old; and the damsel was brought up in Jacob’s house. And the damsel was of comely ‎appearance, and she went in the holy ways of the children of Jacob, and the Lord gave her ‎wisdom and understanding.


Sefer HaYasher, Bereshit, Vayeshev. (7)

Serah, according to the Sefer HaYasher, is a prophet blessed by God with wisdom, similar to her uncle Joseph. It was Serah who told Jacob that Joseph was still alive. This was a big deal. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. When, years earlier, Serah’s jerk uncles claimed (falsely) that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, it almost killed Jacob (8). Now, Serah’s uncles have gone to Egypt, humbled by drought and begging for food, and come back with incredible news. Joseph is alive, has forgiven them, is a high ranking officer under Pharaoh, and wants them to move to Egypt under his protection. But Jacob’s an old man now. How could they tell Jacob without shocking and possibly killing him? They asked Serah to do it.

Serah knew her grandfather well. She had studied with him and was devoted to him (9). She chose just the right moment. Jacob stood in prayer, strengthened by his devotion to God, and Serah joined him joyfully, playing her harp and singing (10). As the Midrash HaGadol tells it….

[The brothers said:]If we tell him right away, “Joseph is alive!” perhaps he will have a stroke [lit., his soul will fly away]. What did they do? They said to Serah, daughter of Asher, “Tell our father Jacob that Joseph is alive, and he is in Egypt.” What did she do? She waited till he was standing in prayer, and then said in a tone of wonder, “Joseph is in Egypt/ There have been born on his knees/ Menasseh and Ephraim” [three rhyming lines]. His heart failed, while he was standing in prayer. When he finished his prayer, he saw the wagons: immediately the spirit of Jacob came back to life.

Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 45:26. Translated by Avivah Zornberg (11)

Imagine the power of the moment. Jacob is caught up in his prayers and hears a beloved voice telling him what he always wanted to hear but would never have believed. His broken spirit flies away and returns whole. Joseph is alive. Jacob will live and in gratitude he blesses Serah. And, as I’ve discussed before, the blessing of a patriarch is an immensely powerful thing. Jacob says….

My ‎daughter, may death never prevail against thee forever, for thou hast revived my spirit, only ‎repeat thou this song once more before me, for thou hast caused me gladness with thy words.

Sefer HaYashar, Book of Genesis, Vayigash (10)

Serah has been blessed to live forever.

Ok. A quick digression. This first part of Serahs story connects with how we Jews got to Egypt. In the second part, Serahs story connects with how we leave. Then the third part connects with how we remember the Exodus.These connections, and the parallels between Serah’s immortality and that of the prophet Elijahs, makes Serahs story great to tell at a seder table. If that sounds like fun, you might check out Serach at the Seder by Yitzhak Buxbaum (12). He did a lovely job writing a haggadah supplement. Or make your own that fits your seder.

Yitzhak Buxbaum’s “Serach at the Seder: A Haggadah Supplement.” (12)

Serah bat Asher, Keeper of Secrets

Jacob’s descendants are crying out in slavery. 400 years has passed from the time that Serah accompanied her tribe to Egypt and a new pharaoh has forgotten Joseph. But Serah still lives. She still remembers the her youth, the high country side, the smells of cooking and animals, the singing at night, and the prayers, as well as Jacob and all she learned from him. Then Moses comes and demands, in the name of God, that Pharaoh release the Hebrews and, just as boldly, demands that the Hebrews be ready to follow him out of Egypt. The Hebrews were confused and scared. Had God finally remembered them? Would Moses demands be met? Or would Moses’s demands bring down additional suffering? The terrible days of Pharaoh’s army murdering newborn Hebrew boys was not that many years ago and still hung over them. Follow Moses? Or reject him? How would they decided? Again, the tribe turned Serah. The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer tells the story….


When Moses and Aaron came to the elders of Israel and performed the signs in their sight, the elders of Israel went to Serah, the daughter of Asher, and they said to her: A certain man has come, and he has performed signs in our sight. She said to them: There is no reality in the signs. They said to her: He said “God will surely visit you.” She said to them: He is the man who will redeem Israel in the future from Egypt, for thus did I hear, I have surely visited you (Exodus 3:16). Forthwith the people believed in their God and in His messenger, as it is said, And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel (Exodus 4:31)

A slightly simplified version of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 48:17 (13)

Serah had learned deep lessons of Torah from Jacob, who learned them from Isaac who learned them from Abraham and from the school Shem and Ever (9). She recognized Moses’ language for what it was, the prophesied words of God. In so doing, she connected the current generation of Hebrews to the teachings of her teachers and to their own history…and gave them courage and faith.

Finally Pharaoh gave the word that the Hebrews were free and the Hebrews scrambled to ready themselves. But there was still a major task to be done before they could follow Moses out of Egypt. The bones of Joseph had to be found. Joseph, Serah’s uncle who had brought Serah and the tribe to Egypt, had made them swear that they would not leave him behind when they would finally leave Egypt (14). And even with the chariots of Pharaoh readying themselves to give chase, the promise had to be kept.

Moses, who grew up in the home and temples of Pharaoh, did not know where Joseph had been buried. The elders of the Hebrews did not know either. The priests of Egypt, who knew of the promise, had buried Joseph in secret to keep Joseph’s holy body for themselves and to keep the Hebrews from ever leaving. But Serah knew. She’d stood and watched as her uncle’s metal casket was dropped into the same stretch of the Nile river that would later carry Moses’ wicker basket, and even later run with blood.

The Gemara asks: And from where did Moses our teacher know where Joseph was buried? The Sages said: Serah, the daughter of Asher, remained from that generation that initially descended to Egypt with Jacob. Moses went to her and said to her: Do you know anything about where Joseph is buried? She said to him: The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile River as an augury so that its water would be blessed. Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile. He said to Joseph: Joseph, Joseph, the time has arrived about which the Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath saying that I (God) will redeem you. And the time for fulfillment of the oath that you administered to the Jewish people that they will bury you in Eretz Yisrael has arrived. If you show yourself, it is good, but if not, we are clear from your oath. Immediately, the casket of Joseph floated to the top of the water.

Sotah 13a (15)

Ok. There’s a lot going on here. Metal caskets (think big amulet), Egyptian magic spells, omens of the future, talking to the dead. Moses is channeling a lot of God’s power. A big part of the Jewish magic tradition centers on Moses. Too much to get into here, but I’ll write lots about it later.

Moses and Serah collected Joseph’s casket and, with the Hebrews, carried it out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. Later, describing the long journey to the promised land, the book of Numbers provides a careful accounting of the Hebrews that survived a plague. Again, the count and the names are those of men (elders and warriors). And again, Serah daughter Asher, granddaughter of Jacob, is counted and named. Even then, she stood watch over us, sharing her wisdom and teaching, joining Miriam in song.

(44) Descendants of Asher by their clans: Of Imnah, the clan of the Imnites; of Ishvi, the clan of the Ishvites; of Beriah, the clan of the Beriites. (45) Of the descendants of Beriah: Of Heber, the clan of the Heberites; of Malchiel, the clan of the Malchielites.— (46) The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.— (47) These are the clans of Asher’s descendants; persons enrolled: 53,400.

Numbers 26:44-47 (16)

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend (17). Serah studied with Jacob. We won’t be so fortunate, but maybe we can study and befriend Serah. And, if not, there are lots of teachers and sources.

2. Be on the lookout for the immortals and other long lived folks. There are many in the tradition. Honor them and support them, as we do all our elders.

2. Blessings are powerful things. While we don’t live in the days of the patriarchs, there have been other tzadiks (holy people) who could change the world with a blessing. Maybe there still are.

4. Be wary of other magic. Moses used God’s power to talk to Joseph and raise his bones…but it wasn’t Jewish magic that sank Joseph in the first place.

Serah bat Asher, Teacher of the Sages

Two thousand years later, Serah was still standing watch over us, still sharing her wisdom and still singing. Somewhere around 200 CE, Serah was living in the north of Roman ruled Israel, near Galilee. It was a time of persecution (as most times seem to be). The second Temple had long since fallen and the teachings of the Pharisees had not yet been written down as the Mishna. These teachings were still taught orally, from teacher to student. Serah didn’t study with the teachers, she’d been taught by well Jacob two and half millenia ago. But she did listen in, from time to time, to understand what was being taught. And, occasionally, to make corrections.

Rabbi Yohanan was once sitting and expounding about how the waters became like a wall for Israel [at the time they miraculously passed through the Sea which had split open before them to permit their Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 14:29, “and the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left”). Rabbi Yohanan explained that the waters looked like a lattice. However, just at that moment, Serah bat Asher looked in and said: I was there and they (the waters) were not like that but rather like lighted windows

From Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (10:117), Marc Bergman translation (18)
File:Israel's Escape from Egypt.jpg
The Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain] (19)

Next week, I’ll continue the story of Serah, with The Exile of Serah and Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!

Ok. One last digression. I’m a long time music head. I used to write the blog Teruah: Jewish Music. Alicia Jo Rabins is one of my favorite Jewish songwriters and teachers. She’s recorded 3 albums under the title Girls in Trouble that are both wonderful music and masterful feminist midrash. As Rabin’s describes it, Girls in Trouble is a “indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of women in Torah.” Here’s her take on Serah, called “Tell Me.

Tell Me (20)

The waters parted but it wasn’t like they said,
no iron wall came down to hold them.
Has there been a loneliness like mine,
touching all the hidden walls of time?

Notes and References
(1) According to Tractate Kallah Rabbati 3:25 Seven people entered Gan Eden alive, namely: Serach, as it says, I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. I am the one who completed the number of those who entered Gan Eden” (Hebrew). I’m borrowing this translation from Mark Solomon’s Sefaria sheet Serach bat Asher – The Transmitter of Secrets I’ve reached out to Solomon to see if it’s his translation and will update this when I know. https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/132068?lang=bi
(2) According to Tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:18, “Nine people entered Gan Eden alive, namely: Enoch son of Jared, Elijah, the Messiah, Eliezer the servant of Abraham, Hiram king of Tyre and Eved-Melech the Ethiopian, Jabez the [grand]son of Judah (see I Chronicles 4:9-10), Batya the daughter of Pharaoh, and Serach bat Asher, and some say also Rabbi Joshua ben Levi.” I’ll write about all nine, eventually. I’m borrowing this translation from Mark Solomon’s Sefaria sheet Serach bat Asher – The Transmitter of Secrets https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/132068?lang=bi
(3) Enoch is described as walking with, being taken by taken, by God in Genesis 5:23 and 5:24. https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.5?lang=en&aliyot=0
(4) Elijah ascends via whirlwind in II Kings, Chapter 2, verse 1. https://www.sefaria.org/II_Kings.2?lang=en. No…he did not land on the Witch of the West. You’re thinking of Dorothy.
(5) “Song of Life” from New Art of an Ancient People: The Work of Ephraim Moses Lillian by M. S. Levussove. I’m crazy about Lillian’s work. I color adjusted it a bit from a scanned original printing available at https://archive.org/details/newartanancient00levugoog/page/n18.
(6) Serah’s first mention in Genesis 46.17 https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.46.16?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(7) Sefer ha-Yasher is a Hebrew Midrash on early biblical history. This english is from the Edward B.M. Browne, New York, 1876 English translation. https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_HaYashar_(midrash)%2C_Book_of_Genesis%2C_Vayeshev?ven=Sefer_ha-Yashar,__trans._Edward_B.M._Browne,_New_York,_1876&lang=bi
(8) Genesis 37:35 says of Jacob that All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him. https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.37?lang=en&aliyot=0
(9) According the Jewish tradition, there was already a great deal to study by the time of Jacob and Serah, including the Sefer HaMalaach Raziel (Book of the Angel of God’s Secret) written by Adam and the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) written by Abraham, as well as pre-flood Torah and mystical teachings passed down to Jacob’s father Isaac when Isaac studied in the yeshiva (school) of Shem, son of Noah, and Ever, Shem’s grandson.
(10) Sefer HaYasher. Book of Genesis, Vayigash. Browne translation. https://www.sefaria.org/Sefer_HaYashar_(midrash)%2C_Book_of_Genesis%2C_Vayigash.9?ven=Sefer_ha-Yashar,__trans._Edward_B.M._Browne,_New_York,_1876&lang=bi
(11) Midrash HaGadol, Genesis 45:26, translated by Translated by Avivah Zornberg in her book Genesis, the Beginning of Desire. See her website http://www.avivahzornberg.com/. I found this reference and translation in Moshe Reiss’ excellent essay “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature.” https://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/421/JBQ_421_8_reissserach.pdf
(12) Serach at the Seder: A Haggadah Supplement. Yitzhak Buxbaum. You can get a copy from him via website. http://www.jewishspirit.com/Serach/Serach.html. Or you can build your own Serah Bat Asher haggadah supplement that works for you and your seder.
(13) The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer tells this story in the context of a fascinating discussion on the role of the letters of the Torah in redemption. Here’s an abbreviated version of it. See Sefaria for the whole text. Rabbi Eliezer said: The five letters of the Torah, which alone of all the letters in the Torah are of double (shape), all appertain to the mystery of the Redemption…..With “Pê” “Pê” Israel was redeemed from Egypt, as it is said, “I have surely visited you, (Paḳôd Paḳadti) and (seen) that which is done to you in Egypt, and I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt” (Ex. iii. 16, 17)….These letters were delivered only to our father Abraham. Our father Abraham delivered them to Isaac, and Isaac (delivered them) to Jacob, and Jacob delivered the mystery of the Redemption to Joseph, as it is said, “But God will surely visit (Paḳôd yiphḳôd) you” (Gen. 1. 24). … Asher, the son of Jacob, delivered the mystery of the Redemption to Serah his daughter.
https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_DeRabbi_Eliezer.48.17?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
(14) Exodus 13:19. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.13.19?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(15) Sotah 13. https://www.sefaria.org/Sotah.13a.14?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=bi
(16) Numbers 26.46. https://www.sefaria.org/Numbers.26.46?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(17) “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend” is one of the most famous teachings in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers. https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.1.6?ven=Open_Mishnah&lang=en&with=all&lang2=en
(18) Pesikta de-Rav Kahana. Aggadic Midrash written between c.400 – c.700 CE. Translated by Marc Bergman in his outstanding essay “Serah Bat Asher:
Biblical Origins, Ancient Aggadah and Contemporary Folklore” https://judaic.arizona.edu/sites/judaic.arizona.edu/files/files-event/Bregman.pdf. Hebrew source available at https://www.sefaria.org/Pesikta_D’Rav_Kahanna?lang=en
(19) the Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain] https://commons.wikimedia.org
(20) “Tell Me” Alicia Jo Rabins. From the Girls in Trouble album Half You Half Me. https://aliciajo.com/. The Tell Me video was recorded live at the Living Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2015. Alicia Jo Rabins, vocals, violin and loop pedal; Aaron Hartman, bass.

The Evil Eye and You: Practical Defenses against Weaponized Jealousy

Last time, I wrote about Jewish magic amulets. There’s a lot of amulet lore to work through and I’m going to come back to it over and over again. There are a lot of practical tips that Jewish monster hunters need to know. But right now, I want to make an important point. Jewish magic isn’t just about about amulets or segulah (charms) written by the rabbis….who are highly trained, high status, and male (yeah…I went there)(1). Jewish magic is also a wide range of segulah, amulets, and ritual practices passed down and innovated by the women of the community (and non-rabbi men of the community). These practices sometimes get picked up and made cannon in the main rabbinic texts, but are often only available through family or communal traditions or the few decent folklore ethnographies out there. Understanding these practices is important for the apprentice Jewish monster hunter. This kind of magic is not only as demanding in terms of Jewish knowledge and faith, but is also highly tuned to local dangers, customs, and resources. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t rabbis and, like our foremothers and forefathers, need to work with what we’ve got to defend ourselves, our families, and our towns.

Jewish Henna for Lalla ‘Aisha, Fes. The eye motif, connected with the hand, is a power protection from the evil eye. (From Noam Sienna’s amazing Jewish henna blog “Eskol Hakofer”)(2)

The Evil Eye

The evil eye, or ayin hara in Hebrew, is a great place to dig in to this. The evil eye is a critical element of Jewish magical lore, causing disease, injury, insanity, death and mayhem. Cases of the evil eye were documented across all the major Jewish ethnic groups (e.g. Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic). It’s so serious that, Rav, one of the sages of the Talmud, is described as having looked at a graveyard and lamented the great cost of the evil eye:

Ninety-nine [have died] through an evil eye, and one through natural causes

Talmud Baba Metzia (3)

Fundamentally, the evil eye is weaponized jealousy. Frustration. Envy. Anger. Hate. That burning feeling we get when we want something that someone else has so badly that we’d take it away from them just so no one could have it. All that terrible emotion that we hold inside gets channelled through the evil eye, giving it power.

While that much is generally agreed on, there is some disagreement in the Jewish sources as to what exactly the evil eye is.

Some think of it as an evil omen, a spell of sorts that has the power to bring misfortune upon a person. Others think of it as a type of poison that the eye directs at things that it sees, casting them in an evil light. Yet others see it as a silent wish and prayer to Hashem (God) to pass judgment on a person or situation to judge them more strictly.

Ayin Hara. Torah Learning Project (4)

So, according to the Torah Learning Project, it’s some kind of personal magic or possibly an unworthy prayer. In other sources, including the Sefer Hasidim, the evil eye is described as a sheydim (demon) or evil angel called upon to take revenge (5). In each of these traditions, though, it is initiated by anger or jealousy, often employed unwittingly often by otherwise good people in their weakest moments. (I have them. Not proud.) The Polish Jewish ethnographer Regina Lilienthal, in her amazing 1900 study of Ashkenazi beliefs on the Evil Eye, observed that:

It is very difficult to take precautions and guard against the evil eye, people claim, because everyone has a moment during the day when he or she can set the evil eye on others. Even pious persons can do such a bad thing unknowingly and even against their will, that is, in a totally mechanical and unwitting fashion. Sometimes parents cast the evil eye on their children. This is why every person must resolve, early in the morning, that during the day he or she will not cast an evil glance on any person.

Regina Lilienthal, The Evil Eye. 1900 (6)

Because the evil eye is fueled by jealousy, it is particularly dangerous around
a community’s most life affirming moments, particularly birth and marriage. This isn’t surprising, right? Those moments are joyful specifically because someone has just gotten something wonderful, that maybe you don’t have and you want. This understanding about the connection between joy and jealousy has deeply influenced Judaism. There’s a long list of practices ranging from deflecting questions that might indicate your current joy (e.g. answering “how are you” with “Baruch Hashem (Praise God)” instead of answering (7) to deep spiritual and ethical practices. The Mussar (ethical) literature, for example, talks deeply about ways to over come timtum ha’leva (a “stopped-up heart.”) in order to avoid jealousy (8).

But we’ll stay focused. Aside from humility, there is a long list of practical techniques for avoiding the evil eye. Way too many to cover in this post. Right now, I’m going to focus on four techniques;

  • The shir ha’amalot amulet, an Ashkenazi and Sephardic technique for protecting children
  • The hamsa, a Sephardic and Mizrahi amulet for general evil eye protection
  • Henna tattoos, a Mizrahi technique for protecting the bride
  • And, in case the first three fail, a Sephardi healing ritual

The first technique is the shir ha’amalot amulet. A shir ha’amalot is a parchment with the text of Psalm 121, which emphasizes God’s protection. It opens saying, “My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber; See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps! (9). While the use of these amulets was once wide spread in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, today only the Chabad Hassidic community still encourages their use. Chabad recommends that not only should they be used in the home, but they should also be placed in hospital rooms to reclaim the birthing room as Jewish space as well as to invoke divine protection (10). That means you can buy one online as Mikvah.org (11) or print one out from the Chabad site (12). It’s good to have a couple in your gear box. I do.

As Shir Ha’amalot card with Psalm 121, for protecting baby’s from the evil eye. They are often hung in hospital delivery rooms or baby’s nurseries. This one is available for purchase online from Mikva.Org (11)

The second technique is the hamsa amulet. A hamsa is a visual symbol of an open hand with a stylized eye in the palm. Hamsa is Arabic for five, which references the five fingers on a hand. With related gestures and verbal charms, it’s a common symbol of protection in Jewish and Islamic cultures, predating both, and has been integral to both Jewish Mizrahi and Sephardic cultures. Noam Sienna, in his essay Five in Your Eye: The Khamsa Image among Moroccan Jewry (13) gathered a number of ethnographic examples of how the hamsa was used to ward off the evil eye. According to Sienna, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews in the late 1880’s used hamsas made of silver, iron, coral, and blue stones with additional symbols of fish, salamanders, and birds. The use of the hamsa amulet was often accompanied by gestures or spoken charms. For example, Sienna notes a member of the Tunisian Jewish community, “when his children’s pictures or horses are praised, the Tunisian Jew extends his five fingers, or pronounces the number ‘five;’ he tries by this means to prevent the praise doing damage.” Other, similar, protective statements included “hamsa fi ‘ainek [five in your eye], hamsa ‘ala ‘ainek [five on your eye], hamsa ukhmissa [five and little five]”, or “hmames [the fives]. While these utterances, matched with the gesture of raising the hand, and the specifics of hamsa construction were specific to that community at that time, the practice can be adapted to any local area or community. Proper usage, though, also requires a keen sense of the moment the protection is needed.

Moroccan Hamsa Door Knocker. (14)

The third technique is henna tattoos, used by Mizrahi Jews as well as Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and others. Henna is a natural orange-red or purple dye, made from the leaves of the henna plant. It is used throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia as the basis for body art that fades over time, but cannot be washed off. Applying henna tattoos is a common preparation for Mizrahi celebrations, including weddings and births. While henna tattoos can take on a wide variety of different cultural roles, one of the prominent ones is protection from the evil eye. Henna tattoos that protect against the evil eye can use hamsa symbols (see the Sienna’s Lalla ‘Aisha photo, above), eyes symbols, or a variety of other symbols.

But henna is not just a pigment. It’s a core part of the magic itself. Noam Sienna (yeah, same ethnographer who wrote the Hamsa essay), explains:

Much of henna’s importance came from the beliefs associated with the plant itself, which transmitted what is known in Hebrew as berakha, Arabic baraka — blessedness. This quality is essential not only in ensuring happiness and success but also in warding off negative forces and energies, variously understood as demons (Hebrew shedim, Arabic jnun) or the Evil Eye (Hebrew ‘ayin ha-ra‘). This protective quality is understood to be inherent in the plant material itself, as it is in other substances (for example: iron, the rue plant, the number five, or the colours blue and red).

An elderly Moroccan woman I interviewed explained that her father, a doctor and rabbinic scholar, taught her that “each plant has the name of an angel, an angel that tells it the job it has to do in the world. The angel of the henna plant is Mevi-Mazal [Bringer of Luck]. That is the job of the henna plant: to bring luck. That is why it was put in the world.”

Noam Sienna, Making Meaning Skin Deep: The Changing Valence of Henna in Jewish Culture (15)

I’ll write more about the role of protective angels in Jewish magic in later posts. For now, focusing on the henna tattoos, the practical implications are clear. First, as with the shir ha’amalot and hamsa amulets, it’s important to understand that events that bring joy bring envy and need protection. Second, Jewish amulets can take different forms, whether parchment, metal, or, in the case of henna tattoos, our own skin. Third, and finally, these amulets are beautiful, raising up the joyful moments they’re part of, even as they protect them.

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Stay wary. The monsters are us. We buried the 99 in the graveyard, not demons, giants, or vampires.
2. Stay humble. Don’t draw attention to your actions. Jewish monster hunters are not big game hunters. We serve. We do not display trophies or brag at the bar.
3. Stay connected. Not just to the patriarch rabbis (1) who can create the amulets, but to the matriarchs who hold the community together. There is power, knowledge, and resources there.
4. Stay stocked. Keep your gearbox filled with a wide range of components that can be matched to local traditions, as needed. Learn how to use them and make them beautiful.

The fourth, and final, technique that I’ll cover in this post is healing rituals. Even with the best protective measures, the evil eye can still strike. How would you know? One description of the symptoms caused by the evil eye are “broken sleep, or loss of sleep, headache, constant yawning, buzzing in the ears, any kind of digestive pain or derangement, fever, depression, and general weakness. Even death may result.” (16) This list of symptoms comes from Derya Agis’ essay “Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye, which is based on her interviews with and readings of autobiographies of, women who are either immigrants from the former Ottoman Empire or descendants or relatives of immigrants. According to Agis’ sources, healing these effects involved prayer and rituals that were generally performed by women. Agis’ essay includes a number of wonderful descriptions, including this one:

Cloves and lead for a Sephardic evil eye healing ritual
Cloves and lead for a Sephardic evil eye healing ritual. With materials from my gear box

Esther C from New York depicts the following cure against the pernicious effects of the evil eye: the performer of the ritual gathers fifteen cloves, divides them into groups of five by saying, “let the evil eye, all the evil talk go into the depths of the sea, five for the sea, five for the land, five for the people, let no badness affect X…”; this ritual is repeated three times; the performer of the ritual takes each group of cloves in her/his hand, and passes the cloves all over the body of the affected person fifteen times in total. Afterwards, the performer of the ritual gets an aluminum plate, and burns these cloves with a match.

In addition to cloves, lead is also used in rituals performed against the evil eye.

Derya Agis. Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye (16)

Agis provides a variety of examples of evil eye healing rituals and others histories and ethnographies provide even more, including applying salt, breathing aromatic herbs, heating and popping black seeds, and melting bits of rubber or gum. Each of these methods uses local ingredients, but linked to common themes, such as purity (salt) or redirection (popping seeds) (17). One of my personal favorite redirection methods is smashing a glass at a wedding. At the moment the wedding couple is most joyful and most vulnerable, they smash a glass to inject a moment of surprise and whoosh…the evil eye is distracted and passes them by. (18)

Stomping the Glass (19)

A quick postscript: If you happen to live near Minneapolis, MN you can get Noam Sienna to do custom Jewish henna for you. Check out his shop at http://www.hennabysienna.com/. Also, in addition to his ethnographic work, Sienna also recently published A Rainbow Thread, an Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the 1st Century to 1969 which “collects for the first time more than a hundred sources on the intersection of Jewish and queer identities.” I haven’t read it yet, but it looks awesome. You can get more info at http://noamsienna.com/a-rainbow-thread/)

Notes and References
(1) I’m talking about the long history of Judaism. The “rabbis are a patriarchy” thing is definitely changing. The liberal Jewish movements have lots of wonderful women rabbis. Even the Orthodox communities are starting, tentatively, to accept women in the clergy as rebbetizin. See “The Contemporary Rebbetzin: What’s It Like to Be a Rebbetzin in 2017?” in Jewish Action, the Magazine of the Orthodox Union for some perspective. https://jewishaction.com/religion/women/contemporary-rebbetzin-whats-like-rebbetzin-2017/ Not so much in the Haredi or the Hassidim yet, as far as I’m aware.
(2) The Jewish henna image comes from the amazing blog Eskol haKofer. http://eshkolhakofer.blogspot.com/2014/08/henna-hamsas-and-eyes-oh-my-eye-as.html
(3) Talmud Baba Metzia https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.107b?lang=en
(4) “Ayin Hara” pamphlet. Torah Learning Project http://www.torahonthego.org/curriculum/TLP_28_Ayin_Hara.pdf
(5) Joshua Trachtenberg “Jewish Magic and Superstition” https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/index.htm
(6) If you want the rabbinic lore, study the Talmud and commentaries. If you want the matriarchal lore you need to study the enthographies. Be wary of the biases of the ethnographer, though. Regina Lilienthal’s study, The Evil Eye, is an amazing catalog of Ashkenazi customs and beliefs circa the late 1800’s, but is also biased by her assertion that these beliefs are “naive” relative to the urbane Polish Jews that she associated with. It’s available online, translated into English from the original Polish, in Studia Mythologica Slavica Supplementa, Supplementum 2. http://sms.zrc-sazu.si/pdf/SMS_%20Supplementa_Suppl_2_2010.pdf (I haven’t found a more copyright-friendly print source yet).
(7) If you’ve never heard anyone do this, check out the Throwing Sheyd: Better Living through Jewish Demonology podcast, where Miriam is always teasing Alan by asking him how he’s doing, forcing him to say “Brauch Hashem.” https://anchor.fm/throwingsheyd
(8) Mussar is a set of Jewish spiritual and ethical practices that emerged in the 19th century Ashkenazi community. The literature is sprawling and wonderful. For a quick, and meaningful, article on timtum ha’lev, see “Through a Mussar Lens: Unblocking the Heart” By Alan Morinis https://mussarinstitute.org/Yashar/2014-06/mussar_lens.php
(9) Psalm 121, https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.121?lang=en
(10) Dovi Seldowitz, writing for the website The CHABAD Sociologist, notes that “Chabad promotes these long-forgotten Jewish customs even in contemporary birth settings where Western medicine is typically placed ahead of all other alternative forms of healing. Sociologists have noted the contemporary trend towards the medicalization of childbirth. What was once a purely social and/or personal event now specifically takes place within a medical context. Chabad’s stance on placing a Jewish mandala in a hospital birthing room allows Jewish families to reclaim an increasingly medicalized event as their own personal moment, placing Western medicine alongside the traditional belief of divine protection.https://chabadsociologist.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/birth-in-chabad/
(11) Shir Ha’amalot card, from the Mikvah.Org online store. https://www.mikvah.org/mall/catalog/5_x_7_shir_hamaalos_birthing_card
(12). Shir Ha’amalot card, printable from the Chabad website https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/217669/jewish/The-Shir-Lamaalot.htm
(13) The use of the hamsa by Tunisian Jews was documented by Noam Sienna in the ethnograhic essay “Five in Your Eye: The Khamsa Image among Moroccan Jewry.” https://www.academia.edu/14908808/Five_in_Your_Eye_The_Khamsa_among_Maghrebi_Jews
(14) Moroccan Door Knocker photo. By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5398822
(15) Making Meaning Skin Deep: The Changing Valence of Henna in Jewish Culture. Noam Sienna. https://www.academia.edu/8318380/Making_Meaning_Skin_Deep_the_changing_valence_of_henna_in_Jewish_culture
(16) Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye. Derya Agis. https://www.brandeis.edu/hbi/research-projects/legacy-projects/workingpapers/docs/agis.pdf
(17) Pilot Study of a Multi-Ethnic Investigation of Traditional and Current Beliefs, Practices, and Customs in Relation to Respiratory Distress in Israel. Judith Issroff. http://www.priory.com/psych/asthma.htm
(18) The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols. Ellen Frankel, Betsy Platkin Teutsch. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E5YSUDG/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
(19) “Stomping the Glass” by Mpopp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Jewish magic amulets

In last week’s post about the Adne ha-Sadeh I talked briefly about necromancy, which is magic for speaking with the dead. The Torah is pretty clear, this is bad stuff. But the objection isn’t a rationalist one, the Torah is absolutely clear that necromantic magic works (1). Jews are just supposed to keep away from it.

There are other kinds of magic, though, that have thrived within the Jewish tradition. For the Jewish monster hunter, the place to start is with protective amulets. Amulets are written texts, sometimes cast or scribed in metal but more typically written on parchment, that include one of God’s names, or one or more angel names, or some permutation of these names, along with bits of psalms, prayers, halachic (legal) writings, and pleas for some specific form of assistance. (For a primer, see Trachtenberg‘s write up (2)).

Right now, there are a variety of amulets available from Jewish auction houses and from scribes around the world (3). This week, for example, the latest auction catalog from the Kedem Auction house in Jerusalem (4) was released. Lot 6 from the catalog is a Birkat Kohanim amulet from 18th or 19th century Italy, which is intended for the “Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn.” (5)

18th Century Jewish amulet with the text of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)
Birkat Kohanim Amulet – Italy, 18th/19th Century – Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn. From Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 “Rare and Important Items, including items from the of collections of Prof. Shlomo Simonsohn and Uzi Agassi.” (5)

The Kedem auction house describes the amulet as follows

Amulet containing the verses of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) “May God bless you and protect you…” and a 22 letter Holy Name, derived from the verses of the Birkat Kohanim.

Kedem Auction Catalog 65 (5)

The Kedem auction catalog is worth a read. It justifies the validity of the amulet in critical two ways. First, it spends time explaining where in the Talmud Birkat Kohanim amulets were described. This is intended to show that an observant Jew can carry such an amulet. Second, it shows that the power of the amulet is “proven” by telling the story of a similar amulet. I put quotes on the word proven because it’s a loaded term in Jewish amulet lore. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 61 A) only amulets that are proven can be carried on Shabbat. There are specific rules for proving an amulet, which typically involve three demonstrations of the amulet’s power (6).

R. Kalfon Moshe HaKohen Rabbi of Djerba (Tunisia) once wrote the verses of Birkat Kohanim on a plain piece of paper, and gave it to his granddaughter as an amulet for an easy birth. The residents of Djerba regarded it as a proven amulet, and would use it as a segulah for easy birth and recovery….

Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 (5)

This description of R. Kalfon writing the amulet talks about R. Kalfon creating a segulah. A segulah is a charm, the text that gets put on the amulet. A segulah can be used without putting it on parchment, though amulets are usually how they’re applied. Having a holy sage put the words on parchment gives it its power.

MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS

1. Having a connection to a holy sage who can scribe amulets is a practical necessity. If possible, a Jewish monster hunter should have amulets against demons, curses, and the evil eye.
2. Keep an amulet kit handy, in order to repair or improvise a new amulet if needed. Improvised amulets will work better if you’re taking your mitzvot (commandments) seriously and have some scribe training.

A
My personal amulet making kit, including kosher parchment, quills, Torah ink, and scraping tool. I am completely unqualified to use this kit, but maybe someday!

Amulets such as the Birkat Kohanim offered by Kedem aren’t that rare. They come up at auction regularly. The last few Kedem auctions have included amulets and the current auction from the Ishtar auction house has a lot of 45 of them being auctioned together. (I really really wish I could afford to bid on this!)

Lot of 45 amulet scrolls, on paper, parchment, and leather.
Large lot of approx. 45 amulets, mostly Jewish, written on paper, parchment and Gvil (leather sheet). Including amulets against the Evil Eye, curses, protection for pregnant women and the sick and more. Various sizes and conditions, overall good condition (stains, tears, wear and worming to some items). Ishtar Auction 76, Lot 105. December 5, 2019 (7)

These amulets are part of the family and religious life of Jewish communities around the world. This past spring, I was able to visit my daughter in Israel where she was studying for a semester (8). While there I visited the Israel Museum on a tour with the parents of some of the other students. At one point one of the parents, an American Jew of Persian descent and truly lovely person, got very excited and started pointing to one of the displays. Specifically, she was pointing to a metal amulet in a display on child birth. Her family had a very similar amulet and she had given birth to both of her children with the amulet on her chest. After her successful deliveries, the amulet was re-claimed by her mother who was ready to pass it along to other family members.

Sterling Silver Childbirth Amulet. Replica. Persia. 18th-19th Century
Replica of an 18th Century Persian Jewish amulet intended to ease childbirth. The inscription is taken from the Psalms and includes the name of Jochabed, the mother of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. From the Israel Museum’s collection. The replica is available from the Judaica Web Store (9)

Notes and References
(1) The story of the Woman of Endor, in First Samuel, for example, clearly shows necromantic magic in action. First Samuel tells of how King Saul, despite the bans on necromancy, finds a woman who can summon the spirit of the dead king Samuel. The summoning went fine…but Saul was cursed for doing it. https://www.sefaria.org/I_Samuel.28?lang=en
(2) For a more thorough overview of Jewish amulets see Tractenberg’s 1939 book, Jewish Magic and Superstition. https://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/jms/jms12.htm#page_132
(3) I’ll write more about Practical Kabbalah, and PK amulet makers in a later blog post. But if you can’t wait, Itzhak Mizrahi is a good place to start. https://www.p-kabbalah.com/seals-incantations-and-virtues/the-amulet/
(4) Kedem Auction 69.While this auction will be over on Dec 3, 2019, Kedem has historic Judaica auctions on a regular basis and they’re always fascinating. https://bidspirit-uploads-1.global.ssl.fastly.net/kedemauctionDocs/458/catalog/catalog_69_-_web.pdf
(5) Birkat Kohanim Amulet – Italy, 18th/19th Century – Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn https://il.bidspirit.com/ui/lotPage/source/catalog/auction/7839/lot/152251/Birkat-Kohanim-Amulet-Italy?lang=en
(6) Shabbat 61 A https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.61a.14?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=en
(7) Ishtar Auction Catalog 76, Lot 105. https://bidspirit-uploads-1.global.ssl.fastly.net/ishtarauctionDocs/140/catalog/Ishtar_76.pdf
(8) She was a high school Junior, participating the URJ’s Heller High program. Which was amazing. https://hellerhigh.org/
(9) Persian amulet replica, available from the JudaicaWebStore. https://www.judaicawebstore.com/-sterling-silver-childbirth-pendant-replica-persia-18th-19th-century-P4613.aspx