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.
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 causesTalmud 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.
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.
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).Noam Sienna, Making Meaning Skin Deep: The Changing Valence of Henna in Jewish Culture (15)
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.”
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:
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.Derya Agis. Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye (16)
In addition to cloves, lead is also used in rituals performed against the evil eye.
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)
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