The palm-shaped amulet known as the hamsa is a significant icon in Israeli culture. More than just warding off the evil eye, the hamsa symbolizes a culture among Mizrahi Jews (from the Middle East and North Africa) that was almost extinguished but is now celebrated anew.
Until now, superstitious beliefs attributed to the Mizrahi communities, the hamsa among them, were used to belittle an entire society for being primitive. Even today, those who wear a hamsa seemed to be marking themselves. Now a new exhibit has opened at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem that tries to look at the hamsa differently, through artistic and aesthetic interpretations. What are its origins? What path has it taken in the State of Israel? And is the hamsa truly apolitical?
“The hand as a magical object is something that’s accompanied the human race since its creation,” explains Prof. Shalom Sabar, a researcher at the Jewish and comparative folklore program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This symbol appears in the caves of prehistoric man and on ancient gravestones in Carthage,” Sabar says. “The hand is an organ that translates thought into deed; people put out their hands to block danger. That’s why it’s natural that the hand should take on magical qualities, regardless of the culture.”
There are many references to the power of the hand to do miraculous things in the Bible and the Talmud, and it has become a religious symbol in many places. Islam, which appeared in the 7th century, turned the hand image into the “hamsa,” the hand of Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, which symbolizes the five principles of Islam. The hamsa was a popular amulet against the evil eye, and it wormed its way into Jewish culture in the Arab and Islamic countries.
“The hamsa in the form we’re familiar with appeared in Jewish communities during the late Middle Ages,” says Sabar. “The rabbis were aware that it was a Muslim magic motif, but they saw that it was something that everyone was using and believed in, so they sought and found all types of hints in the Talmud to show that this was something of profound Jewish significance – to the point that that hamsa entered the synagogue and was put on Jewish ritual objects. There is no Bukharan Jewish home without a picture of the palm accompanied by verses from the Torah and the sources.”