Hamsa

Although it may derive from Islamic or pagan culture, the hamsa today has become a Jewish and Israeli symbol.

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The symbol of an eye embedded in the palm of an open hand has had several names throughout the ages, including the hamsa, the eye of Fatima, the hand of Fatima, and the hand of Miriam. The form is sometimes rendered naturally and other times symmetrically with a second thumb replacing the little finger.

The hamsa has been variously interpreted by scholars as a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic amulet, and as a pagan fertility symbol. Yet even as the magical form remains shrouded in mystery and scholars debate nearly every aspect of its emergence, it is recognized today as a kabbalistic amulet and as an important symbol in Jewish art.

hamsa painting

Origins

As the references to Fatima (Mohammed's daughter) and to Miriam (Moses' sister) suggest, the amulet carries significance to both Jews and Muslims. One of the most prominent early appearances of the hamsa is the image of a large open hand which appears on the Puerta Judiciaria (Gate of Judgment) of the Alhambra, a 14th century Islamic fortress in southern Spain.

The Alhambra hand of Fatima seems to draw upon the Arabic word "khamsa," which means "five," a number which itself is identified with fighting the Evil Eye. The Alhambra motif, as well as other Spanish and Moorish hand images, hints at the five pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, pilgrimage, prayer, and tax) in the five fingers of the hand.

According to Islamic folklore, Fatima's hand became a symbol of faith after her husband Ali came home with a new wife one day. Fatima, who at the time had been cooking, dropped the soup ladle she had been using. Yet she was so preoccupied by the new arrival that she continued stirring using her bare hand, hardly noticing that she was burning herself.

It would not be unusual for an Islamic symbol to find its way into Sephardic Jewish culture, which flourished alongside Islam. However,amulets are somewhat problematic in Judaism. Still, the Talmud refers on several occasions to amulets, or kamiyot, which might come from the Hebrew meaning "to bind." One law allows for carrying an approved amulet on the Sabbath, which suggests that amulets were common amongst Jews at some points in history. (Shabbat 53a, 61a)

Art historian Walter Leo Hildburgh also raises the possibility that the hamsa has Christian roots, and might be influenced by the Christian artistic form where Mary often carries her hands in a"fig" pose, or a configuration where the thumb is tucked under the index finger beside the middle finger.

According to University of Chicago professor Ahmed Achrati, the hamsa did not necessarily arise in a religious context. The form of the open hand appears in Paleolithic caves in France, Spain, Argentina, and Australia, including one site in Algeria that earned the name The Cave of the Hands.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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