Hamsa

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

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In Egyptian art, the human spirit (called ka) is represented by two arms reaching upward (forming a horseshoe shape), albeit with only two fingers on each hand. The symbol of the Phoenician lunar goddess Tanit resembles a woman raising her hands, and hands also found their way into tomb decorations. Etruscans painted hands with horns on their tombs, and some Jewish burial practices featured images of hands (suggesting the priestly blessing) on stone markers of Levite graves. All of these could be considered very early precursors to the hamsa.

Jewish Beliefs

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time when hamsas emerged in Jewish culture, though it is clearly a symbol of Sephardic nature. Jews might have used the hamsa to invoke the hand of God, or to counteract the Evil Eye with the eye embedded in the palm of the hand. Some hamsas contain images of fish, in accordance with Rabbi Yose son of Hanina's statement in the Talmud that the descendents of Joseph, who received Jacob's blessing of multiplying like fish in Genesis 48:16, are protected from the evil eye like fish. He explains: "the water covers the fish of the sea so the eye has no power over them (Berakhot 55b)."

Other icons besides eyes and fish have also found their way into the hamsa, including the Star of David, prayers for the traveler, the Shema, the blessing over the house, and the colors of red and blue, both of which are said to thwart the Evil Eye.

The symbol of the hand, and often of priestly hands, appears in kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, doubling as the letter shin, the first letter of the divine name Shaddai. This mapping of the human hand over the divine name and hand might have had the effect of creating a bridge between the worshipper and God.

Present Day

The recent revival of interest in Kabbalah, in part due to the efforts of celebrities including Madonna, Brittany Spears, and Demi Moore, has brought with it a new public for Kabbalah accessories, including hamsas.

hamsa

Hamsas can be purchased today in Kabbalah shops around the world, and even through companies like Sears and Saks Fifth Avenue. Many people hang them in their houses, and it's not uncommon to see them dangling from the rearview mirrors of taxis and trucks The gift shop of the Jewish Museum in New York includes hamsa mezuzahs, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, earrings, bookmarks, key chains, and candleholders.

Contemporary Jewish artists are using the hamsa form, and some like Mark Podwal are finding a large public for their work. Podwal's Mystical Prague Hamsa Bookmark, Prague Hebrew Amulet Pendant, and Mystical Prague Hamsa Pin sold at the bookstore of the Metropolitan Museum in New York in conjunction with its 2005-2006 exhibit, Prague, The Crown of Bohemia,1347–1437.

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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.