The Hamsa in Jewish Thought and Practice
One of the most ubiquitous religious motifs used in contemporary Jewish art and design is the hamsa, an amulet in the form of a five-finger, open, right hand-shaped charm, commonly with an all-seeing eye, that has been used as a sign of good fortune and luck in the Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean. Originating with the Phoenicians and Mesopotamians, the hamsa has emerged as a symbol associated with warding off the evil eye (ayin hara) among Muslims and Jews. Its popularity and ubiquitous identity as a more uniquely Jewish vernacular religious practice took shape in the sixteenth century, when kabbalah emerged as a significant Jewish religious movement. While the origins of the practice seem shrouded in mystery, a study of the roots of the practice and its subsequent appropriation into Near Eastern religious life, coupled with an analysis of the broader role of ayin hara, amulets, and the significance of the number five and Yad HaShem (Hand of G-d) in Judaism sheds further light on the practice.
Non-Jewish Origins in Antiquity
The earliest origins of the hamsa lie with Near Eastern pagan societies, particularly in Mesopotamia and Carthage (Phoenicia). Marten Stol links a prevalent belief in the evil eye among the Mespotamians with the use of the hand as a symbol for sorcery and its antidotes; the “Hand of Man,” sorcery, is the root of evil befalling an individual, but the “Hand of Ishtar” is seen as an auspicious symbol. “Bewitched” individuals suffering from ailments were seen as particularly vulnerable to the jealousies and suspicions of others, and it was believed that amulets provided the necessary Divine protection to ward off this negativity. (Marten Stol, “Psychosomatic Suffering in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Mesopotamian Magic: Textual, Historical, and Interpretative Perspectives, ed. Tzvi Abusch, et al. (Groningen: Styx Publications, 1999), 64.
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona ( “Discerning the Hand of Fatima: An Iconological Investigation of the Role of Gender in Religious Art,” in Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies, ed. Amira El Azhary Sonbol (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 356) explains, like Stol, that psychosomatic disease in Mesopotamia was especially seen as necessitating the protections of the Hand of Ishtar, which controlled disease and wellness. The use of “Hand of Ishtar” to refer to psychological illness extends in modern archaeological jargon to baked clay images of hands that were inserted into the walls of major buildings, including king’s residences among the Mesopotamians. Archaeologists discovered inscriptions on these clay hands, often wrote on the back, and containing the names of the king and the building they had been set in. These were used to avert evil, and since some were found in beams of the ceiling and upper stories, they may have been used to “support” the structure in a sense.
The association of the open-palm symbol with goddesses and good fortune continued among the Phoenicians, according to Pierre Cintas (“Le signe de Tanit,” Archeologie Vivante 1, 2 (1968-1969): 4-10), who associates the hamsa form with the cult of Tanit, the Phoenician goddess patroness of Carthage:
The “sign of Tanit” was in its earliest form a trapezium closed by a horizontal line at the top and surmounted in the middle by a circle. The horizontal arm was often terminated either by two short upright lines at right angles to it or by hooks. The imagery of open hands on the goddess figure “tries to combat the greatest number of evils simultaneously by pitting against them an array of different protective powers, sometimes highly complex, at the heart of particular practice.”
The origins of the hamsa in antiquity demonstrate a common association of the “open hand” with divine protection and blessing from goddesses, but also share a concern with the effects of the evil eye, a vernacular religious belief and anxiety that appears almost universal in its role among the lives of ancient believers and societies.
The belief that someone just by looking, through a kind of witchcraft or power of the eyes, may cause harm to another person, animal, or object seems to be an almost universal belief among scores of ancient societies, and continues to be an important source of Jewish vernacular religious life, as well as folk religious practice among Muslims and Christians of the Middle East.
Marie-Louise Thomsen ( “The Evil Eye in Mesopotamia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 51, 1 (1992): 19-32.) cites Akkadian incantation VAT 10018 as evidence of a belief in the destructive effects of an enemy’s evil eye in Mesopotamia; the evil eye was associated with witchcraft and sorcery and other evils caused by malevolent human beings, but whereas witchcraft most often resulted in conflicts with family and neighbors, serious illness, or even death, the effects of the evil eye are described as accidents, situations which might happen to anyone at any time. “It rains too little, the cheese-making goes wrong, a tool breaks, clothes are torn, and the like. Everyday occurrences go wrong.”
Apotropaic art associated with the evil eye has also been uncovered from among the Phoenicians; a magic spell was discovered on an amulet containing an exorcism at Arslan Tash, Syria, dating from 600 BCE, which describes the serpent demon mzh casting an evil eye, only to be destroyed by the god Baal, who neutralizes “the Serpent in the Steppe.” Another plaque excavated there was placed at the entrance of a home and called upon the evil eye, “consumer of eyes, demon who drains his victims” to flee from the home, and from the dweller’s thoughts, dreams, and mind (Alan Dundes, The Evil Eye: A Casebook (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 275.).The belief in the evil eye continued among the ancient Israelites and would become an important Jewish doctrine; understanding the important role of the evil eye in Judaism explains for the widespread popularity of the hamsa as an amulet with protective properties against the evil eye.
The hamsa also enjoys popularity among Levantine Christians, who dub it kef miraym, the Hand of Mary, and Muslims, who dub it the Hand of Fatima, a reference to Muhammad’s daughter, whose hand became a symbol of faith after legend says she stirred a hot pot with her hand and suffered no harm, due to her faith. (For Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, the hand serves as a symbol of Divine blessing, whereas the number five carries differing meanings for each faith; Christians attribute five to the number of wounds inflicted on their prophet, and Muslims affirm five pillars of Islam, among other explanations).
Ayin Hara in Judaism
The term ayin hara appears several times throughout biblical and rabbinic literature. Rivka Ulmer (The Evil Eye in the Bible and in Rabbinic Literature (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1994), 4-7) explains that the phraseology of ayin hara is used in varying ways throughout the Pentateuch; Deut. 15:9 speaks of an evil eye that precludes the Israelites from issuing loans to their fellows due to the sabbatical year (here, it is used to condemn greed), whereas Deut. 28:54 says that an absence of pity towards family members constitutes ayin hara, not unlike Deut. 28:56, which uses ayin hara to describe women who commit cannibalism during a time of siege and famine.
The medieval commentator Rashi uses the concept of evil eye in his exegesis on several narratives in the Book of Genesis. When Hagar became pregnant after Sarah gave her to Avraham as a concubine, Sarah was upset that Hagar conceived quickly while she was infertile, especially since Hagar gloated and claimed she must be greater in righteousness than Sarah, who was barren after many years, whereas Hagar conceived readily from Avraham; Rashi says that Sarah’s ayin hara caused Hagar to miscarry (Rashi, Gen. 16:4-5):
Kol beineicha shebamikra chaser, vezeh male, keri veih uvanayich, shehichnisah ayin hara be’ibburah shel hagar vehippilah ubarah; hu shehammal’ach omer lehagar hinnach harah, vehalo chevar haretah, vehu mevasher lah shettahar? Ela melamed, shehipilah herayon harishon.” [Sarah] cast an Ayin Hara on Hagar’s pregnancy, and she miscarried. That is why the malach said to Hagar, “Behold, you will conceive.” But was she not already pregnant? Yet he announces to her that she will conceive? Rather this teaches that she miscarried her first pregnancy.
When famine struck the land of Canaan, Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to buy more grain, out of concern that others would look at them with malice, since they had already run out of grain (Rashi, Gen. 42:1). Rashi explains later on verse 5 that when Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain, he told them to each enter through different entrances, to ensure that no one would gaze at them negatively, with ayin hara, out of jealousy for them.
Sinful, destructive, and malevolent behavior is described as ayin hara in the Torah, and this negative symbolism continues in the Prophetic and Wisdom Literature. Helen L. Seawright (“The symbolism of the eye in Mesopotamia and Israel,” MA thesis, Wilfrid Laurier University, 1988) explains that as a negative symbol, the eye can express arrogance (Prov. 6:16-17 lists “haughty eyes” as one of seven things G-d detests and finds abominable, and Prov. 21:4 says that “haughty eyes” are sinful), and eyes of evil and arrogance are even associated with Israel’s Assyrian persecutors (Is. 37:23 speaks of the Assyrians haughtily lifting their eyes against G-d amid their persecution of the Jews). The association of ayin hara with Israel’s persecutors is further evident in rabbinic interpretation of the biblical account of Balaam, the wicked non-Jewish prophet who sought to curse the Jews. Numbers 24:2 says that “Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.” Rashi here explains that Balaam sought to cast the evil eye upon Israel:
Bikkesh lehachnis bahem ayin ra’ah, vaharei yesh lecha shalosh middotav — ayin ra’ah veruach gevohah venefesh rechavah ha’amurim lema’elah;” He sought to cast an evil eye upon them, so here you have his three attributes: an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and greed mentioned above (22:13, 18).
The rabbis later expounded upon these biblical examples, and even enacted legislation to mitigate the effects of ayin hara in numerous contexts. They understood ayin hara as not only describing undesirable and reprehensible character, but also attributed legal significance to it, believing it had the capability to effect actual damage. M. Avot 5:19 discusses Balaam’s character flaws, including ayin hara, as indicative of an ontologically wicked nature that stands in contrast to the pure nature of Abraham and his seed. B.T. Bava Metzia 30a states that a guardian may not spread out a lost article that he is watching when he has guests because when the guests see the article being displayed, they may be envious and they will cast an evil eye on the article. Abba, in B.T. Bava Metzia 107a, teaches that one may not look at another’s field when it is laden with crops because of ayin hara; jealousy can arouse harsh judgment from the heavens. Rav later learns (107b) that the verse “The Lord will keep you free from all illness” (Deut. 7:15) refers to the evil eye; he went to a graveyard and deduced that 99 percent of all deaths occurred due to the evil eye. The rabbis themselves clearly feared the effects of ayin hara; in B.T. Bava Metzia 84b, Shimon ben Gamliel forbids his son from sitting on a bench, in the presence of older sages, due to fear of losing him due to the evil eye.
B.T. Berachot 20b presents the narrative of Rav Yochanan, who would sit outside the mikveh in order that women would see his beauty as they emerged, and bear children as beautiful as he. The rabbis asked him if he was concerned about ayin hara, and Yochanan’s response was that he is from the seed of Yosef, and the evil eye does not rule over his offspring. Rav Avahu there says that in the blessing given to Yosef, it says “Alei Ayin (he has grace in the eyes of all that see him)” and this is read as “Olei Ayin” (they rise above the evil eye). Rav Yosi bar Chanina says that we learn from the blessing given to Yosef’s sons, “v’Yidgu la’Rov” (they should multiply like fish) — just as fish are covered by water and shielded from the eye, similarly, Yosef’s offspring are shielded from ayin hara.
The Talmud clearly is concerned for the evil eye, further illuminating the origins of this pervasive belief, which was further developed in later halakhic jurisprudence.
S.A. O.H. 141:6 rules that two brothers, or a father and son cannot be called to read from the Torah one after the other, due to concern for the evil eye. The Turkish commentator R. Hayyim Palagi (Kaf haHayyim) rules (27 ibid.) that there is no custom to be lenient, and one should be stringent, for “we are more stringent about danger than Issur.”. Here, he connects the concept of chamira sakanta mi’issura with the evil eye. [This principle teaches that one must be stricter with matters of possible spiritual danger than actual halakhic prohibitions. B.T. Hullin 9b-10a discusses matters such as concern for rodents causing water, wine, and milk to become uncovered overnight, thereby exposing them to snakes, rendering their use prohibited. Another concern exists that the rodents may have bitten into food, thereby poisoning it. B.T. Pesachim 76b discusses fish and meat that were roasted together, and concludes their consumption is forbidden due to concerns for sakana. Later poskim treat these relatively esoteric Talmudic matters with such import that some rule that the normative principles of nullification in matters of isur v’ heter do not apply to devarim asurim mishum sakana. Thus, the Taz (Y.D. 116:2) suggests that the normative laws of nullification (bitul v’ shishim) do not apply to mixtures where the sages identified spiritual danger, such as meat and fish combinations.]
B.T. Bava Batra 118b discusses the allocation of land to those that left Mitzrayim. Abaye deduces that everyone who entered the land received a portion. If someone did not, he would have complained! The complaint of the tribes from Yosef was written to teach good counsel, that one should beware of ayin hara (envy). R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, in his kabbalah-influenced commentary on Talmudic aggada Ben Yehoyada (B.T. Bava Batra 118b, DH Eitzah), says even that one can avoid the evil eye when beseeching G-d by mentioning one’s good fortune: “Why did the Gemara say about Bnei Yosef’s request for more land that it was a good counsel to avoid ayin hara? It should have said so about Yehoshua’s answer! Rather, it is good counsel to request or bless HaShem when mentioning one’s good fortune, like they said “we have many people… HaShem has blessed us to this point.”
The pervasive and ingrained concern for ayin hara is therefore one of the biggest factors in the development of amulets, such as the hamsa, among Jews.
Predilection for Amulets
The rabbis also discuss practical remedies to combat the effects of negative spiritual forces. B.T. Berachot 55b says that to thwart the impact of the evil eye, one should put one’s right thumb into their left hand and one’s left thumb into their right hand and say: “I, the son of so and so, come from the seed of Yosef upon whom the evil eye has no impact.” Amulets were also discussed as a practical solution to spiritual problems in B.T. Shabbat 61b; there, the sages permit carrying a kameia on the Sabbath in the public domain (ordinarily prohibited) if found to be effective in healing three times, if it cures a sick person on three different occasions or if it cures three different patients. B.T. Shabbat 53a likewise engages in a protracted discussion on the permissibility of carrying an amulet on the Sabbath in a public domain; the beraita there forbids the carrying of an amulet that is not proven effective, and the rishonim there explain that an amulet’s effectiveness is linked to the person’s mazal and merits (Rashi says that angels intercede on behalf of the righteous amulet-wearer, whereas the Meiri says that a person’s confidence that the amulet will work helps to cure him). B.T. Shabbat 66b discusses the use of a tekumah stone on Shabbat, to prevent miscarriage (the beraita states that this was even permitted for one who never miscarried, or one who might [have] become pregnant). The Shulchan Aruch, as well, assumes no prohibition with using amulets, and permits their use for healing and protective powers (illness can be subsumed as an effect of ayin hara).
Muttar lehitrappe’ot bekamea’, afillu yesh bahem shemot. Vechen muttar lissa keme’in sheyesh bahem pesukim. Vedavka lehagen shello yecheleh, aval lo lehitrappe’ot bahem mi sheyesh lo makkah o choli, aval lichtov pesukim bikme’in, asur, “It is permitted to heal with amulets, even if they contain [divine) names; similarly it is allowed to wear amulets containing scriptural verses, but only if they serve to protect the wearer from becoming ill, but not to heal him if he is afflicted with a wound or a disease. But it is forbidden to write scriptural verses in amulets,” S.A. Y.D. 179:12
The Shulchan Aruch also rules, like the gemarot, that there is no concern with bringing amulets into the public domain on shabbat; O.H.301:25 says that if an amulet has been proven to work, then one may go out wearing it on shabbat in the public domain. Moreover, O.H. 308:33 points out that even an unverified amulet is not muktzah; it may be moved or touched on shabbat.
Joshua Trachtenberg explains that beyond these Talmudic approbations, the use of amulets were an important component of Jewish vernacular religious practice, with rabbinic sanction:
Their use was very extensive in the Talmudic period, and, accepted by the rabbinic authorities, impressed itself strongly upon the habits of later times. We find the same types in use during the period of the Talmud and in the Middle Ages, though, of course, the intervening centuries and cultural contacts made for a greater variety. There was no legal prohibition against the use of such charms. In fact, the rules which were set up to distinguish proper from improper amulets lent them a definite degree of acceptance; though some rabbis frowned upon them, or urged the danger of preparing them, others actually suggested their use on certain occasions.” [Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 132.]
Rabbinic sanction for such practices can be seen in several responsa; the Rashba (1:413) wrote, “I see in the Gemara many things…which were permitted, from the realm of fortune-telling, incantations, and witchcraft…these are innumerable…as long as one’s intention is for the Heavens, and he knows that the true healer is G‑d…not like those whose intention is some guiding angel.” (The Rashba there even goes as far as to explain that the rational Rambam permits amulets that have been verified as efficacious by Chazal. Rambam accepted that such treatments can work, but was skeptical about specific cures. He therefore only permitted that which the Talmud explicitly sanctioned; this is contrasted to the Radbaz (Leshonot of the Rambam 5:153), who argues that the Rambam did not believe that any non-scientific means of healing exist. He rejected the notion that anything of an esoteric nature is effective). The Rashba essentially writes that the Rambam would agree with the position of the Ran (Derashot haRan 12), that there are two acceptable modes of protection/healing. There are some physical and non-physical methods, both appropriate as long as they are proven effective. Only practices considered Darkhei HaEmori are prohibited. For the Rashba, however, magical forces are on par with the laws of nature; what is understood empirically is scientific, and what we do not understand resides in the realm of the supernatural.
The prohibition of Darkhei HaEmori (worthless, superstitious practices of non-Jews that have no logical basis) and the prohibition of hukkat hagoyim (following in non-Jewish religious ways) have been cited by some as possible concerns with the use of the hamsa by Jews, however, the relative lenience demonstrated by most poskim in these areas would obviate these concerns for users of the hamsa. Trachtenberg’s claim is supported by the fact that most authorities seem to treat the subject of esoteric practices lightly.
[Darkhei HaEmori is discussed in B.T. Shabbat 67a, where the gemara lists several categories of prohibited actions, not unlike the Tosefta, Shabbat 7:1, where actions such as tying a red string around the finger are expressly prohibited. This Tosefta has been used by some to challenge the validity of the practice of tying a red bracelet around the waist as a means of warding off ayin hara, not unlike challenges leveled against use of the hamsa.]
Another teshuva of the Rashba (283, attributed to the Ramban) says that the custom is to marry only when the moon is being filled is not Nichush (sorcery), nor are things done out of concern for a siman tov (auspicious omen) prohibited. He holds that the Rambam’s ruling that one may be menachesh by looking for omens and signs (Hil. Avodah Zarah 11:4) is unlike the sugya in B.T. Sanhedrin 95a (where on erev shabbat, Avishai ben Tzeruyah saw drops of blood (others say he saw a dove shaking itself in front of him) and deduced from this that David was in trouble) and in Gittin 45a (where Ilish was taken captive and he used the chirping of a raven and dove to deduce he should flee). The Rashba’s conclusion is “These matters require investigation. One should not be too exacting with people about them;” i.e. the rabbis should not challenge the widespread, vernacular religious practices of the public, out of concern that they may constitute Darchei HaEmori. (Although, elsewhere, the Rashba, Teshuvot 395, does oppose the practice of Kapparot on the grounds it may constitute Darkhei HaEmori).
Rashba (1:825) discusses further healing practices and whether they are forbidden as Darkhei HaEmori, and his conclusion is that only practices expressly mentioned by the Talmud as Darkhei HaEmori are forbidden:
Sifrei Refuot of Rishonim say that the form of a lion on a silver plate helps for a certain sickness. I say that there is no concern for the prohibition of making images of HaShem’s servants above, even if a Yisrael made them protruding. The Isur is to make all four images on the Chariot (man, lion, ox, Nesher (eagle or vulture)). This is why a Drashah was needed to forbid making man’s image [alone]. Darkhei HaEmori does not apply to any cure known to doctors. We do not forbid what the Gemara did not forbid due to Darkhei HaEmori, for we do not know the Segulot. We cannot judge from known natural laws. There are some Segulot that no scientists understand, e.g. Kemi’ot of herbs, cooling of a green rock called Eshtopasi, and incantations that the sages permitted. They even commanded to say them due to danger! They said that certain forms on coins heal. The Ramban used to make the form of a lion [to heal].”
Beit Yosef (YD 178:1, DH Katvu) further explains the position that only those matters expressly mentioned by Chazal can be said to be prohibited as Darkhei HaEmori: Hagahot Maimoniyot (Avodah Zarah 11:1, citing Re’em) says that we cannot add based on our reasoning to what Chachamim forbade due to Darkhei HaEmori. They had a tradition what is Darkhei HaEmori. Semag says that all of it is in the Tosefta Shabbat (7:1). The Tosefta there does not mention the practice of hamsa as a prohibited act on account of Darkhei haEmori.
Sefer Admas Kodesh (1 YD 6) explains that the views of more mystically-inclined rishonim such as the Rashba prevailed over the rationalistic concerns of Rambam:
The Rambam explains that they hold that one may transgress Mitzvot for Pikuach Nefesh only for natural cures, but not for irrational Segulot. However, the Rashba disagrees. He permits engraving the form of a lion on a silver or gold plate, like it says in Sifrei Refuot of Rishonim. He says that whatever the Gemara did not forbid due to Darkhei HaEmori, we do not forbid, for we do not know the Segulot. Also the Ramban made the form of a lion for this sickness. The Rashba (413) brought many proofs against the Rambam. We rely on him and his proofs and the Ramban.”
The Chida (Birkei Yosef O.H. 301:6), likewise was asked about a case where a man wrote an amulet to cure others from poisoning (found in a sefer refuah of a rishon) on shabbat. His ruling explained that while the Rambam’s position was that segulot were not refuot at all, since they cannot be explained, as written by the Radbaz (Leshonot 153, as above), in practice, the position of the Rashba/Ramban/Admas Kodesh is followed le ma’aseh.
The prohibition of hukkat hagoyim likewise wouldn’t apply to hamsa, despite its origins among the Mesopotamians and Pheonicians and its continued use among Christians and Muslims. Concern for the evil eye, not a desire to appropriate the religious ways of non-Jewish neighbors, motivated the use of the hamsa. Rema (Y.D. 178:1) says that we are only concerned for following non-Jewish ways when done for the sake of immodesty, or adopting a custom and statute made by the non Jews without a reason. When a reason exists to adopt the practice, there is no such concern. Mahariq (88) says that hok connotes a lack of revealed reason, as brought by the Beit Yosef (DH V’ Chen): “Since he does a strange matter without a reason, it looks like he is drawn after Nochrim and admits to them (their creed). Smag (Lavin 50) says that in Shabbat, the sages listed all traditions they had for gentile practices. Each one listed in the Tosefta (Perakim 7,8) is bizarre; we do not know any reasons for them, like those listed in Shabbat 67a.” Beit Yosef here explains chukoteichem (from the verse “Bechukotechem lo telechu”) as referring to “what is special to them, and Yisrael refrained from it due to modesty or another reason. In this case, one who wears it looks like he admits to them and is drawn after them.”
The burden of proof needed to demonstrate a that a practice such as hamsa is forbidden as hukkat hagoyyim is rather high, and the evidence suggests that hamsa was not adopted for either of these reasons. Indeed, the halakhic authority Rabbi Meir Eliyahu comments on the non-Jewish origins of the hamsa, but rules that this symbol does not pose an issue of hukkat hagoyim; it is not a forbidden non-Jewish religious practice:
Tzurat ha’hamsa achen lakochah me’aggadah arvit yeshaneh ulam mitzinu harbeh mechachmei hamma’arav shehayu mishtattefim betzurah zo ve’ein potzeh peh umetzaftzef upashut she’ein peh mishum hukkat hgoyim;
Admittedly, the form of the hamsa has been adapted from the Arabs, but since the rabbis didn’t protest, but actually promoted it, it is a simple matter that there is no concern of Hukkat HaGoyim involved.
Some have suggested that the use of amulets, such as the hamsa, is best avoided on the basis of the Torah instruction Tamim Tihyeh, to be complete or perfected before G-d. Rambam, Hil. Avodah Zarah 11:16, says that one cannot seek their needs through any channel other than G-d, because other channels are false and lack any power or validity. Rashba (1:413) explains that “tamim tihye” is not a mitzvah, but a promise or condition; one will be perfect before G-d when they live up to such a state of accepting everything they experience with “temimut.” Rema, Y.D. 179:1, says that one should not investigate mazalot and such esoteric matters due to “Tamim Tihyeh,” and the Shach (ibid.) quotes the Terumat haDeshen, who says that while performing an act of witchcraft is forbidden, inquiring is only forbidden on account of “Tamim Tihyeh.” (For Terumat haDeshen, psakim 96, Rambam’s omission of Tamim Tihyeh from his taryag mitzvot still comports with his rational stance against such matters, because it is axiomatic that only G-d can save, and other means vapid). However, because this does not constitute an actual mitzvah and only appears to be prescriptive advice, the Ramban (Teshuvot Hameyuchasot #283) comments that while one may not proactively seek the counsel of a professional astrologer, one may also not disregard them when they offer warnings or other such advice, because we are told ein somchin b’nes, we do not rely on miracles and attempt to be proactive, whenever possible. The use of amulets, such as the hamsa, does not contravene this principle, as understood by the proactive warning clause of the Ramban, as well as the Rashba’s explanation of the parameters of the Torah injunction.
Hamsa in the Ben Ish Chai
R. Yosef Hayyim writes elsewhere, in two works, on protective measures against the ayin hara. In Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Pinchas, Shana Bet, siman 13, he says that ayin hara enters when one suggests that something terrible may happen, and then proceeds to explain various means of protecting against the evil eye.
Our sages suggest (B.T. Berachot 55b) that one may avoid a sudden evil eye by reciting “I, son of…” (as above). Other authorities recommend adding the verses Genesis 25:27, Psalm 5:8, and Numbers 24:2. The gaon Chida writes that the general custom is to say five in order to avoid an evil eye. This is the reason for hanging a picture of a hand with five fingers, and the Hebrew letter hei on it, which has a numerical value of five. The Keter Malchut writes that it would appear from the Talmud that people living in Babylonia must be more careful to avoid the evil eye than in other places” (emphasis mine)
Elsewhere, in Od Yosef Hai, Derashot Parshat Vayishlach, he discusses a segula, a protective magical practice, against the ayin hara discussed in Sefer Yerushalayim. A picture of a hand would be drawn over the entrance to one’s home, in red, and a silver hand placed over the heads of their children. The operative belief was that the number five would vex the malevolent individual who wanted to cast the evil eye upon the inhabitants of the home. Here, he again references the Chida, who discussed the protective powers of the number five and corresponding letter hei, and he links the letter hei and the five fingers of the hand, commenting that placing the five fingers has the effect of nullifying the evil eye. (Rabbi Yaaqob Menashe attributes the popularity of the hamsa among Jews, especially the Jews of Iraq, Syria, and other Mizrahim, to these writings of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim.)
[The comments of the Ben Ish Hai are echoed by scholars of Babylonian Jewry, who observe the prevalence of magical and esoteric beliefs among the Jews of Babylon, dating back to Talmudic times, as discussed above.Jacob Neusner claims, “Were an anthropologist of our times to spend a few years in ancient Pumbedita, Sura, or Nahardea in order to learn the social role of the sage, his research work would certainly have a title like ‘The Legislating Sorcerer of Babylon’.” (Harari, Yuval , “Ancient Jewish Magic,” PhD diss., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pg. 65)]
Hamsa, while having origins among pagan societies in antiquity, is clearly no longer exclusively associated with the specific practice of a discernibly idolatrous religion, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike revere the symbol as a cultural and vernacular religious institution.
The Hand and Five Motifs
The Ben Ish Hai’s writings on the hamsa cast light on two other reasons why the hamsa has become such a ubiquitous Jewish symbol. The very form of the hamsa conveys profound theological symbolism and meaning.
Yad, the hand, in Judaism symbolizes Divine power, protection, and blessing. Jacob blesses his grandchildren with the right hand (Gen. 48:14), and the priestly benediction (Num. 6:23-27) is conducted with the priests lifting hands (nesiat kapayim). Moses blesses Israel before his passing by telling them of flaming fire at G-d’s right hand (Deut. 33: 2), and G-d’s hand is described as salvific. Israel was delivered at the time of the Exodus by G-d’s hand shattering enemies (Ex. 12:16), G-d’s hand “is not shortened so that it can save” (Is. 59:1), and G-d’s people are “engraved upon His hands” (Is. 49:16). Ps 145 (Ashrei, which itself has salvific power, according to B.T. Berachot 4b, speaks of G-d “opening the hand and satisfying the desire of every living being.” Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Vayigash, Shanah Rishona, siman 12, says that the custom in Baghdad was to spread out one’s hands to heaven when reciting this verse, and alludes to King Solomon extending his hands upwards in prayer in 2 Chronicles 6:12). The hand serves, therefore, as a conduit for blessing and interaction between the heavens and earth, the human and the Divine, the transcendent and the imminent. The kabbalistic system of gematria, numerology, explains the hand as follows: five fingers of the hand have a total of fourteen sections, Thus, the ten fingers of both hands have twenty-eight sections – the gematria of koach, power or potential. The right hand of G-d, specifically, bears implications of victory (Ps 18:35; Ps 44:3; Ps 78:54; Isa 41:10), power (Ps 89:13), and omnipresence (Ps 16:11).
The number five also bears special significance. In Judaism, there are five books of the Torah, five categories of sacrifices commanded (burnt, sin, trespass, grain, and peace offerings), thieves must repay five times the value of the oxen they steal (Ex. 22:1). Binyamin was honored by Yosef with five times as much food as his brothers (Gen. 43:34) and five sets of clothes (Gen. 45:22), and the sides of the tabernacle in the wilderness were reinforced by five bars on each side (Ex. 26:26-27), the inner covering of the tabernacle included a double five pattern of curtains on each side (Ex. 26:3), and the five original priests were Aaron and his four sons (Ex. 28:1). Gen. 12:5-8 refers to the five kinds of animals that G-d asked Avraham to present to him to conclude with him an alliance: a heifer of three years old, a goat of three years old, a ram of three years old, a turtledove and a young dove. In 1 Sam. 17:40, David chose five smooth stones with which to fight the Philistine giant, Goliath. Basic kabbalistic teaching affirms five major categories of the soul: assiyah, physicality; yetzirah, emotions; beriyah, intellect; atzilut, spirit; and adam kadmon, the primordial source. The ten sefirot, emanations of the Divine, are divided into five chasadim (masculine manifestations of grace/kindness correlating to the right hand), chesed, keter, chochma, tiferet, netzach, and five gevurot, representing feminine manifestations of judgment, corresponding to the left hand: binah, gevurah, hod, yesod, and malchut. The letter “hei,” the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is also associated with the number five, and is a sign of Divine favor, chen and chesed, which connote grace, such as when G-d added the letter hei to the names of Avram and Sarai, thereby becoming Avraham and Sarah.
The significance of the number five, as a number associated with the Mishkan, Yosef’s blessings bestowed upon Binyamin, David’s victory over Goliath, korbanot, the kabbalistic structure of the soul and G-d’s emanations, perhaps accounts for the practice, as explained by the Chida, to use the number five as a protection against the ayin hara.
The hamsa has grown past its Middle Eastern origins to become a symbol inclusive of world Jewry. In the state of Israel, the hamsa has emerged as a new national identity symbol, perhaps divorced somewhat from its apotropaic origins, as it has been lifted from previous associations as a relic of an uncivilized Mizrahi ethnic past (Alexandra Nocke, The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 135-136). It has transcended origins as a symbol used by the ancient Pheonicians and Mesopotamians to become associated with Judaism’s deepest teachings and truths. Those who hold that Ashkenazim should avoid use of the hamsa, as they lack the same historical ancestral tradition to do so as do Near Eastern Jews seem to be reacting retroactively to the trend that has seen the hamsa surge in popularity among Jews of all stripes. Certainly, the Jewish predilection towards the use of amulets, the symbolism of the (right) hand of G-d and the number five in Jewish thought, and the pervasive belief in ayin hara all account for the widespread use of the symbol, as attested by the Ben Ish Hai.