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.”
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According to Sabar, “The use of magic in daily life exists in all cultures we know. But the rabbis in the countries of Ashkenaz [northern Europe and Germany] battled these phenomena, while the rabbis in the East tried to adjust themselves to what suited their communities.”
The hamsa was very popular in Iran, Afghanistan, Bukhara, Kurdistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria In recent centuries. “There are places In Morocco where the hamsa was more common among the Jews than among the Muslims,” says Sabar. “Today’s hamsa is not exactly magical, but more consumerist; there are Passover Haggadot today in the shape of a hamsa. It has become part of the complex of Jewish symbols; the two countries where hamsas are most popular are Israel and Morocco.”
But the hamsa was not always popular in Israel. “There is evidence of the use of hamsa by Sephardic Jews in the old Yishuv in the Land of Israel in the 19th century, and there was an expression of the hamsa in the 1930s and 1940s among the Moroccans in Tiberias or the old community in Hebron,” Sabar says. “There was no separation between religious and secular In most of the eastern communities, and amulets were part of Jewish life.”
After the establishment of the state, however, a secular Ashkenazi culture took root in Israel that resisted religious symbols and the hamsa was perceived as such. It almost disappeared In the 1950s and 1960s under the tremendous pressure exerted by the state, which wanted so much to be Western. The hamsa was condemned as primitive and those who used it were ridiculed.
The hamsa was revived during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is not clear whether it was because of the 1977 political upheaval that brought Likud to power after nearly 30 years of Labor-led governments, but something brought the hamsa out of the eastern closet and people began to take pride in it. The hamsa was used on Israeli stamps. The JNF even planted a forest in the shape of a hamsa. Now the curators of the exhibition, Dr. Shirat-Miriam Shamir and Ido Noy, are trying to create a totally different interpretation of the hamsa, on which they worked for three years.
“We wanted to show the hamsa in a different way than it’s been shown elsewhere,” says Shamir.
The exhibit presents interpretations of the hamsa by a variety of artists, including graphic designers, goldsmiths, Judaica artists and Jewish and Arab artists. “One of the works is by Fatma Shanan, who presents a video work in which an Ottoman carpet from the 18th century turns into her hamsa, her shield,” says Shamir. “Jeweler Anat Golan created a large silver jewel with a blue eye of a doll from the flea market. It’s a work that asks, ‘who is looking at you, and who are you looking at?’ Judaica artist Avi Biran created four hamsas made of simple silicone gloves with images of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Second Temple and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He calls the work ‘Hot Potatoes.’ Artist Reuven Zehavi created a video of a nighttime ride on Route 443 with a huge hamsa hanging in the window. The hamsa symbolizes in this work daily anxiety and it also identifies the person driving.”
Indeed, the way the hamsa is used in the new exhibition ranges from folkloric icon to complex artistic interpretation, at times political, but in a way that’s limited to Jewish-Arab relations. The Mizrahi theme is not an issue that’s dealt with. In fact, one senses a desire to deprive the Hamsa of its orientalism and to assimilate it into Jewishness and Israeliness. It’s as if discussion of the Mizrahi issue is a bit embarrassing and unpleasant, but primarily unimportant, raising questions that don’t need to be asked.
Nevertheless, the hamsa has inevitable political significance. To this day, the hamsa makes a statement about the person wearing it. Unlike a hamsa hanging in the house, the hamsa as a piece of jewelry is externalized, intended for display to the outside world. Mizrahim wear the hamsa differently from Ashkenazim. As a symbol of a culture nearly made extinct, wearing a Hamsa almost always generates opposition. Mizrahim today wear the Hamsa proudly, but make no mistake; this is not a superficial Israeli pride, but a Mizrahi pride that embodies history and cultural oppression. That’s why it is and remains a Mizrahi symbol, and the attempts to blur this aren’t really successful. Maybe in a few generations.