‘The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious’ – Albert Einstein
In this article we will deal with kamayot or amulets, significant items in the collection of Judaica. (A more comprehensive delving into this fascinating subject can be found in my introductory text to our exhibition catalogue on Jewish Amulets.)
From the earliest period of human development, man has recognized the existence of hidden powers at play in the world, powers that can influence the events of his life for better or worse. In his lack of control and resultant fear of virtually everything happening around him, he fashioned a variety of idols and images to which he might pray for deliverance. With the giving of the Torah, life became meaningful, and he could now find answers to his problems within the sacred text.
The Torah attempts to explain that the vicissitudes of life are “ordained by G-d,” and that all natural phenomena in the universe belong to the Creation as described in Genesis. Therefore, the yearning for solutions and answers to all the inexplicable and mysterious events surrounding us, as well as to our daily problems, may be channeled and addressed to the G-d of Moses and the patriarchs. The formulation of such supplications has been the domain of individuals, known as mekubalim, versed in composing special prayers for redemption, healing and salvation.
While the Torah categorically forbids the practice of magic and sorcery, the type of magic that utilizes the many mystical Names of G-d is permitted. Despite the fact that some Talmudic authorities condemned the use of the names of demons, Rabi Eliezer of Metz held that quoting the names of demons is not very different from quoting the names of angels. Thus, the practice of writing amulets that include the holy Names of G-d and the multitudes of angels and demons has existed for millennia. During the early medieval period, Kabbalah was co-opted in the formulation of amuletic texts, particularly in the so-called “Ilanot Katanot” – small trees. However, a distinction was made between the deeply spiritual Kabbalah (Kabbalah Iyyunit) that investigated the infinite G-d of the Torah and the practical Kabbalah (Kabbalah Ma’asit), in which the principles and accoutrements of Kabbalah were applied to amulet texts and procedures aimed at influencing life in the material world.
During the Talmudic period (ca. mid 1st to late 5th centuries) the use of amulets was often discussed, and the Sages concluded that if the amulets were intended to cure and remedy personal problems, their use was permitted. In medieval times the use of amulets was so widespread that the subject frequently came up in rabbinical responsa.
Rav Moshe Isserles, the Rama, explains the use of names in magic as follows: “From G-d comes the power to invoke heavenly princes by means of the holy names.” Rav Moshe Zacuto, the Ramaz (1625-1697), in his Shoreshei Hashemot (Roots of the Names) quotes over 2,000 magical names. According to kabbalists, the Torah itself is an elaboration on G-d’s various Names. Ramban, in the 13th century, stated the matter clearly when he declared that “the whole Torah is composed of G-d’s Names.” The first edition of the Zohar in 1290 was also a great impetus towards the formulation of magical amulets. The mystical dimension of Judaism and the emotional and spiritual language of amulet texts had deep roots in kabbalistic mysticism.