Jewish amulets at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum

Thursday, 3 February, 2022 - 2:45 pm

Screenshot 2022-02-02 at 16.20.34.pngOxford houses thousands of Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books. In addition, perhaps less known, however, in the museums around Oxford, are held artefacts and objects of Jewish interest. This includes a charity collection bowl, known as the Bodleian Bowl at the Ashmolean Museum, and a collection of Shofars and Jewish amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum. In this essay, we will explore the history and significance of amulets in Jewish tradition, through the classic period, as recorded in the earliest works of Jewish law, through the medieval period, when this tradition is ridiculed by Maimonides, until its decline in the modern period. Despite the decline of the use of amulets nowadays in Jewish tradition, as reflected in their presence as an artefact in an Oxford museum, we will present the controversies that resurfaced in the 20th century in the context of this tradition.


The place where one can find Jewish amulets at Oxford is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884, by General Pitt-Rivers. He was an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology and gave his collection to the University of Oxford. Pitt-Rivers's interest in collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects came out of his early professional interests in the development of firearms. Later he started to collect many other varieties of offensive and defensive weaponry, and then objects other than weapons. It is generally believed that Pitt-Rivers himself did very little field collecting but, in fact, he did obtain objects while on active service in Malta and during the Crimean War. Later in life he seems to have collected objects during working trips and holidays abroad. The vast majority of objects, however, came from dealers, auction houses, and fellow members of the Anthropological Institute. The General gave his collection to the University of Oxford on condition that they built a Museum to house it, appoint a lecturer to teach about it and maintain the general mode of display. The Museum first opened to visitors in 1887 and was fully open by 1892.[1]


As part of the broadening of the collection, a number of Jewish amulets were included. The amulets came from Greville John Chester (1830-1892), who was a clergyman who travelled frequently to Egypt in the winter, donating and selling large collections of objects he collected whilst there when he returned to the UK. The Pitt Rivers Museum and the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford both benefitted from his collection as did the British Museum. He had a wide range of interests through natural history, archaeology and Egyptology. He wrote many articles in archaeological journals based on his work in Egypt, and later in Palestine. He was a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford and in 1881 published a Catalogue of the Egyptian antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The amulet that came from his collection is a silver hand amulet, stating on a tag: ‘Modern Jews, Smyrna.’ Other amulets are from field collector Miss Katharine Marian Reynolds (b. 1860), daughter of Rev. Henry Reynolds.[2]




The idea of an amulet is for the purpose of protection from the evil eye. They may be found in use in a number of contexts within Jewish tradition, especially during a special occasion, like a wedding, imbedded in the jewellery the bride would wear, and the birth of a newborn child. A survey of amulets and their uses, found and described in the collections of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, will allow us to identify the precise use of the amulets that are found in the Pitt Rovers Museum collection. The following are eleven amuletic artefacts depicted in The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem:


1. A bridal jewellery set from San’a, Yemen, early 20th century. She would wear rows of necklaces with amulet cases covering her chest.[3]


2. In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, in the end of the 19th century, brides would wear jewellery with ornaments that would fall on either side of the temples. Some of the most popular included the two-headed bird in the centre and the tree of life above. In addition, the jewellery would contain real peacock feathers, relating to the belief that it can cure, protect and assure fertility and even eternal life.[4]


3. Jewellery of the Jewish community in Morocco used a variety of techniques and styles. The most popular contained the bird motif that was believed to have the ability to protect against evil.[5]


4. Om Southern Yemen, a necklace would consist of seven strings of alternating silver and coral beads worn only on special occasions. In the middle, there was a small, tubular filigree charm case with delicate pendants that would ensure protection for the wearer.[6]


5. A marriage contract (ketubah) in Calcutta, India, 1898, is decorated with animal and vegetal motifs, including pairs of peacocks in exotic colours. In addition, a pair of fish facing each other in the middle of ketubah is meant to symbolize fertility and protection against the veil eye.[7]


6. In Yemen, in the early 20th century, amulets were worn on special occasions. These were pouchlike triangles, usually hung from an iron ring and were worn by the Jewish bridegroom and a smaller version by a baby boy at his circumcision. They contained various materials, such as mercury, salt and grains, which were kept inside. Both, the pouch itself with its distinct shape, and the materials contained within, were believed to have protective properties to ward off the evil spirits.[8]  


7. In Morocco, Tefiilin bags in the 20th century, made of velvet or satin silk, were decorated with the name of the Bar Mitzvah boy, as well as the tree of life, birds, and hamsa (hand shapes), intended to protect from the evil eye.[9]


8. In Rhodes and Izmir, late 19th century, amulet bands and kerchiefs were worn by mothers and newborns against the evil eye. The kerchiefs included the names for G-d, as well as the names of angels, to protect the mother from Lilith. Amuletic bands with inscription were also fastened across the mother’s forehead.[10]


9. Brides in Yemen would have their hands and feet decorated with a reddish-brown paste made from henna plant, which is believed to have protective powers.[11]


10. From Sefrou, Morocco, 20th century, there are amuletic plaques attached to a cord with loops, bearing the initials engraved on both sides. The text on some of the plaques include: לתמ ובא מיא ילי סי. 

On others, it states:  ולג אגרעוו שך לי.


11. In Italy, 17th and 18th century, there are two amulet cases extant, called sha-ddai (the name of the Al-mighty), that were hung above a baby’s cradle for protection against the evil eye. They would originally have contained an inscription on paper or parchment, made for a particular user. This inscription would late be replaced by another as the case was handed from owner to owner. Both cases are decorated with the utensils of the Tabernacle.[12]


Protection of a newborn child


From the above survey, it would seem that the amulets found at the Pitt Rivers Museum with the inscription sha-ddai on them were of the latter category: used specifically for the purpose of protection for a newborn child, and hung above a baby’s cradle for protection against the evil eye.


Demons in the Talmud - Protection by G-d


The existence of demons is found in the work of the Talmud, as recorded in the statement:[13] it was taught that Abba Binyamin says: If the eye was given permission to see, no creature would be able to withstand the abundance and ubiquity of the demons and continue to live unaffected by them. The idea that a person is subject to the power of evil spirits and there is a need for G-d to protect the person without is found in the Talmud: ‘Rav Huna said: Each and every one of us has a thousand demons to his left and ten thousand to his right.’ The idea, however, is that G-d protects man from these demons. This is derived from the verse in Psalms (91:7): “A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; they will not approach you.”


Protection by angels


In addition to the protection that G-d provides, man has sought to find protection through angels and incantations, as is found in numerous texts in the Talmud, unrelated to special occasions. In tractate Kiddushin (39b-40a), it relates the following:


This is like an incident involving Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappi, who was enticed by a certain noblewoman [matronita] to engage in sexual intercourse with her. He said a formula of an incantation and was covered with boils and scabs so as to render himself unattractive to her. She performed an act of magic and he was healed. He fled and hid in a bathhouse that was so dangerous, due to the demons that frequented the place, that when two people entered together even during the day they would be harmed. The next day the Sages said to him: Who protected you in that dangerous place? Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappi said to them: There were angels who appeared like two soldiers [nosei keisar] who guarded me all night. They said to him: Perhaps a matter of forbidden intercourse presented itself to you and you were saved from it, which is why a miracle occurred for you.


Healing through prayer


A distinction in the Talmud is made between protection and healing. While the former is the role of angels and purpose of incantations, healing is done through prayer, as recorded in the Talmud (Berachot 6a):


One who seeks to know that the demons exist should place fine ashes around his bed, and in the morning the demons’ footprints appear like chickens’ footprints, in the ash. One who seeks to see them should take the afterbirth of a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat, burn it in the fire, grind it and place it in his eyes, and he will see them. He must then place the ashes in an iron tube sealed with an iron seal [gushpanka] lest the demons steal it from him, and then seal the opening so he will not be harmed. Rav Beivai bar Abaye performed this procedure, saw the demons, and was harmed. The Sages prayed for mercy on his behalf and he was healed.


Amulets - healing


The history of amulets doesn’t appear in the biblical works, but may be in the earliest work of Jewish law, the Mishnah. The name for an amulet is Kamia, that means to bind or the roots of a certain plant, reflecting its scriptural or herbal nature.[14] In the context of what one may carry in the street on Shabbat, it states:[15] ‘A man may not go out with an amulet when it is not from an expert, but rather it was written by someone who has not established a reputation as an expert in writing amulets that are effective for those who carry them.’ This is further qualified in the Talmud[16] that if the person who wrote it is an expert, even though the amulet has not proven effective, he may go out with it. In detail, the following categories of amulets are permitted to carry on Shabbat: 1. In a case where three amulets were written for three people and effectively healed each three times that both the man who wrote them is proven an expert and the amulet is proven effective. 2. In the case of one who writes three amulets for three people and healed each one time, the man is proven to be an expert; however, the amulet is not proven effective. 3. If one wrote one amulet for three people and it healed them, the amulet is proven effective, while the man who wrote it is not thereby proven an expert.[17] This text from the Talmud described amulets as not just for the purpose of protection from evil spirits but also healing. It further clarifies, that a person who is ill, whether dangerously or not, may carry the amulet into the bathroom, despite scripture contain in it, as well as carrying it in the street on Shabbat. They may be worn round one’s neck or carried in one’s hand.[18] This suggests that amulets were worn for healing purposes.


The story in tractate Yoma[19] illustrates the healing power of amulet when bitten by a mad dog:


One bitten by a mad dog will die. The Gemara asks: What is the remedy? Abaye said: Let him bring the skin of a male hyena and write on it: I, so-and-so, son of so-and-so, am writing this spell about you upon the skin of a male hyena: Kanti kanti kelirus. And some say he should write: Kandi kandi keloros. He then writes names of God, Yah, Yah, Lord of Hosts, amen amen Selah. And let him take off his clothes and bury them in a cemetery for twelve months of the year, after which he should take them out, and burn them in an oven, and scatter the ashes at a crossroads. And during those twelve months of the year, when his clothes are buried, when he drinks water, let him drink only from a copper tube and not from a spring, lest he see the image of the demon in the water and be endangered, like the case of Abba bar Marta, who is also called Abba bar Manyumi, whose mother made him a gold tube for this purpose.


Protection verse healing


There is however already criticism of the idea that one may use scripture for healing purposes. The Talmud[20] relates that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would recite verses from Psalms to protect him from evil spirits during the night and fall asleep while saying them. The Talmud clarifies that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would recite these verses for protection only and not healing. This criticism continues in the medieval period in the work of Maimonides, who writes:[21]


He who delivers a prayer of charm upon a wound and reads also a verse of the Torah thereon, likewise one who reads a Verse so that a babe shall suffer no fear, or who puts a Sepher Torah or phylacteries upon a child so that he might fall asleep, such are not alone included among the enchanters and charmers but are even included among those who deny the Torah, for they are employing the words of the Torah as a cure for the body, whereas they are not so but only remedies for the soul even as it is said: "And they will (shall) be life for thy soul" (Pro. 3.22). But a normally healthy person who reads Verses of the Torah or chapters of the Psalms, so that the righteousness of reading it shield him to escape suffering and accidents, lo, this is permitted.


Similarly, he criticises those who use Tefilin and Mezuzot as amulets:[22]


It is a universal custom to write the word Sha-ddai (Al-mighty) on the other side of the Mezuzah, opposite the blank space between the two sections. As this word is written on the outside, the practice is unobjectionable. They, however, who write names of angels, holy names, a Biblical text or inscriptions usual on seals, within the Mezuzah, are among those who have no portion in the world to come. For these fools not only fail to fulfill the commandment but they treat an important precept that expresses the Unity of G-d, the love of Him, and His worship, as if it were an amulet to promote their own personal interests; for, according to their foolish minds, the Mezuzah is something that will secure for them advantage in the vanities of the world.



In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides further criticises the use of amulets for healing:[23]


You must beware of sharing the error of those who write amulets (kameot). Whatever you hear from them, or read in their works, especially in reference to the names which they form by combination, is utterly senseless; they call these combinations shemot (names) and believe that their pronunciation demands sanctification and purification, and that by using them they are enabled to work miracles. Rational persons ought not to listen to such men, nor in any way believe their assertions.


While amulets persisted until the 20th century in many Jewish communities, the view of Maimonides on amulets appears to have been the established custom: to be used as protection from evil spirits, particularly, at times of celebrations, like a wedding, Bar Mitzvah, as well as the birth of a new born baby, as can be found in the collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum.






[2] Sir James Dewar, 1842-1923: A Ruthless Chemist, p. 84.

[3] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 338.

[4] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 362.

[5] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 360.

[6] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 460.

[7] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 564.

[8] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 582.

[9] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 644.

[10] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 688.

[11] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 696.

[12] The Jewish World 365 days, from the Collections of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, p. 626.

[13] Talmud Berachot 6a.

[14] Rashi on Talmud Shabbat 61a.

[15] Talmud Shabbat 60a.

[16] Talmud Shabbat 61a.

[17] Talmud Shabbat 61b.

[18] Talmud Shabbat 61b.

[19] Talmud Yoma 84a.

[20] Talmud Shavuot 15b.

[21] Mishneh Torah, Foreign Worship and Customs of the Nations 11:12.

[22] Mishneh Torah, Tefillin, Mezuzah and the Torah Scroll 5:4.

[23] Guide for the Perplexed 1:61.


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