The Hamsa is a widely recognized, uniquely shaped hand that has been portrayed in folklore and tradition as a symbol representing both religious and ancient pagan cultures. Chamsa and Khamsa are other ways to spell the word, but all three spellings have the same pronunciation. The exact origin and intent of the symbolic sign is not known. However, there are Hamsot, the plural tense, drawings and artifacts going back to the Phoenician civilization. This pre-Islamic pagan culture was a dominate force in the Mediterranean area from 1500 – 300 B.C.E. Archaeologists theorize that the hand was used as a symbol of honor and worship for the ancient pagan goddess of Carthage, Tanit. The folklore is that her mystical hand contained the power to protect her people from harm and from invading forces, and to control the monthly lunar cycles.
Hamsa is the root of the Hebrew and Islamic words for the number five. The ancient Hebrew Sephardic population referred to the sign as the Hand of Miriam and as a reference to the five Books of Moses. The ancient Muslim population refers to the sign as the Hand of Fatima and as a reference to the five Pillars of Islam. Both cultures and religious groups share the belief that the hand symbol is endowed with the power of protection against an Evil Eye.
The traditional superstition is that anyone can create an Evil Eye and cast ill will or cause bad luck with a certain look or stare at another person. Beyond wearing a hand symbol as an amulet, people will attempt to ward off any possible negative occurrences by saying, “H’nayin Harah”, the literal meaning is without the evil eye, after uttering a comment that could be interpreted as inviting evil or misfortune upon one’s self or wishing it on another person. This could be as innocent as mentioning a dead person, or not so innocently uttering an envious statement or making a nasty remark about another person or group of persons.
As the centuries passed, the shape of the Hamsa has retained its depiction of a hand with an open palm that has three equally sized center fingers. The thumb and pinkie finger are shown as being of equal, but smaller, in size and curved outward. The decorations placed on the palm and the finger tips of the hand often contain stones, paintings, or jewels. Hamsot are also designed with signs such as a Chai, the symbol for life, a Star of David, the fifth Hebrew letter Hey as a reference to one of G-d’s holy names, or other symbols.
Two symbols often placed in or on the open palm are an open eye and a fish. When worn as an amulet for protection, the open eye shields the wearer from sadness and evil forces. The fish is known as a symbol for peace and is immune to the powers of evil. Hamsot have evolved into exquisite pieces of Judaica jewelry. They are highly valued when given as a Jewish gift for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions.
As a fledgling state, Israel’s secular government did not easily embrace or mesh with older religious traditions or folklore. The popularity of the Hamsa waned as both a protection against negative forces and as an amulet to beckon personal good luck. The Western European Ashkenazi culture prevailed during Israel’s early years. The older customs and traditions associated with the Far East and the Middle East were viewed as old world and not highly valued as a contributing factor for an emerging modern country.
The last few decades have seen a renewed interest in and return to the religious roots and customs of the Mizrahi people. Along with this return to the past and the people’s heritage; the Hamsa, as a symbol of good luck, has experienced a remarkable revival for both its traditional folklore and as a special Jewish gift for friends and family. Modern Judaica artwork of Hamsot can be seen on door knockers, in framed paintings, as wall plagues and as key chains.
Today, just about everyone who lives in or travels to the Middle East wants at least one Judaica item with the hand prominently displayed. Tourists in Israel love the legendary powers of protection associated with the hand and buy Hamsot for souvenirs and as a Jewish gift from the Holy land for family members.
Modern Israelis and Arabs throughout the Middle East wear Hamsot, not so much as an amulet but more as a new emerging shared sign of hope for peace in this war wary region of the world. Whether as a shield against bad influences or as a sign of a better future, Hamsot are as significant today as they were millennia ago. They remain as a sign for hope and a symbol for personal mental tranquility. It is a wonderful thought that every owner of Hamsot should be able to enjoy good fortune and a long life. H’nayin Harah!