Jewelry has played an important role in Israelite spirituality since antiquity, some 3000 years ago, particularly among the priestly class (Kohanim).
Kohanim wore priestly linen undergarments that went from the waist to the knee, a priestly tunic, a priestly sash, and a priestly turban. The High Priest (Kohen Gadol) also wore a priestly robe, an embroidered vest or apron with onyx engraved gemstones on the shoulders, a priestly breastplate with 12 gems (each representing one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel), and a golden plate in front of the turban engraved with the words “Holiness onto YHWH.”
As mentioned, a different gemstone represented each of the twelve Israelite tribes. The Tribe of Levi was assigned the garnet, the Tribe of Zebulun the diamond, the Tribe of Gad the amethyst, the Tribe of Benjamin the jasper/bloodstone, the Tribe of Simeon the chrysolite, the Tribe of Issachar the sapphire, the Tribe of Naphtali the agate, the Tribe of Joseph the onyx, the Tribe of Judah the emerald, the Tribe of Reuben the carnelian, the Tribe of Dan the topaz, and the Tribe of Asher the beryl.
The Jewish belief in the “ayin ha’rah” (evil eye) — the idea that one can bewitch or harm someone merely by looking at them — goes back to ancient times. The “ayin ha’rah” can also refer to evil inclinations or envy.
This belief is not just a folk superstition, but it’s also addressed in ancient Jewish texts, such as the Midrash and the Talmud. According to rabbinic interpretation, the evil eye can also be found in the Torah.
To protect ourselves from the evil eye, Jews can wear eye amulets or hamsa amulets (see next slide). Though most often associated with Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, the usage of these amulets likely predates the Diaspora.
Another Jewish method of protection against the evil eye is spitting three times after uttering the name of a vulnerable person, or saying “let it be without the evil eye” (“bli ayin ha’rah” in Hebrew or “kinehora” in Yiddish. “Kinehora” is a contraction of “kayn ayin ha’rah”).
The hamsa, also known as the Hand of Miriam, the Hand of Fatima, or the Hand of Mary, is an open palm-shaped amulet with five fingers, oftentimes used in conjunction with the evil eye. “Hamsa” means five in Arabic (“hamesh” in Hebrew). There are various theories as to its origins: ancient Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, or ancient Phoenicia. Likely the oldest-ever hamsa found is located in an 8th century BCE Israelite tomb in Judea (the West Bank), near the ancient sacred city of Hebron.
Though most often associated with Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry, the image and usage of the hamsa, like the evil eye, predates the Diaspora.
After Sepharadim were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively, they likely took the hamsa with them to North Africa and elsewhere for protection.
During the period of the Byzantine Empire and the Medieval period, Ashkenazi Jewry also wore the hamsa. According to historian Shalom Sabar, Kohanim (i.e. the Jewish priestly class) continued to wear the hamsa in Europe until much later, “as a distinctive sign of the priesthood, especially when they wished to show that a person was of priestly descent (Kohen)…”
However, because of the instability of Jewish life in Europe due to relentless persecution, expulsion, massacres, and more, its use among Ashkenazim declined, until recent decades. Today the hamsa is often associated with the Jewish practice of Kabbalah.
This is the oldest hamsa inscription ever found (8th century BCE), located in Khirbet-el-Qom, which is associated with the Canaanite city of Makkedah in Judea (now known as the West Bank). The inscription (you might have to zoom in to see) reads in paleo-Hebrew:
“Uriyahu the honorable has written this/ Blessed is/be Uriyahu by YHWH/ And [because?] from his oppressors by his Asherah he has saved him/[written] by Oniyahu/…by his Asherah/…and his Asherah”
YHWH, as you probably know, is the Hebrew G-d. Asherah was one of the two most important gods in the Canaanite pantheon. Today, the religion of the Jewish People is known as Judaism. Its precursor was “Yahwism,” whose followers only worshiped the Hebrew G-d but didn’t necessarily reject the existence of the rest of the Canaanite pantheon. For more on this, I recommend my post WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS.
For Jews, Hebrew is much more than our ancestral language. It is considered sacred, so much so that we know it as “lashon ha-kodesh,” or the “language of holiness/sacredness.” There are many factors within Hebrew that are not present in other languages, such as gematria, the Jewish practice of numerology, which assigns numerical value to names, phrases, or words. For example, the Hebrew word for life, chai, is assigned the numerical value of 18, which subsequently makes 18 a spiritual number in Judaism.
Since ancient times, Jews have used symbols comprised of Hebrew letters. According to the Talmud, G-d created the world from Hebrew letters which form verses in the Torah. Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, also teaches that the word “chai” is an emanation of G-d, the closest emanation to the physical plane.
Since the 18th century, Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe, began using the word חי as jewelry, but its use as a symbol can be traced all the way back to Medieval Spain, where it became popular among Sephardi Jews.
Because 18 is a sacred number in Judaism, Jews often give tzedakah (translating to “righteousness” but meaning charity) in multiples of 18.
Chai represents standing alive before G-d and is used in the phrase “Am Israel Chai,” meaning “the People of Israel live.” In a BBC recording from April 1945, five days after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, the survivors proclaimed “Am Israel Chai!”
The tradition of exchanging wedding rings can be dated to ancient Persia. It was in Persia, thousands of years ago, that the exchange of rings came to symbolize contracts. After the Greeks conquered Persia, they adopted the practice of exchanging wedding rings. Later, when the Romans conquered Greece, they, too, adopted the practice and spread it to the Western world.
It was in the 10th century that Jews in Europe began incorporating wedding rings into marriage ceremonies, though it’s likely that the usage of Jewish wedding rings dates even farther back. In the 1300s, Jews began exchanging ornate, elaborate “house” rings, which symbolized both the house of the couple and the ancient Jewish Temple. Because according to Kabbalah the wedding band should be simple gold, without inscriptions, it’s possible that the house rings were only used as engagement rings. During the ceremony, the ring would be placed on the bride’s index finger, not the ring finger. There was a folk belief that an artery ran from the index finger to the heart. Sometimes, the words “mazal tov” (literally meaning good luck but translating to congratulations) were inscribed in the rings.
STAR OF DAVID
Today, the Star of David, also known as the Magen David (“Shield of David”), is probably the most recognizable Jewish symbol. Though its usage in Jewish culture has ancient roots, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that it was used as *the* symbol to identify Jewish communities. In the late 17th century, it came to be associated as a uniquely Jewish symbol.
Originally known as the “Shield of Solomon,” the Talmud mentions that the hexagram-shaped star was engraved into King Solomon’s ring. Some historians speculate that one of the triangles was meant to represent the Tribe of Judah, while the other represents the Tribe of Benjamin (most Jews, save for Kohanim, Levites, Beta Israel, and some others likely descend from either of those tribes). In the Middle Ages, the use of the Star of David as an amulet came to be associated with Jewish mysticism.
In 1354, the King of Bohemia approved the Star of David, set against a red background, as the official symbol for the Jewish community. The first Siddur (Jewish prayer book) ever printed displayed a large Star of David on the cover (Prague 1512).
At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, it was decided that the Star of David would be representative of a future Jewish state.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis forced Jews to wear an identifying Star of David (usually yellow) on their clothing.
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