Thursday, November 08, 2007

Jewish Magic Spells: The Secret Language of Amulets

[A famous paper amulet against Lilith. The top line names the primordial beings: Adam, Eve, and Lilith.
The second line illustrates and names the three angels empowered against Lilith (who knew Big Bird was an angel of God?).
The third line is a series of abbreviations for biblical or rabbinic phrases of power.]

Early in Jewish history, as a way to save space on precious and scarce writing materials (easy to produce paper was centuries away), Jewish scribes developed an elaborate list of abbreviations for commonly used phrases and terms. For example, the title for God, Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu "The Holy Blessed One," became HKB"H.

Such acronyms, known as Roshei Teivot, "heads of words," litter the page of traditional Jewish works such as the Talmud and Midrash.

On Jewish amulets, too, abbreviations are common. In fact, Jewish talismans seem indecipherable, even to a Hebrew reader, precisely because acronyms rule. Many amulets are small, in order to be worn or carried. Often they are made out of precious or difficult to work materials (silver, for example). But abbreviations are also used precisely because they are a kind of code, and occult speech is powerful speech.

There are many types of magical abbreviations that appear on Jewish talismans-

A Biblical verse or phrase (It should be noted that Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1 objects to the use of Torah verses in medicinal spells. Jewish folk healers may have regarded the abbreviation of such verses as a way to make an end-run around that objection [1]):

ShYCh"G - Shuvah Yah Chatzah Nafshi, "Return O Eternal, save my life" (Ps. 6:5).

or a title of God:

Sh"Y - Shomer Yisrael, "Guardian of Israel" (Ps. 121)

It can be a verse from Jewish prayer:

AGL"A - Atah Gibor L'olam Adonai, "You are Forever Powerful, O Eternal" (Gevurot prayer)

or an adjuration:

BACh"V - Bashem El Chai V'kayyam, "[Do this] in the name of the living and enduring God"[2]


BM"T - B'Mazal Tov, "[bless me] with good fortune."

It can be for invoking the protection of angels:

ARGM"N - Uriel, Rafael, Gavriel, Mikhael, Nuriel

or for the kabbalistic sefirot:

CHBT"M - Chochmah, Binah, Tiferet, Malchut

Such phrases number into the hundreds. Even a reader of traditional Jewish texts may be at a loss to decode many amulet abbreviations. There are a number of books that can help, but I recommend ha-Kamiya ha-Yehudi, "The Hebrew Amulet" by Avraham Green, which provides exhaustive tables of such roshei teivot and their interpretation.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] Davis, "The Psalms in Hebrew Medical Amulets," Vetus Testamentum, XLII, 2 (1992)

[2] I use a capital "A" to transliterate the alef, a silent letter which can bear several vowel sounds. Here it is the "e" in "El." In a later example it will be a "u" in "Uriel."


Blogger Zeke said...

I've found something interesting about Hebrew abbreviation, which relates to the previous topic "Secrets of Bereshit" too. According to the Nag Hammadi Codex, the Gnostics called the First Thought of the Unknown One "Barbelo" (B-R-B-A-L) , depicted as an androgynous Father-Mother usually. I personally believe that it is an abbreviation of the first verse of Genesis "Bereshit Bera Elohim". It is interesting that the sages in Zohar also interpret Bereshit as Ehyeh-Asher (Asherah?) dualism or with "Wisdom" (With His consort). Sometimes it is interpreted as Binah or both Hei in the Tetragrammaton, that is Bereshit as the Divine feminine.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is so interesting..
I know this form of amulets are being used for many centuries...and all over the world by jews.
I think it also explains a little bit why jews are pretty succesful in business.
Does anyone know more about jewish mysticism and business?

4:49 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Sorry, Anonymous, but I'm afraid Jewish success in business and education is the result of the great magic better known as "effort combined with talent." Jews who succeed - pretty much like non-Jews who succeed - value education, discipline, and carefully-considered risk-taking. For a prospectus, get your child into Yale business school (Harvard as a fall-back).

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a Baptist background, but always wanted to attend a Jewish service, it that possible? My other question is that my friends grandmother use to go to a Jewish business and I asked her why but she never answer the question. And than I remember seeing along time ago about a Jewish saying about putting an empty wallet with a full moon or maybe it was along the lines of after Midnight in order to receive a financial blessings.

Well, I guess my question is can Jewish Mysticism help those who aren't of the Jewish Faith in areas of love, marriage and finances.

2:38 PM  

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