What is the hamsa? It is an amulet or lucky charm in the shape of an open hand, most commonly with an open eye in the palm. It does NOT have religious significance in Judaism, although it is associated with the Kabbalah, or mystic interpretation of the Torah (Jewish Bible) dating from Medieval times. This symbol or charm is a prevalent symbol in both art and jewelry in the Middle East in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian culture. Each faith has adapted it to it's own belief systems. The Jewish Hamsa commonly features the Star of David (Magen David or Shield of David), the Jewish alphabet character symbolizing life, the word "Shalom" or even the phrase "Shabbat Shalom", the prayers for travel and house blessings,The Shema prayer and the colors red and blue, since these colors are thought to combat the Evil Eye. The Hand itself can be seen to symbolize the priestly blessing of the Levite, still used in services today, and also as The Mighty Hand of G-d.
Jewish hamsa being sold in Israel
The "Evil Eye" is a curse brought about by the glare of a malevolent gaze; this belief has been in existence since Classical Antiquity, the culture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It is first mentioned in Hebrew Rabbinic literature dating originally from the Third century. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer says an evil eye is worse than a bad friend, a bad neighbor, or an evil heart. To me, it sounds as though jealousy and envy are the Evil Eye. The Ten Commandments explicitly forbid coveting another's property or wife or anything at all belonging to the neighbor--this jealousy and envy has been known to start wars, so it is no wonder Jews were attracted to this notion that the Hamsa could dispel evil.
Today hamsa are sold all over the world, not just in the Middle East or in Israel. The Jewish Hamsa can be found gracing rear view mirrors in cars and taxis, as jewelry, as wall art, as bookmarks, key chains, on candlesticks--on a Jewish prayer box affixed to doorways called a mezzuzah. Formal artists create works with this symbol or charm. You can even get a hamsa tattoo!
Israeli Jewish woman with tattoo
Do I find this offensive? No, not really. I think it is much like the Christian symbol of the fish, which they use to illustrate an aspect of their beliefs. (Incidentally, Orthodox Jews use a fish symbol, but the meaning is not the same). I would like to leave you tonight with Jewish prayer:
Guard me, Lord, from the hands of the wicked, protect me from the man of violence-those who plot to cause my steps to slip. (Chabad)
Hashkiveinu prayer (from Mishkan T’filah)
Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Guide us with Your good counsel; for Your Name’s sake, be our help. Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings. Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine and sorrow. Distance us from wrongdoing. For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful. Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace evermore.