A Hand that reaches out to Arabs and Jews

by Katya Miller


The Hamsa caught my eye early in my formative years as a jeweler, symbolist, and amulet maker. It was much more exotic than the Star of David that represented Judaism. It evoked a middle eastern world of colorful clothing, sacred architecture and the three faiths of Jerusalem, but I didn’t understand how it related to my own beliefs. I knew it was an abstract hand shape, inverted with thumb and pinky pointing outward and similar to the many such indigeneous hand designs in cultures worldwide.

The Khamsa, (in Arabic: Khamsa means “five”) is an icon in amulets, charms, and jewelry, to protect against bad eyes. The Islamic name for the charm is the Hand of Fatima or Eye of Fatima, referring to Fatima Al-Zahra'a, Prophet Muhammad’s small and most beloved daughter. She married Ali, the son of Abu Taleb who was especially loved by Mohammad as the first one who accepted him. Only from her Mohammed had grandchildren and all of her sons were important leaders. She is very important in the Shiite Islam and there only her descendants can be Khalifs. Many girls are named Fatima, meaning a rose, considered holy. She must have had healing hands.

An alternative Jewish name is the Hand of Miriam, in reference to Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. It is a kind of "protecting hand" or "hand of God". The Jewish silversmiths who lived and worked in Morocco and other Arab countries before settling in Israel, adapted it as their own symbol over the years and sometimes put a six pointed star in the palm for religious identity. With an eye in the palm, they say it protects against “the evil eye.” Some associate the significance of the five fingers to the five books of the Torah for Jews, the Five Pillars of Islam for Sunnis, or the five People of the Cloak for Shi'ites. It can be seen all over the Arab nations, and is popular as charms and decorations in Israel’s markets as wall plaques, mobiles, keychains and necklaces. Among Jews, many hamsas are also decorated with fish images, considered to be a symbol of good luck and sometimes they are inscribed with Hebrew prayers, such as the Sh'ma, the Birkat HaBayit (Blessing for the Home), or the Tefilat HaDerech (Traveler's Prayer).

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