Jewish Personal Protections
From the moment many Jews are born, our parents begin to protect us in any way they can.
Many of us grow up with moments of protection that we may not even realize. For those who join, or rejoin, Judaism at later times, noticing the ways in which Judaism seeks out personal protection through segulot, protective charms, amulets, or rituals.
Though there are many prayers, invocations, and blessings done to protect us, I will be focusing solely on the physical items used by Jews. This is not a comprehensive list, but merely details the most popular found within the diaspora.
Amulets - Segulot
There are many kinds of amulets. In Judaism, some forms of magic are explicitly forbidden. Amulet making and carrying is often incorrectly identified as one of those forms of magic. However, the Schulchan Aruch expressly allows amulets for the purpose of healing or protection (1). Even Maimonides, a Rabbi known for his hatred of supernatural and mystical things things, allowed for the wearing of amulets for those reasons.
There are many forms of amulets, as described below, but this kind is known as Kamea (plural: kameot, also spelled kemiyeot) and are similar to mezuzot, as they must be written on a klaf or a kosher scroll.
There was much debate on the efficacy of amulets written by non-scribes and on non-kosher scrolls in the middle ages.
Essentially, the debate continues to this day, with many rabbis arguing against them, with just as many arguing for them. There is also value in stating that amulets are written and carried by all Jews, and the opinion of a rabbi may not impact the actual use of them or any other segula.
Madonna is usually synonymous with the red string bracelet, but it far predates her dabbling into innauthentic Kabbalah. First mentioned in Tosefta, an early Talmudic work (Shabbat 7-8), red threads as a significant protective amulet has existed for centuries. It appears outside of Judaism as well, with varying meanings from indicating illness to representing the bond within adoptive families.
Part of the lore surrounding red threads includes wrapping the thread seven times around the tomb of the matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem. These segulot can be found in most shops as well as hawked throughout Israel by elderly women.
The concept of winding thread around graves is not a new one in Judaism, with other rituals like Feldmestn, cemetery-measuring, and Keyvermestn, grave-measuring, which were used to make ritual candles. (3)
The Tefilat Haderech is also known as the Wayfarer's Prayer. The prayer is traditionally said at the beginning of a journey, but it is also available in written form or inscribed upon amulets.
It can commonly be found on keychains or in small vials suitable for travel. It may be combined with other protective symbols and imagery like the Nazar, hamsa, or Magen David.
The prayer itself asks for protection during the journey and safe deliverance to their destination. (2)
Nazar, Hamsa, Cloves, Garlic, Rue
Just as they were used as potent sources of protection for the home, these herbs and amulets are used to protect one once they've left the domestic sphere.
The Nazar can be found in any number of personal protective amulets. Rings, earrings, bracelets, pendants, necklaces, toe rings, nose rings, the list goes on...As mentioned in our blog on home protections, the most popular color remains blue, but come in all colors, including plain gold or silver.
Like the Nazar, the Hamsa can be found in many different forms.
As it is not nearly as convenient to carry around garlic, cloves, or rue as it is to don a simple hamsa or nazar bracelet, these herbs are frequently carried in pockets, or in small bags.
The Nazar was not always available to Jews, particularly poor Jews. However, in its stead, a small blue bead was considered an apt replacement. It was also incredibly useful during times of persecution, as a small blue bead could be sewn into the lining of clothing or be carried in a purse or pouch without drawing the attention of others.
The Sephardic tradition of bulsika has been used for centuries to protect Jews. Bulsika, Ladino for "little bag", could contain any number of protective ingredients: salt, garlic, cloves, rue, gold, blue beads, and kameot (4).
These bags would often be carried in pockets or in purses, but could also be sewn into the lining of clothing, particularly for children.
The specific ingredients would vary based on the worry and the state of the intended wearer, as there are special ingredients not needed for general protection.
While Bulsika is the Ladino term, this tradition exists throughout the diaspora in various forms. Its common ingredients differed slightly by tradition and available herbs and materials. They may have also been sewn directly into the lining of clothes, particularly Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the most well-known symbol of Judaism, the Magen David or Star of David, is an incredibly common amulet worn for protection.
Jews originally used the Magen David in Prague to represent their community, though the symbolism quickly spread as an indicator of Jewishness. This coincided with the rise of Kabbalah, which saw the Magen David as a highly powerful protective symbol.
Though it was already in use, the Magen David became the 'official' symbol of Judaism with the beginning of the Holocaust and only continued as Jews were forced to bear the symbol upon their chest.
Post-Holocaust, the symbol was then used on the official flag of the modern Jewish state of Israel and was further indoctrinated as the symbol of Judaism.
Many Jews wear it as a symbol of their Jewishness, while others wear it for protection, and some wear it for both.
How To Choose Segulot
Finding the right ones for you is a matter of personal choice. There are superstitions for each as well as varying levels of accessibility. Saying a quick prayer and sticking a clove of garlic in your back pocket may be simpler than spending money buying a Hamsa or Nazar, though you may choose to do so either way.
In the end, your personal protection is entirely up to you. Figure out what brings you joy, comfort, and safety, and go forth protected.
Ritual Medical Lore of Sephardic Women: Sweetening the Spirits, Healing the Sick, Isaac Jack Lévy and Rosemary Lévy and Zumwalt