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Hear, O Israel: There are magic powers in the Shema

An Israel Museum exhibit takes a deeper look at amulets inscribed with the elemental Jewish prayer

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The 1,500-year-old silver cuff inscribed with the words of the Shema prayer in Greek, forms the center of 'Hear, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema,' a new archaeological exhibit at the Israel Museum that closes April 2022. (Courtesy Elie Posner)
The 1,500-year-old silver cuff inscribed with the words of the Shema prayer in Greek, forms the center of 'Hear, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema,' a new archaeological exhibit at the Israel Museum that closes April 2022. (Courtesy Elie Posner)

The words of the Shema prayer, arguably Judaism’s most fundamental liturgical statement, are not generally associated with the art of magic.

But the arrival of a 1,500-year-old silver armband inscribed with some of the words of the Jewish text led an Israel Museum archaeology staffer to some surprising discoveries about the Shema and its protective qualities.

The discoveries and artifacts are on display in “Hear, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema,” on display in the archaeology wing of the museum until April 2022.

The silver cuff, wide, durable and covered with Greek script, was part of a bequest of artifacts that arrived at the Israel Museum several years ago.

Staffer Nancy Benovitz, who studied archaeology and Greek epigraphy, jumped at the opportunity to translate the Greek writing, and ended up co-curating the Shema exhibit with the archaeology wing’s senior curator, Dudi Mevorah.

Benovitz deciphered the Greek text over the course of two years, and discovered that it consisted of the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith taken from the Bible, recited twice daily in prayer and calligraphed on the scrolls inserted into mezuzah cases and phylacteries.

A display of magic bowls, from ‘Hear, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema,’ a new exhibit at the Israel Museum that closes April 2022. (Courtesy Laura Lachman)

Before they became a prayer, the three separate paragraphs of the Shema were words conveyed by Moses to the people of Israel, found in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. They were pulled together during the Second Temple period to form the text of the Shema that is known today, which became a central part of morning and evening services and which many learned by heart and recited before sleep and in moments of fear and anxiety, including before death.

The exhibit opens with a display of the cuff and its inscription, which Benovitz translated carefully over the course of two years. She initially recognized several key words from the Shema, which helped her complete the study.

Part of the puzzle for Benovitz was why an amulet, which tended to represent white magic and protection and was usually used by Christians, had the words of the Shema inscribed on it.

“This was totally unique,” said Benovitz.

She eventually concluded that the inscribed cuff was a Jewish take on a Christian amulet, probably owned by a wealthy Jew living in a Greek community, possibly in Egypt, with access to a now-lost translation of the Bible that his community was using — and he put the words of the Shema on his amulet.

From there, the exhibition shows other amulets used and created by early Jews. One is a tiny gold plaque with the Shema written on it in small Greek letters. It had been rolled up and folded in a minuscule silver capsule, and was found in the grave of a baby that was discovered in an excavation.

Amulets were used as jewelry in the ancient world, and are in the modern world as well, from Yemen, Iran, and Israel. There are also amulets made by Christians, including some with the Shema carved into their undersides: ancient magic bowls, from a Babylonian custom in which the bowls were inscribed with biblical quotations and demons and then buried by the front door, to keep bad spirits away from the house and family.

Could mezuzah cases and phylacteries be considered amulets? From ‘Hear, O Israel: The Magic of the Shema,’ a new archaeological exhibit at the Israel Museum that closes April 2022. (Courtesy Laura Lachman)

“Jews may not refer to these things as magic per se, but there’s plenty of magic in Jewish culture,” said Benovitz. “It’s things that evoke Harry Potter.”

The exhibit includes birth amulets illustrated with the figure of the mythological Lilith and other demons, along with illustrated manuscripts for the birth bed, including the text of the Shema for the birthing mother to recite.

The punchline comes at the end of the exhibit, said Benovitz, with vitrines of phylacteries and mezuzah cases, which traditionally contain a tightly rolled piece of parchment inscribed with the Shema, and which echo amulets as well.

The whole exhibit touches on the fuzzy border between religion and magic, said Benovitz, as there is no clear point of departure that distinguishes between religion and magic.

“Intuitively, we kind of know,” said Benovitz. “They kind of overlap.”

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