How the Sh’ma Was Transformed from a Prayer to a Totem

November 16, 2021 | Jessica Steinberg
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“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), combined with three biblical passages, constitutes one of Judaism’s best-known prayers. An exhibit at the Israel Museum focuses on the way Jews used the words of the sh’ma as a sort of magical inscription. In her review, Jessica Steinberg, like the exhibit itself, begins with at 1,500-year-old silver armband that experts believe served as an amulet:

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. The museum staffer Nancy Benovitz . . . deciphered the Greek text over the course of two years, and discovered that it consisted of the sh’ma. . . . 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-speaking 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 sh’ma on his amulet.

From there, the exhibition shows other amulets used and created by early Jews. One is a tiny gold plaque with the sh’ma 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. . . . 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 sh’ma for the birthing mother to recite.

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