What Is a Hamsa?

Hamsa
Owen Franken/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

A hamsa is an amulet shaped like a hand, with three extended fingers in the middle and a curved thumb or pinky finger on either side. It is thought to protect against the “evil eye” and is a popular motif in both Jewish and Middle Eastern jewelry.

Meaning and Origins

The word hamsa (חַמְסָה) comes from the Hebrew word hamesh, which means five. Hamsa refers to the fact that there are five fingers on the talisman, though some also believe it represents the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

Sometimes it is called the Hand of Miriam, who was Moses’ sister.

In Islam, the hamsa is called the Hand of Fatima, in honor of one of the daughters of the Prophet Mohammed. Some say that, in Islamic tradition, the five fingers represent the Five Pillars of Islam. In fact one of the most potent early examples of the ​hamsa in use appears on the Gate of Judgment (Puerta Judiciaria) of the 14th-century Spanish Islamic fortress, the Alhambra. 

Many scholars believe that the hamsa predates both Judaism and Islam, possibly without origins in religion, although ultimately there is no certainty about its origins. 

No matter its origins, the Talmud accepted amulets (kamiyot, coming from the Hebrew "to bind") as commonplace, with Shabbat 53a and 61a approving of carrying an amulet on Shabbat.

Symbolism of the Hamsa

The hamsa always has three extended middle fingers, but there is some variation to how the thumb and pinky fingers appear.

Sometimes they are curved outwards, and other times they are just significantly shorter than the middle fingers. Whatever their shape, the thumb and pinky finger are always symmetrical.

In addition to being shaped like an oddly formed hand, the hamsa will often have an eye displayed in the palm of the hand.

The eye is thought to be a powerful talisman against the “evil eye” or ayin hara (עין הרע). 

The ayin hara is believed to be the cause of all of the worlds suffering, and although the modern use of it is hard to trace, the term is found in the Torah: Sarah gives Hagar an ayin hara in Genesis 16:5, which causes her to miscarry, and in Genesis 42:5, Jacob warns his sons not to be seen together as it may stir up ayin hara.

Other symbols that can appear on the hamsa include fish and Hebrew words. Fish are thought to be immune to the evil eye and are also symbols of good luck. Going along with the luck theme, mazal or mazel (meaning “luck” in Hebrew) is a word that is sometimes inscribed on the amulet. 

In modern times, the hams is often featured on jewelry, hanging in the home, or as a larger design in Judaica. However it is displayed, the amulet is thought to bring good luck and happiness.