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The hamsa (Arabic: خمسة ‎, also romanized khamsa, meaning lit. five) or hand of Fatima (also called the hand of Miriam) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The hamsa is often incorporated in jewellery and wall hangings as a superstitious defense against the evil eye.

Hamsa, also romanized khamsa, is an Arabic word that literally means "five", but also the five fingers of the hand. It is also known as the hand of Fatima, commemorating Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.Though its roots predate monotheism, the hamsa is a "favorite Muslim talisman" that became a part of Jewish tradition, with widespread use in North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. Jews retained the name hamsa, but renamed it the hand of Miriam, referencing the sister of the biblical Moses and Aaron, so as not to name it after the daughter of the prophet of Islam

Archaeological evidence indicates that a downward pointing hamsa used as a protective amulet in the region predates its use by members of the monotheistic faiths. A universal sign of protection, the image of the open right hand is seen in Mesopotamian artifacts in the amulets of the Qāt Ištar and the Qāt Inana and in the Buddha's gesture (mudrā) of teaching and protection. Other symbols of divine protection based around the hand include the Hand-of-Venus (or Aphrodite) and the Hand-of-Mary that was used to protect women from the evil eye, boost fertility and lactation, promote healthy pregnancies and strengthen the weak.

One theory postulates a connection between the khamsa and the Mano Pantea (or Hand-of-the-All-Goddess), an amulet known to ancient Egyptians as the Two Fingers. In this amulet, the Two Fingers represent Isis and Osiris and the thumb, their child Horus and it was used to invoke the protective spirits of parents over their child. Another theory traces the origins of the hamsa to Carthage (Phoenicia) where the hand (or in some cases vulva) of the supreme deity Tanit was used to ward off the evil eye. According to Bruno Barbatti, while this motif is "the most important apotropaic sign in the Islamic world," many modern day representations continue to "show unmistakably that they derive from sex symbolism."

The hamsa's path into Jewish culture, and its popularity particularly in Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, can be traced through its use in Islam. The hamsa was adopted and used by Jews living in the Islamic world, and recognized as a bearer of good fortune among Christians there as well. In Spain, well after the end of Islamic rule, its use was significant enough to prompt an episcopal committee convened by Emperor Charles V to decree a ban on the Hand of Fatima and all open right hand amulets in 1526

Khamsas come in great variety of designs and sizes. The hand can be depicted with the fingers spread apart to ward off evil, or as closed together to bring good luck. Highly stylized versions may be difficult to recognize as hands, and can consist of five circles representing the fingers, situated around a central circle representing the palm.

The Hand (Khamsa) has long represented blessings, power and strength and is thus seen as potent in deflecting the evil eye. In Islamic tradition, the hand of Fatima, "represents the hand of God, divine power, providence and generosity." It is one of the most common components of silver and gold jewellery in the region. The image is also painted in red (sometimes in blood) on the walls of houses for protection.

Hamsa hands often contain an eye symbol. Depictions of the hand, the eye, or the number five in Arabic (and Berber) tradition is related to warding off the evil eye, as exemplified in the saying khamsa fi ainek ("five [fingers] in your eye"). Raising one's right hand with the palm showing and the fingers slightly apart is related to this curse meant "to blind the aggressor." Another formula uttered against the evil eye in Arabic is khamsa wa-khamis.

The number five in Islam is connected to the open hand, the pentagram of the five senses, marriage, the Five Pillars of Islam and the hand of Fatima. Sufi staffs or poles are often topped with a khamsa. Among Shiites, the fingers of the hand of Fatima represent the 'five holy persons' of the Prophet's family: Muhammed, Fatima, Ali, Hassan and Hussein.

Due to its significance in both Arabic and Berber culture, the hamsa is one of the national symbols of Algeria, and appears in its emblem. It is also the most popular of the different amulets to ward off the evil eye in Egypt — others being the Eye, and the Hirz (a silver box containing verses of the Koran).

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the widespread use of the talisman by Jews who came there from Islamic countries declined precipitously. Its association with superstition was out of place in the secularly conceived state and its 'Easternness' was looked down upon in the Western centric Ashkenazi cultural milieu that dominated.

In recent decades, that trend has been reversed with the renewed Israeli interest in Mizrahi folklore and customs and the hamsa's use is proliferating. In Israel today, it is a trendy symbol that has become "an icon of Israeliness and secularity," though its symbolism there is by no means all pervading or universal. A popular 'good luck' charm, it appears on necklaces, keychains, postcards, telephone and lottery cards, and in advertisements.It is also incorporated into high-end jewellery, decorative tilework and wall decorations.Five (hamesh in Hebrew) represents the five books of the Torah for Jews. It also symbolizes the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, He (letter), which represents one of God's holy names. Many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God.

In Jewish mysticism, fish are a symbol of good luck, so many hamsas are also decorated with fish images. Sometimes hamsas are inscribed with Hebrew prayers, such as the Sh'ma, Birkat HaBayit (Blessing for the Home), or Tefilat HaDerech (Traveler's Prayer)


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