By Dr Gal Sofer, lecturer in the Department of the Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The University of Manchester Special Collections showcases a fascinating collection of amulets that once belonged to Rabbi Moses Gaster (1856-1939), an esteemed academic, Romanian scholar, and Zionist activist. While he held respected positions in Romanian institutions, such as the University of Bucharest, he eventually relocated to England after facing political challenges. Gaster was not just an academic and activist; he was a passionate collector, curating a trove of over two thousand manuscripts and rare printed books in Hebrew, Samaritan, and Slavonic, as well as approximately 270 amulets. Though time and war impacted his collection (stored in a basement, it got dowsed with water during the London Blitz), its significance and value to history stand resolute. Delving into the Gaster Amulet Collection offers a window into varied customs and beliefs over the centuries, reflecting the immense contributions of Gaster and his dedication to the conservation of Jewish heritage.
We have digitized the entire collection, and you can now see all items on Library Digital Collections. The majority of the objects are also available on Manchester Digital Collections accompanied by detailed descriptions. If you look through the collection you will find that a few of the items are not, in fact, amulets. Some of these are important in their own right, such as a very early fragment of a synagogue hymn known as a piyut (Gaster Amulet 143). These “rogue” items got swept into the collection of amulets. We decided to include them because they have their own interest and importance.
Protection against the evil eye
While the primary function of many of these items was protection, especially from the evil eye, others were crafted to safeguard against specific misfortunes. These amulets are primarily dated between the 17th to the 20th centuries, thus capturing various traditions and histories. A prevalent belief during these times was the malicious influence of the evil eye, leading to the creation of numerous protective amulets.
A captivating example is the set of three parchment amulets (Gaster Amulet 194A, Gaster Amulet 194B, Gaster Amulet 194C), originating from 19th-century Germany. Designed to be hung on the walls of a nursery room, these colourful objects were intended to shield newborns from the malevolent demoness Lilith. The inscriptions mention three angels, Sanoy, Sansanoy, and Samengalaf, believed to ward off Lilith according to Midrashic legends. The tale behind these amulets speaks volumes about the prevailing anxieties concerning infant mortality during that era.
Curiously, the presence of these three amulets implies that they were each intended to hang on separate walls, facing various directions. This implies that a fourth amulet may be absent from the collection. It’s common with collections: once items are removed from their original settings, they often scatter, ending up in disparate collections, sometimes even on different continents. This is the case of the missing fourth amulet, which, fortunately, was found among the collections of the Israel Museum (O.S.B84.0198).
“From the evil eye, from all sorts of trouble and harm, and all sorts of witchcraft …”
However, not all items in the collection are separated by such vast distances. Some amulets within the collection were crafted for members of the same family and travelled together, as seen with Gaster Amulet 65A and Gaster Amulet 65B. These two parchment amulets, each enclosed within a tiny leather capsule (ca. 41x41mm,) were inscribed for a girl and a boy by the same adept hand, employing identical techniques and formulas. The children’s names – Yehudit, daughter of Leah, and Avraham, son of Leah – indicate they were likely siblings. These amulets’ inscriptions and protective symbols were designed to shield them from sorcery, illnesses, and mischief.
Demonic help in restoring friendships?
Another amulet highlights concerns that diverge from those of illness and mortality, emphasizing the value of friendship. Gaster Amulets 176 and 183 are pieces of a single amulet, narrating a tale of two friends in Alexandria, Egypt, from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Israel, son of Jamila, had fallen out with his friend, Nisim, son of Zafira, leading to a rift in their relationship. In a bid to mend the breach, Israel wore this amulet. Intriguingly, the amulet invokes the name of a demonic king, known from Arabic traditions as Al-Mudhhab, المذهب, the ruler of Sunday. It commands the demon “to serve the one who wears this amulet, Israel son of Jamila […] [to influence] the heart of Nisim son of Zafira, to [make him] befriend and trust […] Israel son of Jamila, who wears this amulet.” Through this severely damaged amulet, we uncover an intersection of cultural beliefs, revealing the lengths one might go to restore a cherished bond, even drawing upon local demonology to reclaim a lost friendship.
Building the collection
The lengths to which Gaster went to amass his collection were truly impressive. With the support of friends and family, he broadened his collection to encompass items from various continents. Though we know very little about the provenance of most items, Gaster sometimes attached brief notes to the acquired items that shed some light on their origin. For instance, we know from one of these notes that his daughter Bertha played a role in acquiring some Yemenite amulets, like Gaster Amulet 53A-E. Gaster’s connections within the Yemenite Jewish community enabled him to request both amulets and manuscripts from the region. This was the case with Gaster Amulet 56A, B, and C: three 19th-century paper amulets crafted for protection. They were sent to Gaster upon his request by Mr. Y.M. Abraham Levi, the representative of the “Needy Yemenits Relief Committee and Immigration for Palestine – Aden Section.”
Amulets: protection and adornment
The Gaster Amulet Collection is not limited to written pieces. It includes various gems and beads, notably from North Africa and Palestine. Take Gaster Amulet 4 as an example: this is a necklace crafted from blue beads, a colour traditionally associated with protection against evil spirits. The design holds numerological significance with its four small knots, each consisting of four individual loops, and a larger knot also made up of four loops. Collectively, along with the necklace’s main body, these loops symbolize the five fingers of the Hamsa, a prominent protective symbol.
The Gaster Amulet Collection at the University of Manchester Special Collections is more than just an assortment of historical items; it is a testament to Jewish communities’ shared beliefs, cultures, and histories over several centuries. Moses Gaster’s passion for collecting, coupled with his profound academic skills and cultural connections, has given us a rare insight into the fascinating world of amulets and the tales they narrate. Each piece, whether it is a colourful parchment from Germany or a blue bead necklace from North Africa, paints a picture of the era it hails from and the people it sought to protect. Through this collection, we are offered a unique opportunity to travel back in time, to understand the hopes, fears, and beliefs of communities from various parts of the world.
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Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.