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Magic Spells: Performing Hebrew Amulets with Victoria Hanna at UC Berkeley

By Francesco Spagnolo

Published Sep 27, 2022


A Performance Series

(8 min) A few years ago, I invited Israeli performer, Victoria Hanna to collaborate in creating “Magic Spells,” a performance series based on amulets from UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection. Worn on one’s person or placed in homes, Hebrew amulets are used at moments of vulnerability and transition (childbirth, marriage, illness…), and feature texts including biblical verses, Psalms, divine names, and invocations of powerful figures like angels, and the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Mysticism and Kabbalah are central to these artifacts, which often also feature unique imagery. Performances included the display of original amulets, words, music, song, and movement, and the participation of UC Berkeley faculty and students along with hundreds of museum-goers. 


License: https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2797468

Manuscript [75.99]: "Alef" or Birth Certificate Amulet, (Greece or Egypt, 1871)

Alef Amulet, or “Birth Certificate” Amulet with shiviti text 

Greece, 1871 

Magenta, yellow and black ink on paper 

Judah L. Magnes Museum Purchase, 75.99 

Magnes Database Record 


“Alef amulets” are birth amulets created for newborn boys in the Romaniote communities, which originate from the Byzantine Empire (Greece and Asia Minor). They include mystical and magical formulae, and angelic invocations to ward off the demonic Lilith who is identified as Adam’s first wife and is believed to seduce men and kill male infants. The “alef” includes the following: the priestly blessing (birqat ha-kohanim) Song of Songs (shir ha-shirim), Psalms 20, 34, 36, 67, 91 and 127, names of the protective angels, Sanoi, Sansanoi, and Semangalaf, names of the Archangels, Michael, Gavriel, Nuriel, Raphael, and Uriel, Biblical texts from Genesis and Deuteronomy, reference to forefathers and mothers, and Elijah the Prophet. The amulet includes the child’s father’s name, Elia Yosef, and his date of birth, 5 Heshvan [5]632 (20 October 1871). 


License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/ 

Amulet [2008.27.7]: Amulet, n.d.

Amulet for health protection that invokes the names of guardian angels, the protective and ineffable names for God, shaday and the Tetragrammaton, and the defending Star of David. 

Magnes Database Record 


License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/  

Print [2010.0.31]: Amulet for protection against fire and for child birth and protection from all evil, Jerusalem, 1874

qame’a ve-shemirah le-srefah ve-le-yoledet ve-mikol davar ra’h 

Amulet for protection against fire, during pregnancy, and from all evil 


Jerusalem, Palestine, 1874 

Ink on paper 


Magnes Database Record 


The amulet, naming itself as such (Heb. qame’a, “amulet”), calls for protection against fire, during pregnancy, and from all evil. It was printed by Frumkin and Friends Printing Press, a notable publisher of the Chavatzelet newspaper. The amulet includes the names of myriad guardian angels, including depictions of Sanoi, Sansanoi, and Semangelaf (who protect newborn boys against Lilith), the 42-letter name of God and kabbalistic liturgical poem, ana be-koach, and enumerates a variety of mental and physical ailments it guards against. 


© Sibila Savage 2017 

License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/  


Francesco Spagnolo is the Curator of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and an Associate Adjunct Professor in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley.  A multidisciplinary scholar focusing on Jewish studies, music, and digital media, he intersects textual, visual, and musical cultur...


Making connections 

Hebrew amulets are found in pretty much every culture across the global Jewish diaspora, and new ones are constantly created (including to offer protection against COVID-19). They are personal and communal objects that accompany people – across gender and age divide – when they feel most vulnerable. What other objects, in our busy and hyper-technological lives, can compare to them? 


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