By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 4, 2008

The chamsa, a hand-shaped good-luck amulet, is the cool souvenir to bring back from Israel these days. Chamsas are everywhere, from the rear-view mirrors of taxi drivers, to the trendiest jewellery shops. Though more common among Sephardi Jews they are crossing over to the Ashkenazi community, too.

The word chamsa derives from the Semitic root meaning "five," as in five fingers. It is a remarkably ancient and ecumenical sign, representing the protective hand of God. Sometimes chamsas also have a single eye embedded in the middle symbolising God's loving oversight.

Chamsas have long been a good-luck symbol for Jews, Christians and Muslims living around the Mediterranean. The different religions have called it the eye of Miriam, the eye of Mary and the eye of Fatima, respectively. Some scholars claim that the symbol is older than all of them, and attribute it to ancient Canaanite, Philistine and Phoenician cults, who used to make a gesture signifying the hand of Baal over their heads to protect them from the Evil Eye.

Interestingly, some Jewish chamsas have six fingers. This may well reflect an unease at the idolatrous possibilities in a symbol which is meant somehow to represent a body part of God. (Since Maimonides, the overwhelming majority view in Jewish theology has been that God does not have a body.) Depicting a hand that is not a real hand avoids the problem of literal representation.

Last updated: 4:46pm, November 4 2008