Prayers, Amulets and Spells to Ward off Plague

The sages of Safed created amulets, the Jews of Italy wrote prayers and other Jews warned of less conventional plagues…

An amulet attributed to Isaac Luria, "The Holy ARI", 1855

The first occurrence of plague in the recorded history of the Middle East was known as the “Plague of Justinian”, named after the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. It made its way to the Land of Israel from Egypt around 541-542 AD. The results were documented in detail by the emperor’s court historian.

A thousand years later, the residents of the land were still dealing with fairly frequent outbreaks. Throughout the 16th century, plague spread across different parts of the Middle East. The common wisdom in Jerusalem of the period spoke of a new wave of pestilence hitting the city every six or seven years. In the writings of the sages of the holy city of Safed (Zfat), in the northern Land of Israel, we find evidence that these rabbis sought to fight off the plague with the help of special amulets, among other things.

We found the amulet below in a copy of the book Shaar HaYichudim (“The Gate of Unifications”) by the famous Safed Kabbalist Hayyim ben Joseph Vital. The Hebrew title appearing at the top reads “This amulet is for plague from the holy ARI…” (The holy ARI was Rabbi Isaac Luria, Vital’s teacher). The charm in fact consists of two different amulets joined together, one on top and one below. The image here is taken from a later printing of the book which includes various commentaries on the writings of Vital and Luria, but the amulet, or similar versions of it, appear in earlier printings as well. This edition was published in 1855 in the city of Lemberg, today’s Lviv, in western Ukraine. Isaac Luria perished during an outbreak of plague in the year 1572, when he was only 38 years old.

The letters appearing in the upper amulet – אנקתם פסתם פספסים דיונסים, likely transliterated as Anaktam Pastam Paspasim Dionsim – form one of the secret divine names, according to certain Jewish mystical traditions

Another interesting text can be found in a manuscript which is part of the Bill Gross Collection and which received the rather generic title, “Prayers Against the Plague“. The text begins with the words שויתי יהוה לנגדי תמיד (“I have placed the Lord before me constantly“), followed immediately by Psalm 91, in which the speaker tells of the refuge provided by the wings of the Lord, while also citing the various evils from which he is protected, including “devastating pestilence” (דבר הוות). Later, the story of how Aaron the High Priest was able to halt the plague with incense is recounted, along with what appears to be a recipe.

As opposed to the Kabbalists of Safed, who invoked the secret divine names to save themselves, the scribes of this manuscript decided to make use of canonical texts telling of the victories of God over the various plagues which threatened the People of Israel. Judging by the style of script, as well as the name of the youth to whom the manuscript was dedicated – Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati – which appears on the last page, it is likely that the manuscript was inscribed in Italy during the 18th or 19th century.

The manuscript ends with a dedication to a young man: Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati

Over time, the Hebrew word for “plague” – Magefa (מגפה) – has come to be associated with other meanings as well. In the pashkevil broadsides which are popular in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, the word is often used to describe various “ills” which have spread throughout modern Israeli society, whether they be of a biological, theological or moral nature. In 1980, this Pashkevil poster warning of the plague of archaeology spreading throughout the Holy Land was printed and hung up in various ultra-orthodox communities. The text states that “new areas are discovered from time to time, where the plague of archaeology has taken hold in the northern, southern and central regions“.

“The plague of archaeology”, a pashkevil from 1980

Another pashkevil, seen here below, which dates to the period of the British Mandate, warns of the “plague” of eating and selling non-kosher meat, which had “broken out” among the Jewish community.

A “plague” of non-kosher meat, from the British Mandate period

The last manuscript which we will present also hails from 19th century Italy. It is preserved today in the British Library in London.

The main difference here relates to the type of pestilence which was spreading across the country, with the text mentioning an outbreak of “cholera morbus” (קולירה מורבוץ) and expressing the hope that “no harm will befall us, nor will a plague draw near to our tent“. Like other manuscripts of its kind, it draws a link between observance of the laws handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai and the health of the individual and the community. This promise is expressed in the quote: “I, the Lord, heal you, for it is written – and the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings for you who fear My Name.”

A prayer warding off the effects of cholera morbus, Italy, 19th century, the British Library


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A 15th Century Jewish Prayer Book Has Been Fully Restored by the National Library

The "Moskowitz Mahzor" was created by one of the Middle Ages' most important Jewish artists, Joel ben Simeon; It is now available to the public online

The renowned Moskowitz Mahzor is a manuscript inscribed on parchment in the 15th century by Joel ben Simeon, considered by many to be the most important Jewish artist of the Middle Ages. Ben Simeon was a scribe and illuminator active in Germany and Northern Italy. The manuscript is considered exceptional due to the stunning illustrations and illuminations found throughout, including images of rabbits, bears, fish, squirrels, and birds, as well as imaginary creations such as a unicorn, and a diverse range of mythological, religious and astrological symbols.

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The restoration work on the Moskowitz Mahzor has now been completed and the exquisite manuscript is available online for the first time.



מחזור התפילה לפני השחזור
The Moskowitz Mahzor, before its restoration

It includes prayers according to the Jewish Roman rite for the entire year, including weekdays, the Sabbath, holidays, Torah readings, the Passover Haggadah, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with Maimonides’ commentary, various blessings, and rulings related to Jewish law.  It is also exceptionally full of piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poetry), slichot (Jewish penitential prayers), as well as rare formulas of other prayers.

After restoration


The months long restoration work on the 376 page treasure was extremely complicated, primarily because poor attempts over the centuries to fix its binding had made it difficult to open without causing damage. A number of Latin texts found inside the binding, attest to some attempts to strengthen the cover. Many of the manuscript’s illustrations had also faded over time.


Several examples of decorative elements found in the Moskowitz Mahzor

The Mahzor was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1970 by Henry and Rose Moskowitz of New York in memory of Henry’s parents, first wife, daughter and other relatives murdered in the Holocaust.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Head of Collections and Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection curator at the National Library of Israel, “For a long time we unfortunately could not offer physical access to one of the most important and beautiful manuscripts in our collection due to its fragile condition. Now, as a result of the wonderful work done by the team in our Conservation and Restoration Laboratory, the manuscript has been restored and digitized, opening access to the world for the first time.”

The complete restored Moskowitz Mahzor is now available online.


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Who Are You, Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof?

The story of the three angels charged with safeguarding newborn babies and their mothers

The figures of Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof appear here from right to left

The quest for a proven, functioning magical amulet, one whose supernatural powers can be trusted with certainty, has led buyers to prefer amulets ordained with fixed and familiar mystic formulas. Since the most common Jewish amulets known to us are those designed to protect women giving birth, we can safely assume that the three angels who appear on these types of charms are among the most common figures associated with the Hebrew amulet. Their names are Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof.

This amulet was written on parchment. It is of Middle Eastern origin, made in the early or mid-20th century.


An amulet from the Bill Gross Collection, the National Library’s ‘Time Travel‘ Project

What is the origin of these three angels? In rabbinic literature, incorporating over 1,000 years of writing and interpretation, we find the names of several satanic figures that developed over time, each of them constantly trying to establish evil’s grip on the world. First among these Talmudic demons is Samael, often referred to euphemistically as Sitra Achra – “The Other Side”. He is considered to be the wicked Esau’s demonic master, and in Talmudic literature most of his evil deeds involve attempts to undermine the righteous.

Since the end of the Talmudic period, Samael has often been portrayed as the source of all evil; his agents charged with defeating the cause of good and righteousness. His main partner is his wife, Lilith. This monstrous couple was apparently first brought together in the 13th century, their combined powers allowing them to rule the realm of impurity.

A birth amulet featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. The names of the three angels as well as those of Lilith and Satan, also appear. This is the earliest Jewish amulet to appear in paper print. Amsterdam, circa 1700. Source: Angels and Demons edited by Filip Vukosavovic

In Jewish mythology, Lilith is believed to be Adam’s first wife, who was banished before she was able to bear his children. In a desperate attempt to take revenge on Adam and all his offspring, Lilith devotes her efforts to harassing newborn children and their mothers. Two main roles are attributed to this demoness: strangling young children in their sleep, and seducing men – Lilith becomes pregnant with this wasted sperm, giving birth to demonic stepchildren. At this point, the three angels enter the picture.

In the 10th century text known as the Alphabet of ben Sirah, we find the story of Adam and Lilith. Adam’s first wife is described as having been created from dust, just as he was, “and therefore,” argues scholar Joseph Dan, “she saw herself as his equal in every aspect.”

In memory of Adam and Eve, excluding Lilith, a protective amulet against demons and harmful forces, from the exhibition book Back to the Shtetl – An-Sky and the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, The Israel Museum, 1994

How was this sense of equality manifested? Lilith believed she could leave her husband, and as he refused to “accept this decree of equality in their sex life” – apparently meaning that Lilith wished to be on top of her husband during intercourse, “she fled from him and escaped.”

The angels who were sent to return the woman to her husband were Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof. The three failed in their mission; Lilith claimed that “the great demon has already come upon her,” referring to Samael, and could therefore no longer return to Adam. The angels were able, however, to extract a vow – that Lilith would not harm the offspring of Adam and his second wife, Eve.

An amulet with the names of the angels, and Adam and Eve, “excluding Lilith”. The names are surrounded by three frames: The first has illustrations of a birth and circumcision ceremony, the second frame consists of verses, and the third features decorative ornaments.

This promise is the foundation of the famous amulet used to this day by women following childbirth. The three angels were made popular by the Alphabet of ben Sirah, while the illustrations of their images in various amulets also contributed to their fame.

Eli Yassif, who studied the medieval stories of ben Sirah (or ben Sirach), claimed that the custom of writing amulets with the names of the angels dates back even earlier than the 8th century, its story intended to explain an existing custom. The same goes for the story of Lilith as the first woman, and her escape from Adam. It seems these tales were known even before they appeared in the stories of ben Sirah.

The angels’ very names – Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof – are seen as safeguards against Lilith’s actions. The amulets contain written text featuring the names of the angels as well as graphic motifs of their images. There is also a threatening vocal motif involved, emanating from the onomatopoeic sound of the names said together, which resembles sounds found in nature, like the hiss of a snake or the crackle of fire. The sound warns Lilith and gives her pause, making clear that she should not approach the mother and her newborn children.

The repetition of these sounds (sen-san-sen-sem) enhances the whip-like, whispering, threatening effect.

The names Senoy and Sansenoy are mentioned several times in first century Hebrew texts and they can also be found on an incantation bowl discovered at Nippur in modern-day Iraq.

An amulet for safeguarding a newborn child and its mother with an incantation against Lilith. A blank space is left for the name of the mother. The text notes the name of the amulet’s buyer: Sylman Ben Katton, for the protection of “the people in his home.”

On an incantation bowl kept at the National Library, which was inscribed in antiquity, long before the ben Sirah stories of the Middle Ages, we find the same narrative which appears on amulets protecting new mothers. On this bowl we find a text written by the author Duchtish Bat Bahrui, describing a character named Smamit, the mother of twelve sons who were killed by a brutal demon named Sideros. Smamit escapes the demon and flees to an isolated mountain where she builds a fortified home. Four guests protect Smamit from the demon; the names of three of them are Soney, Sosoney and Senigly. Though the names are not completely identical, the same whispering, threatening motif can be heard here as well.

A bowl with a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription, The National Library collections


In Christian versions of similar amulets, the assisting forces are saints. Etymologically, we can trace the changes in the names of the angels/saints which have evolved over the years and which have been modified to suit any culture that embraced them. Senoy became Saint Sisoe, Sansenoy became Sisynios and Semangelof appears as Synidores.

An amulet for women after childbirth, The National Library’s Amulet Collection

Further reading:

Jewish Mysticism, Joseph Dan, Jerusalem : J. Aronson, 1999

Some sources of Jewish-Arabic demonology, Gershom Scholem, JJS, Vol. 16, 1965, p. 1-13



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On Gershom Scholem, Conspiracy Theories and Rabbinical Court Controversies

Marvin Antelman, an American rabbi and conspiracy theorist, was one of the many strange figures who wrote letters to Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism. Scholem, however, was not impressed...

Gershom Scholem loved to write in his books. He wrote many types of comments; bibliographical, content, cross references, etc. Occasionally he also took swipes at other authors by pointing out flaws in their research. These comments usually appeared on or across from the title page. On one book he wrote “a waste of nice paper”, on another “woe is to the teacher that this [author] is called his student.”

In one particular volume, Scholem wrote “Nonsense based on me!!!​”. These words were scribbled on the inside cover of “To Eliminate the Opiate: The Frightening Inside Story of Communist and Conspiratorial Group Efforts to Destroy Jews, Judaism and Israel“, by Rabbi Marvin S. Antelman, published in New York – Tel Aviv in 1974.

Nonsense based on me!!!​” – Gershom Scholem’s words scribbled on a copy of “To Eliminate the Opiate” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


In his work Antelman (who also held a PhD in chemistry) painted a detailed conspiracy theory incorporating the Jewish Enlightenment, Reform Judaism and Communism, tracing their origins back to the false messianic movement of Shabbtai Zvi, his Polish successor Jacob Frank, the Illuminati movement and Jacobin Society.

The false messiah, Shabbtai Zvi


Here is where Scholem, the preeminent scholar of the Sabbatean movement enters our story. Antelman references him regarding the possible influence of the Sabbatean movement on the development of the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform movements but goes well beyond Scholem’s noting of a possible cultural influence –  Antelman lunges into a full-fledged conspiracy theory, so complex as to be beyond the scope of this article.

Antelman attempted to chart out his conspiracy theory…From “To Eliminate the Opiate” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel


Interestingly, Antelman’s book got him into hot water with the rabbinic establishment in his home town of Boston, where he was summoned by the local rabbinic court to defend the book. It wasn’t Antelman’s outlandish claims concerning the Reform movement and the Sabbatean roots of Communism that raised the ire of the Boston rabbis, however. What really got them upset was Antelman’s decision to take sides in a fierce 18th century controversy, by claiming that the famous sage Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz was a Sabbatean (a position also shared by Scholem). Antelman wrote back at length defending his position based upon prior rabbinical authority (Rabbi Yaacov Emden and others) and refused to submit to the authority of the Bet Din of the Massachusetts Council of Rabbis unless they met various conditions, including being able to call scholarly witnesses (Gershom Scholem?) to testify on his behalf.  He also mentions that he had at one time served as the New England Coordinator for the JDL [Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League]. It is also telling that whereas Antelman titles the subject of his letter “Reply to your summons…to answer heresy charges”, the word “heresy” appears nowhere on the actual summons that he received from the rabbinic court. . He later turned to a rabbinic court in Los Angeles which vindicated him of the charges.

…you are hereby summoned to appear before a Beth Din...” The Massachusetts Council of Rabbis’ letter to Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


Antelman sent the rabbinic court correspondence to Scholem, along with a personal letter. Scholem kept these letters together with the book in his collection.

One of Antelman’s letters to Scholem, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


In the 1990s Antelman published a Hebrew book on R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (Bechor Satan) detailing his prior claims, and here as well he relied heavily on Scholem’s research. In this book he published a copy of the letter from the Los Angeles Bet Din exonerating him of the heresy charges leveled in Boston.

Bechor Satan, Antelman’s book detailing his theories on Eibeschutz


This letter explicitly mentions “Professor Gershom Shalom” [Scholem] as the authority upon whom Antelman based his research regarding R. Eibeschutz. The Los Angeles rabbinic court even threw its support behind Antelman’s strange theories, claiming in the letter that he was “enlightening the Jewish reader in the danger of Reform, Conservative and Jewish Communists”. It is interesting to point out that though Scholem’s work was cited as a source by both Antelman and his friends in California, Scholem himself was hardly a typical example of Jewish orthodoxy.

The Los Angeles rabbinic court’s letter defending Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge


Antelman eventually went on to serve as “Chief Justice” of the “Supreme Rabbinical Court of America” that he founded. Among the more dramatic acts of the court was the excommunication of American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976.

The Excommunication of Henry Kissinger” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

In his later years he was active in finding solutions for women who had difficulties receiving an halachic divorce. Antelman eventually made Aliyah and spent his last years in the Israeli city of Rehovot.


The author thanks Rabbis Elli Fischer and Daniel Yolkut for help with this research.


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