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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Kehilot Moshe: The Discovery of a Rare Illustrated Bible

The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe contain wonderful and unique illustrations, which feature rare examples of Jewish self-representation

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs)

There’s nothing like discovering a rare, hidden masterpiece, right under your nose…

The Kehilot Moshe publication of 1724 was a celebrated achievement in its day. These days, any remaining volumes and complete sets of this mikraot gedolot, or rabbinic bible, are considered rare treasures in the world of biblical intellectual history and Jewish printmaking. Of all the remaining copies, The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe represent a special category as pre-ordered special runs.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Kings 1). Click to enlarge


Unlike the other copies with woodblock title initials, the Twin Sets title registers were left blank. The folios were removed from the press, and passed along to artists for illustration. The unprinted areas in the Twin Sets were completed as a special project, probably a commission.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Kings 1). Click to enlarge


Select title initials include hand drawn text and decorative illustrations with figurative narrative bible scenes. Most works are delicately illustrated with ink gouache paint. Some are illuminated in gold.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Samuel 1). Click to enlarge


These figurative miniatures depict Jews as historical characters from the bible in classical costume, as well as characters in modern eighteenth century Dutch fashion. The bible characters include nude Adam and Eve, Moses, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Miriam, King David, a collection of putti, soldiers and many other figures. While representations of Dutch Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be found in a myriad of different artworks and styles, these bible miniatures are of the few rare examples of Jewish self-representation.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Mishlei –Proverbs). Click to enlarge


The first set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe is on long-term loan from Richard and Debra Parkoff to Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library where it is being cared for by Shulamith Berger, Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica at Yeshiva University Library. The second set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe was a more serendipitous finding. The special run of Kehilot Moshe was modestly hiding in an unmarked collection of three standard eighteenth century sets in the National Library of Israel’s Department of Manuscripts in Jerusalem. The National Library’s magnificent illustrated Kehilot Moshe includes seventeen miniatures of bible scenes. It is unknown who the artists were. Another unknown is who the Twin Sets’ original owners and patrons were. It was most likely a commissioned project, but there is no existing documentation.


What Can the Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe Teach us?

The Twin Sets are eye opening in their richness of Jewish art history, in what they can tell us about the early modern publishing industry and about the city of Amsterdam during this period. There are two especially valuable lessons to be learned here:

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Devarim – Deuteronomy). Click to enlarge


Firstly, the Kehilot Moshe, created by Moshe Frankfurt, the Amsterdam av beit din (rabbinic court judge) and master book printer, was a project of the Ashkenazi Dutch intellectual rabbinic elite. The figural depictions in a Jewish bible teach us to reexamine the preconception that traditional Judaism disparages representational art. Like other iconoclastic faith practices, this book represents a diversity of opinions and artistic traditions.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs). Click to enlarge


Secondly, limited resources in book cataloguing limit our knowledge of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. Diminishing funds to the arts, and a diminishing focus on art works on paper and rare books makes it more difficult to know which of the remaining books may be illustrated. The Twin Sets remind us of the relevance of physical books, the necessity to continue to care for old books, and the vibrancy that collectors and libraries bring to cultural heritage.


Where Can You See the Twin Sets?

Since my visit in August 2019, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the National Library of Israel’s Judaica Collection has sent the books for conservation treatment and evaluation. Meanwhile, the images will be digitally recorded thanks to his immediate recognition of this hidden treasure.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Job). Click to enlarge


Images from the two editions that make up the Twin Sets will be featured together in Yeshiva University’s upcoming exhibition on Kehilot Moshe at Amsterdam Printing on Amsterdam Avenue in winter 2021 as part of a discussion on Jewish artistic traditions.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Samuel 1). Click to enlarge


Underfunding in book cataloguing limits our knowledge of the quantity and quality of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. It is probable other illustrated sets of Kehilot Moshe are hidden in library stacks and private collections where they are waiting to be found. Perhaps there are even triple or quadruple sets waiting to be reunited.


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Saving a 400 Year-Old Manuscript

A 16th-century Yemeni manuscript containing a wonderful illustration of a menorah is being restored in our Conservation and Restoration Department. Come have a look behind the scenes

They are considered “the surgeons” of the National Library, true masters of their craft. Every day, the workers of our Department of Conservation and Restoration literally put the past back together again, piece by piece. The rare items you see in the National Library’s various exhibits and archival displays are impressive and beautiful, but we do not usually receive them in that condition. Most of these items sustain severe damage over the centuries, often reaching our archives in poor condition; torn, broken, rumpled, their pieces stuck to one another, and dirty.

Recently, the department received a Yemeni manuscript, written in the year 1595, of a work known as Al-Wajiz al-Mughni (The Brief and the Sufficient”). The manuscript, written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, contains a comprehensive midrash on the Torah portions as well as a series of beautiful illustrations, including an impressive menorah, a family tree displaying the sons of Jacob and even a sketch of the ephod and the choshen (the ceremonial breastplate worn by the High Priest). The manuscript arrived in a fragile state: Its cover and pages were torn. Its seam had been poorly sewn, resulting in damage to the pages, with holes and cracks appearing in the parchment. The ink had begun to decay and to eat away at the paper.

Marcela Szekely, the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, described the challenges the staff was faced with: “The manuscript was very dirty when it reached the department. The seam was sewn very close to the text, the proximity causing some of the pages to tear over time. We had to take the seam apart to understand that we weren’t dealing with double-page leaves but rather with a pile of single pages sewn together, page-to-page.”

And so, the staff set to work: Haim Shushan, a book conservator at the department, documented the state of the item before it was treated, as is common practice with all the items that are handled. First, he disassembled the book’s cover from its body. Then he cleaned the pages and removed the layers of dirt which had accumulated over the centuries, composed mostly of dust, various materials that had stuck to the pages over time, hair and wax stains, along with different types of leaves and grains. We asked Haim what the worst kind of dirt he encountered in his work was; he immediately answered, “Human DNA – beard hair”.

Haim then began to restore the pages. He decided to get rid of the old seam which had damaged the item, and employed a technique for creating new leaves (double-page sheets) using Japanese paper (washi): The single pages were rearranged as leaves, with two pages for each leaf. A thick layer of Japanese paper was glued between the pages, fastening them firmly together while allowing flexibility when viewing the manuscript. Haim placed the leaves on top of each other until he could finally sew them all together into a single mass, a whole book.

Two pages form a leaf, glued together with Japanese paper produced from different plants

On closer inspection of the manuscript, one notices additional, irritating cases of damage. Sections of pages were torn out and replaced with patches of newspaper fragments or notebook paper, with the text being rewritten; the ink had begun to decay, with holes appearing in some of the pages, which could threaten the state of the item as a whole. Haim had to handle all these issues.

It was decided that the old patches would also be preserved, as they served to complete the text and represented evidence of historical techniques. To fix the newer holes, Haim created new patches himself. “The type of ink used in this manuscript is extremely difficult to work with,” he said, explaining the production process: “When wasps lay eggs in a tree, it causes the tree to produce a black liquid which covers the eggs. In the past, these black beads were collected and ground into ink, its chemical composition high in acid.” That is why certain parts of the book were consumed.

The holes were also covered with Japanese paper in an extremely delicate process. First, Haim sketched the outline of each hole on the back side of the page, enabling him to produce a piece of Japanese paper identical to the missing piece. After making sure the size was right, he applied special glue to the paper and flattened the two layers into one. This process prevents further decay and damage to the pages and their content.

Preparing a new patch. The ink damage (the dark spots) can be seen clearly


Fitting the new patch to the page:


Gluing the new patch to the page:


Flattening the patch onto the leaf, creating a single layer:

And there you have it. Once the book is rebound, the new cover will safeguard the item and preserve it, so that you – the general public and the many researchers who visit the National Library – can study it and familiarize yourself with the customs of the ancient Yemenite-Jewish community. The art of conserving such manuscripts is highly complex and delicate, requiring skill and expertise. The workers at the National Library’s Department of Conservation and Restoration are responsible for saving these extremely rare items – for us and for generations to come – because the future begins with the preservation of the past.


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Shedding New Light on Rabbi Reines

Manuscripts belonging to Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, have been donated to the National Library

A postcard featuring an image of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (center, seated) and other members of the Mizrachi, Verlag Zion, Vienna, 1902

In its early days, the Zionist movement was not popular among traditionally religious Jews. Most rabbis either opposed Zionism or ignored it. Not so Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), who gave the new movement his wholehearted support. We know Rabbi Reines’ views from his published works, but for a hundred years his many manuscripts have been hidden from the public eye and practically forgotten. Recently the manuscripts were donated to the National Library of Israel, where they were digitized and put online. The manuscripts show a new dimension of Rabbi Reines’ relationship with Zionism and with its founder, Theodor Herzl.

A poster featuring a photograph of Rabbi Reines, printed by the Mizrachi’s Eretz Yisrael fund, apparently in 1940

Rabbi Reines brought together the sacred and the profane in many areas of his life. He founded a yeshiva that combined traditional Talmudic study with secular subjects, an innovation at the time. His scholarship combined traditional Talmudic genius with broad interests including mathematics, philosophy, and logic. So he was perfectly cut out to initiate close cooperation between traditional Judaism and secular Zionism.

Rabbi Reines first got involved in the Zionist movement in 1899, when he participated and spoke at the Third Zionist Congress in Basel. In the coming years he continued to participate in Zionist Congresses. He met Herzl and corresponded with him until Herzl’s death in 1904. In 1902 Rabbi Reines founded the Mizrachi movement, a religious faction within the Zionist movement founded with Herzl’s support.

That same year, Rabbi Reines published Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), a religious defense of Zionism. He sent a copy of the book to Herzl, along with a letter that has been preserved in the Zionist Archive and printed in Sinai 3, page 340:

I am honored to present you with my book, Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), which I dedicate to your great and exalted name. As I publish this book which speaks of the Zionist movement, I see a personal obligation to present it as a gift to the one who founded this movement and gives his life to it.

Upon Herzl’s untimely death, Jews around the world mourned his passing, Rabbi Reines among them. But the newly discovered Reines manuscripts show us that years later, Rabbi Reines was still speaking of Herzl and even made the unusual decision to lecture in honor of Herzl in his yeshiva.

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

The lectures of Rabbi Reines from the years 1908-1911 are collected in a manuscript titled Yalkut Arachim (A collection of entries). Rabbi Reines wrote a heading above each lecture with the date or occasion on which he delivered it. Most of the headings are typical occasions for lectures that come up in the life of a Rosh Yeshiva, like “opening lecture for the students at the Yeshiva”, or “Shabbat Hagadol” (the Sabbath before Passover when rabbis typically deliver special lectures), but two surprising dates appear:  “Sunday, 20 Tammuz 5668, the anniversary of the passing of the head of Zionism, of Herzl,” and above another lecture, “What I decided to speak about today, Wednesday, 20 Tammuz 5670, the anniversary of the (passing of) Herzl, peace be upon him.”

The first of these lectures is given the title “the participation of the living with the dead”, and in it Rabbi Reines examines the topic of immortality and life after death. Surprisingly, Rabbi Reines presents a fairly secular view of life after death: “When we see that even after his death, his achievements are recognized, that it a sign of his immortality.” Later in the lecture, Rabbi Reines adds that “those whose help is recognized even after their death have been made to be like God.” The last words of the speech are: “All signs of mourning are signs of immortality.”

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

We now know that Rabbi Reines’ connection to Herzl went far beyond political cooperation. Reines truly admired Herzl, seeing him as a figure who was larger than life and practically superhuman. Could it be that Rabbi Reines’ final sentence about signs of mourning is not only a general statement, but also a reference to himself, as he continues to mourn the loss of Herzl even years after his passing?


Find more of Rabbi Reines’ manuscripts, here.


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