Although legally Israel grants religious freedom, calling it an entirely secular state would be a sweeping bias. Judaism has played a major role in preserving the Diaspora’s identity over the years and there’s plenty of traditionally religious symbols that have become national ones. Take the flag with the star of David in the very center or the menorah in the national emblem. Even though a vast majority of the society- be it Orthodox or secularized- does identify with both of them, this somehow seems to exclude religious minorities, such as Muslims or Christians. Fortunately, there is one symbol that unites everybody in the Middle East. It is called Hamsa (five).
I’m sure you are familiar with this one: the palm with an eye in the Middle, coming in a great variety of shapes, colors and decorations. You can see it pretty much everywhere from North Africa to Turkey, which is probably why it’s associated mostly with Islam. However, it’s history is way more ancient. Some scholars trace it back to Mesopotamia, others search for the sign’s origins in Egypt or Phoenicia. It was later adopted by the Muslims, Jews and Christians (presumably in that order). Each of the three major monotheistic religions associates Hamsa with the palm of a sacred woman from its tradition. This is why it can be called either the hand of Fatima (Muhammad’s beloved daughter), Miriam (the sister of Moses) or Mary (Christ’s mother). Note that all of these religions were initially patriarchic, so women are rather unlikely to play a major role as prophets or religious authorities in their tradition. However, that doesn’t mean they are neglected. It’s quite the contrary: they are loved and admired by the believers, as they represent this more subtle, caring and nurturing side of the Almighty. I find it really beautiful how the feminine kindness and purity is believed to protect from the evil. Because this is what Hamsa is made for: protection. Keeping evil spirits away, bringing good luck, wealth and fertility. The number five is believed to represent various things, depending on the religion. It may stand for the Five Pillars of Islam or the five Books of the Torah.
Historically Hand of Miriam was popular mainly amongst Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, in the present-day Israel it can be found pretty much everywhere, sold as a charm or souvenir. Moreover, it has spread all over the world as a trendy, Oriental shape, perfect for decorating T-shirts or jewelry. My friend has recently called me to say she had bought me a tiny gift she thought I might like (so sweet of her, isn’t it?). It turned out to be a Hamsa ring, produced by Tally Weijl – an international company addressed to “young, self-condident, sexy and trendy women”. Funnily, that’s quite far from the Middle Eastern ideal represented by Fatima or Miram. But in spite of that, I wear it every single day.
If any of you is planning a travel to Israel, Hamsa is hands down (pun intended) the best thing to bring back home.