I begin with prayers and wishes for all who are suffering because of the COVID-19 epidemic: those who are ill, those who are mourning people who have died, those who face economic hardship, and all who are afraid. May we find ways to support and comfort one another.
This 19th century printed amulet against cholera, which was widely disseminated through the Jewish community at the time, was written by Moshe Teitelbaum. Part of it has become a common “house blessing” in Jewish homes Several friends, including Rabbi Jay Michaelson and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, posted the amulet on Facebook when the coronavirus epidemic began to take hold in the US. I immediately recognized it because I had been to Paris with my family and gone to a wonderful amulet exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Art and History, and this amulet was prominently displayed. In a time of 21st century plague, as we seek shelter, protection, and mutual care, the amulet seems newly and profoundly relevant.
The final paragraph of the amulet is unique in my experience, and fascinating. The amulet invokes two women: Emetlai the daughter of Karnabo, Abraham’s mother, and Serach the daughter of Asher. These two women are apparently being invoked specially as a protection against illness. I want to take a moment to consider why.
Emetlai (or Emtelai or Amatlai; it’s not clear from the way the name is written) is not mentioned in the Bible, but she is mentioned in the Talmud (Bava Batra 91a). There is a Jewish legend about her. In Mesopotamia, King Nimrod receives a prophecy that a male child will bring about his downfall and seek to kill all male children (this should remind you of the Moses story and the Jesus story). The pregnant Emetlai hides in a cave and gives birth there, and abandons the child rather than bring him home with her to be killed. She prays for him to somehow be saved. When she sorrowfully comes back to see what has happened, she finds a child who can walk and talk and has already discovered God. This miracle tale is clearly a traditional “hero” story about Abraham, but it also foregrounds a suffering mother whose prayers are answered. Invoking Emetlai at a time of plague might be a recognition of the suffering of mothers whose children and loved ones are ill.
Emetlai might also be invoked as a protectress against plague because, as the mother of Abraham, she is the mother of the whole people. A Talmudic saying is that an amulet for a person must invoke the name of the mother (Shabbat 66b). Perhaps Emetlai is invoked here as a mother of the nation (or the nations, since Abraham was a source of many peoples) that needs healing, just as a mother is invoked when an individual needs healing.
Serach is equally interesting as a protectress against plague. Serach the daughter of Jacob’s son Asher appears in the Torah in two geneaologies: Gen. 46:17 and Numbers 26:46. In both texts, she appears as a daughter in a list that contains only sons, so clearly she is important. The two lists are four hundred years apart, so a legend developed that Serach lived forever. According to legends in books such Midrash haGadol, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, and the Talmud, Serach is the one who tells Jacob that his son Joseph, unbeknownst to him, is still alive—she whispers this shocking news to him while he is standing in prayer, or some say she sings him the news. So she is blessed with eternal life. Because of her long life, she is the one who confirms that Moses had come to redeem the people and was not a charlatan, and she is the one who shows Moses the bones of Joseph so that the bones can be taken out of Egypt during the Exodus and buried in Canaan She goes on to give advice in the time of King David and the time of the Talmud. Serach is an eyewitness to history and a keeper of ancestral wisdom.
Serach is a preserver of life, because she figures out a way to prevent her grandfather Jacob from having a heart attack when she tells him the shocking news of what really happened to Joseph: that he was sold into slavery and rose to power in Egypt. She is a messenger that life is still possible even after Jacob has lost all hope. Like Emetlai, Serach witnesses the “resurrection” of a loved one who was thought dead. Perhaps Serach is invoked in the amulet against cholera because she is the quintessential messenger that all is not lost.
In this time when we face a worldwide plague, may Emetlai and Serach be with us and offer us the comfort of renewed hope. Even at this time of distancing, may we witness one another in our sorrows, our joys, and our love. May we find ways to be gentle with one another. May we too be privileged to bring the news that all is not lost.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya Shere) andThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.