Mini-Course: Childbirth and Magic

For the Public
Thursday, March 12, 2020
6:30 PM - 8:00 AM EDT

Katz Center
420 Walnut Street
Floor 6
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Dajana Denes Walters
Register Here

Tonight’s meeting of Dr. Shalom Sabar’s course is CANCELLED. It will be rescheduled online beginning next week.

The University of Pennsylvania announced yesterday that it is migrating all courses online due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus in our community. We are currently working on the logistics of online learning, and will send details shortly. Anyone wishing to receive a refund please contact Dajana Denes-Walters.


Thursdays, March 5, 12, 19, and 26, 2020

Contrary to popular belief, magic played an important role in the daily life of Jews in the premodern world. This was especially true in the home—and chief among the domestic events that called for magical intervention was childbirth, both dramatic and dangerous before modern advances in medicine and hygiene. Carefully prepared amulets were hung on the walls of the birthing room, the baby’s crib, the mother, and even the baby, making use of centuries-old rituals and texts.

This course, taught by an internationally recognized historian of Jewish art and folklore, will explore the protective amulets used in connection with childbirth in Jewish communities East and West. In order to understand why and how amulets were produced, we will first examine the approach to and place of magic in Judaism. Drawing on the disciplines of art history, folklore, and anthropology, we will learn to analyze the textual and artistic background and meaning of the amulets, the secrets of “practical Kabbalah” behind their making, who made them and for which sectors in Jewish society, and the beliefs and traditions associated with their usage. We will look together at visual evidence of Jewish childbirth magic: ritual objects, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts and printed books, books of customs (minhagim), and occasionally also images portraying Jewish life made by Christians of the time—in addition to folk tales, and oral testimonies collected from immigrants to Israel from the countries in question. The course will concentrate on items produced in the early modern to modern period in Europe and the lands of Islam, from Germany and Poland to Morocco and Kurdistan.

The course format will be primarily lecture-based with questions and discussion encouraged! A small amount of optional reading will be offered to supplement the lectures.

$40 for four sessions (free with PennCard). Class size is limited, and registration is required. 


Shalom Sabar

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Shalom Sabar is the David B. Ruderman Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Katz Center in the fall of 2022. He is a professor of Jewish art and folklore at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He researches Jewish and folk material culture and ephemera, objects associated with the cycles of life and of the year, and ritual and custom in the Jewish communities in Europe and in Islamic Iands. He is also interested in the culture of Italian Jews and the Sephardic diaspora in Europe, the cultural and artistic interrelationships between the Jewish communities and their Christian and Muslim neighbors, and the image of the Jew and Hebrew writing in art.

Sabar received his PhD in Art History from UCLA.

Read more


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Klatt Family and the Harry Stern Family Foundation.