Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On a Jewish 'sign of the cross' and the Sephardic provenance of the name "Shneor" occasioned by a 17th century prayer book

In 1687 Benjamin Senior Godines published a book from a manuscript he found in the home library of Rabbi Yshack Abohab. The core of the book is the 100 blessings a Jew should recite daily, but with many more additions and explanations, and all translated by Godines into Spanish. Thus, the book is called מאה and סדר ברכות Orden de Bendiciones. Frontispiece illustration and title page:

Godines was an artist (and scribe) so the illustration must be his - you can see that it is initialed B. G.

Now, on pp. 203 - 204 there is something very interesting, which I'd never heard of before. It is basically instructions for making a Jewish sign of the cross, so to speak, as a way of warding off fear - hard to see how else to interpret it. Who knows if this sign was even specifically invented to wean Conversos off from making the sign of the cross. If anyone has ever seen this before, please do tell. 

It says, 
"If you are see a person whose approach frightens you, make a Shaddai with your right hand; place the thumb out like the form of a daleth and the three middle fingers will form the shape of a shin and the little finger will be as a yud; place this on your face and recite..."

Finally, a word about Godines' name. As mentioned, he was Benjamin Senior. It is worth pointing out that in Hebrew it was בנימין שניאור. Now, שניאור is a name used by some Ashkenazic Jews of European descent, especially Chabad-Lubavitch, given that the first Chabad rebbe was named שניאור. There is a somewhat popular belief that this name is the grammatically dubious composite from the Hebrew words שני אור, to denote Two Lights (whatever that is supposed to mean). See, for example, Beis Shmuel who claims that the name was invented on account of a baby boy being born with two ancestors named Meir to be named after, and also the entry שניאור in Shem Ha-gedolim, where Chida quotes a similar thing in the name of Maharshal, who said that it was for grandfathers named Meir and Uri. Chida continues by noting that the name Shneor actually precedes this, because Rabbenu Jonah (Spanish rabbi, 13th century) quotes his own teacher, Rabbi Shneor.

Be that as it may, Spanish Portuguese Jews used this name and there is no question that they thought it meant Senior, despite the respectful hearing of the Ashkenazic idea of its etymology by Chida, and here is one of many such examples where this can be seen.


  1. Trachtenberg mentions this in his book Jewish Magic and Superstition on page 158. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 also mentions it as well as a German-Jewish custom to set the fingers of the dead this way. Both cite Low in Die Finger as a source (have not found it yet).

  2. Fantastic references! Thank you. I like how Trachtenberg refers to it as "to fend off an anticipated assault by a thug."

    I see also that Buxtorf included the German custom of placing the dead's fingers in his Synagogue Judaica.

    Low's article is here.

  3. וְרָאוּ כָּל-עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, כִּי שֵׁם יְהוָה נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ; וְיָרְאוּ, מִמֶּךָּ

    Gemara Brachot says that this is Tefillin Shel Rosh. Rashi says that the name of Hashem is found on the Tefillin, Shin on the bayit, Dalet and Yud on the knots and that is the name of Hashem we are talking about

    Clearly the name Shakai has special powers when warding off enemies. Why specifically that name I don't know.

  4. See the Zohar on VaEthanan 266a regarding Sha-dai as a protective name

  5. The Maharil Diskin was known to have constantly employed this method as a means of fulfilling the dictum of שויתי ה לנגד עיני and the famous portrait of him has him holding his hands in such a fashion as would indicate this action.

  6. The "hamsa" displays the hand in a similar fashion. This symbol was borrowed by both Jews and Christians from Muslims, and probably predates Islam. Since the gesture seems to be so universal and cross-cultural, I suspect that any explanation connecting it with a specific Divine name is very much post facto.

  7. "There is a somewhat popular belief that this name is the grammatically dubious composite from the Hebrew words שני אור, to denote Two Lights (whatever that is supposed to mean)"

    In the case of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, I believe Lubavitchers darshen it shnei ohr - two lights - 'nigleh' and 'Hasidism'.

  8. At least in Israel nowadays, many Sefardim cover their eyes that way for Shma. I had only figured out the Shin; good to know there are other letters.

  9. Of course, a bunch of Yiddish names are of Spanish (or at least Romance) origin- Yente, Shprintze, etc.

  10. Shneur was first given to a child named after 2 people named "meir", hence shnei ohr, two lights.

    So I've heard.

  11. Your interpretation of the ritual makes sense to me. So many Sephardim were raised Catholic. Even so, the sign of the cross back then (and even now in many cultures) was not so much a religious act, but an act of protection against evil. When they finally were able to openly practice Judaism, it must have been difficult to give up the cultural rituals of Iberia they'd grown up with. I linked this post to my blog patricia-osullivan.com.

  12. simpler possible explanation of the name - "Senior" is a cognate of the name used in Spanish Christianity for the Almighty. For a crypto-Jew it would be an acceptable (and preferable) substitute for taking a name like Jesus or some other popular Christian name.

  13. I remember someone making the sign of the mogen david on his chest in one of Mel Brooks comic epics

    On a more serious note, re: the etymology of the name 'shneior', I've written about it in some detail here: http://ha-historion.blogspot.co.il/2009/12/origin-of-name-shnayer.html

  14. Rav Mazuz writes in his commentary on Tehlim "אמת קנה"(chapter 18, 29):תאיר נרי ה' אלוקי, ר"ת תני"א רמז לספר תניא, והמלים "תאיר נרי" רמז לר' שניאור זלמן זצ"ל בעל התניא, שהמלה רומזת לשני אורות כידוע. עכ"ל

  15. see bet yoseph yoreh deagh 265 "and I heard that they form shadday with the fingers whilst they give of the wine into the infant's mouth".

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