These Works of Hebrew Calligraphy Protect My Family

The history of shiviti goes all the way back to the great mystics of 14th-century Spain.

For as long as I can remember, decorative works of Hebrew calligraphy hung on the walls in our home. Similar ones were also present in the homes of my grandmothers and my aunts. They were as much a part of our Jewish ritual objects as Shabbat candlesticks, mezuzahs and kiddush cups. But until fairly recently, I had never really taken a good look at them. When I asked my family where these pieces had come from and what they meant, no one really seemed to know. They were just always there. I decided to find out more and set out on a journey that took me to the Garden of Eden, the great mystics of 14th-century Spain and my grandfather’s birthplace of Bombay. This is what I discovered.

First of all, these hand scribed pieces are known as shiviti. Although each one is unique, all shiviti have three elements in common: The verse Shiviti Adonai L’Negdi Tamid, the four letter name of God and Psalm 67 written in the shape of a seven branch menorah.

Photo by Vicky Sweiry Tsur

Psalms 16:8

Shiviti Adonai L’Negdi Tamid (Psalms 16:8) is translated as “I have set God before me always” or “I am mindful of God’s presence always.” It is from this verse that shiviti get their name. It is a reminder of the continuing presence of God.


The four letter name of God, yud-hey-vav-hey, is a powerful visual presence and the focus of all shiviti. Instantly recognizable, it is also used on amulets, synagogue decor and prayer books. These four letters are associated with mystical powers and protection. Never spoken, they inspire awe and reverence. The name is written in large letters and all the other elements of the shiviti are arranged around it.

Psalms 67

The Psalm has seven verses which serve as a reminder of the seven branches of the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem. It starts off with a request that God bless us and goes on with words of praise. It ends with another wish for God’s blessing. The tradition of writing this Psalm in the form of the seven-branched menorah can be traced back as far as 14th-century Spain, before the Jews were expelled.

Shivitis originally appeared at the beginning of prayer books to serve as a reminder to worshippers to maintain concentration. They also appeared on the walls in synagogues where they were used as a form of meditation before prayer.

Over time, the use of shivitis changed and they took on more of an amulatic role. Some were written with a specific purpose in mind: as protection for a woman in childbirth; to bring health and good fortune; or to bring fertility and joy to a newly married couple. They also included some kabbalistic traditions from “Sefer Raziel HaMalakh,” the secrets of which are said to have been given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. These came in the form of mystical symbols and abbreviations of magical words that I can’t even come close to understanding. Nevertheless, they transmit to me a feeling of protection and awe. They are a reminder of the presence of God.

When I removed the shiviti from the wall in my mother’s home, I saw the name and address of a framer in Bombay, India. I realized that my grandfather must have brought them with him when he left Bombay and traveled to Bahrain to marry my grandmother. On closer inspection, I saw that my mother’s shivitis also had words that are said during the Jewish marriage ceremony: Kol Sason v’kol simchah, Kol chatan v’kol kallahThe sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride. This ties into the theory that my grandfather brought them with him before his wedding. You can also see the Ten Commandments and some of the mystical, kabbalistic markings. The scribe really went all out, adding the names of Adam and Eve, along with the seven names of our forefathers and mothers. It seems like they really wanted to be sure to cover all the bases as most shiviti I have seen do not have so many elements!

It is said that each of the Hebrew letters has power. Through them, the written word becomes a picture and offers protection. Shiviti are a physical manifestation of this idea. In my family, shiviti serve as an amulet and a reminder that God is watching over us always.

Vicky Sweiry Tsur

Vicky Sweiry Tsur (she/her) was born in London to Bahraini Jewish immigrants, with roots in India, Iran and Iraq. This mix of cultures gave her rich and wonderful Jewish traditions, which she endeavors to practice daily and pass on to her children. She now lives in California with her husband and three children.

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