Strange Tie Between Jew's Harps and Circumcision Clamps

How a Musical Instrument Might Have Gotten Its Name

Musical Conundrum: Jew’s harps have never been considered Jewish instruments.
Getty Images
Musical Conundrum: Jew’s harps have never been considered Jewish instruments.

By Philologos

Published March 16, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Jacob Sivak, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the School of Optometry at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, writes:

“The Jew’s harp is a simple but common musical instrument that I acquired a few years ago, and I am intrigued by its name. Although I can find no reference to any linkage between it and Jews or Judaism, I wonder whether the connection might be its resemblance to various clamps used in circumcision — especially the one known as a Mogen clamp. This resemblance is more obvious in images of older or antique devices. Do you think this is where the Jew’s harp could have gotten its name from?”

Jew’s harps and circumcision clamps, I must say, are two things I have never had much experience with. But it’s never too late to educate oneself, and here is some of what I’ve learned.

To begin with, there is a bewildering variety of each, as might be expected of two devices with long histories extending over much of the globe. One of the oldest of all musical instruments still played today, the Jew’s harp most likely originated in Central Asia or China, from which it spread, before the discovery of the Americas, as far east as the Philippines and as far west as England and Ireland. Basically, it consists of a flexible strip of wood or metal slotted into an often horseshoe- or harp-shaped frame, the closed end of which serves the musician as a grip; placed between the teeth, and vibrated by a finger with the mouth serving as a resonator, this strip can produce melodies via changes in the position of the cheeks, lips and tongue. Because of its small size, inexpensiveness and relatively simple technique, the Jew’s harp, before becoming the rather rare instrument it is today, was extremely popular throughout Europe. Folk songs were played on it, musical compositions were written for it (including a concerto by Beethoven’s teacher Johann Georg Albrechts Berger) and as late as 1935, 1.5 million Jew’s harps were still being produced and sold annually in Europe alone.

The European Jew’s harp had a wide assortment of names, including Maultrommel in German, munnharpa in Norwegian, guimbarde in French, sciacciapienseri in Italy (with such dialectal variations as Sicilian marranzanu, Lombardian viabό and Campanian tromba degli zingari), biribao in Spanish and barimbau in Portuguese. Only in English, however, where the terms “Jew’s harp” and “Jew’s trump” (short for trumpet) first appear in the late 16th century, was the instrument ever associated with Jews. (One also finds the variations “jaw harp” and “juice harp,” but these terms appeared considerably later than “Jew’s harp” and are almost certainly corruptions of it.)

And yet, as Professor Sivak observes, Jew’s harps have nothing musically to do with Jews and were never considered Jewish instruments. Whence, then, their name? Two main theories have been proposed:

1) Jew’s harps were originally disseminated in England by Jewish peddlers, who carried them in their packs along with dozens of other household items sold door to door.

2) The “Jew’s” of Jew’s harp come from “gewgaw” (traditionally pronounced “gyewgaw”), a word that had, as far back as the 15th century, the secondary meaning of a flute or a shepherd’s pipe. Hence, when Jew’s harps were initially introduced into England, they were called, because of their shape, “gewgaw harps,” which eventually turned into “Jew-gaw harps” and then “Jew’s harps.”

The second of these explanations seems to me more likely, as there were practically no Jews, let alone Jewish peddlers, living in England when the Jew’s harp was introduced there. (The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not officially readmitted until 1655.) The “gyew” of gewgaw changing to “Jew,” on the other hand, would have been perfectly natural.

And now, along comes Professor Spivak with a third theory. What shall we make of it?

A circumcision clamp is a device for stretching the foreskin of the circumcised baby away from the glans of the penis and holding it tightly in place while the cutting is performed. The number of different kinds of circumcision clamps in existence (most of them modern medical inventions) is even greater than the different kinds of Jew’s harps; among them, the Mogen clamp, traditionally used by Jews over the centuries, is one of the oldest and simplest. (Its name comes from the Hebrew word magen, a guard or shield.) Essentially it is a piece of metal with a handle and a narrow slit through which the foreskin is pulled while the rest of the penis is protected, and there is indeed a certain resemblance between it and some Jew’s harps.

Can the Mogen clamp, then, have given the Jew’s harp its name? Although it’s an ingenious theory, it’s even less probable than the Jewish peddler hypothesis, because where would a 16th-century Englishman have had a chance to see a circumcision? “If you prick us,” Shakespeare’s Venetian merchant Shylock asks, “do we not bleed?” and every Jewish male child would certainly agree — but though Shylock was first represented by an actor in London in 1598, he could not have lived there openly until decades later. Gewgaw remains our default choice.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.