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Friday, August 28, 2009

Jewish Alchemy: Transformation and Kabbalah

[Alchemists using a bain Marie, the oven invented by Jewish alchemist Maria Hebraea]
The Hermetic tradition, one part theosophy, one part astrology, and one part experimental science, was first expounded in writings attributed to the Egyptian Hermes Trimagistium. Emerging in late antiquity, alchemy was a profoundly spiritual pursuit, a quest to uncover the potential for transformation of the natural order through the study of transformation in certain iconic natural substances – metals. Some alchemists even envisioned their ritualistic chemistry as a kind of sacrificial rite.[1]

Alchemy has been associated with Jews since antiquity. Moses is credited with being the teacher of Hermes himself, but this may also represent a conflation of Moses with the figure of Moses of Alexandra, an Egyptian-Jewish alchemist of antiquity. Some traditions credit the Patriarchs with transmitting alchemical knowledge (along with the philosopher’s stone) that was learned from Adam. Bezalel, the builder of the Mishkan, is said to have been an alchemist (Exodus 31:1-5). Late traditions associate David and Solomon with the Hermetic arts, based on the Biblical account of how David gave Solomon stones, assumed by later readers to be philosopher’s stones (I Chron. 22:14). One ancient alchemist even interpreted the sacrifices made in Solomon’s Temple as kind of nascent alchemical rituals.

By far the most important and influential historical Jewish alchemist of ancient times is Maria Hebraea (Miriam the Jewess). She introduced the Bain Marie, a water-bath oven method still used in chemistry to this day. Medieval alchemists, both Jewish and gentile, frequently claimed occult knowledge of Kabbalah. The Zohar of Moses Shem Tov de Leon and the writings of Abraham Abulafia show a familiarity with alchemy. Directions for the making of gold appear in several Kabbalistic works and Jewish scholars debated whether such transformations were actually possible.
Because Kabbalah was so widely applied by Christian alchemists to their work, by the dawn of the modern era alchemy and Jews were uniquely linked, though this appears to be more perception than reality. So ingrained was this perception that, in order to give their ideas more gravitas, a number of treatises on alchemy were evidently published by non-Jews using Jewish pseudonyms.

Actual Jewish practitioners include Jacob Aranicus (French, 13th Cent), Isaac and John Isaac Hollander (Dutch, 15th Cent.), Modecai Modena (Italian, 16th Cent.) and Samuel de Falk (English, 18th Cent.). Even Baruch Spinoza expressed an interest in it. Oddly, however, only a few Hebrew language alchemical texts have survived to the present.

[This entry excerpted from The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. To learn more, the EJMMM is available at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050 ]

1. Janowitz, Icons of Power, pp. 109-122; also see Patai, The Jewish Alchemists.

5 Comments:

Blogger Aharon said...

Have you found any identification of the tzohar, or the Even HaShetiya with the Philosopher's Stone?

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Dan - Israeli Uncensored News said...

Isn't the relation the opposite: Jews acquiring interest in alchemy from Christians? That's what Gershom Sholem suggests.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear Dan,

In fact I didn't say, one way or the other. I only indicated that by the Renaissance, Gentiles associated alchemy and Kabbalah so closely, being Jewish took on a kind of cache. We don't have enough information to go on, but I suspect you are right, alchemy got its start among non-Jews.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Mordechai Hayehudi said...

I think that is chiefly a hermeneutical question, not a hermetic one (hehe). That is, if we are concerned with particular terminology or a certain tradition then we'd find it to be a gentile interpolation and side with G Scholem (who got things right from time to time)

I think it is clearly the contention of jewish intellectual tradition that such a jewish mystical heritage must exist or, more to the point a proto-jewish semitic heritage (enochian?).

What is of particular interest to me is the truly ancient egyptian tradition that likely prefigures any discussion of alchemy per se. Hermes trismigestis is a construct of hellenic (ptolemaic) egypt who probably never existed as an historical figure. Contemporary histories of egypt lay claim to ten thousand years plus (!) of written history and of course moshe and yosef emerged from there as well.

I would love to learn of any authoritative texts clearly deriving from and elucidating this tradition. I'd be grateful for any hints in that direction.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the sefer yetzirah is clearly a text of alchemy

4:00 PM  

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