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