Friday, August 28, 2009

The Girdles of Job: Power Cords

[A modern belt of power]

I recently came across one legend that did not make it into the EJMMM, the legend of the "girdles of Job," three belts or cords of divine craftsmanship.

Mentioned in the Greek language Testament of Job, these girdles were given to Job by God (Job 38:3), curing him of all his ailments and granting him knowledge of future events (why Job needed three is not explained). At his death, Job gave the sashs to his three daughters by Dinah [1], his second wife: Yemima, Ketziah and Keren-Happuch. The belts are described as "three-stringed girdles about the appearance of which no man can speak; For they were not earthly work, but celestial sparks of light flashed through them like the rays of the sun" [2]

Job assured them the garments would act as amulets, protecting them from external dangers and transforming their hearts. When the daughters secured the golden girdles across their chests (over their hearts?), the women knew the language of angels and sang praises in celestial tongues. So girded, they were also relieved of all worldly fears (Testament of Job, Chapters 46-53).

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. According to the Sages, Job's first wife, Uzit, died and he married Jacob's daughter, herself a bit of a schlemazel
2. The Testament of Job, M. R. James, trans., Cambridge University Press, 1897.

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.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taharah IV: Clothed in Righteousness

["Behold the couch of Solomon. Sixty mighty men surround it, of the mighty men of Israel" A taharah table]

This is the fourth entry in our study of the liturgy for the ritual of body purification:

Having undergone ablution [1] the body is ready to be dressed (ha-l'bashah) in burial shrouds. The tradition as it currently stands is to use tachrichim, a white three-piece bio-degradable outfit of pants, blouse, and head covering [2] followed with a winding sheet (sovev). The Tachrichim are meant to resemble the garments of the priesthood. In fact, some of the items are known by the same terms as the priest's outfit - mitznefet (miter), michnasayim (breeches), and kittel (robe). This continues the motif of earlier liturgy that death is in essence an elevation to a higher status, that the deceased is being readied to enter the mikdash ha-maalah, the "Temple on High." Again, mimicking the dream-vision of Zechariah 3, the Chevra Kadisha serves as the angelic entourage attending to the newly elevated "priest."

As the corpse is being so dressed, the following liturgy is recited:

I will greatly rejoice, my soul shall be joyful in my God, for
God has clothed me with the garments of salvation; God
has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a
bridegroom puts on priestly glory and as the bride adorns
herself with jewels (Isaiah 61:10).
And I said, “Let them set a pure headdress upon his head,”
and they set the pure headdress upon his head, and they
clothed him with garments, and the angel of Adonai stood by
(Zechariah 3:5).
For as the earth brings forth her growth, and as the garden
causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so
Adonai will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth
before all the nations
(Isaiah 61:11).
And Adonai will guide you continually and satisfy your soul
in time of drought, and make strong your bones, and you shall be
like a watered garden and like a spring of water whose waters
never fail (Isaiah 58:11).

The uplifting, upbeat images catalogued here are quite striking, even discordant - the deceased is compared to a bride/groom on the wedding day (with the implication of God being the complimentary partner); to the High Priest undergoing coronation; to a seed [about to be 'sown' in the earth!] that will spring forth in new life; and to a garden with a perpetual spring, which, what ever the fate of the individual growths, collectively will never wither or dry up. The Chevra Kadisha simultaneously defies and embraces, and verbally redefines death with tropes of joy, empowerment, fertility, purity, and eternal life.

It is an exquisite act of dialectic interplay between reality and hope. Through speaking this liturgy before the speechless corpse and the valley of the shadow of death is inverted into a high place of hope. Performing magic with words, the Jews of the holy fellowship construct hope from the stuff of tragedy, sending both the death and the living on to renewed life.

[1] Many douse the body in water while it is on the taharah table, others actually use a mikveh, submerging the body in a built-in ritual pool. There is controversy over which is preferable - having handled a few bodies, I find bringing the water to the dead somewhat more dignified.

[2] For those families who insist on the western custom of burying their loved one in fine street clothing, a kittel sometimes will be put over the suit/dress.