2023 Hebrew Manuscript Studies Workshop (Oxford-Berlin Partnership): Call for Applications Open!

We are delighted to invite applications for the Hebrew Manuscript Studies: Codicology, Palaeography, Art History summer workshop, taking place from 26 June to 7 July 2023 and led by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (OCHJS and Corpus Christi College), Agata Paluch (Freie Universität Berlin / EsKnow) and César Merchán-Hamann (OCHJS and Bodleian Library).

The Summer Workshop in Oxford proposes a comprehensive and specialised programme in which a basic yet in-depth methodological introduction and research guidance will be provided to the fields of Hebrew Manuscript Studies mentioned above, as well as to history of the book and collections, art history, conservation and digital palaeography. The workshop will be divided into two parts, the first 6 days long and the second 4 days long. The first part will be devoted to methodological introduction as well as detailed examination of medieval manuscripts. The second part will be devoted to manuscripts in the age of print, i.e., in the early modern and modern periods. Applicants can attend both parts, or Part 1 only, but only alumni of our programme can apply to Part 2 only. The workshop is organised in collaboration with the Bodleian Library, which will allow access to original manuscripts in situ for the teaching sessions. Lecturers will include Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, Professor Sarit Shalev-Eyni, Dr Agata Paluch and Dr César Merchán-Hamann.

Application closing date: 12 January 2023 at 12 noon UK Time. Please consult these links for further information:





MS. Kennicott 3, fol. 178r. © Bodleian Libraries

“Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfers in Early Modernity”: Special Issue of the European Journal of Jewish Studies

We are pleased to announce the publication of “Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfers in Early Modernity,” a special issue of the European Journal of Jewish Studies 16.1 (2022). 

Edited and with a foreword by Agata Paluch and Patrick Benjamin Koch and contributions by Magdaléna Jánošíková, Saverio Campanini, Flavia Buzzetta, Hanna Gentili, J. H. Chajes, Gerold Necker, Andrea Gondos, Avinoam J. Stillman, and Giulio Busi. 

“Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfers in Early Modernity” interrogates the fashioning and evolution of the many forms of Kabbalah, understood as a literary, religious, and intellectual phenomenon in early modern Europe, from the perspective of the contemporary knowledge-making processes. The results of this collaborative effort follows three overlapping themes. First, it spotlights the material organization of kabbalistic knowledge and the role of media in the communication and dispersing of mystical and kabbalistic traditions. Secondly, it focuses on the literary organization of kabbalistic knowledge and its transmission in different genres and within variant epistemic contexts. Lastly, it zooms in on the movement of kabbalistic knowledges that were enabled by the circulation of people, texts, and objects across cultural, historical, and linguistic contexts. In looking at the transmission of kabbalistic knowledge, the articles in this issue highlight the often blurred boundaries between categories, taxonomies, or disciplines of knowing—including those referred to as “esoteric” and “mystical,” to which modern readers are often accustomed. They emphasize the shifts, often multiple, in meanings of kabbalistic ideas and practices contained in texts as they were translated, edited, and appropriated within new literary, linguistic, material, and cultural settings of early modern Europe.

Table of Contents: 

Magdaléna Jánošíková

“Studying Ibn Sīnā, Performing Abulafia in a Mid-Sixteenth-Century Prison: Emotional, Medical, and Mystical Bodies between Italy and Silesia”

Saverio Campanini

“Transmission and Reception of Isaac ibn Sahula’s Kabbalistic Commentary on Two Psalms”

Flavia Buzzetta

“Transmission and Transformation of Kabbalistic Knowledge in Italy at the End of the Fifteenth Century”

Hanna Gentili

“The Philosophical Background of Yoḥanan Alemanno: Remarks on Logic and Psychology”

J. H. Chajes

“Jacob Ṣemaḥ, Humanist”

Gerold Necker

“The Matrix of Understanding: Moses Zacuto’s Em la-Binah and Kabbalistic Works of Reference”

Andrea Gondos

“‘To Know Everything’: Encyclopedias and the Organization of Kabbalistic Knowledge”

Avinoam J. Stillman

“A Printed Primer of Kabbalistic Knowledge: Sha‘arei Orah in East-Central Europe”

Giulio Busi

“How the Art of Printing Transformed Kabbalah: Between Italian Courts and Polish Lands”

See the full volume online here.

EJJS 16.1: Table of Contents

How-To: Magical and Kabbalistic Recipes

Ever wondered how people of the past tried to regulate their emotions or find solutions to complex problems, but in an efficient and available-to-all manner? One textual format persists throughout the ages and offers a glimpse into many ways in which people have confronted a variety of their problems and daily challenges: a recipe. You can read more about handwritten Jewish recipes and recipe books from the early modern period in two recent guest posts on the fabulous Recipes Project blog by our research associates:

Andrea Gondos writes about managing fear and caring for health and emotional wellbeing in her post “A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear“.

Agata Paluch describes an autograph manuscript of a seventeenth-century kabbalist, Moses Zacuto, and showcases a learned attempt to combine magical and technical know-how with theory and religious knowledge: “Making Sense of Recipes for Amulets and Natural Magic, Kabbalistic Style (Marginalia Included)“.

The Fallen Sukkah of Yitshak Eilenburg: From the Margins of an Early Modern Ashkenazi Kabbalistic Manuscript

Avinoam J. Stillman

Early modern Jews left mundane traces of their every-day lives in the margins of their manuscripts. Alongside formal compositions, blanks spaces were used to record family histories, economic woes, and ritual practices. From the historian’s point of view, this means that even kabbalistic manuscripts – devoted to esoteric theological, cosmological, and ritual speculations – can be valuable sources for social and cultural history. In conjunction with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, I want to explore one seasonal source from 17th century East-Central Europe: a piquant anecdote about one family’s deliverance from a collapsing sukkah.

First described in 1930 by Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem, National Library of Israel, Ms. Heb. 28°1 is a complex manuscript of 344 folios which combines textual units written by several Ashkenazi hands from the early 17th century to the 18th century.1 Ms. NLI Heb. 28°1 is perhaps most notable for juxtaposing medieval Spanish kabbalistic texts with early modern kabbalistic material associated with Isaac Luria. It is difficult to tell exactly how the book was compiled, at least based on digitized black-and-white microfilm images; pages in different handwritings are interspersed throughout. However, one section, mostly consisting of tracts attributed to Luria’s ostensible student Israel Saruq, was copied by a scribe named Yitshak ben Avraham Moshe Yisrael Eilenburg.2 His name appears in a marginal note on f. 106r, and we learn from colophons on f. 134v and f. 150v that he was from Kraków and active around 1621-1622. He wrote in a relatively clear Ashkenazi Hebrew non-square script, marked by occasionally extravagant bet and ‘ayin characters, and his lines are evenly justified, drooping downwards only slightly.

On f. 179r-v of this manuscript, Eilenburg recorded several personal fragments and anecdotes. On f. 179r, he notes some genealogical information that he heard “from a very old man, his honor Mr Gottschalk of Hotzenplotz [today Osoblaha in the Czech Republic]” about his paternal ancestors, who were rabbinic scholars and communal leaders in cities like Poznań and Kraków. On f. 179v, we find the following miraculous story:

“We must praise and thank and applaud the great kindness which the Blessed God has done for us, on the first night of the holiday of Sukkot, in the year “God is my Light and Salvation” [1636]. We were sitting in the Sukkah, which stands on boards which are laid across the length of the courtyard of the house of my father-in-law, his honor Mr Shimon Katz. I and my wife and all of my children, may God save and protect them, were sitting at the table and the boards broke, and we fell to the ground. God, may His name be blessed, placed His hand so that not one of us would be hurt, except for one woman whose foot was broken. At that time, there were almost forty people inside the Sukkah, men and women, boys and girls, and our scream ascended above and God, in His great mercies, had mercy upon us to save us. Thus, may we merit to see the raising up of the fallen Sukkah of David [the Temple], quickly in our days, and may the gates of Heaven be opened, and our breakages and those of God’s people, the house of Israel, be fenced up. This is the prayer of the small one, Yitshak son of my master and father, our teacher and Rabbi R. Avraham Moshe Yisrael of blessed memory, known as Eilenburg.”

NLI Heb. 28°1, folio 179v

עלינו לשבח להודו׳ ולהלל על החסד הגדול אשר גמל עלינו ית״ש בליל א׳ של חג הסוכו׳ שנת ה׳ אורי וישע״י שהיינו יושבים בסוכה העומדת על הקורו׳ שמונחים לאורך החצר בבית חמי כמ׳ שמעון כ״ץ ואני ואשתי וכל בני יצ״ו היינו מסובים על השלחן ונשברו הקורו׳ ואנחנו נפלנו עד לארץ וה׳ ית״ש סמך ידו שלא נזוק שום א׳ מאתנו זולת אשה א׳ נשברה רגלה והיה אז בתוך הסוכה כמעט ארבעים נפש אנשים ונשים וילדי׳ וילדו׳ וצעקתינו עלתה למרום וה׳ ברחמיו המרובים רחם עלינו להציל אותנו כך נזכה לראו׳ בקימת סוכת דוד הנופלת במהירה בימינו ויפתח שערי שמים ויגדור פרצותינו ופרצו׳ עמו בית ישראל כה תפלת הקטן יצחק בלא״א מהר״ר אברהם משה ישראל ז״ל ה״ה איילונבורג

This story reflects several aspects of the world of early modern East-Central European Jews. We learn quickly that Eilenburg was married to the daughter of Shimon Katz and spent the holiday of Sukkot with his wife’s family. Eilenburg and Katz were the surnames of prominent Ashkenazi lineages, and these details bespeak the tendency of elite families to intermarry. Katz, the father-in-law, was apparently wealthy enough to have a large courtyard in his house, and to construct a sukkah for some forty people. Moreover, he spared no expense; the luxurious floorboards of their temporary dwelling almost did the celebrants in! At the time of the accident, we find a mixed-gender crowd of “men and women, boys and girls” all sitting together in the sukkah. Although women are not strictly obligated by the letter of halakhah to sit in the sukkah, Ashkenazi Jewish women often participated in this and other rituals.3 Early modern kabbalistic ritual manuals such as Or Tsadiqim, attributed to the Lurianic scholar and Kraków native Meir Poppers (d. 1664), even encourage married couples to sleep together in the sukkah – provided, of course, they were alone, “so that they not be embarrassed.”4

Woodcut print of a Sukkah, Minhogim-bukh, Venice 1593, folio 58r (from the Royal Library of Denmark)

Eilenburg’s position as a member of a well-endowed rabbinic family was not coincidental. Even after many other kabbalistic works had been printed, Lurianic (in this case, Saruqian) kabbalistic knowledge were preserved largely in manuscript.5 Until the late 18th century, when they began to be printed in substantive numbers, these esoteric texts were almost exclusively copied by hand and studied by select circles of Jewish scholars. The primary theoretical texts of Lurianic kabbalah – albeit not necessarily its practical ethos or ritual innovations – were largely cultivated by and for elite Jewish men of sufficient means and education. In short, the act of copying such texts was classed, and Eilenburg had textual privilege. To be sure, he was far from alone in pursuing esoteric knowledge; in Ms. Heb. 28°1, his pages survive alongside textual units copied by and commented upon by several other Ashkenazi scribes and scholars. Similarly, his access to kabbalistic knowledge was indebted to the wider network of early modern kabbalists who circulated esoteric knowledge in East-Central Europe, the Mediterranean, and beyond. His personal reminiscences, embedded in a complex codex, thus attest to the particular social contexts of early modern kabbalistic knowledge.

Sad to say, Eilenburg’s troubles were not over after his close call in the sukkah. In a note on the same page, albeit from some years later, he records that, while eating dinner on Thursday, 5 Tevet 1630, he almost choked to death on a clove of garlic. Thankfully, he was saved from asphyxiation by the grace of God. Far more tragically, Eilenburg was the victim of anti-Jewish violence on Monday, 11 Elul 1644, when he and the members of his community were travelling from Jarosław – where the regional Jewish governing body, the Council of Four Lands, met every summer – through the town of Witkowice. According to a note he left in 1645, he was attacked and bloodied by a local nobleman and a mob of villagers wielding farm implements, seemingly for no reason other than hatred. After the attack, Eilenburg lived at least until 1646, long enough to copy another manuscript, this time a collection of halachic material (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Opp. 273). 

sukkah is a marginal place, a liminal space between inside and outside, with permeable walls and a verdant roof. In Lurianic kabbalah, the sukkah itself represents the “surrounding lights,” the orot maqifin, of the maternal divine countenance, the partsuf ima, which form a womb around the lower divine persona. So too, the occasional and informal notes on the edges of codices are essential contexts of the more formal content contained in the book. Just as the “surrounding lights” mediate between the different divine persona, the experiences of individual copyists, often preserved in their marginalia, shaped their relationship to their texts. To draw a simpler analogy, Eilenburg’s notes attest – like the sukkah itself – to the realities of human vulnerability, mortality, and transience, as well as to improbable survivals and the vagaries of divine providence.

[1] Gershom Scholem, Catalogus Codicum Cabbalisticorum Hebraicorum (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1930) #26, 67–71 [Hebrew].

[2] Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat ha-Ari, vol. I, (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2008), 519 [Hebrew].

[3] On the Talmudic background see Marjorie Lehman, “The Gendered Rhetoric of Sukkah Observance.” Jewish Quarterly Review 96 (2006): 309–35. For the early modern codification of this exemption, see Joseph Karo’s Shulkhan ArukhOrakh Hayyim, 640:1. On women’s sukkot observance in medieval Ashkenaz, see Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women and Everyday Religious Observance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 138–171, esp. 144–149.

[4] Meir Poppers, Or Tsadiqim (Hamburg, 1690), folio 19r. See also the suggestion of Moses Isserles that husbands and wives should dwell in the sukkah together in Shulkhan ArukhOrah Hayim, 639:2.

[5] Andrea Gondos, Kabbalah in Print: The Study and Popularization of Jewish Mysticism in Early Modernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2020), 19.

Suggested citation: Avinoam J. Stillman, “The Fallen Sukkah of Yitshak Eilenburg: From the Margins of an Early Modern Ashkenazi Kabbalistic Manuscript,” Knowledge in Circulation: The Reception and Transmission of Jewish Esoteric Knowledge in Manuscripts and Print in Early Modern East-Central Europe, September 23, 2021, https://esknowcirc.hypotheses.org/389

POSTPONED to 2022: Summer Workshop on Hebrew Manuscripts in Early Modern World

This event has been postponed to 2022!

Save the date! We’re co-organising workshops on early modern Hebrew Mss with OCHJS at the Bodleian Library. First time in a new format, more info via: https://www.ochjs.ac.uk/summer-workshop-medieval-and-early-modern-hebrew-manuscript-studies/

Kabbalah in Print: An Interview with the Author

Agata Paluch [AP]: Andrea, you joined our Junior Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” (FU Berlin) as research associate in the summer of 2019. Can you talk a little about the research that you’ve been pursuing within our larger project?

Andrea Gondos [AG]: I have pursued two main research goals since I joined our research group in 2019. First, I have worked on systematically describing the content of Jewish magical recipe books and manuscripts of practical Kabbalah that are in our database. Second, I have begun writing a new monograph with a research focus on gender, the female body, and its regenerative properties which constituted preeminent concerns in practical kabbalistic and magical recipes and compilations. These recipe books belong primarily to the genre of practical Kabbalah and magic and were written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in geographically diverse regions of East-Central Europe. At the crossroads between intersecting epistemic fields, I am particularly interested in how these sources reflect a broader engagement with nascent scientific advancements in the area of pharmacology and medicine along with received traditions of earlier kabbalistic speculations to improve a woman’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. 

AP: Your book, “Kabbalah in Print: The Study and Popularization of Jewish Mysticism in Early Modernity” has recently been published (SUNY Press, 2020). Congratulations! What led you to studying this topic? What are the links, if any, between your current project and the subject of your recent book?

AG: My post-graduate work began with the study of the hermeneutic structure of the Zohar (The Book of Splendour), the preeminent work of medieval kabbalistic speculation, which formed the basis of my Master’s thesis. As my academic trajectory shifted from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, my doctoral research gradually became focused on the impact of print technology on the transmission of kabbalistic knowledge. In the Middle Ages, Kabbalah designated Jewish esoteric tradition that was disseminated in a controlled manner through manuscripts or oral teachings. The kabbalistic master in these situations authorised, sanctioned, and determined how secrets were revealed and taught and to whom. This transmission model underwent profound transformation in the sixteenth century when the Zohar along with other anonymous and authored treatises of kabbalistic classics, such as Sefer Yetzirah, Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, Recanati’s Commentary on the Torah, works of Gikatilla, and others began to be disseminated in print. The availability of kabbalistic ideas in print made Kabbalah available for the first time to uninitiated readers. The transformation of Kabbalah from an esoteric, guarded, and controlled esoteric system to an exoteric and more accessible epistemic tradition heralded a major milestone in the history of Judaism. 

The reorientation of my doctoral project on questions of book history and reading benefitted greatly from having been selected as a graduate student participant in the research workshop, “Reading across Cultures,” held at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University in 2009. This focused seminar, whose key note address was given by Prof. Ann Blair, opened up new ways of investigating knowledge organization and transmission, a methodological approach that I applied to Yissakhar Baer’s textual production. 

My current project both expands and complicates the arguments of my book. Turning to a cache of manuscripts of magical recipe books written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mostly in the Ashkenazi lands of East and Central Europe, has generated unexpected results and prompted new theoretical questions for the study of Kabbalah. These works were written at a time when printing was already widely used yet these authors opted for the manuscript format as the medium of choice for the organization of their practical and theoretical knowledge. They copied, recorded, reworked, and interpreted earlier kabbalistic traditions availing themselves of works already in print, manuscripts that they had access to, and oral traditions they received. There is no strict or clear demarcation among genres of esoterica in these recipe books, rather practical how-to recipes aimed at promoting healing and wellbeing are presented side-by-side complex theoretical treatises of Lurianic Kabbalah, Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, and other kabbalistic systems.   

AP: In your book, you focus on the shifts that the growing importance of publishing books in print had on the shape of kabbalistic knowledge. Could you talk a bit more on the types of the printed material and its literary formats that your book tackles in detail? 

AG: The majority of the kabbalistic works produced in East-Central Europe in the early modern period were eclectic compilations, as Yaakov Elbaum noted decades ago. Academic scholarship in the study of Jewish mysticism, has to a large extent privileged originality in textual production and as a consequence of this tendency anthological works, digests, and study guides produced in the field of Kabbalah have been largely overlooked. Boaz Huss’s work on the reception history of the Zohar (Like Radiance of the Sky, Hebrew: 2008, English: 2016), has raised important questions regarding literary genres through which the Zohar was popularized. Zeev Gries’s scholarly monograph on conduct literature (Sifrut ha-Hanhagot, 1989), has offered new insights into the agency of print that facilitated the broader circulation of mystical ideas and their influence on religious observance and praxis. Through a close examination of an early seventeenth century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yissakhar Baer, and his printed works, I aimed to expose the literary, pedagogic, and conceptual strategies authors used as they synthesised and reorganized earlier works of Jewish mysticism to mediate between elite and popular culture. Yissakhar Baer’s four works – an abridgement, a halakhic reference tool, an anthology, and a lexicon – provide a unique vantage point to assess the relationship among the literary modalities of genre, form, and content in his repackaging of Jewish esoteric knowledge and lore.

AP: You also point to continuities between medieval and early modern, Christian and Jewish modes of studying and reading learned texts. What, in your opinion, is different in Jewish modes of the organization of textual knowledge in early modernity in comparison to the earlier periods?

AG: One main development in the study of Kabbalah in the age of print is the emphasis on pedagogical consideration concerning how Kabbalah should be taught, interpreted, and assimilated. The availability of kabbalistic ideas and teachings in printed texts rendered the role of a kabbalistic master secondary and emphasised the reader’s direct access to Jewish esoteric wisdom facilitating self-study. Jews who did not belong to elite rabbinic circles could build their own libraries of kabbalistic works, however limited or small, and study Kabbalah on their own or in the company of others. The emergence of study guides to Kabbalah in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, such as Moses Cordovero’s Or Ne’erav, underlines a shifting cultural reality in which new readers of Kabbalah required improved resources to learn.   

Furthermore, beginning with the late fifteenth century, Kabbalah came to represent an  important repository of ancient knowledge (prisca theologia) for learned Christian humanists, who invested great resources to acquire kabbalistic books and secure access to their teachings. Wealthy Christian scholars, such as the German-born Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) and his revered Italian colleague, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), engaged not only outstanding Jewish scholars of their generation but also possessed the financial means to acquire a substantial portion of the extant kabbalistic literature in Hebrew and Latin translation, which further aided their study and knowledge of these texts. Kabbalah formed a cultural bridge between learned Jewish and Christian circles and kabbalistic study guides played a pivotal role in this dialogue.  

The inclusion of Yissachar Baer’s lexicon to the Zohar, Imrei Binah, in the bottom margins of the Sulzbach edition of Zohar (1684), a collaborative effort between Jews and Christian Hebraists at the court of Christian August, foregrounds the cultural and didactic value of kabbalistic study guides. 

AP: Your research has so far concentrated on the Ashkenazi, mostly Central European area. Do you consider the general conclusions of your book—for instance, on the deep impact of study guides on the popularisation of specific kabbalistic systems of thought and practice—applicable also to other Jewish cultural zones?

AG: As I show in Chapter 1 of my book, Italy played a pivotal role in the circulation and popularization of Kabbalah especially in the sixteenth but also in the seventeenth centuries. Vibrant intellectual networks of Kabbalists between Italy and Safed ensured the persistent flow of rabbis, who already possessed some erudition in kabbalistic ideas and teachings, but wished to upgrade and expand their learning through discipleship with one of the renowned kabbalists of Safed. The two great schools of Safed Kabbalah, the Cordoverean and the Lurianic, produced in turn their own graduates who returned to Italy carrying in their trunks not only original manuscripts from Safed, but also their own notebooks with the purpose of consolidating them, using them as pedagogical tools, but also offering them to Italian presses for print. As kabbalist, collector, emendator, and educator, the intellectual activity of Rabbi Azariah da Fano (1548-1620) opens a window into the dissemination of Safedian Kabbalah and the construction of what constituted the authentic and authorised teachings of early modern kabbalistic knowledge. Thus, when following the death of his father, R. Gedalyah Cordovero preferred to print some of his father’s works at the Italian presses, whose reputation for quality far surpassed their rivals in Salonica and Constantinople, it was Rabbi Azariah da Fano who provided the young man with the necessary financial and logistical support. A wealthy person belonging to the rabbinic elite, Azariah da Fano had access both to financial resources and intellectual acumen to prioritize the study of Kabbalah; synthesize the ideas of its two main sixteenth–century theoreticians, Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria; and build a library of printed and manuscript works as part of a new study program that aimed to disseminate authentic and authoritative Kabbalah more widely.    

AP: You insightfully introduce your reader to the world of the so-called secondary elites through the lens of kabbalistic books they published and read. Could you share some of your thoughts on how the processes of book production and consumption affected the contemporary perception of kabbalistic texts that were studied most widely in early modern Ashkenaz?

Following the printing of a large number of kabbalistic works in the sixteenth century, study and absorption of this material unfolded along two trajectories: a direct and an indirect (or mediated) path. Jewish social elites, who had both the intellectual and the economic acumen to pursue full-time and in-depth study of Kabbalah turned to direct study of the classical sources accessed through manuscripts and printed works  frequently augmented their learning with the oral explication of a kabbalistic master. By contrast, other segments of Jewish learned society, the secondary elites, who displayed competence in all aspects of the traditional rabbinic curriculum, Tanakh, Mishnah, and Talmud, but were forced to eke out a living by serving as beadles, teachers, itinerant preachers, and healers, lacked both the time and the financial resources required to engage Kabbalah full time and with the assistance of a qualified teacher. This social class acquired kabbalistic teachings primarily in an indirect manner mediated through printed works and occasionally, when the opportunity arose, with a qualified master. With the diffusion and broader circulation of printed works of Kabbalah and the increased cultural prestige associated with this body of knowledge, secondary elites recognized a unique opportunity for creating a new cultural product that mediated between the kabbalistic corpora and a new community of readers. Members of this secondary elite simplified complex ideas and produced digests and study guides in order to enhance the practical dimensions of daily ritual life. Unlike the traditional rabbinic elite, who took a conservative position to what they defined as authoritative and legitimate sources of Jewish knowledge, the secondary elites proposed a new cultural agenda that emphasized people’s right “to choose whether to learn, what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it” (Rosman, 2002, 532).

David Darshan (born c. 1520), a sixteenth-century educator and preacher exemplified both the social constraints secondary elites faced in East-Central Europe at this time and the innovative educational opportunities they sought to create in order to secure permanent positions for themselves within the Jewish communal hierarchy. He received formal rabbinic training from the yeshiva of Rabbi Moses Isserles in Cracow, one of the most prestigious rabbinic institutions in Poland at the time. Against his will, he was not permitted to complete his studies and thus had to abandon the hope of securing a permanent rabbinical posting. He nonetheless acquired a profound regard for books, which he began to collect at the age of nineteen and of which he proudly accumulated more than four hundred by the end of his life. His profession as an itinerant preacher connected him not only with new lands but also with new intellectual ideas, products, and institutions. With a keen eye for new educational opportunities he conceived opening a bet midrash in 1571 in his native Cracow, which may have been modelled on a similar institution he managed in Ferrara (Italy). David’s bet midrash was conceptualized to rest on three basic pillars: 1) complete accessibility for the general public; 2) the focus on books as a source of knowledge; and 3) his role as an educational resource to be consulted by the student when necessary. In serving the “simple folk,” David clearly recognized the universal drive of his generation for more knowledge than what the traditional Ashkenazi model of learning was prepared to offer to the non-elite masses: “And there is not enough time [for a person] to study Torah, in order to know the commandments thoroughly. Occasionally, he has the time but no book, while at other times he has the book, but no understanding. Thus when he enters the bet midrash his deficiency, whatever it may be, will be supplied” (Rosman, 536-7). In offering his four hundred books as primary resource in the bet midrash, David proposes to elevate the status of the printed book, which unlike a teacher in an elite yeshivah, can be freely and directly consulted by the reader.

Engaging the medium of writing and authorship, he composed Shir ha-Ma’alot le-David (Cracow, 1571) as a literary vehicle to advertise his numerous talents and skills. As a prolific author, he composed works with an explicit pedagogical objective including a guide for writing letters and a textbook to aid the memorization of the 613 commandments of the Torah. Lacking sufficient funds to print works, he included a sample of them in Shir ha-Ma’alot. David was a cultural innovator, who understood his role in the technological transformation that was unfolding in the society around him and decided to respond creatively by proposing concrete practical strategies to bring learning to those who did not have the means to pursue education in adulthood. His failure to secure a wealthy supporter for his educational reforms illustrates the resistance secondary elites faced in Ashkenazi society as their popularizing strategies ultimately came up against the cultural, institutional, and economic hegemony of ruling rabbinic elites.

AP: Finally, could you expand a little on your views about the role of ‘cultural agents’, such as Yissakhar Baer, the main protagonist of your book, in reorganising the kabbalistic knowledge of the time? Is his rather revolutionary role inextricably bound with, or even dependent on the expansion of print as the new medium for dissemination of knowledge? How deeply, according to your knowledge, was Yissakhar Baer involved in the working of the printing presses with which his works were published?

AG: Yes, I regard the role of secondary agents, such as Yissakhar Baer and others, as inextricably bound up with the proliferation of Kabbalah in print. As a technological and material innovation, print made broad dissemination of Jewish esoteric ideas possible and accessible through digests, anthologies, vernacular complications that could be produced at a significantly lower cost than manuscripts. The printing of the Zohar and other kabbalistic classics in the sixteenth century reflected a growing demand for the teachings of Kabbalah not only by larger segments of Jewish society but also by an emerging Christian readership. At the same time, printing could only partially open this corpus of esoteric knowledge with its idiosyncratic language, mythology, and religious symbolism. Yissakhar Baer and other secondary elites, who were by profession frequently associated with the field of education, seized this unique cultural opportunity to develop literary and conceptual solutions that helped readers navigate the challenges of these texts. The reorganisation of  kabbalistic language and speculation into learning tools and educational guides underscored the transition from high to low culture in which the role of secondary elites, like Yissakhar Baer, became  accentuated. 

Indeed, I am convinced that Yissakhar Baer was closely involved with the printing of his works and was held responsible to financially contribute, at least in part, to the production process. In the introduction to his book, Yesh Sakhar, he laments that economic considerations forced him to abandon the printing of his extensive commentary on the Zohar, Yod’ei Binah: “Because of the enormity of the expenses required of me at this time for the printing (of this manuscript), I have withdrawn, for the time being, from publishing my commentary on the Zohar that I called, Yod’ei Binah, as is known, until the time that God expands my means for behold I have ‘learned the lesson,’ distress has taught me and found my aid against the foe.” It it clear from Yissakhar Baer’s words that while he was able to oversee and perhaps financially support the printing of the shorter publication, his more voluminous composition required more funds that at the time was not at his disposal. In the end, this work disappeared or perhaps still awaits discovery in manuscript at one of the Eastern European library archives …    

Photo credit: Andrea Gondos

Workshop: Recipes and Recipe Books Across Manuscript Cultures

The Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)  in cooperation with the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group ‘Patterns of Knowledge Circulation’ (FU Berlin) cordially invites you to a workshop on  Recipes and Recipe Books Across Manuscript Cultures.

Recipes are most generally associated with lists of ingredients, accompanied by a set of instruc- tions for their use. They have recently experienced a surge of scholarly interest, particularly in the context of the changing epistemes of early modern Europe. Transformations in the modes of knowledge transmission in the European late medieval and early modern periods prompted a rise in the popularity of recipes and recipe compilations. Therefore, recipes and recipe compila- tions may serve as indicators of the premodern world’s tendencies to record and transmit the experiential type of knowledge.

This workshop will zoom in on the handwritten recipes and recipe books as a textual and mate- rial format through which knowledge was made and often circulated across cultures. It considers recipes in a variety of knowledge contexts and with various foci: medicinal and pharmacological, artisanal and technical, alchemical, magical, culinary, and so forth. Furthermore, it will focus on the textual structure of recipes—understood both as generic formulas and specific prescrip- tions—in close connection with the materiality of the manuscripts in which they are contained, thus considering materiality as a crucial aspect in a cross-cultural analysis of practices of making and transmitting knowledge. The centre of our interest is the relation between the modes of knowledge transmission and the type of knowledge that is transmitted: what was the role of handwritten recipes in the epistemic shifts that occurred across various cultural milieus? Taking a comparative perspective, the workshop will look for possible common patterns in recipes and recipe collections across manuscript cultures.

Programme and abstracts

CfA: Graduate Student Working Group on “Knowledge, Material Texts, and Jewish History”

This international working group aims to be a forum for graduate students and early stage post-doctoral researchers who study the materiality of Jewish texts – for example, Hebrew manuscripts, printed Yiddish books, Iberian archival materials, or other artefacts – and the gamut of knowledges cultivated therein – from kabbalah to the natural sciences, from halakhic literature to alchemy.

The group will be oriented towards method and theory: What could it mean for Jewish intellectual history to foreground manuscript copying and print technology, scribal habits and editorial practices, scholarly networks and educational institutions? What economic and social forces impacted text production, and what cultural norms and intellectual tendencies influenced the transformation and circulation of knowledge among Jewish writers and readers? These are the sorts of questions we hope to ask about Jewish history, with an emphasis on the medieval and early modern periods but without geographical boundaries.

Beginning on April 5, 2021 (precise time TBD), the group will initially meet virtually once a month. Eventually, we intend to convene an in-person workshop or conference as pandemic conditions permit. Meetings will take place in English, and will have three general formats:

1.     Focused Discussions:

The core component of our meetings will be discussions of specific topics. Potential topics include theoretical concepts (transmission, reception, circulation, influence, networks), methodological issues (multi-text manuscripts, marginal notes, printed paratexts, itinerancy, translation), and historiographical trends (history of knowledge, global history, micro-history, material philology, book history). Relevant readings will be pre-circulated.

2.     Research Presentations:

Participants will have the chance to present and receive feedback on a shared draft (such as a dissertation chapter or draft article).

3.     Guest Sessions:

Senior scholars will occasionally be invited to have a conversation with the members of the group and to present their research and perspectives.

Please email Avinoam Stillman (avinoam.stillman@fu-berlin.de) or Dr. Agata Paluch (agata.paluch@fu-berlin.de) with expressions of interest, including a short description of your research topics, by March 1, 2021.

This working group is organized by Patterns of Knowledge Circulation: The Transmission and Reception of Jewish Esoteric Knowledge in Manuscripts and Print in Early Modern East-Central Europe, funded by DFG (German Research Foundation) and based at Free University Berlin. 

Writing on Hands: Practical and Kabbalistic Manual Devices

Agata Paluch

Mapping the Hand: Not Only Maniculae

Trinity Cambridge Ms. R15.21 (Chiromantic Hand)

The visual model of hands has been well recognised as a vital element of the medieval and early modern representation of abstract concepts and cognitive processes. It played an important role as a teaching device in a variety of subjects, from rhetoric to mathematics to music, being available for immediate reference for those who were interested in consulting written manuals filled with hand-diagrams and equally for those who followed oral tuition. The potential of the hand as an embodied map has been unravelled in a range of contexts, but perhaps most extensively in graphic representations of medieval systems of memory.

Schatzbehalter der wahren Reichtümer des Heils
Nürnberg 1491, 7r (Mnemonic Hand)

A  hand might indeed become a handy and easy-to-use device and serve as a visual map on which a variety of graphic markers may be placed with a high degree of variation. A hand divided into sections which are marked by flexion lines and finger joints forms a surface of reliable and virtually unchangeable layout, easily populated by information sequences and a variety of patterns, such as astrological signs, musical notes, numeric digits, alchemical symbols, or references to Galenic humoral theories. A diagram of a hand—a simple and stable visual model—has thus repeatedly developed into a repository of various knowledge systems and related cognitive processes, often inextricably bound to the textual context in which it featured in medieval and early modern handwritten and printed source.1

Oxford-Bodleian Ms. Mich. 457, folio 124r

It has been noted by scholars that hand diagrams appear in a range of contexts to signify a connection between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine, the sensorial and  the intellectual, the theoretical and the technical (indeed, the manual). The hand, primarily associated with the sense of touch, may also represent a strictly human ability of grasping and controlling things by dextrous manipulation.2 Within written sources, the images of hands have a place in-between visual, tactile, and motive perception—the well-familiar and ubiquitous maniculae are distinctive examples of such grasping power and indicating purpose of the graphic sign of hands that populates the margins of early modern manuscripts and prints.3

Chiromantic Hands

The potential for actualised instruction contained in the hand diagram comes to the fore in those sources which elucidate practices of inner or spiritual knowledge attainment. The guidance through such practices is often visually expressed and aided by the hand-map, which features either as an independent (epistemic) image or as a part of a larger portion of textual commentary.4 The most common context for the appearance of such hand-guides is within astrology and a related subfield of chiromancy (palmistry). If there was a parallel between the microcosm of one’s life and fortune and the macrocosmic structure of the universe guided by the divine, so there was a parallel between the map formed of lines on one’s hand that emulated the astrological constellation governing over one’s earthly existence, ready for interpretation by a skilled practitioner.5 Textual guides to understanding chiromantic knowledge appear in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, although initially a diagrammatic representation of the subject is much less frequent.

NLI Ms 4 19, folio 181v

While the subject of chiromancy is not foreign to kabbalistic theosophical-speculative texts, seldom does a graphic model of hands appear in manuscripts containing solely theoretical (or rather, theosophical) kabbalistic matters. For instance, various layers of zoharic literatures—the pre-eminent textual manifestation of the medieval kabbalistic culture—explicate the methods and the values of reading human destiny from the shape of the lines of hands. In the seventieth chapter (tikun) of the latest stratum of the zoharic text, Tikune Zohar, the lines on the human hand and forehead directly correlate with the stage of the transmigration of an individual’s soul. Despite the level of interest in the idea of mapping of the hands’ topography and its theoretical underpinnings, the extant manuscripts of zoharic texts—from the earliest to those copied in the eighteenth century— as well as the standard printed editions of “the Zohar”, almost universally do not feature hand diagrams.

Hand Amulets

Oxford Bodleian Ms. 1539, folio 115r

A graphic image of a hand divided into three sections—fingers, a palm, and a somewhat elongated wrist—is by far most frequently used by scribes-compilers of practical kabbalistic collectanea. These sections, and most extensively that of the wrist, are further divided to form a table, whose fields are filled in with sequences of letters. The letters, in series of twos or threes, account for the divine names which are to be written down on a hand-shaped amulet in order to stop a plague. These letters-turned-powerful-names derive from biblical passages—all recorded and explained around the hand-shaped diagram. It is unknown whether the practice of preparing the amulet could also include the recitation of names or whether it required some sort of visualisation procedure wherein placing the letters on specific parts of the hand would help in memorisation of the names and their proper performance. 

A model of such an amulet features in NLI Ms. 4 19, a compilation of seventeenth-century kabbalistic material—including practical kabbalistic material—as having belonged to “the kabbalah of Joel Ba’al Shem”—a well-known seventeenth-century practical kabbalist and rabbi of Ostraha (Volyn)—who in turn had derived it from the books of “the author of ‘Ets Hayim.”7 In the contexts of the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, the book referred to was most likely ‘Ets Hayim of Hayim Vital, a preeminent student of Isaac Luria, who ostensibly recorded and edited his master’s teachings that had circulated in Eastern and Central Europe from the late-sixteenth century in a handwritten format. It seems that the apparent similarity of the building blocks of certain paradigms characteristic of Luria’s quite elitist kabbalistic school, and especially exercises based on mental manipulation of a variety of divine names, to more widespread practical kabbalistic rituals centred  on performances of divine names enabled the inclusion of the elements of complex Lurianic practices in the early modern Ashkenazi handwritten compilations, especially those that included practical knowledge of non-elite character.

Kabbalistic Hands

Oxford Bodleian Ns. Mich. 473, folio 152v

A clear link between the hand-amulet of Joel Ba’al Shem inscribed with names and the Lurianic prayer performances was manifest not only to the Ashkenazi scribes-compilers of kabbalistic codices such as NLI Ms. 4 19, but also to the editors of printed Lurianic traditions in Eastern Europe. A hand-amulet against plagues—although without any attribution—was included in the first edition of Hayim Vital’s Sha’ar ha-yihudim printed in Korzec (1783). Indeed, it is the only graphic extravagance comprised in the volume.8 However, this is not the only time when the hand-diagram made its way into volumes comprising texts of kabbalistic-speculative character. Although the hand-diagram did not become the most popular means of visualising theories of kabbalistic knowledge in early modernity, it does appear quite consistently within the literature of East-Central European provenance which concentrates on abridging, synthesising and ordering complex kabbalistic theoretical systems. In their textual stratum, the vast corpus of Lurianic traditions made a substantial use of the idea of hands as corporeal knowledge-organisers which allow the practitioner to understand certain aspects of the organisation of the divine world.9 

Sha’ar ha-Yihudim, Korzec 1783, folio 29v

The featuring of the hand-diagram within the text on mystical contemplation has a clear practical function. The practitioner is advised to hold in their mind a mental image of divine names as if inscribed on their hands to comprehend the theoretical grounds of the  prescribed practice, to order the knowledge exposed in the chapter, and to enable its recalling during the performance. One can also easily redesign such embodied knowledge due to its clear distribution on the anatomical shape of the hand. The moving of fingers aids in mathematical recalculations that should result from the combination of some parts of the divine names, as per instruction in the text. The divine in its numerical-linguistic structure, whose components are per definition set within a shifting, dynamic framework, is thus perceived and cognised via the information laid out on the practitioner’s hands—a tool which facilitates a paradigmatic embodied understanding and furthering of inner knowledge.10

Suggested Citation: Agata Paluch, “Writing on Hands: Practical and Kabbalistic Manual Devices,” Knowledge in Circulation: The Reception and Transmission of Jewish Esoteric Knowledge in Manuscripts and Print in Early Modern East-Central Europe, January 16, 2021 https://esknowcirc.hypotheses.org/297

{This piece has been adapted from a forthcoming publication, more details to follow soon.}

  1.  See Claire Richter Sherman, Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, Seattle 2001, passim.
  2.  See Harvey (ed.), Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture, Philadelphia 2003; Roazen, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation, New York 2007.
  3.  See William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, Philadelphia 2008, 27-52.
  4. On epistemic image see Lorraine Daston “Epistemic Images” in Payne (ed.), Vision and Its Instruments: Art, Science, and Technology in Early Modern Europe, 13–35; Lüthy and Smets, “Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery,” Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009), 398–439.
  5. Cf. e.g. Antropologium de hominis dignitate, natura, et proprietatibus, Leipzig 1501, fol. 14; Die Kunst der Ciromantia, Augsburg 1475, pls. 10-11.
  6. One of these early examples of a self-standing diagram in the context of chiromancy occurs in North French Miscellany, Add Ms 11639, a lavishly illustrated compilation that includes e.g. a mahzor and calendrical texts produced in the last third of the thirteenth century. Folio 115r holds a palm diagram which labels main lines and signs sometimes coupled with short explanations—the visual model and terminology in use is shared with that known from Arabic and Latin sources. Such standard elucidation of the subjects of palmistry as well as its visualisation mode continues well into the early modern period, when in a slightly more elaborated form it reaches the printing press in the mid-sixteenth century. 
  7. Cf. also Oxford-Bodleian Ms Mich. 457, a composite of 17th– and 18th-century materials.
  8. The hand appears subsequently in its many re-editions, sometimes attributed to Elijah [Loantz of Worms (1564-1636)], another well-known ba’al shem of Ashkenazi descent.
  9.  Occurs across ‘Ets Hayim; for an abridged version see Shene Luhot ha-Berit, “Toledot Adam” 19. 
  10. In this sense, the kabbalistic hand displays a degree of similarity to hand-diagrams in Christian manuals to prayer-meditations. Such diagrams facilitated mental visualisation of saints, Virgin Mary and Christ, a practice that was believed to gradually lead a practitioner toward a higher level of the divine. Cf. Schatzbehalter der wahren Reichtümer des Heils, 1491.

Follow us here and keep an eye on our forthcoming publications if you are interested in hand amulets, kabbalistic knowledge, and more!

“Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfer in the Early Modern World” (Berlin, 9-10 July 2019)

Kabbalistic traditions in the early modern period have been mostly examined by previous generations of scholars along the historical lines of investigation defined by Gershom Scholem and his students. Only in the last generation, following Moshe Idel, have scholars become interested in new methodological approaches to study early modern kabbalah as a set of religious and cultural practices as opposed to focusing solely on its theoretical or theological framework. Yosef Avivi, through his meticulous bibliographical survey, has paved the way to the study of the great abundance of sources available for investigation of the kabbalah of Isaac Luria, the most influential kabbalistic tradition of the early modern world. In the last few years the study of kabbalah in the early modern period, including the complex histories of Lurianic tradition and its dispersion beyond its birthplace in Palestinian Safed, have become a rapidly growing field.

Photo credits: Andrea Gondos

This conference’s objective was to recognise and evaluate the part that kabbalistic literatures, in a variety of their written formats, played in the transfer of knowledge in the early modern world, a subject that has only recently began to attract scholarly attention. The practical and scientific dimension of early modern kabbalistic literature exerted a significant influence on both Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual culture and was widely disseminated in early modern Europe. As it seems, in the seventeenth century and up to the eighteenth century, this feature of kabbalistic literature gripped numerous reading audiences, who aimed to gain and systematise knowledge of the metaphysical world, and to harness its power to effect changes in the physical world. The conference also aimed at engaging in the discussion on the role of magical rituals related to early scientific and artisanal practices which played a significant role in introducing the speculative doctrines of kabbalah into both European and non-European Jewish culture. Similarly, ethical conduct literature, in a variety of its genres and material formats, proves to be a rich source for the study of knowledge transfer strategies.  The conference gathered participants to contribute a series of case studies that will help critically reassess the role and consequences of printed texts in the spread of esoteric ideas and practices, and re-evaluate the character and significance of thriving manuscript culture, in its variegated material forms, for the early modern transmission of knowledge.

The aim of our conference was to showcase the recent surge in scholarly interest in early modern kabbalah by bringing together the most prominent scholars in the field side-by side with post-doctoral and doctoral researchers who will contribute to developing the field in the future. We also sought to overcome the fragmentation of research on kabbalistic traditions between Europe, Israel, and the United States. As the field is still relatively in the making, most of the papers in the sessions were devoted to the presentation and analysis of primary sources, many of which have not yet been published. The conference thus focused on contextualised readings of primary texts presented by each of the participants with the aim to highlight variant patterns of the diffusion of kabbalistic traditions, especially those formulated in Safed, in new cultural and historical circumstances, and their role in the formation and transformation of contemporary knowledge systems. Finally, by concentrating on the broadly defined kabbalistic lore, often included in the magical and moralistic literary genres, the conference provided a forum for the comprehensive assessment of the circulation of esoteric knowledge and praxis in the early modern period.

Photo credits: Andrea Gondos

Authors: Agata Paluch and Patrick B. Koch

EAJS Conference “Kabbalah & Knowledge Transfer in the Early Modern World”

In the last few years the study of Kabbalah in the early modern period, including the complex histories of Lurianic tradition and its dispersion beyond its birthplace in Palestinian Safed, have become a rapidly growing field. As opposed to focusing solely on its theoretical or theological framework, scholars have become interested in new methodological approaches to study early modern kabbalah as a set of religious and cultural practices.

The EAJS conference “Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfer in the Early Modern World” aims at recognizing and evaluating the part that kabbalistic literatures, in a variety of their written formats, played in the transfer of knowledge in the early modern world. The event will gather participants to contribute a series of case studies that will help critically reassess the role and consequences of a variety of texts and practices deemed esoteric for the early modern transmission of knowledge. The conference will be focused on contextualized readings of primary texts presented by each of the participants with the aim to highlight variant patterns of the diffusion of kabbalistic traditions in changing cultural and historical circumstances, and their role in the formation and transformation of contemporary knowledge systems.


The event is open to the public, with advance registration via e-mail: agata.paluch@fu-berlin.de or patrick.benjamin.koch@uni-hamburg.de

Sponsored by the European Association for Jewish Studies

A collaboration of:  Freie Universität Berlin, Universität Hamburg, Selma Stern Zentrum Berlin-Brandenburg and the Emmy Noether Program of the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Conveners: Agata Paluch, Patrick B. Koch


Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Venue:                        Freie Universität Berlin, Fachbereich Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften, Fabeckstraße 23-25, 14195 Berlin

14:00                           Welcome & Introductions

14:30–16:30:               Panel I: Forms of Kabbalistic Knowledge Transfer in Early Modernity 

Ratzo ve-shov: Reflections on the Circulation of Visual Kabbalahin the Early Modern Period

Yossi Chajes (Haifa)                                  

The Matrix of Understanding: Moshe Zacuto’s Em la-Binah

Gerold Necker (Halle)

Modes of Kabbalistic Knowledge Transmission in Early Modernity: Reductive versus Expansive Approaches

Andrea Gondos (Beer Sheva)

16:30–17:00                Tea/Coffee Break

17:00–18:00                Keynote Lecture

How the Art of Printing transformed Kabbalah: From Italian Courts to Polish Shtetlach

Giulio Busi (Berlin)

19:00                           Dinner


Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Venue:                        Selma Stern Zentrum für Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg 
Sophienstraße 22a, 10178 Berlin

9.00-9.30                     Tea/Coffee & Welcome

9:30–11:00                  Panel II: Manuscript Matrix and Kabbalistic Knowledge Transfer

Imprisoned Agencies: Knowledge Transfer between Travelling and Sitting Down

Magdaléna Jánošíková (London)

Kabbalah and/or Philosophy: Sources and Methodology in the Work of Yohanan Alemanno”

Hanna Gentili (London)

11:00–11:30                Tea/Coffee Break

11:30–13:00                Panel III: Kabbalistic Knowledge between Jewish & Christian Contexts

Transmission and Transformation of Kabbalistic Knowledge in Italy at the End of the Fifteenth Century

Flavia Buzzetta (Paris)

Transmission and Reception of Isaac ibn Sahula’s Kabbalistic Commentary on two Psalms

Saverio Campanini (Bologna)

13:00–14:00                Lunch

14:00-16:00                Panel IV: Transformations of Kabbalah in East-Central Europe

Ashkenaz-Safed-Ashkenaz: Transmission and Transformation in the Early Modern Ashkenazi Ritual Language

Maoz Kahana (Tel Aviv)

Paratexts and the Printing of Kabbalah in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Avinoam Stillman (Beer Sheva)

The Magic Triangle: Printing Lurianic Kabbalah in Koretz with Satanow, Krüger and Czartoryski

Elke Morlok (Frankfurt)

16:00                           Concluding Discussion

Flyer_Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfer 

Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe

Agata Paluch

[First published:

https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/04/11/practical-kabbalah-and-practical-knowledge-kabbalistic-manuals-and-natural-knowledge-in-early-modern-east-central-europe/ ]

An impressive handwritten codex at the National Library of Israel embodies the intricacies and peculiarities of crafting, reading, and transmitting practical knowledge in early modern Jewish contexts. The volume, known today as manuscript NLI 8º 1070, was likely produced in the 1730s somewhere in the Polish territories. A variety of local Polish-Ashkenazi traditions are well attested throughout the codex: vernacular and elite, theoretical and practical, of Jewish and Christian provenance, and transmitted mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish, but with elements of Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Ruthenian.

This compilation of two hundred and ninety-one octavo-size folios of kabbalistic, medical, and artisanal recipes and advice of all kinds assumed its form thanks to the work of a single scribe and compiler, who wrote and annotated all of the recipes himself. Indeed, numerous of the early modern manuscripts in Jewish languages contain practical kabbalistic recipe collections among their pages. Such recipes deploy theosophical speculations alongside instructions concerning the use of natural substances to exert effects in the material world.

Fig. 1 MS NL1 8 1070, fol. 4v–5r. The descriptive title of the manuscript translates as “Virtues and Medicines: A Large Volume of Virtues, Medicines, Amulets, and Fortunes.”

The volume ends rather arbitrarily with a short form of scribal colophon, which itself does not reveal the identity of the manuscript’s scribe. Only from a handful of additional scribal notes in the volume can we gather that the scribe’s name was Elhanan. On occasions, he signed his name to confirm the efficacy of recipes he had verified (“I tested it, Elhanan,” fol. 35r) or to make general assessments (“so it seems, in my humble opinion, Elhanan,” fol. 96r). It is quite evident that one hand wrote and annotated the manuscript in its entirety as well as tried and tested at least some of its technical contents. And yet the scribal colophon ascribes all of the practical knowledge and intellectual work involved in the volume’s production to the scribe’s grandfather, Elhanan B”K [of Vienna].

It is not unusual to find honorary references to family lineage in early modern Jewish texts, but Elhanan’s colophon does more than just acknowledge his forerunner’s achievements. It indicates that the collected material stems from B[a’al]”K[abbalah], “the master of kabbalah.” This abbreviation seldom appears in connection with figures of authority in practically oriented kabbalistic texts. The appellation found in those is normally ba’al shem, “master of name,” denoting an individual proficient in the manipulations of divine and angelic names, all performed in order to bring oneself or one’s community immediate gains in the material world. These texts included a whole gamut of recipes for medical treatments, the production of amulets, or the making of chemical compounds and cosmetics.[1] In early modern sources, ba’al shem connoted a figure of ambivalent status, an itinerant quack and at the same time a person of supernatural prowess seemingly conversant in written esoteric lore. By contrast, the appellation ba’al ha-kabbalah signified a person learned in the textual “tradition” in the literal sense of the word “kabbalah,” meaning “reception” or “transmission” in Hebrew. In this way, Elhanan situated his practical compendium within the chain of transmission of kabbalah, an esoteric tradition that by the eighteenth century had become part and parcel of the intellectual curriculum of Jewish elites in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, his manuscript continued a private family tradition of writing, storing household memories, so to speak. It depended on oral transmission and the personal authority of an accomplished family member, but it also added layers of everyday, experimentally verified knowledge to the large selection of elite kabbalistic texts and excerpts contained in the manuscript.

Elhanan’s manuscript is a magnificent, though not out-of-the-ordinary product of early modern Jewish strategies for organising natural and practical knowledge. The authority of its contents is assumed through the mixture of first-hand expertise and the clout of kabbalah. The European early modern period witnessed the emergence of new configurations of ideas and practices that foregrounded the active, experiential search for natural knowledge. Similarly, practical kabbalistic procedures, particularly in terms of their involvement in the practical engagement with matter, may be considered an important component of the early modern methods of acquiring and fashioning knowledge of the material world.

A whole spectrum of textual traditions and embodied practices that actively engaged with nature and natural materials—both organic and inorganic—were embraced in and known from practical kabbalistic records of vernacular knowledge production. For instance, Elhanan’s manuscript contains a well-known recipe for the production of gold ink. It recommends emptying an egg-shell and filling it with mercury. After the shell is sealed with wax or tar, it is supposed to be put under a hen among the eggs that are waiting to hatch. In this case, the result of the mercury-egg’s hatching would be an ink that has all the features of gold. Thus, natural calefaction by the body of an animal serves as a necessary condition for triggering elemental changes and is attributed with inducing the transformation of mercury into golden ink. In fact, it was quite common to include mercury in recipes for gold pigment, both in Jewish and non-Jewish vernacular sources,[2] although apparently it had little practical function because the yellow or golden hue had to be achieved by means of additional ingredients, such as the curcuma recommended by Elhanan.[3]

Fig. 2 MS NL1 8 1070, fol. 220v. A recipe to repel lice with a mixture of mercury and gold-infused water.

Alongside its role in the production of gold or golden ink, mercury is prominent in Elhanan’s record of recipes for a variety of cosmetics, especially those concerned with hair treatments. For instance, the mixture of water used in the goldsmith’s process of gilding and mercury was a recurring treatment recommended for getting rid of lice (fols. 220v, 191r, 131v, and 127v). The final product, a combination of heat linked to gold-infused water, together with mercury’s fluidity and pliability, was to be effective for repelling lice via the common association of the material qualities of lice with quicksilver. As the recipe appears in the volume time and again in various configurations, the ingredients used in conjunction with mercury change, ranging from garlic juice and butter or other animal fats to a variety of adjurations of angels.

A variety of bodily fluids also feature in Elhanan’s compilation as necessary for enhancing the quality of the material or object in question. Urine and excrement, both human and animal, were necessary ingredients in medical compounds and beauty products, supplying other inorganic substances with vital power because they were associated with the natural cycle of decomposition and regeneration (fol. 31r–v). Elhanan also copied several recipes in which animal milk, frequently of female dogs, was treated as both a powerful fertiliser and as a contraceptive substance for women (fol. 128r), while animal fat, alongside its medical and cosmetic uses, was recommended for use in husbandry and metallurgy.

The idea of augmenting the qualities of certain materials was a straightforward consequence of understanding matter as imbued with creative and active forces.[4] Kabbalistic practitioners often attempted to tap into and manipulate these forces with the abilities of their minds. A prayer recitation and a mental focus (kavanah or intention) on a divine name would seemingly add to the potency of matter or help to change its qualities. Elhanan’s compilation offers a number of recipes to treat koltun, commonly identified as a typically Ashkenazi (Eastern European) disease of hair-matting or plica polonica. One of the recipes to cure this unfortunate condition recommends, among other things, an adjuration that employs a series of divine names intended to get rid of the demonic element responsible for causing the ailment in human hair. After adjuring an angel whose power extends over the koltunish spirit, one is to strike it with “the name of eyes”—that is, with “Tetragrammaton” written with circles and lines that resemble the shape of eyes—and thus focus their intention on both the ocular shape of Tetragrammaton and the numerical value of 1600 for the number of “forces” accompanying the culpable spirit. Elhanan’s manuscript contains many recipes that employ adjurations as well as prayer with kabbalistic intention focused on the power of divine names and their numerical equivalents to activate or influence the natural world. It seems that certain instructions feature in such manuals as Elhanan’s primarily as iterations of stable philosophical and religious frames of reference, albeit enmeshed with a new and expanding lore of practical or experiential knowledge from the early modern period.[5]

Fig. 3 MS NL1 8 1070, fol. 31r. An adjuration followed by a recipe to combat koltun, a hair-matting disease known as plica polonica or Polish plait.

Elhanan’s compilation goes well beyond a magical or spiritual how-to. It offers a whole repertoire of practical knowledge in the form of recipes, abridgments, and excerpts from both print and manuscript sources, including handy tables and diagrams to be used and augmented by its handlers. Moreover, its authority is validated via the clout of elite, esoteric tradition transmitted by experts because those knowledgeable in kabbalah were also believed to possess special expertise regarding the practical workings of the material world. Thus, the technical expertise and practical know-how, including medical, artisanal, and other vernacular disciplines, are underpinned by theoretical-theosophical traditions. Kabbalistic texts are not usually read as documents echoing the state of “scientific” affairs in which they were compiled, nor is kabbalistic rhetoric and its textual and material genres construed as expressing an experimental sensibility. Yet kabbalistic material engaged with and conveyed contemporary structures of knowledge—not only those stemming from elite epistemes but also those rooted in the vernacular and practical. Handwritten manuals such as Elhanan’s embody a textual and material format through which knowledge circulated between cultural and linguistic contexts, and across now distant disciplines of knowing, be they religious or scientific, in early modern Europe.

  1. On the phenomenon of baal shemism, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, see Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Meridian, 1978), 182–89; J. H. Chajes, “Rabbis and Their (In)Famous Magic: Classical Foundations, Medieval and Early Modern Reverberations,” in Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History: Authority, Diaspora, Tradition, ed. Ra‘anan Boustan, Oren Kosansky, and Marina Rustow (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 58–79, and the further references provided there.  ↩
  2. See Pamela Smith, “Vermillion, Mercury, Blood, and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking,” in Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe, ed. Ursula Klein and E.C. Spary (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 39–48. See a similar procedure in a recipe in Kunstbüchlein, Auff mancherley weyß Dinten und allerhandt farben zu bereiten… . (Augsburg: Michael Manger, 1538), 19v.  ↩
  3. See also the recipe for mosaic gold in Cennino D’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook [Il libro dell’Arte], trans. Daniel V. Thompson (1933; New York: Dover, 1960), 101–2. See Pamela Smith, “Vermillion,” 42; Spike Bucklow, “Paradigms and Pigment Recipes: Vermilion, Synthetic Yellows, and the Nature of Egg,” Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung13 (1999): 140–49.  ↩
  4. On the non-Jewish artisanal epistemologies that operated within the same theoretical boundaries, including and the bodies of knowledge that shaped attitudes towards matter, see Smith, “What is a Secret?,” 63–66.  ↩
  5. On the reciprocal dynamic between matter, technological practices, and material objects producing systems of beliefs that further inform ideas on matter and technical practices, see Jennifer Mylander, “Early Modern ‘How-To’ Books: Impractical Manuals and the Construction of Englishness in the Atlantic World,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9 (2009): 123–46; Pamela Smith, “In the Workshop of History: Making, Writing, and Meaning,” West 86th 19 (2012): 10.  ↩
Suggested Citation: Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/04/11/practical-kabbalah-and-practical-knowledge-kabbalistic-manuals-and-natural-knowledge-in-early-modern-east-central-europe/.

DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group: “The Transmission and Reception of Jewish Esotericism in Manuscripts and Print in Early Modern East-Central Europe”


Patterns of Knowledge Circulation is the Emmy Noether Research Group, founded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), based at the Department of Cultural and Historical Studies. It aims to explore how Jewish esoteric knowledge circulated throughout history in multiple moves of transmission and reception that took place in various social, cultural, and material contexts in early modern East-Central Europe. 

The project contributes to the recently expanding field of the history of knowledge, both practical and theoretical, as well as the processes of knowledge formation and transformation in a variety of cultural and social milieus. 

                   NLI 4 19, folio 186v-187r


The project will provide a systematic digital catalogue and quantitative analysis of Jewish texts commonly deemed esoteric produced and in circulation in East-Central Europe from 1500 to 1750. The catalogue will provide grounds for further analysis of transmission, reception, and movement of these texts in early modern East-Central Europe. It is designed to facilitate further qualitative studies of patterns of knowledge transmission based on quantitative analysis of relevant sources. 

In the processes of circulation of kabbalistic knowledge, East-Central Europe played a crucial yet still understudied role. The prevalent scholarly claim that Jewish mystical or kabbalistic thought in early modern East-Central Europe was peripheral to the study of the history of kabbalah goes counter to a large corpus of extant Ashkenazi kabbalistic texts in print and in manuscript form. The project aims to explore this corpus and understand the role of kabbalistic texts and their producers in early modern East-Central European transfer of both practical and theoretical forms of knowledge. 

Performing kabbalistic knowledge focuses on modes of organising and producing, that is, copying, compiling and re-writing of kabbalistic knowledge in early modern Ashkenazi manuscript culture. It puts special emphasis on the relation between speculative and practical kabbalah in manuscript compilations/collectanea as a material and epistemic genre. It explores the introduction, transmission, and impact of the kabbalistic texts from the circle of Isaac Luria—the most significant kabbalistic school of early modernity—to East-Central Europe from the perspective of the local manuscript culture.

Jewish esotericism and natural knowledge examines practical kabbalistic textual corpus in the context of growing European interest in practical knowledge and increasing experiential and empirical sensibility of early modernity. It concentrates on the forms of transfer of kabbalistic knowledge between various textual and epistemic genres as well as between different linguistic contexts (such as Polish, Russian, German, Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Latin).

Printing Jewish kabbalistic literatures in early modern East-Central Europe explores the modes of circulation of kabbalistic knowledge between manuscripts and print in early modern East-Central Europe. It also investigates book collecting practices and the status of Jewish cabbalistica in public and private book collections, book ownership patterns and the exchange of kabbalistic books as markers of power and authority, and editorial practices of early printed kabbalistic books in East-Central Europe. 


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