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

{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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.