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The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book

The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book

by Raphael Patai

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In this monumental work, Raphael Patai opens up an entirely new field of cultural history by tracing Jewish alchemy from antiquity to the nineteenth century. Until now there has been little attention given to the significant role that Jews played in the field of alchemy. Here, drawing on an enormous range of previously unexplored sources, Patai reveals that Jews were


In this monumental work, Raphael Patai opens up an entirely new field of cultural history by tracing Jewish alchemy from antiquity to the nineteenth century. Until now there has been little attention given to the significant role that Jews played in the field of alchemy. Here, drawing on an enormous range of previously unexplored sources, Patai reveals that Jews were major players in what was for centuries one of humanity's most compelling intellectual obsessions.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This scholarly work is the first attempt to trace the role of Jews in the field of alchemy from biblical times through the 19th century. A helpful introduction defines alchemy as more than the effort to transmit base metals into gold. The chronological presentation devotes several chapters to individual alchemists, while other chapters cover key manuscripts, treatises, and movements in the history of Jewish alchemy. In an especially absorbing chapter, the author describes the relationship of alchemy and kabbalism, with the latter introducing a mystical and spiritual context for alchemical theories. The conclusion asserts that pre-Enlightenment Jewish alchemists saw in alchemy a connection to their religious observance. Here alchemy comes to be seen as one of the few fields of intellectual endeavor where Jews were allowed to interact with gentiles on an equal basis. For larger Jewish studies collections.-Mark Weber, Kent State Univ. Lib., Ohio
From the Publisher
Winner of the 1994 National Jewish Honor Book in Scholarship

"Raphael Patai seeks to break what he sees as the code of silence surrounding the history of Jewish alchemy, and his book represents the findings of years of intense research in this little-known subject. . . . To the author's great credit he has marshaled a vast array of sources in an effort to reaffirm that which was proclaimed by both Jewish and especially non-Jewish alchemists until the rise of the 19th-century Jewish scholarship—namely, that the Jews played a seminal role in the history of alchemy."—John Efron, Forward

"Groundbreaking and highly original treatise. . . . Before Patai's monumental study, the exact knowledge of the Jewish input into alchemy was minimal. . . . [Raphael Patai] has brought the searching light of his extraordinary excavation skills into the unearthing of a dusty but now glimmering vein of the Jewish experience."—Arnold Ages, Midstream

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.02(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.28(d)

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The Jewish Alchemists

A History and Source Book

By Raphael Patai


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03290-0



Scholars who have written about alchemy are far from agreeing about what alchemy actually is (or was). Some go along with the popular view that alchemy is nothing but the art that tries, or claims to be able, to transmute base metals into gold. This view considers alchemy as a whole a pseudoscience, a misguided attempt at dealing with the properties of matter, which produced a few practical results before it was superseded in the late eighteenth century by Antoine Lavoisier's establishment of modern chemistry. Others, at the opposite extreme of the range of opinions, hold that alchemy is basically a spiritual endeavor whose aim is to transmute the imperfect human soul into a more perfect spiritual entity. This latter view has antecedents as far back as Maria the Jewess, the famed Hellenistic Jewish founder of alchemy.

Several Renaissance alchemists considered the stages in the alchemical work steps in the mysterious process of spiritual regeneration. Thus Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1601) interpreted transmutation itself as a mystical process occurring within the adept's soul. Highly individual is the cosmological-psychological approach of C. G. Jung (1875–1961), who held that "alchemy is pre-eminently concerned with the seed of unity which lies hidden in the chaos of Tiamat [Jung used the name of this ancient babylonian deity to designate the primordial matriarchal world] and forms the counterpart to divine unity." However, the entire construct erected by Jung in his Psychology and Alchemy is summarily dismissed by the Encyclopedia of Religion with the statement that "Enticed by the resemblance between the dreams of his patients and alchemical symbols," C. G. Jung concluded that "the attribution of life to matter was the foundation of alchemical belief," which belief he "read ... from his psychoanalytic standpoint as the projection of inner experience onto matter, and thus as the identification of matter with the Self." Further examples of the great variety in the identification and interpretation of alchemy could easily be culled from the huge literature on alchemy.

During the Renaissance, alchemy broke up into competing schools among whom little sympathy was lost. The spiritual alchemists looked down with contempt at those who labored on transmuting metals, and dubbed them "sooty empirics" and "puffers." On the other hand, the claim of being in possession of spiritual truths revealed by God evoked the jealousy and wrath of many churchmen who remained indifferent to the smell of the retorts but smelled heresy in what they felt were spiritual pretensions of the alchemists, and were scandalized by such alchemical doctrines as the one that identified the philosophers' stone with Christ, since both redeemed base matter. One of the few to take a contrary view on this issue was Luther, who praised alchemy for its verification of Christian doctrine.

The contrary definitions of alchemy bring to mind the old Indian story about the group of blind men who were trying to identify an elephant. Their guide took them to the courtyard where the maharaja's elephants were kept, and let them touch one of the big beasts. One blind man happened to get hold of the elephant's trunk, and exclaimed, "The elephant is a big fat snake!" Another touched the elephant's leg and said, "No, the elephant is like the trunk of a big tree!" The third one grabbed its tail, and cried, "No, no! The elephant is like the hawser of a ship!" And so on, for the elephant's various parts.

The fact is that alchemy was everything its practitioners claimed it was, and its aims comprised everything its historians attributed to it. They included the transmutation of base metals into silver and gold, the doubling or otherwise increasing the weight of gold, the manufacturing of pearls and precious stones, the production of all kinds of tinctures and other substances, the concoction of dyes, and the making of all kinds of remedies for healing every disease of which humankind suffered, and the creation of the quintessence, the fabulous elixir, which healed, rejuvenated, and prolonged life for centuries. Because health, youth, and long life were always at least as important desiderata as riches, most alchemists were also physicians, and used their alchemical expertise for manufacturing remedies, searching for the elixir, and ministering to the sick and the old in any manner they could. All this was part of the practical aspect of alchemy.

Another of its aspects was the theoretical. Everything the alchemists did was based on theories in which they believed, and which were the guarantee that their quest would ultimately be crowned with success. The most important of the alchemical theories was that of the unity of all nature. Wherever alchemy developed—in China, India, the Ancient Near East, the Arab world, Christian Europe—it was built on the theory that all the visible forms of matter, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, were manifold forms of one basic, essential substance. A rock, a piece of iron or gold, a tree, a human body—however different they appeared to be, they were but variant physical manifestations of the one and only essence contained in all of them. This is why a malfunction of a human body (i.e., an illness) could be healed with a remedy derived, or rather an essence extracted, from some mineral, vegetable, or animal substance. And this is why a base metal could be transmuted into a precious one, again by applying to it a minuscule amount of that precious essence. This was the area in which alchemy and medicine functioned not merely as sister sciences, but as identical activities: the healing of a sick person was understood to be the transmutation of a sick body into a healthy one, and the transmutation of copper into gold was understood to be the healing of a sick metal and imparting health to it. Among Jews throughout the centuries, most of the alchemists were physicians as well, and it is not easy to decide whether the outstanding role they played as physicians facilitated their entrance into the field of alchemy, or whether they became outstanding physicians because they were led from alchemy into medicine.

Connected with the theory of the unity of nature was the theory of the analogy between the growth of individual plants and animals on the one hand and the development of inanimate forms of matter in the bosom of the earth on the other. Just as a seed germinates and with time becomes a full-grown tree, and just as the human embryo grows in its mother's womb into a fully formed child, so in the earth ores and metals were believed to develop from lower into higher grades, until at the end they became gold. This theory served as the basis for the alchemist's practice of trying to transmute base metal into precious ones, by reproducing in his laboratory the developmental processes of the metals, at a very accelerated speed, always keeping in mind that transmutation was healing.

A related theory was the one that postulated an analogy between body and soul in a human being and bodies and souls in metals. Maria the Jewess said, "Just as man is composed of four elements, likewise is copper; and just as a man results [from the association of] liquids, of solids, and of the spirit, so does copper." An elaboration of this theory was that some metals were bodies, others spirits, and that bodies and spirits could be transmuted into one another and back again; by doing this the adept could change one metal into another. The belief in the alchemist's ability to influence the mineral spirits led back to the human spirit, which too came to be considered subject to alchemical manipulation, and primarily to alchemical ennoblement. Thus alchemy was a comprehensive tradition embracing all aspects of human existence, which was conceived within the broader context of a universal ontology. It was this theoretical aspect of alchemy that attracted some of the greatest minds known to the Western world, including Newton and Goethe.

The main alchemical theories were supported by many subsidiary ones. One such was the identification of metals with the planets, so that when the alchemist worked with gold he felt he enjoyed the power emanating from the sun, and likewise his silver gave him a connection to the moon, quicksilver to Mercury, copper to Venus, iron to Mars, tin to Jupiter, and lead to Saturn. One of the expressions of this planetary theory was the alchemical usage of substituting the names of planets for those of metals. An alchemist spoke of "Sun," and meant gold, of "Moon," and meant silver, of "Venus," and meant copper, and so on.

Another astronomical connection of alchemy was the one between each alchemical process and a particular sign of the zodiac, with which that process was held to be mysteriously associated. Calcination was associated with Aries, congelation with Taurus, fixation with Gemini, dissolution with Cancer, digestion with Leo, distillation with Virgo, sublimation with Libra, separation with Scorpio, ceration with Sagittarius, fermentation with Capricorn, multiplication with Aquarius, and projection with Pisces—thus according to the schema developed by Dom Antoine Joseph Parnety, the eighteenth-century French alchemist.

An essential part of the alchemical theory was that the Royal Art, as it was called, went back to divine revelation accorded to the great biblical figures beginning with Adam, and hence was endowed with a certain sanctity. The success of an alchemist therefore depended not merely on his expertise in the laboratory, but also on his moral stature: it was only by the grace of God that an experiment succeeded, and God, of course, rewarded with His grace only an alchemist who deserved it. A manifestation of high moral stature was knowledge, or wisdom, whereas ignorance and folly were considered moral shortcomings. This is the basis of the frequent admonition found in alchemical writings that the teachings contained in them must be kept secret, that is, must not be divulged to the ignorant, the vulgar.

To this context belongs the relationship between alchemy and magic—a field not yet investigated. The strictly orthodox alchemist would have nothing to do with magic. He relied on his expertise and his knowledge of procedures, worked hard, and prayed to God. But there were others for whom the enticements of magic were too strong to resist. They combined alchemy and magic, much as in certain religious cults in the Caribbean and Africa Christian and pagan religious elements are joined, despite the original incompatibility of the two. As we shall see in this book, some Jewish alchemists combined alchemical work with magical proceedings.

One of the very interesting, and likewise largely unexplored, aspects of alchemy is the relationship between the three great branches of alchemy that developed more or less simultaneously in three great cultures of antiquity: those of China, India, and the Ancient Near East (especially Hellenistic Egypt). The fascination of such a study lies in the fact that, although widely separated geographically, the alchemies of these three worlds show surprising similarities in both their theoretical and their practical activities. Since, however, our interest in this book is in Jewish alchemy, which developed within the Western world (that is, the Ancient Near East, the Arab world, and Christian Europe), we shall not be able even to touch upon these issues.

The prevailing attitude of Jewish scholars to the role Jews played in the history of alchemy is reminiscent of the scholarly position on Jewish mysticism a hundred years ago. At that time—only a generation or two removed from the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment—Jewish scholars belittled mysticism, distanced themselves from it, and tried to show that they were true, enlightened "Europaer" by roundly condemning both the Kabbalah as a movement and the literature it produced. I remember vividly how shocked I was when, as a teenager in the 1920s in Budapest, while reading Die Geschichte der Juden by Heinrich Graetz—who at the time was still considered the greatest Jewish historian—I came across the sentence in which he condemned the Zohar and called it a "Logbuch" (book of lies). My shock was the greater since my father, who was the dominant influence in my young life, was a great admirer of both the Kabbalah and Hasidism, and I simply could not understand how a Jewish historian could denigrate this wonderful manifestation of lofty spiritualism in Judaism. Fortunately, the Zohar and the Kabbalah in general have been fully rehabilitated in the last half century, due primarily to the work of Gershom Scholem and his followers. Martin Buber and his disciples have done the same for Hasidism, which is recognized today as a powerful religious movement that has played a crucial role in Jewish history since the eighteenth century. No such redemption has as yet come to alchemy.

There are, of course, basic differences between Kabbalah and Hasidism on the one hand, and alchemy on the other. First, although Kabbalah and Hasidism reflected outside influences, they were specifically Jewish phenomena. Jewish alchemists, on the other hand, even though they played an important role in the origin, development, transmission, and spread of alchemy, were nevertheless only a small group of adepts in comparison to the large number of non-Jewish alchemists in the countries of the Jewish diaspora. Second, although Kabbalah and Hasidism were mass movements among the Jewish people—at times the majority of the Jews adhered to them—alchemy was always confined to a few individuals. It was an occupational specialization, comparable to medicine. The people at large may have believed in the reality of alchemy, and may even have had an inkling of the basic doctrines of the alchemical worldview, they were nevertheless as little able or inclined to engage in alchemical operations as they were to dabble in medical procedures.


Excerpted from The Jewish Alchemists by Raphael Patai. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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