ALCHEMY


ALCHEMY, ancient art that was the origin of chemistry. The Jewish association with alchemy dates from ancient times. Zosimos, a fifth-century Greek historian, states that the Jews acquired the secrets of the "sacred craft" of the Egyptians and the knowledge of the "power of gold" which derives from it by dishonest means, and they imparted the knowledge of alchemy to the rest of the world. In ancient Greek manuscripts, which contain lists of writings on alchemy, a number of alchemic and magic writings are attributed to Moses; one work is ascribed to *Hoshea, king of Israel. *Bezalel was also considered a proficient alchemist on the basis of Exodus 31:1–5. The author of the above-mentioned writings was, most probably, Moses of Alexandria, a famous alchemist, which would explain why they were later ascribed to Moses the Lawgiver; in any case it seems certain that the author was a Jew since his writings show traces of Jewish monotheism and other Jewish beliefs.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, and later, the connection between alchemy and the Bible and Prophets was strengthened in the view of Christian alchemists who despaired of finding the philosopher's stone by natural means and sought to attain it by the grace of God who reveals His secret only to His faithful. The alchemists believed, therefore, that the patriarchs, the prophets, and the kings of Israel possessed the secret of the "stone." Gerhard Dorn (end of 16th century) contended that the whole art of alchemy was contained in the verse, "God made the firmament" (Gen. 1:7). Michael Maier, the physician of Rudolf ii, and chief exponent of the Rosicrucian order in Germany in the 17th century, found its basis in the verse, "the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2), "the waters" being mercury. Aegidius Guthmann of Augsburg wrote a lengthy "alchemical" interpretation of the first verses of Genesis. Tubal-Cain, who lived before the Flood, was considered the father of alchemy since it was said of him that he was "the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron" (Gen. 4:22). These alchemists particularly singled out the name Mehetabel, the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Me-Zahab (Gen. 36:39). The name Me-Zahab ("waters of gold") was interpreted to mean that he knew how to produce drinkable gold (aurum potabile); and Mehetabel possibly reminded them of the Greek metabole (μεταβολή), "transmutation." Abraham *Ibn Ezra heard this interpretation of Me-Zahab and remarked in his commentary: "Others say it refers to those said to make gold out of brass, but this is nonsense."

The first men mentioned in Genesis would not have, according to the alchemists, reached such old age, had they not made use of the elixir vitae. They also contended that "Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold" (Gen. 13:2) because he learned the secret of alchemy from Hermes in Egypt. All the patriarchs, as well as Judah, wore the philosopher's stone on their bodies. Moses was, however, according to them, the first and foremost among the biblical experts. As late as the 18th century, an alchemist wrote a book: Urim und Tumim von Moses, Handleitung vom grossen Propheten und Feldherrn zum Weisenstein ("Oracles of Moses, a Guide to the Philosopher's Stone by the Great Prophet and General," Nuremberg, 1737). King David was considered an expert alchemist, since he could only have raised "a hundred thousand talents of gold, and a thousand talents of silver" for the building of the "house of the Lord" (I Chron. 22:14) by alchemical means. Further support for this assumption was adduced from the fact that David bequeathed to his son, Solomon, millu'im avnei-pukh ("stones to be set, glistening stones," ibid. 29:2) which are the philosopher's stones. Solomon learned the secret from his father, and was, therefore, able to provide "silver and gold to be in Jerusalem as stones" (II Chron. 1:15). According to the story quoted by Johanan Alemanno (in his Sefer ha-Likkutim ("Collectanea"; from the Arab alchemist Abu Aflaḥ of Syracuse)), supposedly originally found in the esoteric Sefer ha-Maẓpun, ascribed to King Solomon, the "precious stone" with which the Queen of Sheba presented Solomon (I Kings 10:2) was none other than the philosopher's stone which she had inherited from her first husband, Sman (who was a great Nabatean sage). The Queen of Sheba's aim was to test King Solomon's wisdom, but he already knew the secret and recognized the stone immediately (cf. I.S. *Reggio, in Kerem Ḥemed, 2 (1836), 48–50).

The prophet Elijah, also considered a great expert in alchemy, is frequently mentioned by the Christian alchemists, and some of their writings bear his name. Jewish influence is evident from the fact that they too contend that Elijah would, on his return to earth, provide the answer to all the unsolved problems. The prophet Isaiah was also considered to have been an expert, on the basis of the verses: "I will set thy stones in fair colors [pukh] and lay thy foundations with sapphires" (Isa. 54:11) and "For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver" (Isa. 60:17). The adepts also include the prophets Elisha, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi (the first verses in chapter three of the book of Malachi were interpreted in an alchemic and Christological manner), Daniel, and Ezra. The names of Job's three daughters, Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-Happuch were also interpreted in a religious and alchemic spirit.

Alchemy and Kabbalah

Alchemy and the *Kabbalah were closely linked in the Middle Ages. A kabbalistic outline is found in the early alchemist manuscript of Saint Mark (11th century) called Solomon's Labyrinth. The wandering German alchemist, Salomon Trismosin, boasted that he drew his knowledge from kabbalistic writings which had been translated into Arabic. His great disciple, Paracelsus, maintained that expert knowledge of Kabbalah was an essential prerequisite for studying alchemy. However, neither he nor his master had more than a superficial knowledge of the Kabbalah, if any at all, although both talked about it a great deal. Paracelsus even based his strange theories on it, i.e., that of the creation of a *golem, a homunculus, through alchemy. The lesser Christian alchemists, especially the religious ones, following his example, also tended to make use of the Kabbalah for their purposes, though most had no knowledge of it. When, at the beginning of the 17th century, alchemy took a religious, mystical turn (in particular with the rise of the Rosicrucians), the prestige and influence of the Kabbalah became even more widespread; alchemy and Kabbalah became synonymous among Christians. This identification was generally speaking groundless. While many kabbalists undoubtedly accepted alchemy as a fact, the interests and symbol systems of Kabbalah and alchemy respectively were utterly different. Nevertheless occasional – albeit relatively insignifican – mutual influences are evident, and traces of alchemical lore are to be found in the *Zohar. The saying "through the gaze of the sun and its power, dust evolves and grows gold" (Zohar, 1:249–50) agrees with Artephius' theory that the metals grow like plants, but whereas the plants are composed of water and dust, the metals are composed of sulphur and mercury; the heat of the sun's rays penetrates the earth and combines with these elements to form gold, the metal of the sun. Simeon *Labi, the commentator on the Zohar, interprets this saying in his Ketem Paz in a definitely alchemical manner and states that the kabbalists call gold, "sun," and silver, "moon." The following saying (Zohar, 2:148a), bears an even stronger alchemical influence: "The heavenly gold is bright and shines in the eyes … and whoever clings to it when it descends into the lower world, conceals it within himself and for this reason it is also closed gold (zahav sagur), for it is not seen by the eye which does not possess it; but the gold of the earth is 'lower gold' and is easier to discover." The alchemical theory is even clearer in the passage following the one just quoted: "…. when silver thus reaches its fulfillment it becomes gold; we find, then, that silver transforms itself into gold and when this happens, it attains the stage of perfection." Hence, it is clear that the author of the Zohar not only believed in the transmutation of metals, but that he also adopted the alchemical theory of perfect and imperfect metals, as well as the belief that when silver is transformed into gold it reaches a higher grade of perfection.

*Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon, in his Shekel ha-Kodesh (London (1911), 118–22), also uses the language of the alchemists: "Copper is red and this generates the nature [teva, or zeva, "color"] of both, for those who know the craft [melakhah] make out of it the nature [color] of gold and silver." According to the alchemical teachings, copper too has the faculty of direct transformation into gold (without having to go through the intermediary stage of silver). It is true that the Zohar does not include mercury in the list of metals for the *Merkabah (merkavah; "divine chariot"; Zohar, 2:423–4), which has the greatest importance in alchemy, but this is possibly because, in common with Jābir (eighth century alchemist and physician), the Zohar did not consider mercury to be a metal at all but a spirit (pneuma). Ḥayyim *Vital, who at an earlier stage in his career took a lively interest in alchemy, lists mercury among the seven metals. Abraham b. Mordecai *Azulai (1570–1643) quotes Vital in the last part of Ḥesed le-Avraham (1863) that the seven metals correspond to the seven Sefirot ("degrees of divine emanation"), from Ḥesed to Malkhut, "hence, mercury corresponds to the seventh planet kokhav ['Mercury']… and it is already known to you that Yesod [one of the Sefirot] is also called El Ḥai ['the Living God'] and it corresponds to Kesef Ḥai ['Quick-Silver']." Mercury is allocated to Sefirah Yesod, because it is the basic element in all metals and in its ideal form is the basic element in the philosopher's stone, just as El Ḥai is the foundation of the universe. Ḥayyim Vital studied alchemy. This is shown in the following passage in Shivḥei Rabbi Ḥayyim Vital (1826): "He [Isaac *Luria] also told me that he saw inscribed on my forehead the verse: 'And to devise skillful works, to work in gold and in silver and in brass' [Ex. 35:32], an allusion to the two-and-a-half years during which I forsook the study of the Torah and pursued alchemy." Ḥ.J.D. *Azulai speaks of the philosopher's stone in his Midbar Kedemot (Lemberg, 1869, fol. 19), and calls it esev ("weed") as it was also called by the alchemists (and as it is called in other kabbalistic writings as well as in Hebrew manuscripts dealing with alchemy). Numerous prescriptions for the making of gold are found in books of practical Kabbalah (Nifla'im Ma'asekha, Leghorn (1881), S.V. zahav); these were probably taken from the writings of Jewish as well as gentile alchemists.

The influence of the Kabbalah on alchemy was greater than that of alchemy on Kabbalah, especially after the latter was diffused in Christian circles by *Pico della Mirandola, *Reuchlin, *Galatinus, and others. Some of the Christian alchemists adopted the theory of the ten Sefirot as well as the doctrine of the secrets of letters obtained by ẓerufim ("combinations") and gematriot and made them a basis for the Work of Holiness. Some used to inscribe on the melting-pot Hebrew and Syriac words copied from kabbalistic writings or words obtained by the above-mentioned methods. (The combination of letters was supposed to bring about the combination of metals.) The use of kabbalistic methods is also found in the book Ars Magna, attributed to Raymond Lull. Christian *Knorr von Rosenroth was one of the alchemists who had a real knowledge of Kabbalah. His Cabbala denudata (1677) contains translations of passages from the Zohar as well as lengthy quotations from Esh Meẓaref, a book on alchemy written in a kabbalistic spirit, which is probably a translation of a Hebrew manuscript. The author of Esh Meẓaref explains the relation of the metals to the Sefirot and quotes extensively from the Zohar; he too relates mercury to the Sefirah Yesod. He also quotes from another Jewish alchemist, Mordecai, who found a way to produce artificial silver by means of a four-month-long process. It is probable that this alchemist was Mordecai the son of Leone *Modena who transformed lead into silver and died as a result of his experiments (Ḥayyei Yehudah (Kiev, 1912), 33). Under the influence of Knorr von Rosenroth's work, a whole literature of kabbalistic alchemy was created. The book Or Nogah is particularly noteworthy. It was written in Hebrew and German and printed in Vienna, 1747. Its author, Aloisius Wiener, a nobleman of the Sonnenfels family, was a baptized Jew and an expert in Kabbalah, called "Lipmann Berlin" before his conversion.

The number of Jews who practiced the art of alchemy was apparently relatively small; however, the state of knowledge on this point is incomplete. It seems that the Jews of Egypt, particularly Alexandria, many of whom were gold- and silversmiths, during the Greek and Roman periods, were devotees of alchemy, magic, and *demonology (Suk. 51b). Zosimos testified that the "true teachings about the Great Art" were to be found only in "the writings and books of the Jews." However, the conclusion at which De Pauw arrived 150 years ago, namely that the Jews were the creators of alchemy, is incorrect. Alchemy is neither a Jewish science nor a Jewish art. The Jews were engaged in it in the same measure as they were engaged in other secular trades and fields of knowledge. However, the fact that in 1545 Martin *Luther warned Archduke Joachim II of Brandenburg against alchemy with which the Jews dealt indicates that he shared the general belief concerning the close connection between alchemy and Judaism.

In some alchemic writings the philosopher's stone is symbolized as a circle enclosing a hexagonal star ("the star of David"): the circle alludes to the kabbalistic *Ein-Sof ("Infinite"); the triangle which points upward represents the element fire; and the one which points downward the element water. Fire and water together constitute heaven (shamayim = esh + mayim). From the 17th century, this was used by alchemists to symbolize the primeval matter out of which the main element of the philosopher's stone, philosophic mercury, the "quintessence," is extracted.

Jewish Personalities in Alchemy

In the Egyptian-Greek period one of the greatest alchemists was a woman known as "Mary the Jewess" (Maria Hebraea). According to Lippmann, she lived in the first century C.E. Her name and works are often mentioned in alchemic literature. According to Zosimos she was greatly skilled in alchemy and invented numerous ovens and boiling and distilling devices out of metal, clay, and glass. She even taught how to plaster them with the "philosopher's clay." The most important among her ovens, the kerotakis (also called "Mary's oven"), served to liquefy solids and to separate, through sublimation, the evaporable parts from the non-evaporable ones. Its main use, however, was for the preparation of the so-called "divine water" (a combination of sulfuric acid used to "bleach" metals). Mary also discovered the water, sand, and oil baths, vessels which even today are indispensable in any chemical laboratory. Mary is also the first to mention hydrochloric acid and one may therefore assume that she discovered it. The following esoteric saying, paralleled in kabbalistic writings, is ascribed to her: "Two are one, three and four are one, one will become two, two will become three." Another strange saying which excludes non-Jews from dealing with alchemy is also attributed to her: "Do not touch [the philosopher's stone with your hands]; you are not of our stock, you are not of Abraham's bosom." There is no doubt that she really existed and was famous in her time. Zosimos identified her with Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Moses; the Christian alchemists, who were eager to add the luster of biblical sanctity to their art, called her by this very name: "Maria Prophetissa, Moysis Soror."

Khalid b. Jasikhi (Calid Hebraeus) was an Arabian Jew and writer. He was revered by the Arab alchemists, who considered him to be the first alchemist of the Arabic period. Steinschneider, however, believes that he was an Arab. Artephius, the great alchemist of the 12th century, "before whom there lived no other expert equal to him" was a baptized Jew according to the author of Keren ha-Pukh. Artephius is said to have brought the creation of the philosopher's stone to perfection. He wrote three books on alchemy "whose importance is invaluable." In one of them, he relates that he wrote his work at the age of 1,025 years (thus supporting the belief that the philosopher's stone brings long life). Some scholars believe that Artephius was an Arab. However, the fact that he did not write anything in Arabic (all his works are written in Latin), seems to belie this contention.

At the beginning of the Christian period in alchemy (13th century), Jacobus Aranicus, a Jewish alchemist living in France, taught alchemy to the Christian scholar Vincent de Beauvais. Later (in the 15th century; according to Lippmann, the 17th century), two Dutch Jews became famed as alchemists: Isaac and his son John Isaac, both called "Hollandus," since their family name was unknown. The father was a diamond cutter and his son a physician. They led solitary lives and became famous only posthumously, through the works which they left behind; some authors consider them equal to Basilius Valentinus. They knew how to prepare "royal water" out of nitrate and sea-salt, as well as the "spirit of urine" (ammonia), and produced artificial gems. In the first quarter of the 18th century, a strange Jewish adept named Benjamin Jesse lived in Hamburg. His name became known only after his death, when a complete laboratory was discovered in a locked room of his house.

It is most probable that there were other Jewish alchemists in the Middle Ages as well as in the later period, particularly among the physicians and naturalists of the Spanish and Renaissance periods. It is certain that more books on alchemy have been written than have survived, partly because they were lost and partly because their authors hid behind the names of famous predecessors. It seems that among kabbalists, too, there were quite a number of alchemists, beside those already mentioned. The Jews of Morocco were particularly assiduous in their study and practice of alchemy, even into recent times. According to G. Scholem's testimony, a Jewish kabbalist from Morocco who was also an alchemist still lived in Jerusalem early in the 20th century. Baruch *Spinoza, though not a practitioner of alchemy, was nevertheless keenly interested in it.

While alchemic literature runs into thousands of volumes, there is no original work in this field in Hebrew literature. It seems, therefore, that Jewish adepts did not write their works in Hebrew. However, information on alchemy is scattered in the Hebrew works of several medieval and later authors. Hebrew authors referred to alchemy (alkimiyyah) as melakhah ("craft"), or ḥokhmat ha-ẓerifah ("the art of refining"). Among the Jewish scholars who in one way or another had some relation to alchemy, one should add the following: *Baḥya b. Joseph ibn Paquda, who in his Ḥovot ha-Levavot (beginning of chapter Bittaḥon) describes the ways of life and work of the alchemists, and apparently had no doubt about the truth of alchemy. Abraham Ibn Ezra also believed in alchemy as may be inferred from his commentary on the burning of the golden calf (Ex. 32:20): "for there is a thing which, when thrown into the fire together with the gold, it burns and becomes black and it will never become gold again; and this has been tried and it is true." *Maimonides knew some of the writings of Hermes (Guide of the Perplexed, ed. by S. Pines (1963), 521) but considered them to be nonsense. He does not even mention alchemy. Nevertheless, Iggeret ha-Sodot was later attributed to him; in this he allegedly explains to his disciple Joseph ibn *Aknin the secrets of alchemy in Sha'ar ha-Shamayim (Venice, 1547, section 2). Johanan Alemanno, who introduced Pico della Mirandola (who was interested in alchemy) to the Kabbalah, believed in alchemy, and mentioned it in Sefer ha-Likkutim and in Ḥeshek Shelomo (Leghorn, 1790). Abraham b. David Portaleone wrote a book in which alchemy is discussed, called De aurodialogi tres (Venice, 1584). Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague, a devotee of alchemy, was summoned to the alchemist King Rudolf II. According to the stories which circulated, they discussed the mysteries of alchemy.

Leone Modena recounts in his book Ḥayyei Yehudah that he and his son Mordecai dealt in alchemy for a profit. According to Modena, they began to do so on the advice of the physician, Abraham di Cammeo, who was rabbi in Rome, and himself an alchemist. Shemaiah, the uncle of Modena, was killed as a result of his alchemic activities. Modena's disciple, Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo, considered alchemy a very superior art (Maẓref la-Ḥokhmah (Warsaw, 1890), 49; see below). In 1640 Benjamin Mussafia, the author of Musaf he-Arukh and physician at the Danish court, published a Latin letter on alchemy, entitled Mei Zahav, in which he brings examples from the Talmud and Midrash (Yoma 44b; Ex. R. 35; and Song R. 3, etc.) to prove both the truth of alchemy, and the fact that the sages of the Talmud and Midrash practiced this craft. The majority of his quotations do not really prove anything. However, the saying by the disciples of Judah on "refined gold" (zahav mezukkak) that "it is buried for seven years in dung and it comes out refined" (Song R. 3:17) reminds one of the methods employed by the alchemists; similarly, the expression "gold that bears fruit" (zahav she-oseh perot, ibid.) most likely is derived from alchemy.

Among the great scholars of modern times, Jonathan *Eybeschuetz believed in alchemy (Ya'arot Devash, 1 (1779), passim); his opponent, Jacob *Emden, doubted it. "I wish to know whether that science [i.e., alchemy] is still thriving and whether those things have been proved beyond doubt" (She'ilat Ya'veẓ (Altona, 1739), 1, note 41).

Among the Jewish scholars who deny the truth of alchemy, one should cite *Judah Halevi who mentions alchemy disparagingly in Kuzari. Judah b. Solomon ha-Kohen ibn Matka, in his encyclopedia, Midrash Ḥokhmah, says that alchemy is "empty talk" and refers to alchemists by quoting the verse: "he that keepeth company with harlots wasteth his substance" (Prov. 29:3). Simeon b. Ẓemaḥ *Duran states in Magen Avot (pt. 2 (Leghorn, 1785), 10, 71) that "the craft of alchemy" is an error; "many got involved in it and wasted their lives but none ever succeeded in it." An important Hebrew manuscript on alchemy is preserved in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek; judging by its contents it cannot be earlier than the 17th century and its author is possibly Joseph Solomon Delmedigo. A second important Hebrew manuscript on alchemy, which includes a catalogue of alchemic literature, is found in the Gaster Library, now in the British Museum; it probably dates from the second half of the 15th century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Rubin, in: Ha-Shaḥar, 6 (1875), 1–96 (third pagination); Scholem, in: MGWJ, 69 (1925), 13–30, 95–110; M. Berthelot, Origines de l'alchemie (1885); idem, Chimie au moyen-âge (1893); E.O. von Lippmann, Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie (1919); Steinschneider, in: MGWJ, 38 (1894), 39–48; Eisler, ibid., 69 (1925), 364–71; E.J. Holmyard, Alchemy (1957), 45–47, index.

[Bernard Suler]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.