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.


Kabbalah (Hebrew for “tradition” and “reception”) denotes a particular variety of Jewish mysticism, which emerged in the course of the twelfth century and was generally concerned with the inner structure and processes taking place within the divine realms, on whose metaphysical dynamics the kabbalists strove to exert an influence.

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 9 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].

Fig. 2 MS NL1 9 1070, fol. 289v. The scribal colophon at the bottom of the page reads, “all this [comes] from my grandfather, our teacher and master Elhanan, B”K.”

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]

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.

Fig. 3 MS NL1 9 1070, fol. 220v. A recipe to repel lice with a mixture of mercury and gold-infused water.

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. 4 MS NL1 9 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.

Agata Paluch is a research fellow at the Free University of Berlin. Her Twitter handle is @agata_pal, and her new research group will soon be blogging about the circulation of “Jewish esoteric knowledge in manuscripts and print in early modern East-Central Europe” at Knowledge in Circulation .

  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 Konservierung 13 (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,