Tag Archives: Alchemy

Jew of the Week: Ramchal

The Unparalleled Kabbalist Who Became the Father of Modern Hebrew

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua, Italy to a wealthy Sephardic family. He studied under some of the great Italian rabbis of the time and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, receiving rabbinic ordination himself while still a teenager. He also took up studies at the University of Padua, and by the time he was just 20 years old had complete mastery of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), as well as philosophy, medicine, and alchemy. He had also written a textbook on Hebrew language and grammar, Leshon Limmudim (predating Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by some two centuries!) Meanwhile, Luzzatto wrote several plays including a dramatization of the Biblical story of Samson. Around the same time, he started writing a book of 150 psalms to mirror the 150 Psalms of King David in the Tanakh. His Hebrew and poetry were of such a high level that people had a hard time distinguishing between the psalms of Luzzatto and the psalms of David! This drew the anger of many rabbis, who banned the work. The final straw was when Luzzatto revealed that he had been visited by a maggid, an angel that taught the mysteries of the Torah. He started writing these teachings down, and relaying them to a small mystical circle. When word got out, the Italian rabbis sought to excommunicate him for good. To avoid the decree, Luzzatto agreed to stop teaching and leave Italy. He resettled in Amsterdam and made a living as a diamond cutter and lens grinder. During this time he produced his greatest works, which would become classics of Judaism and standard textbooks in yeshivas to this day: Mesillat Yesharim (“Path of the Just”), a manual for personal development and character refinement; Derekh Hashem (“Way of God”) on the fundamentals of Jewish theology; Da’at Tevunot, a unification of Kabbalah and rationalism written in the form of a conversation between the Soul and the Intellect; and Derekh Tevunot, a manual for Talmudic study. He also wrote a number of commentaries on the Zohar (the central text of Kabbalah) and countless other discourses, most of which have been lost. After being barred from teaching in Amsterdam as well, he headed to the Holy Land and settled in Acco. There he helped build the Jewish community and a new synagogue (destroyed by Bedouins in 1758). Sadly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (or the Ramchal, his initials, by which he is better known) perished in a devastating plague that broke out several years later. One of the early Hasidic leaders, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, would later say of the Ramchal that “His generation did not have the merit of this great man.” The Vilna Gaon famously stated that had the Ramchal still been alive, he would have walked all the way from Lithuania to Amsterdam just to meet him, and that the Ramchal was the only person to understand Kabbalah since the Arizal. The Ramchal was seen as a hero and inspiration by secular Jewish and Haskalah leaders, too, who crowned him the “father of modern Hebrew literature”. Today, the 26th of Iyar, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

He who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality.
– Friedrich Durenmatt

Jew of the Week: Miriam the Jewess

Possibly the Most Enigmatic Woman in History

“Maria Prophetissa” by Maier, 1617

For millenia, the study of alchemy has been pursued by wise men around the world, practised by such greats as Isaac Newton and Chaim Vital. Ironically, the founding figure of alchemy happens to be a woman, called Maria Hebraea or “Mary the Jewess” (c. 3rd century CE). She is considered to be the first real-life, non-mythological alchemist, making her the first true alchemist in history. She wrote several treatises on the subject, as well as other philosophical works (including the Axiom of Maria: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”) She is credited with the monumental discovery of hydrochloric acid, and isolation of acetic acid (vinegar). Maria invented at least three scientific apparatuses: a distillation chamber called the tribikos; a sealed-vacuum for collecting vapours, known today as an extractor; as well as the water-bath that we’ve all used in high schools science labs, which still bears her name, the bain-marie. Naturally, many legends have sprung up about this enigmatic Jewish woman. Some say she was the teacher of Democritus, others that she was a student of Aristotle, and others a princess of Saba. Funny enough, she became a key figure in Islam, listed in the Kitab-al-Fihrist as one of the most important scientists/alchemists of all time.

 

Words of the Week

The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years. That is a standard of temporal values or time-values which seems very much out of accord with the perpetual click-clack of our rapidly changing moods and of the age in which we live. This is an event in world history.
– Winston Churchill

Jew of the Week: Chaim Vital

Kabbalist and Alchemist

The Kabbalistic “Tree of Life” Representing the 10 Sefirot – Divine Energies that Permeate the Universe

Chaim ben Yosef Vital (1543-1620) was born in Calabria, Italy. The son of a famous scribe, Vital was the primary disciple of several great sages and kabbalists, including Rabbi Moshe Alshech, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, and most importantly, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal. Vital transcribed the teachings of the Arizal into some of the deepest mystical texts, including Tree of Life and Gate of Reincarnation. These teachings would later be spread far and wide, completely revolutionizing Judaism. After the Arizal’s passing, Rabbi Vital spent time in Egypt, then settled in Damascus where he spent the rest of his life as the head of the city’s Italian Jewish community. Rabbi Vital was also an alchemist, a subject he studied diligently for two and a half years. According to legend, he had the power of Kfitzat haDerech – something akin to teleportation or super-speed. 

Words of the Week

Great is peace! For to make peace between husband and wife, the Torah instructs that the name of God, written in holiness, should be blotted out in water.
– Talmud (Chullin 141a)