The great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem distinguished between “speculative” Kabbalah, which focuses on understanding the esoteric meanings of Jewish texts and the mysterious workings of the Godhead, and “practical” Kabbalah, which focuses on harnessing esoteric knowledge to achieve useful results—healing the sick or arranging successful marriages, for instance. Zsofi Buda describes a rare handwritten 16th-century volume belonging to the latter genre, written by one Elisha ben Gad of Ancona. What makes this codex unusual is its introduction, in which Elisha describes how he collected the spells it contains:
Elisha is overcome with a great thirst for knowledge, and he starts on a journey to satisfy it. He wanders from town to town until he arrives in Venice, a great city full of wise and knowledgeable sages. There, thanks to God’s mercy, he wins the trust of Rabbi Judah Alkabets, and gains access to the rabbi’s library. He soon discovers that the rabbi’s collection contains precious kabbalistic volumes “that emerged for fame and praise, and all written with the finger [of God].” So he swears in his heart that he will not leave the library until he has collected all its secrets.
As he is looking through the books, he notices “a book hidden and sealed, in a chest within another chest covered with a cloth and sealed.” When he opens this hidden book, he finds in it all sorts of magic spells, and decides to copy them. After Alkabetz’s death, Elisha leaves Venice and continues his journey, and eventually arrives in Safed, in the Land of Israel. He spends a long time there before he gains the trust of the [local] sages, but eventually they share their secret wisdom with him. His book, which he calls the Tree of Knowledge, is based on the secrets he acquired in Venice and in Safed.
Among the 52 spells using divine names contained in the [book’s] first section, there are many amulets providing protection against illnesses like nosebleeds, fever, and earaches, spells for enhancing intellectual capabilities, . . . and various other incantations.