A 16th-Century Collection of Kabbalistic Magic, and the Story behind It

Aug. 21 2020

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.

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Read more at Asian and African Studies Blog

More about: Kabbalah, Magic, Rare books, Safed

How European Fecklessness Encourages the Islamic Republic’s Assassination Campaign

In September, Cypriot police narrowly foiled a plot by an Iranian agent to murder five Jewish businessman. This was but one of roughly a dozen similar operations that Tehran has conducted in Europe since 2015—on both Israeli or Jewish and American targets—which have left three dead. Matthew Karnitschnig traces the use of assassination as a strategic tool to the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, and explains its appeal:

In the West, assassination remains a last resort (think Osama bin Laden); in authoritarian states, it’s the first (who can forget the 2017 assassination by nerve agent of Kim Jong-nam, the playboy half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur?). For rogue states, even if the murder plots are thwarted, the regimes still win by instilling fear in their enemies’ hearts and minds. That helps explain the recent frequency. Over the course of a few months last year, Iran undertook a flurry of attacks from Latin America to Africa.

Whether such operations succeed or not, the countries behind them can be sure of one thing: they won’t be made to pay for trying. Over the years, the Russian and Iranian regimes have eliminated countless dissidents, traitors, and assorted other enemies (real and perceived) on the streets of Paris, Berlin, and even Washington, often in broad daylight. Others have been quietly abducted and sent home, where they faced sham trials and were then hanged for treason.

While there’s no shortage of criticism in the West in the wake of these crimes, there are rarely real consequences. That’s especially true in Europe, where leaders have looked the other way in the face of a variety of abuses in the hopes of reviving a deal to rein in Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program and renewing business ties.

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Read more at Politico

More about: Europe, Iran, Israeli Security, Terrorism