The True Story Behind Harry Potter, Abraham the Jew and the Philosopher’s Stone

The true story of the mysterious owner of the Philosopher's Stone...

The cover of the Hebrew version of the book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", published by Miskal, Books in the Attic

In 1407, an underground passageway was built next to a large mass grave in Paris’ central burial ground, known as “The Holy Innocents’ Cemetery” (Cimetière des Saints-Innocents). The upper section of the new passageway was decorated with a group of statues featuring the typical Christian iconography of the time.

The statues depicted Jesus, surrounded by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, as well as by the couple who donated the underground passageway: Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel. Under these figures are several plates portraying traditional early 15th century Christian symbols.

A picture of the group of statues in the Parisian cemetery by Charles Levi-Bernay (1786)

Very little is known about Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel. Were it not for the group of statues in the Parisian cemetery, Nicolas Flamel would undoubtably have been forgotten by the residents of the city within a few decades of his death. The statues were destroyed towards the end of the 18th century, but Nicolas Flamel’s name outlived that destruction as well.

During the Renaissance period, many people attempted to decipher the deeper meanings of the Middle Age Christian symbolism displayed in the statues, among them several alchemists. One of these, Robert Duval, immediately identified two dragons featured on one of the plates placed below the statues as an alchemist symbol for the creation of metals.

From this point forward, the plate drew a great deal of attention from those familiar with various secret teachings, and the cemetery became a site of pilgrimage for alchemists and other dabblers in the occult and the hidden sciences.

Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel praying next to St. Paul, from an 18th century French manuscript preserved in the British Library

As early as the late 16th century, a legend spread that Flamel owned an old and mystical book from which he studied occult teachings. The esoteric information in the book’s pages helped Flamel to crack the secret of the creation of gold and silver by means of a “philosopher’s stone”. The legend was recorded in a French text known as Le Sommaire Philosophique (“The Philosophical Summary”), which includes a description of pictures similar to the figures displayed in the cemetery statues.

It seems that turning Nicolas Flamel into a mystical sage was not sufficient and an autobiography attributed to Flamel himself was suddenly discovered in the early 17th century. This book was given the mysterious name “Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures” (Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques) and relates a classic tale in the field of alchemy: one day, while working as a registrar of estates of the deceased, Flamel encountered a book bound in a gilded copper binding whose 21 pages were made of tree bark.

A picture of the group of statues in the Parisian cemetery printed in the book “Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures”, attributed to Nicolas Flamel

The book was written in what appear to be Greek letters, which Flamel did not know how to read, and was replete with unusual illustrations. According to the title page it was authored by “Abraham the Jew”, a prince, Levite, astrologist and philosopher. Flamel bought the book and managed to decipher its contents but was unable to understand the hidden symbols in the illustrations. Flamel, therefore, traveled to Spain, where he hoped to find a scholar able to explain the true meaning behind the images.

According to the tale, in Spain, the Parisian scholar found a Christian doctor with Jewish origins named Canche, who managed to decipher the message hidden in Abraham the Jew’s mysterious book. The doctor claimed that the illustrations contained the secrets behind the creation of metals. Canche died on their journey back to Paris, but after his return, Flamel managed to create high-quality strands of silver and gold in alchemical experiments based on Canche’s interpretations of the images. This discovery, the autobiography tells us, improved Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel’s financial standing to such an extent that they could make large donations to welfare institutions in Paris.

The autobiography also notes that the mystical drawings in Abraham the Jew’s book were evemtually reproduced in the aforementioned underground passageway in the Paris cemetery.

It is important to note that the original manuscript of Flamel’s book was never discovered. Abraham the Jew’s book was also never found. Historical research has proven that the book “Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures” was written by a 17th century author and alchemist. The autobiography contains language typical of that time, and mentions people not yet born during the lifetime of the historical Nicolas Flamel.

The qualms about the background and history of the supposed autobiography did not prevent it from enjoying a long and fruitful shelf life. After its publication in French in 1612, the text was translated into other languages (English in 1624, and German in 1681). One of the enthusiastic readers of the autobiography was none other than Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the father of modern physics. Newton summarized the book by hand and even copied out the picture depicting the group of statues in the Paris cemetery, including the mysterious plates which have been referred to as hieroglyphics. This manuscript can be found, together with Newton’s other alchemistic writings, in the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Isaac Newton’s drawing in his summary of the book “Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures”, from the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Copies of the fantastic autobiography attributed to Flamel can still be found today. The last edition we are aware of was printed in 1996 in Spain under the name El libro de las figuras jeroglificas. The figure of the supposed author, Nicolas Flamel, was also brought back to life in contemporary literature. In J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published in the U.S. under the name Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), Flamel is described as a man who is hundreds of years old, a friend of Albus Dumbledore the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the owner of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Flamel also makes an appearance in Dan Brown’s popular book The Da Vinci Code, and the Irish author Michael Scott even dedicated an entire six-book series to the imaginary Flamel: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicolas Flamel. Needless to say, all these literary works are unconnected to the historical Nicolas Flamel.

So who was the historical Nicolas Flamel?

To the best of our knowledge, Nicolas Flamel was born around the year 1330, not far from the French capital. In 1370 he married a widow named Perenelle and spent most of his life as a transcriber of manuscripts, an author and low-ranking legal clerk – positions from which he made a living. He later became a manuscript merchant in the service of the University of Paris.

The funds which helped him and his wife become patrons of a series of small churches, hospitals and other welfare institutions should be attributed to his wife – she appears to have been in possession of significant financial wealth when she was married to Nicolas, which she inherited from her two previous deceased husbands.

Nicolas Flamel

All the above information can be found on a 600 year old tombstone currently found in a museum in Paris (Musee de Cluny) which, together with several of the couples’ original documents, tell the story of the man immortalized both among lovers of secret teachings and readers of modern fantasy literature.

Nicolas Flamel’s tombstone from 1418

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How Communist Jews Made the Haggadah as Red as the Blood in the Nile

According to this Soviet Russian Haggadah, the eternal revolution of Marx and Lenin was responsible for liberating the Jews from the bondage of the bourgeois...

“Next year in Jerusalem!” cry the multiple voices of Jews around the world when they finally reach the end of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover. It is during this never ending meal that Jews recount the road out of slavery towards liberty. This is when parents tell their children that in every generation, every Jew, must consider themselves as though they had been freed from the bondage of Egypt.

Except in Soviet Russia, where a special Haggadah was written and distributed in which the cry for revolution, not Jerusalem, was brought to the table. “This year a revolution here; next year – a world revolution!”

The communist Jews of the early Soviet Union put together special propaganda Haggadot in which the old Jewish traditions were decried and the new communist ideas were embraced. One of them was the Komsomolishe Haggadah, published in Moscow in 1922 by Moshe Altshuler.

Cover of the Komsomolishe Haggadah, 1922

One way in which Altshuler portrayed these new ideas was in using the language of Passover to show how communist ideals have and will continue to spread throughout the world. For example, one of the traditions prior to the celebration of Passover is the removal of leavened bread and products made of wheat in general from the home.

They are then gathered in a pile and set on fire so that they can be destroyed. This is called in Yiddish bdikes-khomets, literally meaning, “checking for chametz “, the remnants of bread and wheat products in the home. Altshuler interprets this bdikes-khomets in this way:

“Five years before the first Komsomol Pesach all Russian proletariat and peasants performed bdikes-khomets in the land. They removed all remnants of the rule of the bourgeoisie and landowners, gained power in their hands and defeated the enemy on all fronts.

In the fire of Great Socialistic Revolution they burned kolchaks, yudeniches, vrangels, denikins, pilsudsskis, petlurs, chernovs, gotzs, dans, martovs, abramoviches and said the brokhe: “All landowners, bourgeois and their minions – Mensheviks, SRs, CaDets, Bundists, Zionists, Poale Zions, Tsaire Zions and all other counter-revolutionists, nuisances, ne’er-do-wells and parasites should be burned in the fire of the Revolution. Those who were already burned, shall never rise again, and as to those who will remain, we will sacrifice them and hand them over to the State Political Directorate.”

Removing the bourgeois chametz, Komsomolishe Haggadah, 1922

What else is there to say?

Altshuler wanted to show the younger generation that the old bourgeois ideas were as bad as khometz during Passover. By using the colloquial language, Yiddish, and the older traditional form of the Haggadah, he made the Soviet revolution accessible to every Jew living in Moscow and beyond.

The Haggadah is chock-full of examples where Altshuler appropriated the religious activities and made them communist for the proliferation of communism. Like the splitting of the matzah (Yechatz – יחץ) in which the revolutionary Proletariat split the control of the means of production from the capitalist bourgeois, the wrapping (Korech – כורך) in which the revolution consumes the bosses and oppressors of the working class, and the sacrifice itself, (Korban Pesach – קרבן פסח), which looks shockingly traditional.

Yachatz, Komsomolishe Haggadah, 1922
Korech, Komsomolishe Haggadah, 1922
Korban Pesach, Komsomolishe Haggadah, 1922

Through all of the above the communist ideals of the Soviet revolution were realized.

This article was written with the help of Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Judaica Collection of the National Library of Israel.

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NLI Participates in 66th Jewish Book Week

Thousands flock to the annual festival in London to engage in the extraordinary world of Jewish books.

At the start of March, the National Library of Israel participated in the 66th Jewish Book Week– London’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas, and one of the leading Jewish literary events in the world.

With thousands of people flocking to the annual festival, Jewish Book Week consistently features a fascinating, extensive and varied program, presenting writers and speakers from across the world, from the most prominent of authors, to the first-time published.

Dr. Stefan Litt, archival expert for European language holdings at the NLI, along with writer George Prochnik, and Professor Susan Suleiman, participated in a panel chaired by Rebecca Abrams on “The Jewish Question in 20th Century Literature,” to discuss how some of the leading writers of the last century identified as Jews and how this impacted their writing.

Dr. Stefan Litt, George Prochnik, Professor Susan Suleiman, participate in a panel chaired by Rebecca Abrams.

The NLI holds the personal archives and materials from several of the writers who were discussed by the panel – including Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, and Franz Kafka.

“During the panel, Susan expressed a unique take on the subject,” said Stefan Litt. “She divided the Jewish question into two parts: Where do I see myself as a Jew in the non-Jewish world, and where do I see myself as a Jew in the Jewish world.”

“This panel was important as self- identification is still a question for authors and their writings today,” explained Dr. Litt.

Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection and Judaica reference librarian at the National Library of Israel, chaired a discussion with George Prochnik, author of Gershom Scholem – Stranger in a Strange Land, a book that explores the life of Scholem, the renowned researcher of the Kabbalah, and his emigration from Berlin to the Land of Israel in 1923.

Dr. Zvi Leshem and George Prochnik discuss “Gershom Scholem – Stranger in a Strange Land”

“It is interesting to see how many people are still interested in Gershom Scholem. Our session was packed,” said Zvi Leshem.

“During the panel we discussed the continued interest in Scholem and his work and concluded that Scholem represents more than just himself. His trajectory as the 20th century academic trying to find his own path to Jewish identity through the Kaballah is something that resonates,” explained Dr. Leshem.

On the final day of the festival, the NLI hosted a session on “The Story of Hebrew,” a book by Professor Lewis Glinert that explores the historical narrative of the Hebrew language.

Professor Lewis Glinert and Jeremy Dauber discuss “The Story of Hebrew.”

Professor Glinert and Jeremy Dauber discussed the importance of the Hebrew language and its unique preservation by the Jewish people across history to its modern renewal- both spoken and written Hebrew – over the last 70 years.

The session opened with a video presentation “Letter of Lights,” featuring a deeper look into the art installation created by Micha Ullman for the new National Library building in Jerusalem.

Emmy Noether: The Jewish Mathematician Who Changed the World

Emmy Noether faced many challenges on her way to fulfill her passion for mathematics, as an educated and Jewish woman in Germany between the world wars.

Professor Emmy Noether (on the left) with mathematicians at Göttingen, Spring 1931 From the Emmy Noether Mathematical Institute

The Early Years

The mathematician Amalie Emmy Noether was born in 1882 in Erlangen, Germany, to a traditional Jewish family with a passion for mathematics. Her father, Max Noether, was a renowned professor of mathematics, and her younger brother also worked in the field. Noether originally chose to study teaching – a track open to educated women at the time – and specialized in teaching languages. After completing her studies, she decided to dedicate herself to the family business of mathematics.

But how could she study mathematics at university when women were forbidden to do so? Noether came up with a solution. As she was forbidden from registering herself for studies, she attended lectures of the mathematics department as an observer. Many of the lecturers who taught her were friends and colleagues of her father’s. They were very impressed by the younger Noether’s mathematical prowess, and eventually allowed her to sit in on examinations for the courses she took.

Noether completed her doctorate summa cum laude in 1907.

The Fight for Fulfillment

Noether did not make do with a mere certificate. She wanted to continue to study and teach in the field in which she excelled, but the only positions open to her were those of an unpaid teaching assistant. She couldn’t teach under her name, only under the name of other lecturers.

In 1915 she received an invitation from Felix Klein to join the mathematics department at Göttingen University, where the greatest mathematicians in Germany of the time gathered, at least until the Nazi rise to power. In Göttingen, Noether could teach, for no payment, under the name of the mathematician David Hillbert. Hillbert taught the first class of the course and Noether then taught the rest of the classes as a “teaching assistant”.

Her colleagues, Felix Klein and David Hillbert, tried to help her attain permission to teach at the university under her own name, and sent an application to the Ministry of Education requesting that Noether be given a position as an external lecturer. They expressed their concern that if Noether should not receive a permanent position, she will move to another university and Göttingen University will lose a talented mathematician. The response they received from the Ministry of Education proves that it was impossible for women of that time to teach under their own names and to receive a salary for their work. Talented mathematicians, such as Emmy Noether, were simply unable to advance in their profession and make a living from it.

Letter from the Ministry of Education. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Berlin, July 20, 1917

With regard to accepting women to teaching positions, the regulations of Frankfurt University are identical to those of all the universities: women are not allowed to be appointed to positions of external lecturers. It is completely impossible to make an exception to the rule in one university. Therefore, your concern that Miss Noether will leave, move to Frankfurt and receive a position there is completely unfounded: she will not be given the right to teach there, just as she will not receive such a thing in Göttingen or in any other university. The Minister of Education has expressed this time and time again and emphasized that it supports its predecessor’s instructions, and therefore women will not be permitted to receive teaching positions in universities.

Therefore, there is no concern that you will lose Miss Noether as an external lecturer in Frankfurt University.

Two years later, in June 1919, Noether finally received permission to teach under her own name due to changes in legislation that were passed at the end of the First World War. She received the position of an external lecturer with low wages, without tenure, and without any social benefits.

Noether was glad she could remain and teach in Göttingen. The place was a magnet for the foremost minds of the period, with whom she could hold endless discussions on mathematical topics, express her creative mathematical thinking and continue to develop her work on the topic, which was her greatest desire.

March 12, 1918, a letter to Felix Klein, professor of mathematics in Göttingen on the topic of her research. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Noether was a colorful and cheerful figure. She had round glasses perched on her nose and always dressed in loose comfortable clothes. She was very concerned for her sickly father and brothers. Perhaps she dreamed of love or of children of her own, but she never married and never started a family.

The time she taught in Göttingen, between the two world wars, was a period of flourishing for Noether. She was full of inspiration, generous in her ideas for research and advice for her students and colleagues and she cultivated a group of student-admirers known as “Noether’s children”.

The Nazi Rise to Power: Dismissal of the Jews from Göttingen

Emmy Noether’s letter of dismissal. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Letter of the Prussian Minister for Science, Art and Adult Education, Berlin, September 2, 1933

The Prussian minister responsible for science, art and adult education,

On the basis of article 3 of “The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” from April 1933, I nullify your teaching permit in Göttingen University.

Signed, Stuckhart, on behalf of the minister


To the external lecturer Professor Ms. Dr. Emmy Noether in Göttingen.

True copy of the report from August 7, 1933.

For your information, please note and carry out.

The wages of Professor Emmy Noether must be ceased as of end of September 1933.

In Göttingen she encountered the work of Albert Einstein and worded the mathematical equations which stemmed from his general theory of relativity. According to “Noether’s theorem” which deals with the relationship between symmetry and the conservation laws of nature “each law of conservation represents symmetry of the nature at its foundation, and every symmetry in nature provides a law of conservation”. These formulae which Einstein himself was unable to phrase in mathematical language, have tremendous impact on modern physics to this very day.

Göttingen served as one of the foremost centers of mathematics in Germany, until the Nazi party rose to power. Like Noether, many of the researchers and teachers in the institution were Jewish. Noether continued to teach there until the publication of the new Nazi racial laws in 1933, which included the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” – a law which led to the dismissal of all the Jews from their positions.

A year after the Jews were dismissed from the institute, the Nazi Minister of Culture Bernhard Rust asked the non-Jewish mathematician David Hillbert (who unsuccessfully fought against the law) about the truth behind the rumor that the mathematic institute suffers greatly since the dismissal of the Jews and their supporters.

Hillbert replied that the institute did not suffer, it simply no longer exists.

Fulfilling the Dream

With the help of Albert Einstein, who had already reached America at that time (and was unable to return to Germany, where the Nazis had dismissed him from his position and burned his works), Noether receive a position in the Bryn Mawr Women’s College in Pennsylvania. She emigrated to America, and for the first time in her life, taught and earned respect, honor and full employment. She was invited to deliver weekly lectures at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, but as a woman could not be appointed for a teaching position at the university.

Noether taught in Bryn Mawr College for a year and a half. In 1935, she became ill and underwent a simple operation that went awry. She died a few days later at the age of 53.

Noether’s picture hangs in almost every room of the mathematics faculty of Bar Ilan University, in the research institute named after her. Students of mathematics throughout the world are familiar with her, but more people should know about the incredible contribution made by Amalie Emmy Noether, who paved a path for women in the world of mathematics and science, and changed the face of the world by giving names and formulae to the physical laws that perpetuate our world. Essentially, modern physics as a whole owes her a debt of gratitude.

Photograph of Amalie Emmy Noether. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

“Within the past few days a distinguished mathematician, Professor Emmy Noether, formerly connected with the University of Göttingen and for the past two years at Bryn Mawr College, died in her fifty-third year. In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

(From the obituary for Professor Emmy Noether written by Albert Einstein in the New York Times, 1935)

Thanks to Chaya Herr from the Edelstein Collection for her help in writing the article.