Who Spilled Honey on the 18th Century Manuscript?

You really should listen to your mother when she tells you not to read at the dinner table...

Take a look at this manuscript entitled, “The Collection of Hoshaanot, Songs and Prayers, Annulments of Vows, Tashlichs and Other Things,” and written by Shlomo Latis in Italy in 1790. The name describes the book well; a collection of various prayers and descriptions of Jewish ceremonies that were compiled into one manuscript.

In addition to the beautiful calligraphy, the 18th-century manuscript features some unusual and mysterious stains. The stains themselves are odd as they are only present in the first section of the book, the portion that focuses on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Typically, when we come across an old manuscript we assume that stains found on the pages are simply the result of ordinary wear and tear, with time itself leaving its inevitable mark. But this was not the case here, for two main reasons: the first being that the stains only appeared in the first section of the book and second, because of the content of the text featured on the stained pages.

The year is 1790 – the year the manuscript was completed, or perhaps, a short time after. The book is opened to the prayers for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. A Jewish- Italian family sits around the table to celebrate the holiday. Each member of the family is dressed in their holiday best, the table is beautifully set and the head of the family is reading the prayers aloud from the manuscript.

Who spilled honey on the manuscript?

They reach the portion of the services which includes the Simanim (symbolism) and the “Yehi Ratzon” (May it Be Your Will) prayers which are recited on Rosh Hashanah along with the consumption of different foods that symbolically represent the prayers of a sweet and positive New Year.  The foods are eaten one by one following the recitations of the Yehi Ratzon prayer in accordance with tradition; the fish head so that we may be considered a head and not a tail, the apple in honey so that we may have a sweet year, the pomegranate so that our good deeds may multiply. The list is long and the blessings are plentiful.

As the diners recite the prayers and eat the related foods, the honey is passed from person to person, as are the pomegranates, the beets, the carrots, the fish heads and the rest of the symbolic foods. The food, as is typical of food, falls off the serving dishes and the forks, staining anything around it – from the tablecloth to the manuscript.

At the end of the ceremony, the person at the head of the table closes the book and sets it aside. The manuscript has finished its job for this portion of the holiday and the stains are left to set until next year when the book will once again be brought to the table. This explains why the stains only appear in the first portion of the book.

Albeit, without a proper lab test we cannot confirm with absolute certainty that this scenario is what actually happened. But still, our deduction based on the set of circumstances surrounding the stains seem plausible. The book, along with the stains, is now preserved for future generations to study in the National Library of Israel Collection.

So, we beseech you – this Rosh Hashanah, be careful with the food during the meal. After all, there was a reason your mother always told you not to read at the dinner table.

Maria the Jewess: The First Century Maker of Gold

"One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth," so goes the axiom of a sage of Alchemy, Mary the Jewess, quoted throughout the writings of the magical-science and as mysterious as the alchemical process itself.

Mary the Jewess - Michael Maier's Symbola aurea mensae, Frankfurt, 1617

Alchemists from the mythic Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton sought to transmute lead into gold. It was believed that through the transformation of the material, they could attain wisdom beyond the limitations of man and create great works that would transmute themselves closer towards divinity through the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of life.

None of that could be done without an ancient alchemist named Maria.

Recorded in the annals of ancient Alchemists, such as Zosimus of Panopolis, is Maria the Jewess, also called Maria the Prophetess or Maria the Hebrew, who lived in ancient Egypt around the first century CE.

She is credited with inventing an alchemical apparatus’ that copied the process of distillation in nature, what the alchemists believed provided the bedrock for the creation of gold in nature. This apparatus would become a staple in modern chemistry labs.

You probably know it as Mary’s bath, the Bain-Marie, which you can find in your kitchen.

We do not know much about Maria herself but she is thought to have started an academy in the city of Alexandria, where she taught alchemy. Like nearly every alchemist ever, Maria worked tirelessly to create or transform gold from base metals from the Earth.

One the key stages in the alchemical process of transmuting base metals into gold is the distillation,  a process which Maria is said to have perfected. It is described in the Emerald Tablet (the key writing of alchemy) as: “It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528

Maria the Jewess is also known for coining other alchemical sayings beyond her axiom.

“Just as a man is composed of four elements, likewise is copper; and just as a man results from the association of liquids, of solids, and of the spirit, so does copper.”

As well as:

“Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.”

Union of Opposites – Rosarium philosophorum sive pretiosissimum donum Dei, 1550

As the scientific revolution progressed from alchemy to chemistry, glassware and copper tubes continued to be used in the process of distillation, for purposes that had nothing to do with gold. You may have had whiskey made through this process, and one hopes you have double boiled chocolate with it at some point.

Bain-Marie as Used by Alchemists From Manget Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, 1702


To Have and to Hold: The Wedding Between Children and the Torah

At the start of their studies, children in Morocco went through a symbolic wedding ceremony to bond them forever with the Torah

חתני כאתב. התמונה לקוחה מתוך ספרו של ד"ר מאיר נזרי, קהילות תאפילאלת סג'למאסא, כרך א, מעגל האדם, אוניברסיטת בר אילן תשע"ג

Throughout the generations, Jewish communities in the Diaspora have recognized the same historical truth that is quickly learned by all young parents: the first day of school is both exciting and a bit stressful.

Jewish communities across the world have developed their own ways of facilitating the start of Torah learning for young children when they begin their studies in Heder (Jewish school). At the southern tip of the Sahara Desert, in a region of Morocco called Tafilalt, one of the most interesting and special traditions of welcoming children to their studies in Heder was preserved until the 20th century.

A photo of a bride from the wedding ceremony. The photo is not dated. Image from the Heritage of Moroccan Jewry.

The second main event in a child’s life of every Jewish boy, after of course, his birth and Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), was an event called “Liktahb,” a term that means “entry to Heder,” in English. This central event in the child’s life is marked with a grand ceremony modeled after the mock wedding described in the Talmud that symbolically ties the youth to the Torah.

Every traditional Jewish wedding requires the participation of a bride and a groom- this was also the case in the ceremony held by the Jewish community in Tafilalt. The groom, just five years old, beginning his studies in Heder, was matched with a bride around the same age and they were joined together in a symbolic wedding ceremony.

The bride and the groom. The girl, Rachel the daughter of Hannah from Fes and the groom, Meir Turgeman from Erfoud. This picture was taken from Dr. Meir Nazri’s book, “The Communities of Tafilalt and Sijilmasa,” Volume I, The Human Cycle, Bar-Ilan University.

This unique ceremony had interesting variations within the Sephardic community. There were those who held a parade for the children down to the local river where each of the bridegrooms would throw an apple into the waters and there were those who would invite the bride’s family for dinner the night before the ceremony to eat a special, traditional dish. Some even held a special ceremony in their local synagogues that is typically reserved for a groom on the Shabbat before his wedding.

Like the tradition held in many communities where the child entering Heder licks honey off of the letters of the Aleph Bet, the wedding ceremony is also a symbolic ritual to connect the child with the Torah. The ceremony with honey symbolizes the sweetness of the Torah and the wedding ceremony symbolizes the marriage and commitment of the child to the Torah and his studies.

How did Christians View the Destruction of Jerusalem?

This 500-year old map that depicts the destruction of the Temple as witnessed by Christians is a rare find.

מפת שדל לתיאור חורבן בית המקדש - 1493

In commemoration of the Ninth of Av, the day of mourning and fasting marking the destruction of Temple, the National Library of Israel presents this ancient map printed in Hartmann Schedel’s large world chronical. The chronical, an early modern book, published in 1493 in the German city of Nuremberg was an ambitious undertaking. It contained an overview of world history from the creation of the world until that time. The book boasts a mass of illustrations drawn by the leading artists of the time and was only made possible due to the invention of the printing press.

The map illustrated the destruction of Jerusalem and depicts the Temple going up in flames. However, this is not an illustration of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period and a description of the Jews who lived there. It is rather the printing of an engraving depicting Jerusalem’s Christian sites alongside the Temple, typical to the 14th-15th centuries.

The Schedel map depicting the destruction of the Temple – 1493. Click to enlarge.

It is fascinating though, that the text accompanying the map describes the history of the destructions of Jerusalem – first, the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, the Temple vessels being looted, the execution of Shimon bar Giora in Rome, and finally, Jerusalem being turned into Aelia Capitolina, the Roman colony built upon the ruins of the holy city. The author of the text relates that the city was later held for short periods of time by other Western and Crusader kings (Charlemagne of France, Conrad III of Germany and Louis XI, also of France) – but they did not manage to hold it for long against armies of Islam. According to the author, in 1943 the city was under the control of Mohammed’s battalions, which Schedel refers to as “a nation of sin.”

The former curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library, Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin explained that despite Christianity seeing the destruction of the Temple as conclusive proof of Christianity’s victory over Judaism, not only is the text void of any gloating about the destruction of the Temple but on the contrary. “It appears that the destruction of the Temple – which is referred to in the illustration as “Solomon’s Temple” and the destruction of the City of David is the reason for the writer’s sorrow. This is testimony to the fact that the day of the Ninth of Av is also seen by Christians as a day of mourning and sorrow for the destruction of the holy city,” Dr. Levy-Rubin explains.