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


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.


The Rabbi Who Performed Scientific Research From a Hungarian Prison

In 1920 Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, the chief rabbi of the Hungarian city of Szeged was arrested by Hungarian authorities who interrogated and imprisoned him for a year.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning, 1944

In 1920, Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, one of the most important contributors to the lexicons of Wilhelm Gesenius for the Bible and of Carl Brockelmann for the Aramaic Language, was accused of making political statements against the authorities and against the new governor of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy.

During his 13 month imprisonment, Rabbi Lőw continued working on his famous work, Die Flora der Juden (“The Plants of the Jews”), which deals with the various vegetation mentioned in Jewish sources with a focus on Rabbinic literature. Written in German, the four-volume series was published between 1924-1934 and is available at the National Library of Israel. The series went through a second printing after the death of the author.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw - Statement of defense
Available at the National Library of Israel: The statement of defense from the trial of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Rabbi Lőw, who was charged with defamation of the Hungarian governor, was imprisoned and released a year later as a result of an international intervention.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was born in 1854 in the Hungarian city of Szeged. As an orientalist, he was interested in the names of plants in Semitic languages since his youth.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Rabbi Immánuel Lőw in his youth

In addition to his studies at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), he studied Semitic linguistics at the University of Leipzig, Germany. It was there in 1879 that he submitted his doctoral thesis on plant names in Aramaic (Aramäische Pflanzennamen). His scientific publications and notes on the animal and mineral issues in Biblical and Talmudic sources attest to his intention to publish two additional books, thus creating a series: “The Fauna, the Flora and the Minerals in the Jewish sources.”

Aaron Aaronsohn to Rabbi immanuel Löw
Aaron Aaronsohn’s 1908 letter to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Aharonson, the discoverer of emmer (“the mother of wheat”) describes his journey to Constantinople to report on his research. He requests information from Lőw about specific plants from these areas, from the NLI collections.
Lewis Ginsberg to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
A letter from Ginsberg Lewis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, from the NLI collections

After his death on July 19th, 1944, the estate of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was preserved in the Jewish community of Szeged. On the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, the community decided to donate the collection to the new State of Israel. The Hungarian government had other ideas and forbade the transfer of the collections to anywhere outside the borders of  Hungary. After a long negotiation, the State of Israel successfully purchased the collection instead of simply receiving it for preservation.

Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Rabbi Leopold (Lipót) Lőw

The collection was permanently deposited in the National Library archive in 1958. It includes correspondence, manuscripts, various documents, lists, speeches and essays by Immanuel Lőw and several pieces of correspondence and speeches given by Immánuel’s father, Leopold (Lipót) Lőw.

Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Letters from Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lőw in Hebrew and German, from the NLI collections.
Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Three letters by Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lőw, father of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Frankfurt 1865-1867, from the NLI collections

Rabbi Leopold Lőw was born in Czerna Hora, Moravia, a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was imprisoned following the plots of his enemies who denounced him at the end of the revolution in 1848 but was pardoned by the Austrian general Julius Jakob von Haynau. Leopold Lőw was the rabbi of Szeged from 1850 until his son Immánuel took over the position in 1878. He also corresponded with many important personalities of his time.

Isaiah Luzzatto to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from Isaiah Luzzatto (son of Samuel David Luzzatto – Shedal) in French to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw – Padova, 1880, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw’s father, Rabbi Leopold Lőw was the first rabbi who gave speeches to his congregation in Hungarian and the first who introduced the Hungarian Language into the Jewish prayer. He was an important rabbi whose rulings influenced the policies of the Austrian and Hungarian governments. His son Immánuel inherited his affinity for public speaking. This talent accompanied Rabbi Immánuel Lőw during his tenure as head of the Jewish community of Szeged, from 1878 until his death.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from the Hebrew Language Committee to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw on his election as an active member of the committee. Signed on the letter: Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin, from the NLI collections.

Immánuel Lőw was a representative of the Neolog communities in the Supreme Council of the Hungarian Parliament of 1927. He was a Zionist and served as head of the umbrella organization of the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod. He corresponded mainly in German, Hungarian and English with distinguished academic institutions, publishers, personalities and scholars of his time, among them Aharon Aharonson, Theodor Nöldeke, Nathan Shalem, Ephraim Hareuveni and others.

Theodor Nöldeke to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Correspondence between Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and famous German Semitic languages researcher Theodor Nöldeke, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw wrote more than 10 books on politics and religious topics. According to some sources, when the transports of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps began, he was allowed to leave Hungary as part of the Kasztner deal. He was removed from the deportation train, but he was gravely ill and he later died in the Jewish hospital in Budapester on July 19th, 1944.

Joint passport of Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Bella Breuning
The joint passport of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and his wife, Brenning Bella. Apparently, this passport was supposed to serve them when boarding the train to Switzerland as part of the Kasztner-deal in 1944, from the NLI collections

(For the records of Immánuel Lőw Archive click here).

The Jewish Face of the Moon

How was the moon drawn by Jews throughout history?

Sefer Evronot | Hebrew Union College Library, Cincinnati, OH, USA, 1779; Ms. 902, page 37

Many eons ago in the ancient world, the Jews adopted the moon as the basis of the Hebrew calendar. Only isolated groups, such as members of the Judean desert cults, attempted to build the Jewish calendar around the sun but all such attempts ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, and the lunar calendar was universally accepted as the Jewish calendar.

Birkat HaLevana | The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, USA, Unkown Date; Ms. 8740, page 50

The moon emerged as the undisputed victor in the battle for the Jewish perspective of time. While the days in Jewish culture are determined by the sun – from sunset to sunset – the calculation of the days into months depends on the “birth” of the moon.

Sefer Evronot | The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 1716.

While the pagans regarded the moon as a god in its own right, the moon’s central function in Judaism is expressed not only in the calculation of the months but also in the blessing recited at the beginning of each Jewish month – ‘Birkat HaLevana’ [the ‘Blessing of the Moon’]. The blessing praises the one God, the Holy One Blessed Be He, creator of all natural phenomena.

Seder Kriyat Shema U’Birkat Halevana | Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1738; Ms. Rosenthaliana 407, page 23

This also seems to be the reason that, throughout the generations, Jews drew the moon with human features, as it is considered a natural phenomenon created by God and therefore not a transgression of the prohibition against making idols or graven images.

Seder Birkat Halevana | Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1743; Ms. Rosenthaliana 698, page 7