Making Sense of Recipes for Amulets and Natural Magic, Kabbalistic Style (Marginalia Included)

By Agata Paluch

Among Jewish recipe books, both in manuscript and in print, a prominent place take manuals produced by the members of the educated rabbinic elite. For instance, one of the most famous rabbinic authorities and kabbalists of the seventeenth century, Moses Zacuto (1610—1697, active in North Italy) was an avid compiler of all sorts of recipes.[i] A compilation of his recipes survived in an autograph notebook, now in the Russian State Library in Moscow, Günzburg Collection Ms. 1448. It is inscribed as the Book of secrets which I received from my masters on the title page. In its first folios, the kabbalist collected a set of recipes gathered during his stay in Greater Poland. It begins with a six-folio piece marked as These are those [secrets] which I found in Poland:

Fig. 1: Ms Günzberg 1448, folio 2r, top. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.


It then proceeds with a two-page compilation introduced as These are the secrets called ‘properties’ which I also brought from Poland:

Fig. 2: folio 7r, top. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.


The secrets gathered by Zacuto in Poland belong thus to two separate subcategories, sodot and segulot [i.e., secretsand qualities]. The first category, in Zacuto’s parlance, refers to the applications of divine names in either recited adjurations or written amulets. These types of applications would be useful, for instance, to fend off evil by means of summoning and controlling guardian angels, to shield oneself from being harmed by weaponry, to reduce fevers, to bring good fortune, to save from badmouthing, to receive answers to questions posed in dreams, to open doors without keys, to urge love, to win when gambling, or to support women during difficult childbirth. This relevance of divine names is seemingly random—although some of the names require the combining of amulets and adjurations with uses of elements of the ‘material’ world, such as frogs, cat heads, or human and animal blood, the desired effect is ultimately produced by the very power of the divine names.

The second subcategory of Zacuto’s secrets comprises ‘properties’ [segulot], that is, those qualities of things which belong to the physical world and can be manipulated without resorting to the influence of divine names, and which reveal their hidden power in the process of elemental inter-reactions and transformations. Among those ‘properties’ learned by Zacuto in Poland, one can find recipes for domesticating pigeons, on confirming pregnancy, on preparing ink visible only under water, on healing toothaches, on concocting wondrous candles, or instructions for tricks and dice games. 

Fig. 3. Folio 7r: “9. To remove a stain of oil from clothes, take those dirty clothes and smear them with a moist soap with honey, and put aside for the night, afterwards wash it [i.e., the stain] off with urine. End.”


Among those instances in which the recipes of Zacuto could be useful, there are a number that could equally be changed by the employment of either natural qualities or amulets inscribed with divine names. In order to make sense of the ways in which various names and forces operate in the physical world, Zacuto explains their meanings according to kabbalistic theories on the margin of his notebook.[ii] And so, his extensive marginal comments provide an interpretive framework to help the reader in the process of making sense of the mechanisms of actions described in the main body of text. 


Fig. 4. Folio 5r: “22. [Amulet] For love. Write with your left hand on your right hand these names: Anakta”m, Shem Yah, Shaday, Y”V. End.” In the margin: “Anaktam. From the name that is called ‘the name of the 22 letters,’ as I already explained. Shaday is [the name of] Yesod […].” [In kabbalistic theosophy, Yesod constitutes the 9th (penultimate) emanation in the decadic structure of the godhead.]


The divine names specified in many of the recipes are therefore incorporated in the broader theoretical scheme of the structure of divine emanations—a cornerstone of kabbalistic cosmology and theosophy. The letters of names function as a form of divine embodiment, a physical extension into the material world in which both the human and the divine meet. Such kabbalistic logic is applied all along the marginal text, wherein Zacuto attempts to translate acutely non-discursive terms into the explicative framework of kabbalistic theosophy, which for him provides the ultimate explanation of the mechanism of actions and transformations taking place on the physical level of reality. The autograph volume thus provides an example of self-reflection—on the part of the compiler of practical esoteric traditions—of a cognitive need to provide an epistemic structure to frame the recommended practices according to the established and authoritative kabbalistic knowledge, as expressed in the margins of the notebook.

Fig. 5. Folio 1r. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.


[i] On Moses Zacuto’s biography see I Raise My Heart: Poems by Moses Zacuto, a Scientific Edition, ed. Dvorah Bregman (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2009), 5–24 [Hebrew]; Eliezer Baumgarten and Uri Safrai, “Moses Zacuto’s Kabbalah of Names,” Studia Rosenthaliana 46 (2020): 29–49. On Zacuto’s interests in practical knowledge see J. H. Chajes, “Rabbi Moses Zacuto as Exorcist—Kabbalah, Magic and Medicine in the Early Modern Period,” Pe’amim 96 (2003): 129–130 [Hebrew].

[ii] Kabbalah (lit. tradition) denotes a particular variety of Jewish esoteric knowledge that was concerned with the inner structure and processes taking place within the divine realms, on whose dynamics the practitioners intended to exert influences.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.