A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear

By Andrea Gondos

Illness and a desperate longing for wellness and healing defined Jewish magical recipes books, written in a thriving manuscript culture of practical Kabbalah that existed alongside printed works in Jewish communities of East-Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[i] These manuscripts, many of them cherished by their compilers, played an important role in recording, accumulating, and subsequently transmitting knowledge about the natural and the supernatural worlds. As recipe compilations, they include lists of ingredients that are accompanied by detailed instructions directed at a practical goal, which in this case aimed to improve a person’s material and spiritual wellbeing. The writers of these amulets were collectively called ba’alei shem[ii] or masters of the (divine) name who deployed experiential types of knowledge in combination with traditions of angelic and divine names. These expose a holistic outlook based on the careful alignment and calibration of three interrelated spheres of human existence: the religious, derived from prayer and proper conduct; artisanal knowledge of the natural world, the unique qualities of herbs, plants, and animal substances; and the mastery of supernatural forces and processes by wielding power over demons, forces of impurity, and astrological influences.  The acquisition of this unique type of expertise, enumerated in these magical recipe books, bequeathed upon its master extraordinary powers and charisma. Here, I will survey three visually interesting amulets designed to counteract demonic forces that were believed to cause negative mental and emotional states such as fear.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel, MS 38 3279, fol. 109v: an amulet against fear for a child.

 

“[An] amulet for a child gripped by terror. It should be hung on the child and her/his name should be written on it; he can also hang on the child the foot of a black rooster.”

A curious ingredient and technique presented in this recipe is the use of charaktêres, or angelic alphabet, that was meant to directly command and address specific angelic interlocutors to produce a desired outcome.[iii] Defined as “an alphabetic sign or a simple ideogram which does not belong to any of the alphabets used in that specific magical text, or to any known system of meaningful symbols,”[iv] charaktêres constituted a form of linguistic magic and were frequently deployed through cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation in a variety of cultural settings, including Judaism, from Antiquity to modern times.

Another recipe that addresses fear was supposed to be written on parchment made from a kosher animal, one that was considered in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Here the visual element is the formation of a square from the angelic name PAHAD’EL, which is a composite of the words ‘fear’ (pahad) and God (‘El). At the upper corners of the recipe, on the left and right sides, two additional angelic names are indicated: Hasadi’el (left), and Rahami’el (right). Both names are cognates of mercy, thus visually these two merciful angels flank the Angel of Dread (Pahad’el) overpowering and diminishing its negative effect on the person, who is gripped by fear. When confronted by the debilitating effects of mental distress, such as fear or dread, the Jewish shaman thus had recourse to a cache of magical modalities to affect healing. Ingredients here are comprised of a magic square, letter mysticism, alongside theoretical elements of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which invokes the mystical principle of containment. Accordingly, the demonic powers of the left side of the divinity need to be included, encompassed, and subsumed in the right, the sacred aspect of God. Kabbalistic theosophy places great emphasis on the idea of tricks and ruse to co-opt the dark forces of the left, instead of confronting them directly; this conceptualization is visually demarcated in the diagrammatic features of this recipe formula.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 31r

 

In the final recipe for fear, food and plant substances, bread and garlic, are promoted as effective therapeutic ingredients to overcome this negative emotional state. This particular compilation does not contain any distinctly Jewish elements. Rather, it draws on more common cross-cultural practices, which are adopted and offered as part of a ba’alei shem’s stock of natural remedies:

“For one who goes out at night so he would not fear evil spirits even in a place of danger: He should take a loaf of bread in his right hand and in his left hand some garlic, and no harm will come to him, God willing, who saves and protects.”

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 11v

 

The above recipes which were offered as panacea against fear, a form of mental distress, highlight the multiplicity of approaches that ba’alei shem in East-Central Europe took to alleviate the debilitating grip of negative states of the mind. While some recipes display theoretical, particularistic, and more elite forms of knowledge, other variants for the same illness exhibit a more universal, folkloristic, and popular stance.

 

[i] See Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/04/11/practical-kabbalah-and-practical-knowledge-kabbalistic-manuals-and-natural-knowledge-in-early-modern-east-central-europe/.

[ii] On ba’alei shem, see Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ḥa-Heshek,”AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; and Immanuel Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, translated by Saadya Sternberg (Hanover and London: Brandeis University, 2005).

[iii] Gideon Bohak, “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 47 (2011): 25-44.

[iv] Ibid., p. 25.

 

 


About

Andrea Gondos’s scholarship has focused on knowledge organization and transmission reflected in early modern study guides in the field of Kabbalah. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” at the Institute of Jewish Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, where she examines the conceptualization of the female body, gender, and reproductive health as expressed by Jewish male healers in early modern manuscripts of magic in East-Central Europe.

‘The Best That Ever I Had’: Gifting a Medical Recipe in Early Modern Yorkshire

By Emma Marshall

On 4th September 1700, the elderly gentlewoman Alice Thornton sat down to write to Lady Henrietta Maria Yarburgh. Both women lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Thornton opened her letter by saying that she was ‘soe a great a stranger to your Person’, suggesting that she had never met Lady Yarburgh. [1] She was also of a lower social status and addressed her deferentially, repeatedly ‘begging your Ladyship’s pardon’ for having ‘committed a great piece of Rudeness to be soe free with a person of your quality’.

Image credit: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15)

What did Thornton have to say to this ‘stranger’? She explained that she had heard from friends and servants that Lady Yarburgh’s husband was suffering from ‘Paraleticks and Convolutions’. Thornton’s own deceased husband, William, had experienced similar ‘fits’ and she wanted to recommend a recipe for a ‘glister’, or suppository, which she had received from ‘the ablest Physsions’ and described as ‘the best that ever I had to preserve the life of my dere husband’. Thornton included this recipe as a separate insert so ‘that it may be more convenient to Read’, perhaps imagining that Lady Yarburgh would paste it into a book or circulate it among her own acquaintances, both common practices. Thornton also asked Lady Yarburgh to ‘do me the favoure to send me the Paper of Receipts backe againe for I am now very Aged; & cannot see to write the same and have great occasions for it’. These notes on the materiality of medical recipes shed light on their circulation, use and reuse. As proof that the glister was popular and effective on a wide scale, Thornton described using it to ‘cure many more in the same distemper’ as her husband, and clearly copying the recipe out on a regular basis was physically strenuous. However, hinting at its status as a treasured possession also emphasised her respect for Lady Yarburgh and encouraged trust between the two women. Unfortunately, the recipe has been separated from the letter and lost, perhaps suggesting that Lady Yarburgh did indeed return it to Thornton, or pass it on to friends. 

Aware that she was unknown to Lady Yarburgh, Thornton used the recipe’s accompanying letter to recommend her own expertise and character. She did so through narrative episodes, recounting her husband’s fits and her responses in detail. For example, William appeared as if he ‘had bin dead & without breathing or mocion or life 2 daies & 2 nights’ during his first attack, which she remedied with the glister. Emphasising the severity of his illness also stressed the efficacy of her recipe. This was reiterated by her account of William’s death, which she blamed on his disregard of her ‘extreame earnest’ pleas for him to ‘take yt order as usuall’. Thornton also expressed her own emotional reaction to William’s illness through conventional feminine behaviour, stating that she ‘cannot but sympathise with Your Ladyship having had so many frights & tears and watching & excessive sorrow in every fitt my dere husband had’. The link between physical gestures and emotion in sickchamber narratives has been explored by Hannah Newton, and in this letter they were used to communicate shared experience and feeling between writer and recipient. [2] Thornton’s desire to gift the recipe to Lady Yarburgh was explained in similarly personal terms: ‘haveing bin my selfe vissited with ye like calamity I am obliged in Charity to assist others […] in distress.’ She also added that God’s blessing on the medicine and ‘Christian patience’ were needed for positive results. Thornton used the letter to perform her identity as a skilled medical practitioner, loving wife and pious Christian, thus approaching Lady Yarburgh as a virtuous and empathetic friend. 

Despite the loss of the recipe itself, the letter sent alongside it shows how written medical instructions interacted with other forms of inter-household paperwork in early modern England, as described by Katherine Allen. Like her famous autobiography, Thornton’s recommended recipe was bound up with personal memory and emotional experience, a topic discussed by Montserrat Cabré amongst others, but it was also socio-politically significant. Thornton was 74 years old in 1700 and had suffered poverty since her husband’s death. In this context, her medical gift was a strategy to cross social boundaries and form an alliance with a potential patroness. As Elaine Leong notes, reciprocity was key to informal medical exchanges and Thornton could expect material, financial or social favours if the recipe was well received. [3] Of course, asserting medical authority to an unknown social superior could disrupt customary power dynamics, which Thornton navigated with care. She emphasised the recipe’s reliability through storytelling, describing her extensive and successful experiences of its use. However, she also had to prove her personal integrity if she was to be trusted by Lady Yarburgh. Thornton consequently used accounts of the remedy to present herself as a humble and compassionate gentlewoman, in line with traditional gender roles. The gifting of recipes was an important token of friendship and knowledge exchange, but it could also be used to construct self-identity and negotiate relationships rooted in social hierarchy, power and obligation.


Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

Recipes and Memory: Thinking Back

Amanda E. Herbert and Annette E. Herbert

Alzheimer's disease, artwork. Credit: Florence Winterflood. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Alzheimer’s disease, artwork. Credit: Florence Winterflood. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Over the past two months, we’ve learned so much about recipes and memory. Sonakshi Srivastava taught us about cities, identity, and the legal as well as cultural ownership of a historic recipe. Lina Perkins Wilder shared what happens when a family recipe is tweaked so many times that it stops working. Betsy Golden Kellem recovered the (delightfully unsavory) origins of the nostalgic treat that is pink lemonade. And Heather Ariyeh asked for community contributions to a project on beans and rice — and please do contribute! The project is ongoing and all are welcome to either skype, zoom, or write to teach Heather their recipe via hariyeh@sva.edu. We are extremely grateful, to all of our contributors, for sharing their writing, their labor, and, in many cases, their own memories with us.

This series has shown us the power and the pitfalls of remembering. The work of art that has been featured on our site over these two months is by Florence Winterflood, and it’s called Alzheimer’s Disease. Held by the Wellcome Collection, Winterflood’s oil and ink painting was “created shortly after ‘Mama’, the artist’s grandmother, moved to a nursing home after her Alzheimer’s disease progressed to a stage where could no longer look after herself. ‘She lost a lot of weight, and a broad, strong, matriarch became a feeble, bird-like woman. Yet however small her frame became, her hands remained large and strong and capable.’ The hand, here a strong tangible image, represents the way the body can settle and remain hardy, even when the mind has become chaotic. The maps breaking up the lines of the hand further represent fragmentation of character, particularly in the way Alzheimer’s interrupts neurological pathways in the brain, disrupting and even tearing up, knowledge, thoughts and memories.”

Strength and chaos, breadth and fragmentation, capability and disruption are all represented in the way that recipes are recalled and remembered. As we share them, ingredients can be forgotten, instructions lost, temperatures reset. But it is a recipe’s very capacity for and easy adaptation to communication, generosity, swapping, and donation which gives it such longevity, allowing it to transcend people, time, and space. 

Grandma Sloan’s Houska

By Lina Perkins Wilder

My family makes houska wrong.

Author’s mom’s recipe card.

Hoska [sic]

  • 2 cakes yeast
  • ¼ c lukewarm water
  • 1 c milk scalded
  • ½ c sugar
  • ¼ c shortening
  • 2 t salt
  • 4 ½-5 c sifted flour
  • 2 T fennel seed
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ c raisins
  • ½ c cut up almonds

In Czech, the word houska means roll, and as one might expect from such a pliant name, the bread has many variations. International cookbooks describe houska as a braided bread roll topped with seeds, salt, or cumin. All of these toppings suggest a savory rather than sweet bread. You can also find recipes for houska that are much sweeter and call for mace, coriander, or lemon zest. Some include citron peel or candied fruit in addition to the raisins. Marie, the proprietor of Little Prague Bakery, in Seattle, and an acquaintance of my mother’s, confirms that this sweet bread is normally called vánočka, but the internet abounds in Czech-Americans who inherited a recipe for a buttery sweet bread called houska. Marie makes vánočka at Christmastime in huge nine-strand braided loaves.

Our houska isn’t very sweet, but it is a Christmas bread (so Marie thinks it should be called vánočka). The recipe calls for braiding, but Mama always makes it in two large loaves. You can braid them, but it’s really too much trouble. It always burns. It is best eaten toasted, with butter and honey. It is flavored with fennel seeds. (Marie says that fennel would be too strong for her customers.) Our recipe comes from my great-grandmother, my mother’s father’s mother, Emma Helen Kolarik Sloan (1895-1992).  

Emma Kolarik was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her parents, Wencil and Helen Zamastil Kolarik, immigrated to the United States, separately, from Bohemia, in the late 1870s. They got married relatively late, a second marriage for him, a first for her. Emma’s mother was almost 40 when she was born. The Kolariks weren’t religious. Emma got “saved” at a rally led by Billy Sunday.

She met Fred Sloan when he came by her home in the Czech neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. He was there selling sweet corn door-to-door using a few words of Czech that he had learned for the purpose. They married in 1919. They had two sons, Fredric (my grandfather) and James.

Emma had high cholesterol and was told not to eat ice cream, but she ate it anyway, in the kitchen, with the serving spoon. Like a lot of evangelical Christians, she was an enthusiastic Zionist. She sometimes said that her family was Jewish, but that probably isn’t true. Her son Jim liked to tell her Czech jokes, just to get her goat. Grandma Sloan made houska during Advent, in braided loaves the size of a cookie sheet. She would cut the loaf into three pieces and send one home with each of her sons’ families when they came over for Sunday dinner. She was 96 when she died.

Grandma Sloan’s short-term memory didn’t work very well during her last years. This is when I remember visiting her. On one visit, I was about ten and I wore my hair in two braids. The ends curled a lot more in the Iowa humidity than they did in western Washington, where the summers were dry. I stood in my braids in Grandma Sloan’s room in the old folks’ home. She greeted each of us, going around. “Oh and how are you? And who is this handsome young man? Oh”—coming to me—“she looks like me when I was a girl!”

A photo of the author as a baby with her Grandma Sloan. (L to R, it’s Heather Simko [the author’s cousin], Paul Perkins [the author’s father], the author, and Emma Sloan [the author’s grandmother].)

 

Mama made houska around Christmas, most years. I never liked it. I don’t like the taste of fennel.

I looked up houska recipes on the internet a few years back and thought that I had discovered the problem: in the recipe I found, the first step in making sweet houska is to make a sponge. My new recipe contained a full four times the sugar called for in Grandma Sloan’s recipe, twice the fat, and butter instead of shortening, mace and ginger instead of fennel seeds, and candied fruit peel and yellow raisins. I made the bread in the traditional braided shape. It was beautiful. It was delicious. It did not burn.

A photo of the houska made by the author.

 

I called Mama. “I figured out why the houska always burns! You’re supposed to make a sponge! So there’s less sugar left in the dough and it doesn’t burn!” Mama was less than enthusiastic. She read me her recipe over the phone. I wrote it on a recipe card along with notes about the new recipe.

A few days before Christmas this past year, I reposted a Facebook “memory” from 2017, a photo of Mama baking Christmas cookies with my two children. My sister commented asking for the houska recipe. My sister-in-law also asked for the recipe. I posted a photo of my annotated recipe card. Mama replied, “I sent a text with the recipe. Best eaten with butter and honey!”

With thanks to Patricia Perkins.