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  • Hermes Among the Jews: Hermetica as Hebraica from Antiquity to the Renaissance
  • Fabrizio Lelli


More than forty years ago, Dame Frances Yates argued with great effect that the ancient Greek treatises attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino in 1463 were key documents of the Renaissance transition to modernity.1 Dame Frances, relying on Eugenio Garin’s authoritative studies of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and on works by Gershom Scholem that brought kabbalah within the reach of modern scholarship, also recognized that Pico, Ficino’s younger contemporary, had uncovered a parallel channel of primordial wisdom in the Jewish theosophy or kabbalah that he explored in greater depth than any Christian before him.2 In succeeding decades, as Moshe Idel and others have extended and refined the study of kabbalah, Yates’s notion of a “Hermetic tradition” in postmedieval Europe has inspired—and provoked—an enormous body of scholarly inquiry and learned interpretation.3 [End Page 111]

Despite the frequent confluence of these two currents of investigation—one focused on Hebraica, the other on Hermetica—the conjoined topic of Hebrew Hermetism has had little systematic or comprehensive attention since Moritz Steinschneider’s pioneering work in the nineteenth century.4 To fill that gap, this study and review of the literature introduces the topic of Hermetism and then describes its impact on Jewish thought in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with special attention to updating the bibliography on Hebrew Hermetism. Hermetic treatises in Hebrew dealing with magic, astrology, medicine, and other scientific and technical topics will therefore be analyzed in their cultural context. The basic thread of the story is the emergence of Hebrew Hermetica in antiquity and the early Middle Ages, their reception in the high Middle Ages by Abraham Ibn Ezra, the opposition of Maimonides to Ibn Ezra’s Hermetism, and the reception of Hermetism by learned Jews of the Italian Renaissance.


Hermes Trismegistus, the “thrice-greatest” Hermes, was a legendary figure of the Greco-Roman world, an all-knowing sage whose mythic attributes derived both from the Greek Hermes, god of roads and trade, and from the Egyptian Thoth, the moon-god who invented counting and writing, made the first measurement of time, and gave order to civil and religious life. Long before the Greeks came to Egypt, Hermes was the master of all speech and communication and thus the mediator between gods and humans. In the Hellenistic period, when Hermes and Thoth were first amalgamated, the Greek god was also identified with the Logos of the philosophers and eventually worshipped as the creator of the world.5

Imhotep-Asclepius, Ammon-Zeus, and other products of Greco-Egyptian syncretism also entered the company of Thoth-Hermes, and with Trismegistus [End Page 112] they all relayed information about the divine world to earthly mortals from on high. Texts in Greek attributed to these gods—writings venerated as if their originals had been copied in the sacred hieroglyphs of pharaonic Egypt—were actually composed in the early centuries of the Common Era, after which they circulated widely in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.6 Hermetica in Latin and in eastern languages soon followed, eventually forming a large literature that promised to reveal the secrets of the universe and uncover the true knowledge of the divine world and the human soul.7 Hermetic knowledge or gnôsis, disclosed only to the elect, was required for the soul’s salvation and the understanding and hence the control of nature.8 For this reason, beneath its theosophical surface, the large and diverse literature of Hermetica has a great deal to say about what we would call “science” and “technology.”

In the twentieth century, however, Hermetic treatises dealing with theological and philosophical subjects were carefully segregated by scholars from those that dealt with scientific or technical issues, including magic, astrology, and alchemy.9 This distinction notwithstanding, many Hermetic “theological” texts show traces of “technical” doctrines, especially astrology, while the technical corpus, also labeled “popular” or “occultist,” sometimes assumes or expresses the same theological issues that are at stake in the works called “speculative,” “theoretical,” or “philosophical.” Naturally, the ancient followers of Trismegistus saw magic, astrology, and related techniques as...


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