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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

03/2016 manuscript  of the month

‘For it has already been stolen from, soiled and dishonoured’

Love spells, black magic, exorcisms and spells of healing or protection – in the early 16th century, Joseph ben Elijah Tirshom, a Jewish scholar who lived and worked in the Ottoman Empire, assembled a significant compendium of mystical and magical texts, thereby including many instructions on so-called Practical Kabbalah. On what terms was the copyist willing to lend out his precious manuscript?

Fig. 1: Instructions for a spell of protection with a representation of the demon king
Ashmedai (Ms Comites Latentes 145, page 238) > Enlarge

Joseph Tirshom’s compendium makes up the main part of this manuscript and is noteworthy both for its considerable size, spanning more than 280 folios, and for its combination of Sephardic and Ashkenazic textual traditions. In other words, the texts originate not just from the culture of the Jewish people who were expelled from Spain in 1492, but also from that of the Jews who lived in Central Europe at the time. Furthermore, there are a large number of folios at the beginning and end of the manuscript containing texts which were clearly not written by Joseph Tirshom in the 16th century, but added later, probably in the 17th or 18th century.

Figure 1 shows an example of a spell from the manuscript, which was designed to counteract states of fear and anxiety and provide protection from all kinds of evil spirits and demons. It was believed that texts containing magical names and incantations should be written on deerskin parchment and bound to the left hand as a kind of amulet. The figure in the left half of the picture depicts Ashmedai, king of the demons. It was also desirable for his image to feature on the amulet, since controlling and conquering the demon king was thought to simultaneously quell the dangers emanating from any demon spirits under his own control. Besides containing practical instructions like these, Joseph’s manuscript includes a host of texts that offer a predominantly theoretical approach to magic and Kabbalah (the mystical and esoteric traditions of Judaism).

The high regard in which this codex was held in the 16th century is apparent from the two annotations found at the top of the left-hand margin on page 59, the rest of which is practically blank (figure 2). The first of these notes was made by the compiler and copyist of the manuscript himself, Joseph ben Elijah Tirshom, and says:

Fig. 2: At the top of the left margin
are annotations made by the copyist,
Joseph ben Elijah Tirshom, and his
son, Elijah ben Joseph (Ms Comites
Latentes 145, page 59) > Enlarge

I have sworn by Him who spoke and created the world to lend this book to nobody on earth but for a deposit of one thousand L.G. For it has already been stolen from, soiled and dishonoured.

The currency abbreviated by the letters L.G. is not known to us today, unfortunately. It would appear to refer to a substantial amount, however, expressed by the symbolically high number of one thousand. The annotation below the first one was made by the copyist’s son, Elijah ben Joseph Tirshom:

I, Elijah, son of the honourable Rabbi Joseph Tirshom, whose soul dwells in the Garden of Eden, I have lent this book containing collections of [magical] names to Rabbi Raphael. And this book contains 362 folios, but not all of them are written on. And the blank folios are 32 in number. And there are also folios where one half contains text and the other half is blank. In any case, the entire book has 362 folios in all.

When Joseph wrote the words ‘it has already been stolen from’, he was possibly saying that passages from the manuscript had been copied illicitly. By exactly specifying the number of folios containing texts and the number which were blank, Elijah wished to avoid the bad experiences his father had had and make sure that any borrowers of the manuscript did not remove any pages or possibly even add anything new to them. As far as we know, Joseph’s manuscript comprised over 450 folios with text, suggesting that it was already incomplete when it was lent out by Elijah – in other words, parts of the manuscript had literally been stolen. Either way, both father and son certainly appear to have attached a great deal of material and sentimental value to the manuscript, which they attempted to safeguard by requesting a large deposit as security.

Whether Rabbi Raphael really paid a deposit or if he ever returned the book to Elijah cannot be established from the various notes in the manuscript. What does seem clear, however, is that it changed hands at some point during the 16th or 17th century and no longer belonged to the Tirshom family after that. Several of the subsequent owners are immortalised on the first page of the manuscript by their decorative signatures, added to claim ownership of the codex (figure 3). One of the ownership inscriptions refers to the year 1629 (figure 4), testifying to the fact that the manuscript must have remained in use for at least 100 years.

Fig. 3: The original first page of
the manuscript containing, inter alia,
ownership inscriptions, several copies
of the start of the first psalm and a
table displaying different permu-
tations of letters (Ms Comites
Latentes 145, page 21) > Enlarge

It is interesting to note that attempts were made later on to erase the names of the owners or write over them. What is also striking on this page is that the opening passage of the first psalm has been copied a total of seven times in several different hands, or at least in a variety of different Hebrew writing styles:

Blessed is the man [that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night].

This may simply have been an exercise in handwriting, judging by another comment on the page: ‘I am trying out the quill’. Another possibility is that the psalm – traditionally interpreted as a passage in praise of Torah study – is cited in order to place the act of studying Tirshom’s compendium of magic and mysticism firmly on a par with studying the Torah, the holiest book of Judaism. Or it is perhaps intended as an admonishment to borrowers of the manuscript, reminding them not to take the ‘way of sinners’, but to treat the manuscript with respect and return it in its entirety?

The manuscript contains an extremely lengthy table of contents extending over 37 pages (figure 5). The texts are numbered sequentially in Hebrew letters and the title or purpose of each text is also provided. In the main body of the manuscript, the beginning of a new text is indicated by the fact that the initial word is written in larger letters, with the number of the text appearing in the margin. The original manuscript was not paginated.

Fig. 4: Signature bearing the name Jechiel ben Mehalalel (upper line) and
below that the Jewish year [5]389 (lower line), which corresponds to
AD 1628/1629 (Ms Comites Latentes 145, page 21) > Enlarge

The table of contents and the clear layout of the texts in general give the manuscript the appearance of a handbook, suggesting that it was not just a book for intense textual study, but was probably also intended for practical use. Numerous comments and addenda in the margins (see figure 1 on the right) and between the lines, which were not written by the original copyist, Joseph Tirshom, reinforce the manuscript’s importance as a pool of magical and mystical knowledge. These additions include alternative variants of the texts and bear witness to the fact that later Kabbalistic groups also showed a keen interest in the manuscript, making it a valuable testimony to the magical and mystical traditions of Judaism.

Regrettably, we do not know what Joseph Tirshom would have said about the addenda made to his manuscript. Would he have considered them to ‘soil’ and ‘dishonour’ his book, as it was put in the annotation quoted above? Or is it more likely that the many marginal glosses and comments would have been pursuant to his quest for a systematisation of mystical and magical knowledge – welcome supplements in his eyes which may have made the book all the more valuable? The blank folios in the manuscript lent to Rabbi Raphael at least suggest that Tirshom may have even wanted texts to be added.

Fig. 5: A page from the extensive
table of contents (Ms Comites
Latentes 145, page 36) > Enlarge

The concerns regarding the completeness and intactness of the codex as articulated in some of the annotations made by the copyist and his son continued to be justified even much later: it is obvious from the gaps in the numbering of the texts that a large number of folios are still missing from the manuscript today, and the original arrangement of the quires has largely been destroyed – at the latest, this will have happened when the manuscript was rebound for conservation purposes in the 19th or 20th century. Of the original 450 or so folios in the compendium, only 362 of which remained when the manuscript was lent out by Elijah Tirshom, 288 folios with text have been preserved to this day. The blank folios mentioned by Elijah were possibly used for the texts which were added at the end of the manuscript. The first ten folios of the present manuscript also constitute a separate unit which is not part of Joseph’s compendium, but was added at a later – unspecified – date. The subsequent history of the manuscript remains largely unknown. It did not come to the attention of a wider academic community until it was purchased at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century by David Solomon Sassoon, a renowned collector of Hebrew manuscripts, who described it in the catalogue which accompanied his collection. Today, the 672 pages of the manuscript are numbered continuously, not allowing for any missing folios; this pagination was presumably added when the collection catalogue was compiled.

The manuscript is nowadays part of the collection at the Library of Geneva. The digital edition can be accessed on the library’s website, and interested parties are free to flick through and study the pages of the codex without having to pay a large deposit first, as requested by Joseph Tirshom. Given the digital format, it is certainly not possible to steal from, soil or dishonour the manuscript any longer. No doubt Joseph would have approved.


BENAYAHU, Meir (1972): ‘The Book “Shoshan Yesod ha-Olam”’ by Rabbi Yoseph Tirshom (Hebr.)’. In: Temirin, 1, 187–269.

CHAJES, J. H. (2003): Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 65–68.

OKUN, Yael (2011): ‘Description of Ms. Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Comites Latentes 145’.

SASSOON, David Solomon (1932): אהל דוד (Ohel Dawid). Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press/London: Milford, 443–446.


Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève
Comites Latentes 145: Collectanea of kabbalistic and magical texts in Hebrew (originally from the Sassoon collection, no. 290)
Material: paper, 336 folios
Size: 21 × 15 cm
Origin: Ottoman Empire
Contents and dating:
  • Part 1 (fols. 1–10): commentary by Israel Sarug on the Sabbath hymns of Isaac Luria, 17th or 18th century
  • Part 2 (fols. 11–299): compendium of magical and Kabbalistic texts by Joseph ben Elijah Tirshom, probably early 16th century
  • Part 3 (fols. 300–336): selection of magical and Kabbalistic texts (e.g. amulets, recipes, magical names, commentaries), 17th and 18th century

Text by Michael Kohs
© for all images: Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève.
All images under a Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Reference note:
Michael Kohs, “‘For it has already been stolen from, soiled and dishonoured’”
In: Andreas Janke (Hg.): Manuscript of the Month 2016.03, SFB 950: Hamburg,