Notes on Panofsky’s comments 4. Kabbalah

Header Illustration: detail from a Kabbalist scroll.  Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556)
Two previous:     Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations (
Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2 – (

See also Postscript – added at end of post, 28th. Jan. 2022.

Note 8: … ‘Kabbala’

When Anne Nill wrote to her friend Herbert Garland in 1932 about Panofsky’s viewing the manuscript, she said, “He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

The question has been hanging ever since. I know of no further comment by Panofsky, though something may be buried in the archive of his correspondence.

Elegant Enigma includes a  few paragraphs under ‘Cabala’ in the section titled ‘Collateral Research’, where it is placed between Angelic magic and Alchemy.

Notice d’Imperio’s use of the past tense:

” [Cabala] depended heavily on manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and lists of sacred words and was in general highly ‘verbal’ and abstract in character in contrast to the iconic and ‘visual’ character of other magical [sic!] systems,… the manipulations of Cabala may have inspired at least some cryptographic devices’     (d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma. p.60).

Both her spelling for the word as ‘Cabala’ and her few comments suggest that d’Imperio relied on an article in the  1901-6 edition of   Encyclopaedia Judaica.  If so, she didn’t take to heart its authors’  admonition:

most modern scholars … have treated the Cabala with a certain bias and from a rationalistic rather than from a psychologico-historical point of view; applying the name of “Cabala” only to the speculative systems which appeared since the thirteenth century, under pretentious titles and with fictitious claims, but not to the mystic lore of the geonic and Talmudic times. Such distinction and partiality, however, prevent a deeper understanding of the nature and progress of the Cabala, which, on closer observation, shows a continuous line of development from the same [religious] roots and elements.

What d’Imperio calls  ‘word-manipulation’ and thinks the mark of a magical system owed most to Abraham Abulafia, a conscious rationalist and follower of Moses Maimonides (who is sometimes called the ‘arch-rationalist’). Maimonides’ thought was – and still is –  respected across the religious and sectarian divides.  Of him, the  Catholic Encyclopaedia writes:

“through his “Guide of the Perplexed” and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna … [Maimonides] exerted a very important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and Duns Scotus.”

speaking of perplexity, and though off topic, I’d like to mention a paper I’ve just seen online:

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘Solved: The Ciphers in Book iii of Trithemius’s Steganographia’, (DRAFT: 26 March 1998).

‘Voynich’ thoughts and Kabbalah

detail of miniature in a Greek Kabbalist manuscript.       Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Ottieni. courtesy Lehigh University.

An online search for ‘Voynich’ plus ‘Kabbalah’ turns up nothing to help us understand Panofsky’s remark.  It may seem harsh to say that nothing said so far about the Voynich manuscript and Kabbalah has been other than trivial – but see for yourself:

  • In 2009, Pelling mentioned (here) that Pater Castell saw the  sephiroth in  one of the botanical drawings (Pelling’s illustration).
  • In 2013 Donald Goodell began a thread on the mailing list managed by Rich Santacoloma.  See that thread here.
  • A conversation was begun some years ago in the online ‘Journal of Voynich Studies‘  but – as so often – the talk soon veered  back to its contributors’ chief interest: the nobility and seventeenth-century Prague.
  • On July 5th., 2015,  Marco Ponzi left a comment on Stephen Bax’s site, citing an image from a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic Greek text. (It was Ponzi’s find, but a detail from the same diagram can be seen above).   Darren Worley soon provided the picture’s caption, “Influence of the moon on reading the signs of the cabala (kabbalah), miniature from the Cabalistic treatise, Greek manuscript, 16th century…etc.  Ponzi doubted the caption’s accuracy, but  I’m assured it’s correct.
  • Jan.26th., 2016, a thread opened on the forum ‘’.  The subject was actually Jules Janick’s published theory (with or without his name mentioned). The exchange followed the usual course.

Otherwise, Arthur O. Tucker‘s co-author, Jules Janick has made most of the general idea, pulling into Tucker’s ‘New World Voynich’ narrative the late and Christianised style of Kabbalah, knowledge of which he attributes to the missionaries.  However, in overlaying  the tree of Sephiroth on the Voynich map, Janick failed to notice that the quarter he designates ‘North’ is marked clearly with the rising sun which signifies East.

Texts and resources

(detailBrit.Lib. MS Or 11791 f.8v ‘Perush Sefer Yetzirah’ cf.  Brit.Lib. Add MS 26929.

As readers will realise, we are still entirely at a loss to know what about the manuscript or in it, could have led Panofsky to say he thought there was some influence from Kabbalah.  Of course, he might not have expressed himself as definitely as Nill reports, but hers is the only account we have.  He might simply have been musing…’Spain or somewhere southern’… Jewish… thirteenth to fifteenth century… could well be some influence from Kabbalah..’  We don’t know. The whole question is still, effectively, unexplored.

Any reader inspired with determination to solve the problem, one way or another, might like to begin with  Sefer Yetzirah, (‘The Book of Formation’ (or: ‘- Creation’) which is the earliest and perhaps best known of works described as Kabbalistic, though in this case the description is debated.

“Composed in (c.200 BCE – c.200 CE). Sefer Yezirah (Book of Formation) is the title of the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, although some early commentators treated it as a treatise on mathematical and linguistic theory as opposed to Kabbalah.”

– from the Sefaria site‘s introduction to the parallel Hebrew/English text.

  • British Library MS Or.11791 Parchment codex.  Commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah (14th-15thC).
    The Library recommends the following article – and so do I.

The catalogue entry for another volume highlights the need to forget parochial thinking. The various hands are described:

Script (summary): Spanish and Italian semi-cursive script;  Italian semi-cursive script of the 15th century;  Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Spanish semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century. 

For the  total novice (as I am), a couple of easy first meetings with Kabbalist thought:

  • George Robinson, ‘Kabbalah in Spain‘, (undated online article). Sub-title reads, “From the 13th through the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the home of most major kabbalists.”
  • A modern orthodox rabbi,  Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, explains Kabbalah for modern believers –  youtube video.
  • An article by Ephraim Rubin which looks like a very solid introduction to the Zohar.  published as a blogpost at Kinkatso & Co.

See also:

edited from the original.
  •  Joseph Dan, ‘Gershom Scholem’s Reconstruction of Early Kabbalah’, Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 1, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (Feb., 1985), pp.39-66.
  • Hartley Lachter, ‘Spreading Secrets: Kabbalah and Esotericism in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 111-138.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: Preliminary Observation’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51 (1988), pp. 170-174.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” and the Kabbalah’,  Jewish History, Vol. 18, No. 2/3, Commemorating the Eight Hundredth Anniversary of Maimonides’ Death (2004), pp. 197-226
  • Shaul Magid, ‘From Theosophy to Midrash: Lurianic Exegesis and the Garden of Eden’, AJS Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1997), pp. 37-75.
  •  Daniel Jütte, ‘Trading in Secrets: Jews and the Early Modern Quest for Clandestine Knowledge’,  Isis , Vol. 103, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 668-686. (This paper includes the discursus on Abramo Colorni – regarding whom see N.Pelling, ‘Abraham Colorni’s Cryptography…’ ciphermysteries, (Feb.9th., 2019).
  • The Zohar – first edition published in Mantua 1558-60 is in the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section.  (Sefer ha-Zohar, 3 volumes, Mantua, 1558-60 )


Postscript – 28th. January 2022.

I should like to acknowledge the courtesy of Koen Gheuens who wrote to let me know that about six months ago, a Voynichero called ‘Carey’ approached him, citing the same manuscript which I used here for my header and invited him to join her in creating a theory about the Voynich map.  Koen only much later thought to check – as a scholar does – to see what precedents there might be for associating that same source (Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556) to images in the Vms and on noticing this post, maintained the same scholarly approach by writing to ask my thoughts.   One appreciates such courtesies all the more for their rarity in the online ‘Voynich’ world.

For readers who might care to know the same, I’ll share two thoughts:

first.  Yes, I did see points of comparison between Brit.Lib. Or 6465 and details in the Voynich map – which is why I included a couple of details from it in the post.  BUT that scroll was made at least eight generations after the last recension of the Voynich manuscript, and about a century and a half after our present copy was made.

Brit.Lib. Or 6465  is dated to1556.

Secondly, to suppose that any viable ‘Voynich-Kabbalah’ storyline could be developed by any persons without the essential preliminaries – that is, the necessary languages and study under a scholar specialising in medieval Jewish religious thought and writings – is an idea more informed by self-confidence than by reason.  Kabbalist studies were not casual reading; it was recommended only for mature adults (over 25) who would by then have had not less than thirteen years’ prior study in religious texts and commentaries- in Hebrew, in Aramaic and related dialects, and in such Jewish dialects as Judeo-Occitan or Judeo-Catalan etc.

That said, if Koen Gheuens and ‘Carey’ (f.) are keen enough to take the topic seriously – and far more seriously than d’Imperio did – I hope they’ll find a suitably qualified Jewish scholar to provide a detailed and well-informed opinion before publication.

Next post:  Salomon and Liebeschutz