This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Not All That Glisters*

News Item:

5 June 1998. David Walsh, founder of Bre-X Minerals, died at the age of 52. His company claimed it had discovered the gold find of the century, attracting thousands of investors. Eventually the Busang deposit in Indonesia was revealed to be the biggest fraud in the history of mining.

The recent untimely death of David Walsh served to revive interest in the bizarre saga of his Bre-X corporation and the short-lived gold-rush it created on the international investment markets–a tale that is of especial interest because of its origins here in Calgary.

When I first heard the story of how doctored core samples had been used to convince thousands of investors of spurious gold deposits in Indonesia, I immediately thought of a passage in the Mishnah that deals with the concept of a "vain oath" in which God’s name is invoked in order to affirm an assertion that is patently impossible.

As examples of claims that are so obviously false that they require not discussion, the Mishnah mentions the following:

"If a person said of a stone column that it was gold, or a man that he was a woman, of a woman that she was a man…"

What a simple world our sages lived in, where guys were guys and gals were gals, stone was stone and gold was gold! In our own times, and especially after those disastrous Bre-X core samples, only the most credulous among us would consider taking any of those claims at face value, whether it involved minerals or gender.

The fascination with gold and the quest for a means to produce it artificially from cheaper ingredients, have long been an inspiration for magicians, charlatans and scientists. Among Christians in medieval Europe, Jews were reputed to have a special expertise in the realm of alchemy, an enterprise that dealt largely with converting lead into gold. However, like countless other medieval accusations about Jewish involvement in sorcery, this one was entirely baseless. Though Jews had as much interest in magic as any of their gentile neighbours, they had no conspicuous affinity for it.

In fact, the magical branches that were most readily branded by Christians as "Jewish," such as black magic and alchemy, were almost entirely absent from the Jewish curricula, and bibliographers have searched in vain for any original Jewish manuals on alchemy. This however did not prevent popular legend from ascribing such skills to influential rabbinic figures like Rabbi Loew (the Maharal) of Prague. Like the similar myth about his fashioning the "Golem," this one was entirely without factual foundation.

So too, when Martin Luther advised the Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg to keep Jews out of his court out of fears that they would perform alchemical mischief, he was evidently unaware of the fact that Joachim (who, had he lived today, would undoubtedly have invested heavily in Bre-X) had already established a sophisticated laboratory for the manufacture of gold, for which he could not find a single Jewish operative.

The teachings of the medieval Kabbalah, which claimed to reveal the secret metaphysical structure of the universe, also contained the potential for a version of alchemy; and indeed a few respectable Kabbalists like Rabbi Hayyim Vital did occupy themselves in that area of "practical Kabbalah." However, it is interesting to note that, unlike the classic Christian version of the art, Kabbalistic alchemy typically placed gold at a relatively low rung in its symbolic hierarchy of elements, below that of silver.

For all that alchemy was merely a peripheral concern of mainstream Jewish Kabbalah, it became a central focus of the Christian version of Kabbalah that became fashionable in the Renaissance and remained influential for centuries afterwards. Since these movements were often based more on what their adherents imagined the Kabbalah to be like than on any deep familiarity with the actual Jewish mystical tradition, non-Jewish alchemical symbols (including the "Star of David") were often identified by them as "Kabbalistic."

Just as today every self-respecting Hollywood star can easily latch on to a Kabbalistic guru, in earlier days there were always to be found some obliging Jews ready to cash in on the gentile interest in Jewish esoteric lore. Such a figure was the 17th-century adventurer Samuel Jacob Hayyim Falk, a Galician sorcerer and follower of Shabbetai Zvi’s messianic movement, who escaped from the Continent (where he was about to be burned for his activities) to London, where he set up a kabbalistic laboratory on the London Bridge.

You may already be familiar with his appearance, since a portrait of his cherubic face is invariably reproduced as that of Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Indeed, Falk was known as the "Ba’al Shem [i.e., "master of the name"] of London" by virtue of his ability to utilize the divine name for magical purposes.

Faith in Falk’s ability to produce gold on demand drew to his door a steady stream of European nobility and aspiring royalty, and he ended his days in considerable wealth.

No doubt, if he had lived in our days he would have made his fortune selling his wares on the stock market.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:


  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, July 3 1998, pp. 8, 10.

  • Bibliography:
    • Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Meridian ed. New York: New American Library, 1974.
    • Trachtenberg, Joshua. The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemi-tism. Reprint ed. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1961.
    • Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. first Atheneum ed. New York: Temple Books, 1970.