By Yitzchok Tendler
Catchy title, huh? Despite what you may have thought, this is not merely a misleading gimmick to get you to read my article. In fact, if you stick with me here, you will get practical, step-by-step guidance on how to make gold from copper. So, if you are bummed about not winning the powerball last week, this is the next best way to become millionaire.
Before we start on the good stuff (please don’t skip ahead), let me begin with a caveat: I take no responsibility for any injuries that may be sustained in following this advice. I have never tried this personally, nor do I know anyone who has; I am simply recording a supposedly ancient Jewish source which tells you how to make gold.
Yes, I know that this smacks of alchemy’s age-old quest to turn lead into gold, which, by the way, may actually have succeeded. So, relax and give this a shot.
Our first source is a verse in last week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, which names a chieftain of Esau named Hadad, and then adds some information about his spouse “…and the name of his wife was Meheitav-el, the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Mei-Zahav” (Genesis 36:39).
What kind of name is Mei-Zahav, literally translated as “waters of gold”? Was this Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter? (ha ha, just cracked myself up!) Let’s start with the more tame approaches:
Rashi – “‘mei’ is really ‘mahu – what is it?’. Meaning, he was so wealthy that gold was like nothing to him”. Nice, fits well and makes sense.
Onkelos – “They were goldsmiths”. Wonderful. See Targum Yonasan ben Uziel and Targum Yerushalmi for approaches that contain interesting variations of these two opinions.
Now, let’s jump to the fun part:
Ibn Ezra – After quoting some of the above, he writes that “some say that this is a hint to the art of making gold from copper, but these are “divrei ru’ach (vain, empty words)” (emphasis added).
The point is, that Ibn Ezra is quoting some unnamed biblical commentators who believed that this dude named Mei-Zahav (who we know nothing else about) knew how to make gold from copper. Ibn Ezra, ever the Jewish rationalist of the Spanish renaissance, dismisses this claim.
A very fascinating man named Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein lived and studied in Lithuania from 1860-1941. He was the son of the great Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, Rabbi of Novardhok and renowned author of the monumental halachic work Aruch Hashulchan. Additionally, his uncle was the famed “Netziv”, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of the flagship Lithuanian yeshiva, Volozhin.
In addition to coming from such illustrious Rabbinic stock, the younger Rabbi Epstein, despite being a bookkeeper by profession, was a noted Torah scholar in his own right. There is almost no synagogue or yeshiva in the world that does not carry his work “Torah Temima”, a highly informative and innovative commentary on Talmudic and Midrashic texts which he placed alongside the biblical source that spawned them. Despite some minor controversy, Torah Temima remains highly popular among the learned masses of Jews from across the spectrum.
Less well known, however, is another commentary he wrote on the Torah called “Tosefes Bracha”. This work is not formatted the same way as Torah Temima, and instead is a standard-design freestyle commentary on the Chumash. Unlike Mekor Baruch, Tosefes Bracha has not been reprinted any time recently and is fairly difficult to find (in fact, it isn’t even one of the 40,329 seforim freely available on hebrewbooks.org! It is available on another site, though, here).
In Tosefes Bracha, commenting on the aforementioned verse, things begin to get very, very interesting. Rabbi Epstein first quotes the aforementioned comment of the Ibn Ezra, who, you will recall, quoted and then dismissed as “divrei ruach” other commentators who claimed that Mei-zahav refers to the art of making gold from copper. It seems to be fairly straightforward: Ibn Ezra is dismissing this likely superstitious, weird, and irrational assertion as total hogwash.
Rabbi Epstein, however, is not so sure. “I am unsure”, he writes. “If this ‘ru’ach’ of Ibn Ezra is really serving to dismiss the very possibility of making copper from gold. Perhaps it is merely dismissing the likelihood of this biblical name serving as an awkward reference to that possibility”. In other words, maybe Ibn Ezra simply doesn’t believe that this biblical name is a hint to this “art”, but he does believe in the real possibility of making gold from copper!
Conceding that this sounds like a far-fetched theory, Rabbi Epstein explains why, in fact, it is not so crazy:
“What brought me to this doubt is what I found in a Sephardic sefer called Nifla’ot Ma’asecha (printed in Livorno, Italy), where the author quotes a manuscript he found which describes how to transform copper to gold”.
This comment makes this source sound like a very ancient source: it is an obscure Sephardic book which quotes an unnamed manuscript. In truth, however, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha is a book of Segulot (spiritual remedies) written by Aleppo born Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Chai Shalom Hamawi, who died in Iran in 1888, when Rabbi Epstein was around eighteen years old. This Rabbi Hamawi, who, according to mytzadik.com wrote no less than 39 books, seems to have been a prolific writer on the topic of Segulot.
Getting back to Rabbi Epstein, his comment in Tosefes Bracha ends with this final line: “And if you want to know the details, see my book Mekor Baruch, Volume 3 chapter 19, subsection 6. It isn’t too difficult.”
Wow, very exciting! Now we just have to flip to exhibit 3, which is the passage in Mekor Baruch referenced in Tosefes Bracha.
Mekor Baruch is a very fascinating book. It is four volumes of stories, anecdotes, and Torah thoughts on every imaginable topic. It loosely serves as an autobiographical work which contains very interesting information on Rabbi Epstein’s life, that of his family (notably his uncle, the Netziv), and is a wonderful window into Eastern European life. In chapter 6 of volume 3 he relates several stories about a particular Magid, an itinerant preacher commonly found in Eastern Europe. This Magid apparently had a very difficult life, and complains bitterly to Rabbi Epstein about his plight. His grueling profession had him on the road for many months at a time, delivering homilies to audiences that were not always friendly.
Beyond everything else, what bothered the Magid the most was that he had once read in a book the secret to transforming copper to gold. At the time he had paid little notice to it, but as time went on and his personal troubles abounded he began to imagine that this secret could be solution to all of his problems. He had been so close to wealth and riches but, alas, he had forgotten where he had read this secret so he could not reference it, follow the instructions, and make his fortune. This pained him enormously.
Rabbi Epstein, in his vast and eclectic library, owned a copy of the aforementioned work, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, source of the quoted manuscript containing this secret. He turned to the Magid and said, “I’ll make you a deal: I’ll show you the source containing the secret of ‘transforming copper to gold’ if, upon completing the process, you agree to split the profits with me 50-50”.
At first the magid didn’t believe Rabbi Epstein; after all, he had spent years searching high and low for this source and asking seasoned scholars, all to no avail. However, once the Magid was convinced by the assembled that Rabbi Epstein, in addition to possessing a virtually photographic memory that retained all information it absorbed also wasn’t one to be “pulling his leg”, his astonishment began to give way to more practical matters. he began bargaining and negotiating for greater shares of the anticipated gold. In truth, Rabbi Epstein writes that he himself didn’t believe and trust the efficacy of this alleged kaballistic process. However, once he recalled the Ibn Ezra quote from Vayishlach he began to entertain the possibility that this may actually work. He still was very skeptical, but, for fun, engaged in negotiations with the magid, eventually settling on a deal that gives 30% to Rabbi Epstein and leaves 70% for the magid. Additionally, rabbi Epstein promised not to show this secret to anyone else, lest he generate “competition” in the gold market.
Once the deal was struck with a formal handshake, Rabbi Epstein took the Magid privately to show him the sefer containing the coveted secret of “turning copper to gold”. The Magid, almost delirious from joy imagining the enormous potential for him and his family, promised to begin the process as soon as he returned to his hometown.
Unfortunately, the Magid didn’t live long enough to realize his dream; immediately upon returning home he contracted the illness from which he eventually died. Rabbi Epstein writes that he forgot this entire story, until he began gathering information and sources for Mekor Baruch. Now, he writes, since the Magid is no longer alive I am absolved of my oath of secrecy and I can share this secret for the benefit of the public.
And now, finally, here is the actual text of the manuscript quoted Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, by Rabbi Avraham Shalom Chai Hamawi:
“Take nine chicken eggs and place them in a pot. Cover the pot, and then place it under a putrid garbage pile for a minimum of 30 days. Next, open the eggs and you will find that each one now contains a worm. Transfer everything in the pot to another pot, and wait as the worms begin to grow and eat everything in the pot. Eventually the worms will begin eating each other, until just one large worm will remain. Next, burn this worm, but be cautious to stand at a distance due to the pungent odor. You will be left with the ashes which should be gathered and stored. Afterwards, take pure copper and melt it down, after which some of the powder should be added. You will now have gold.”
Rabbi Hamawi leaves off with a cryptic line: “blessed is he who knows if these words are accurate”.
After publicizing this information Rabbi Epstein writes that he gives his blessing to anyone who chooses to step up and try this relatively “simple project” – to change copper into gold.