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Harry Potter and the Children of Ketura

May 9, 2009 | by

Did Jewish mystical books inspire the Sorcerer's Stone legend?

The first Harry Potter book introduces the Sorcerer's Stone:

"The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer's Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

"There have been many reports of the Sorcerer's Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to Mr. Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera lover. Mr. Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Pernelle (six hundred and fifty eight)."

Note that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published in 1997, putting Flamel's birth at around the year 1332.

The folklore of Nicolas Flamel and the Sorcerer's Stone wasn't invented for the Harry Potter stories; it has been part of the legends of Alchemy for hundreds of years. Alchemy fans say that Nicolas Flamel actually existed, and lived from 1330 to 1418.

The legend of Nicolas Flamel as alchemist has also appeared in other modern novels, such as The DaVinci Code, which lists Flamel as a leader, from 1398 to 1418, of a secret society that possessed, among other things, "the alchemic power to turn lead into gold, and even cheat God by creating an elixir to postpone death." (See chapters 8 and 79.) Sound familiar?

Interestingly, books of Alchemy legends quote "The Testament of Nicolas Flamel," reportedly published in London in 1806, saying that Nicolas Flamel learned how to make the Sorcerer's Stone from a book of Kabbala that revealed secrets of "Abraham the Jew." Fans of the Alchemy legends have tried unsuccessfully to identify Jewish mystics named Abraham from the 1300's that fit the legend's description.

From the Torah's perspective, there is no reason to believe that any of the Alchemy legends are true. At the same time, we can speculate about Jewish mystical books that can be attributed to "Abraham the Jew," that could have inspired the Sorcerer's Stone legend.

In Genesis, we see Abraham setting his affairs in order as he approaches his own death, arranging for his son Isaac's future and for the children he had with Ketura, the wife he married after Sarah's death. The Torah tells us as follows:

"Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. To the children of his other wife he gave gifts, and then he sent them away from Isaac, to the east, to the land in the east" (Genesis 25:5,6).

If Isaac was given "everything," what were the "gifts" given to the children of Ketura? Rashi explains as follows:

"Our Rabbis explained, he gave them a name of God (meaning a Divine incantation) for impure uses." 1

Commentaries on the Talmud explain this "name of God for impure uses" as "secrets of magic and powers of demons"2. The Daas Zekeinim explains this as "names of demons that are enlisted to do whatever their masters say."

The Maharasha's commentary on the Talmud says that Abraham learned black magic only to be able to defend against it, not to use it. Similarly, the Maharal says that Abraham taught these secrets to the children of Ketura only for defense (making Abraham perhaps the first teacher of defense against the dark arts). 3

Other sources, however, discuss Abraham's knowing and using Jewish mystical secrets. Abraham is credited as the source of the mystical secrets of the Sefer Yetzira, the Book of Creation. Sefer Yetzira gives meditative techniques for mystical healing, creating new bodies, teleportation, and more. Sa'adia Gaon writes that our text of Sefer Yetzira was written in Talmudic times, but the methods taught in the book date to Abraham. The last section of Sefer Yetzira itself describes "Abraham our father" making use of these meditative secrets to bring new creatures to life:

"And when our father Abraham looked, saw, understood, probed, engraved, and carved, he was successful in creation, as the Torah writes, 'and the souls that they made in Haran' (Genesis 12:5)." 4

The usual explanation of Genesis 12:5 is that Abraham and Sarah had spread the knowledge of monotheism, bringing people's souls closer to God, not that they had actually created new people. But the Sefer Yetzira's interpretation is, if anything, even more consistent with the words of the Torah, and identifies Abraham among the early practicing mystics.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's extensive English commentary on Sefer Yetzira notes that Abraham lived in the 18th century BCE, the same time period in which mystical books, such as the Vedic Scriptures, were written in the Far East, making it logical that Jewish mystical texts would also have been written or conceived at that time.

While some commentaries indicate that "The land to the east" might be Arab areas just to the East of the Land of Israel,[5] most understand this to be referring to the Far East.

Jewish tradition is not clear on whether Abraham taught the Children of Ketura the secrets of Sefer Yetzira or other mystical secrets. But the Zohar tells the following revealing story:

"Rabbi Abba said: I once was in a town where the children of the east live, and they taught me some of their ancient wisdom and showed me their books of wisdom.... I said to them, my children, all of this is similar to what we have in our Torah, but you should avoid these books, to avoid idolatry.... The ancient children of the east possessed a wisdom which they had inherited from Abraham, who had imparted it to the children of his other wife... in time they followed that wisdom to many false roads." [6]

Whatever books the Zohar is referring to, we see the Talmud and Zohar presenting a consistent connection between Jewish teachings and Eastern mysticism, brought east by the children of Ketura.

Interestingly, modern research is uncovering connections between Far East schools of thought and Torah. One example is an article in the Journal of Chinese Medicine, issue 70, in October 2002, titled "Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription for Mental Clarity." In this article, Dr Steven Schram finds a connection between the placement of Tefillin (Phylacteries), which Jewish men wear every day during morning prayer, and the exact points on the head, arm and hand used by Chinese acupuncture to "elevate the spirit and clear the mind." According to acupuncturists, the point on the head where Tefillin is placed apparently corresponds to "Tianting (Courtyard of Heaven)," a point whose stimulation is said to calm the mind and balance the spirit, and the point on the arm in which Tefillin is placed apparently corresponds to "Tianfu LU-3 (Heavenly Residence)," one of a group of points called "Window of Heaven" said to have spiritual benefits.

Not only does Chinese acupuncture promote pressure or needles on the exact points on which Tefillin are wrapped, but it promotes treatment of the arm and head before the hand, consistent with the process in Jewish Law for putting tefillin first on the arm, then on the head, and only then on the hand. Acupuncture theory reportedly sees the points on the hand as "multipliers" that increase the effectiveness of the points on the arm and head.

The author of the article concludes "If someone handed an acupuncturist the above point formula (the places where Tefillin are placed) and asked what is being treated, there is little doubt that mental and 'shen' (spiritual) issues would be a strong part of the pattern. What is surprising is that such a point formula would be found in a non-Chinese procedure that has been continuously practiced for many thousands of years.... It seems clear that putting on Tefillin is a way of stimulating a very precise set of acupuncture points that appears designed to clear the mind and harmonize the spirit."

Rephrasing this from a Jewish perspective, it seems clear that Chinese schools of thought have built their acupuncture techniques on knowledge that overlaps with the Torah.

Whatever we may think of acupuncture or Far Eastern medicine or science (and this essay is not meaning to promote it), it is interesting to see an overlap between Torah and Eastern schools of thought that modern scholars are unable to explain. It would be pure speculation to suggest that that this knowledge may have been brought East by the Children of Ketura, but overlap between Far Eastern thought and Torah is certainly consistent with the Torah's and Zohar's accounts.

Returning to our discussion of the legends of Nicolas Flamel, we obviously have no way of knowing whether the legends are rooted in a book of mysticism that Abraham taught the children of Ketura. There are, however, similarities between diagrams attributed to Nicolas Flamel and diagrams found in many editions of Sefer Yetzira.

Regardless of whether the legends of the Sorcerer's Stone are based on mystical knowledge from the children of Ketura, we see clear connections between Jewish kabbalah and Far Eastern knowledge. If we're impressed or intrigued by Far East mysticism, we should stop and think: Eastern teachings may have derived from Abraham's wisdom!

Excerpted from Harry Potter and Torah. For more information, visit

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1. Rashi on Gen. 25:6, based on Talmud Sanhedrin, 91a.
2. Rashi on Sanhedrin 91a
3. Gur Aryeh on Gen 25:6
4. Sefer Yetzira, 6:7, Vilan Gaon edition
5. Daas Zekeinim on Gen 25:6
6. Zohar VaYeira, paragraphs 80-89, Torah Shleima English Edition on Gen 25:6

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