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les Enluminures

Miscellany on Geomancy, attributed to ABRAHAM IBN EZRA, and others

In Hebrew, illustrated manuscript on paper
Italy (northern?), c. 1550-75

TM 302
  • 23.200 €
  • £20,000
  • $26,000


i + 74 + i folios on paper, watermarks (Briquet 7104, “Fleur de lis inscrite dans un cercle,” Ferrara, 1560; and Briquet 7108, Ferrara, 1586, Rome 1561), modern foliation in pencil in Arabic numerals, gatherings of six leaves, apparently complete, modern side sewing makes accurate collation impossible, no framing or ruling (justification 145 x 80 mm.), written in an Italian current semi-cursive script in a single column of text of 21-26 lines throughout, in brown ink, catchwords at the end of gatherings written within pen-drawings of animals or squiggles, diagrams on folios, some marginal worm-trails occasionally touching text, a few repaired, one worm hole in latter half affecting text, a few stains. Modern vellum binding over half boards, paper pastedowns and flyleaves [rebound since 2004].  Dimensions, paper size, 212 x 133 mm; binding, 220 x 135 mm.

A small, neatly written manuscript on divination, or geomancy, including three texts often attributed to the great biblical commentator, poet, philosopher, and astronomer, Abraham ibn Ezra.  Although treatises on divination in Hebrew are not rare (300 to 350 manuscripts are extant), none of the works in the present manuscript is published.  These texts can be found together in three other early manuscripts (all in public institutions), and appear to be related to the early manuscript tradition that predates the occasional printed editions. 


1. Probably made in Northern Italy, judging from the paper, the script, and the watermarks, and used there at an early date; on the first blank page there is a note in Italian, apparently the testimony of an owner who cast lots.  The same owner, perhaps, added some geomantic figures on the page.

2. Solomon Joachim Halberstam (1832-1900), a wealthy Polish Jewish scholar and bibliophile who had acquired hundreds of valuable manuscripts from the libraries of Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) and Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), came into possession of this manuscript and included it when cataloging his own personal collection. His shelf mark, MS 396, appears together with his Hebrew initials in blue on the first blank page of the manuscript.

3. The Judith Lady Montefiore College in Ramsgate, England, purchased 412 manuscripts from Halberstam’s collection, including ours (shelf mark: MS 436). The transaction was carried out by Rabbi Moses Gaster (1856-1939), principal of the College between 1891 and 1896. The manuscript contains the library stamp of the institution, known in Hebrew as Yeshivat Ohel Mosheh vi-Yehudi.

4. Between 1898 and 2001, most of the Montefiore manuscripts, including ours, were placed on permanent loan at Jews’ College in London. In 2001, they were returned to the Montefiore Endowment Committee.


Most of the works in this volume are found in other manuscripts, a few from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and several written after the seventeenth century. The earliest manuscripts that contain many of these treatises are: Cambridge, University Library, MS Add. 1195 (fifteenth-sixteenth centuries, Sephardic scripts); Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. 88.58 (fifteenth-sixteenth centuries, Sephardic-Italian); and St. Petersburg, Russian National Library, MS Yevr. I 262 (fourteenth-fifteenth centuries, Sephardic script).  The works contained in the present manuscript are apparently entirely unpublished.

f. 1, [Geomancy], with instructions for predicting if one will succeed, bear children, etc.; begins, “To know if one will succeed in his efforts or not, he should consult the first and second houses and they will indicate the truth”;

f. 2, The sixteen geomantic figures, six favorable figures, six unfavorable figures, and four intermediate figures. Includes the names in Latin in Hebrew script: Acquisitio, Fortuna Major, etc.;

f. 3rv, Geomantic tables and lists of ruling planets for the weekdays and methods of divination. This text is also found in the Florence MS Plut. 88.58, f. 20v;

ff. 4-20v, Mishpetei ha-goral u-ma‘asehu [Lots by the great scholar Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra], Treatise on geomancy attributed in this manuscript and in some others to Abraham ibn Ezra. The added title is “Rules and Practice of Lots.” The text begins, “If you wish to perform this art, bring sand or earth from a clean place…” This text is found in several other manuscripts, with textual variations. The same version is found in the Cambridge manuscript, MS Add. 1195, ff. 1-22, though it is not attributed there to Ibn Ezra. The beginning of the text in the Florence manuscript represents another tradition, although the continuation is practically identical and includes the attribution to Ibn Ezra;

ff. 20v-55, Another treatise on geomancy titled Mishpat ha-edim [Method of calculating the witnesses on all sides (copied) from the book Ba‘al ha-hokhmah ve-yode‘ah (The Master of Wisdom)]. This work is also found in the Florence MS Plut. 88.58 (ff. 32v-56v) and in Cambridge MS Add. 1195 (ff.  23r-57v), as well as in a few other later manuscripts. In some manuscripts, it is attributed to Ibn Ezra;

Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), bibliocal commentator, poet, grammarian, biblical commentator, philosopher, astronomer, and physician, was born in Toledo, Spain. The events of Ibn Ezra’s life may be divided into two distinct periods: during the first period he lived Spain and in the second period, from 1140 until his death, he left Spain and traveled widely throughout Europe, to Italy and France and perhaps also to North Africa and Asia. Wherever he traveled, he sought the company of scholars. Ibn Ezra left a large body of writings, including biblical exegesis, grammatical treatises, and religious philosophy, and he was the author of a number of important mathematical, astronomical, and astrological works drawn from Arabic sources, including Sefer ha-mispar. No works by him in Arabic survive, but he surely knew the language.

ff. 55-55v, La-da‘at mahshevot ha-sho’el [Questions for Throwing Lots], includes a list of the sixteen geomantic figures and the appropriate questions for each figure;

ff. 55v-61, Pesakim al mishpetai ha-goral, another treatise on the interpretation of the figures. This text is also found in Florence MS Plut. 88.58; in Cambridge, MS Add. 1195; and in St. Petersburg MS Yevr. I 262;

ff. 61-65, A treatise on astrological geomancy by Abraham [ibn Ezra?].  It begins, “I, Abraham, the author, say that the great principle is that the first, fifth, tenth and eleventh houses are all good…” This treatise is not identical to any other work by Ibn Ezra. It is also found in Cambridge, MS Add. 1195; and in St. Petersburg MS Yevr. I 262.  In all these manuscripts, there are the same short pieces on geomancy following the text (ff. 65r-66r in this manuscript);

ff. 66-73v, Pesakim al mishpetai ha-goral; a short treatise on geomancy including sixty-four questions (numbered in the present manuscript from 1-47, 49-65), beginning, “He who wishes to know [how to calculate] the judgment of the lots briefly…” The figures (dots) were not entered on ff. 72v-73v. The same text was copied in the Florence, Cambridge, and St. Petersburg manuscripts;

f. 74, blank;

f. 74v, A prayer to be recited upon casting lots, beginning, “May the Lord reveal in these lots what I inquire, for I fear the Lord…” Similar prayers are found in other compilations of geomantic texts.

First introduced into West European intellectual life in the eleventh century, when numerous Arabic texts were translated, geomancy is a medieval Islamic form of divination that became popular in the West in the thirteenth century. The word “geomancy” is derived from the Latin “geomantia,” from the Greek for “divination by earth” (the Arabic name for geomancy means “the science of the sand”).  During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the method was widespread, and some of the most prominent representatives of occult sciences, including Bernardus Silvestris (d. 1178), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), Roger Bacon (d. 1292), Cornelius Agrippa (d. 1535), and Robert Fludd (d. 1637) wrote on geomancy.  The system was further popularized through “books of fate,” and “punctuation” (as it was called after its characteristic patterns of dots) and became a self-help oracle even in the rural peripheries of European life. 

In the standard geomantic practice, sixteen different configurations are arrived at by the construction of four horizontal rows, each element consisting of one dot (for the outcome “odd” of a particular chance procedure, e.g., making an uncounted number of dots on the ground or on a piece of paper; throwing pebbles, shells, sticks, etc.) or two dots (for “even”). In this way, patterns of the typical and well-known geomantic figures are produced.

Like many other medieval Islamic sciences, geomancy as a method quickly was assimilated into Jewish culture. The famous poet, philosopher, and astronomer Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1164) composed at least one treatise on the subject.  He may also have written another treatise attributed to him in some sources.  The attribution in the present manuscripts of three of the texts attests to his association with the subject, although some of the attributions may be spurious. 

Hundreds of treatises and handbooks in Hebrew were composed and copied beginning in at least the fourteenth century.  After the introduction of printing, these works and other Hebrew treatises on divination continued to be disseminated mainly in manuscript form. The first printed edition was in 1556 and the next printing was not until 1701.  By 1800, only about a dozen editions are known to have appeared in print (although some very small editions may not have survived).  Nevertheless, the total number of editions probably did not exceed twenty or thirty, whereas the number of manuscript copies registers in the hundreds, perhaps as many as three hundred to three hundred fifty. 

The essential text for the modern scholar of geomancy remains Charmasson (1980), who summarizes medieval practice and discusses the various treatises in detail.  She includes a comprehensive list of manuscripts arranged by both author (or incipit, for anonymous works) and their current location.  However, to date, no comprehensive bibliography of Hebrew treatises on geomancy or divination either in printed or in manuscript form has been compiled.  Ideally, such a study would compare the Hebrew texts with the voluminous literature on these subjects in Arabic and other languages, and the texts in this manuscript will have to be included.


Charmasson, Thérèse. Recherches sur une technique divinatoire: la géomancie dans l’Occident médiéval, Centre de Recherches Histoire et de la Philosophie de la IVe Section de l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, 44, Geneva, Droz, and Paris, 1980.

Halberstam, Solomon Joachim. Kohelet shelomoh, Vienna, 1890, p. 113 (MS 396).

Hirschfeld, Hartwig. Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts of the Montefiore Library, London and New York, 1904, p. 131 (MS 436).

Online Resources

Medieval Geomancy (Elizabeth Bennett)

Astrological Geomancy (Chris Warnock)

Origins of Geomancy (Wim von Bimsbergen)

Magical Use of the Sixteen Figures (Martin Goodson)

TM 302