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Gershom Scholem on Correspondences

“All reality is constituted in the three levels of the cosmos—the world, time, and the human body, which are the fundamental realm of all being—and comes into existence through the combination of the twenty-two consonants, and especially by way of the “231 gates,” that is, the combinations of the letters into groups of two (the author apparently held the view that the roots of Hebrew words were based not on three but on two consonants).

Among the three realms there exist precise correlations, which no doubt also expresses relations of sympathy. The twenty-two consonants are divided into three groups, in accordance with the author’s peculiar phonetic system. The first contains the three “matrices,” ‘alef, mem, and shin. These in turn correspond to the three elements deduced in the first chapter in connection with the sefiroth—ether, water, fire—and from these all the rest came into being. These three letters also have their parallel in the three seasons of the year (again an ancient Greek division!) and the three parts of the body: the head, the torso, and the stomach.

The second group consists of the seven “double consonants” that in the Hebrew phonology of the author have two different sounds. They correspond, above all, to the seven planets, the seven heavens, the seven days of the week, and the seven orifices of the body. At the same time, they also represent the seven fundamental opposites in man’s life: life and death, peace and disaster, wisdom and folly, wealth and poverty, charm and ugliness, sowing and devastation, domination and servitude. To these correspond, in addition, the six directions of heaven and the Temple in the center of the world, which supports all of them (4:1-4).

The twelve remaining “simple” consonants correspond to man’s twelve principal activities, the signs of the zodiac, the twelve months, and the twelve chief limbs of the human body (the “leaders”). The combinations of all of these elements contain the root of all things, and good and evil, “pleasure and sorrow” (‘oneg and nega‘, which have the same consonants) have their origin in the same process, only according to a different arrangement of the elements (2:4).

This cosmogony and cosmology, based on language-mysticism, betray their relationship with astrological ideas. From them, direct paths lead to the magical conception of the creative and miraculous power of letters and words. It is by no means absurd to imagine that our text not only pursued theoretical aims, but was intended for thaumaturgical use as well. That is how the tradition of the early Middle Ages understood it, at least in part, and it would not have been wrong, in this case, to establish a connection between our text (or its prototype) and the story of the two masters of the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshayah, who every Friday studied the “halakhoth concerning Creation” and by means of it created a calf that they then proceeded to eat.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 29-31.

Letters by Means of Which Heaven and Earth Were Created

The last six sefiroth are defined in an entirely different way; they represent the six dimensions of space, though it is not expressly stated that they emanated from the earlier elements. Nevertheless, it is said of the totality of these sefiroth that their beginning and their end were connected with each other and merged one into the other.

The primal decade thus constitutes a unity—although its nature is not sufficiently defined—but is by no means identical with the deity. The author, no doubt intentionally, employs expressions borrowed from the description of the hayyoth, the animals bearing the Throne in Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah. Hayyoth means literally “living beings,” and it can be said of the sefiroth that they are the “living numerical beings,” but nonetheless creatures:

“Their appearance is like that of a flash of lightning and their goal is without end. His word is in them when they come forth [from Him] and when they return. At His bidding do they speed swiftly as a whirlwind, and before His throne they prostrate themselves” (1:6).

They are the “depths” of all things:

“The depth of the beginning and the depth of the end, the depth of good and the depth of evil, the depth of above and the depth of below—and a single Master, God, the faithful king, rules over all of them from His holy abode” (1:5).

The fact that the theory of the significance of the twenty-two consonants as the fundamental elements of all creatures in the second chapter partly conflicts with the first chapter has caused some scholars (for example, Louis Ginzberg) to attribute to the author the conception of a kind of double creation: the one ideal and pure brought about by means of the sefiroth, which are conceived in a wholly ideal and abstract manner; the other one effected by the interconnection of the elements of speech. According to some views, the obscure word belimah, which always accompanies the word sefiroth, is simply a composite of beli mah—without anything, without actuality, ideal.

However, judging from the literal meaning, it would seem that it should be understood as signifying “closed,” that is, closed within itself. I am inclined to believe that here, too, an as yet unidentified Greek term underlies the expression.

The text offers no more detailed statement of the relationship between the sefiroth and the letters, and the sefiroth are not referred to again. While the numerical-mystical speculation on the sefiroth probably has its origin in neo-Pythagorean sources—Nikomachos of Gerasa, the celebrated author of a mystical arithmology who lived around 140 C.E., came from Palestine east of the Jordan—the idea of “letters by means of which heaven and earth were created” may well come from within Judaism itself.

In the first half of the third century it is encountered in a statement of the Babylonian amora, Rab, originally of Palestine. It is perfectly conceivable that two originally different theories were fused or juxtaposed in the author’s doctrine concerning the thirty-two paths. This range of ideas would fit well in the second or third century in Palestine or its immediate environs.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 27-9.

Scholem on the Kabbalistic Elements

“The ten primordial numbers are called sefiroth—a Hebrew noun, newly formed here, that bears no relation to the Greek word sphaira, but is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to count.”

Steinschneider’s contention (Mathematik bei den Juden [Hildesheim, 1965], p. 148) that the original term acquired its specific kabbalistic meaning as a result of the similarity to the Greek word is not borne out by an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic texts. By introducing a new term, sefirah, in place of the usual mispar, the author seems to indicate that it is not simply a question of ordinary numbers, but of metaphysical principles of the universe or stages in the creation of the world.

The possibility that the term refers to emanations from God himself can be excluded in view of both the wording and the context; it could only be read into the text by later reinterpretation. Each of these primordial numbers is associated with a particular category of creation, the first four sefiroth undoubtedly emanating from each other.

The first one is the pneuma of the living God, ruah ‘elohim hayyim (the book continues to use the word ruah in its triple meaning of breath, air, and spirit). From the ruah comes forth, by way of condensation, as it were, the “breath of breath,” that is, the primordial element of the air, identified in later chapters with the ether, which is divided into material and immaterial either (SIC, should probably be ether).

The idea of an “immaterial ether,” ‘awir she’eno nithpas, like the other Hebrew neologisms in the book, seems to correspond to Greek conceptions. From the primordial air come forth the water and the fire, the third and the fourth sefiroth. Out of the primordial air God created the twenty-two letters; out of the primordial fire, the Throne of Glory and the hosts of angels.

The nature of this secondary creation is not sufficiently clear, for the precise terminological meaning that the author gave to the verbs haqaq and hasab, which belong to the vocabulary of architecture, can be interpreted in different ways. He does not utilize the Hebrew word for “create,” but words that mean “engrave” (is this to designate the contours or the form?) and “hew,” as one hews a stone out of the rock. The Aristotelian element of the earth is not known to the author as a primordial element.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 26-7.

The 32 Paths of the Sophia

“Besides these literary monuments of the Merkabah gnosis, there was another, extremely curious text which circulated widely during the Middle Ages, excercising a great influence in many lands and in diverse circles: the “Book of Creation,” Sefer Yesirah. Concerning the origin and spiritual home of this work, which numbers only a few pages, divergent opinions have been voiced, although to date it has been impossible to come to any reliable and definitive conclusions.

This uncertainty is also reflected in the various estimates of the date of its composition, which fluctuate between the second and the sixth centuries. This slender work is also designated in the oldest manuscripts as a collection of “halakhoth on the Creation,” and it is not at all impossible that it is referred to by this name in the Talmud. In the two different versions that have come down to us, it is divided into chapters whose individual paragraphs were likewise regarded by medieval tradition as mishnaic.

[ … ]

The book’s strong link with Jewish speculations concerning divine wisdom, hokhmah or Sophia, is evident from the first sentence:

“In thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom God . . . [there follows a series of biblical epithets for God] engraved and created His world.”

These thirty-two paths of the Sophia are the ten primordial numbers, which are discussed in the first chapter, and the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, which are described in a general way in chapter 2 and more particularly in the following chapters as elements and building blocks of the cosmos.

The “paths of the Sophia” are thus fundamental forces that emanate from her or in which she manifests herself. They are, as in the old conception of the Sophia herself, the instruments of creation. In her or through her—the Hebrew preposition permits both translations—God, the master of the Sophia, “engraved” Creation. The symbolism of the number thirty-two reappears also in some Christian gnostic documents, but it is in this text that it seems to be established for the first time and in the most natural manner.

Mention should, however, be made of Agrippa von Nettesheim, who informs us (De occulta philosophia 2:15) that thirty-two was considered by the Pythagoreans as the number of righteousness because of its well-nigh unlimited divisibility. More recently Nicholas Sed has discussed in a remarkable essay the relationship of the symbolism of the Book Yesirah with the Samaritan Memar of Marqah.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 24-6.


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