Shema’ Yisrael

by Esteban

“The passage occurs in connection with a statement of Rabbi Rahmai concerning the expression “twelve tribes of God” in Psalms 122:4. It follows rather abruptly on a relatively long magical text devoted to the names of God and is found in connection with the symbolism of the “source” that also appears in important passages elsewhere in the book.

Starting from the conception of God as the origin of a source that irrigates everything else, the text interprets the twelve tribes in the upper world as the channels through which the water of the source is conducted. This source is perhaps the name of God, which, through the twelve channels, indicates the thirteen attributes of the divinity, deduced by Talmudic theology from Exodus 34:6.

The discourse concerning the elements of language appears as the continuation of this section 82. The vowels have the form of points, therefore of circles; the consonants, on the other hand, are square, which is in the nature of the Hebrew script.

And just as there is a chain of analogies: God—soul—vowel—circle, so also the corresponding members of each pair should be correlated, to wit, the primordial images of the twelve tribes—bodies—consonants —square. It is difficult to separate one series of symbolism from the other. If these symbols are themselves older, then the pair vowel-consonant which figures among them must also belong to an older tradition reaching back beyond the book Kuzari. In that case the continuation of the paragraph, at first sight enigmatic, can also be interpreted in a logical and consistent manner. The text says:

“And the vowel comes along the way of the “channels” to the consonants through the scent of the sacrifice, and it descends from there, as it is frequently said: the savor is a thing which descends toward God. For [the first] YHWH [of the two four-letter divine names mentioned one after another in Exod. 34:6] descends toward [the second] YHWH, and that is the meaning of Scripture [Deut. 6:4]: “Hear 0 Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one.’”

Here, therefore, the symbolism is transferred to the magic of the sacrifice. Through the savor of the sacrifice the current of life enters from the soul, which is the source, into the attributes, which are the tribes, the consonants or the bodies. By means of a sacramental magic it is attracted toward them through the twelve channels introduced in section 82 in the form of a simile. And corresponding to this mysterious event at the hour of sacrifice, in the prayer, which mystically replaces the sacrifice, is the “unification” of the name of God in the formula of Shema’ Yisrael.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 64-5.