“They are called in his works the Infinite (‘en-sof), Thought, and Speech. The principle of Speech, dibbur, is divided into the plurality of speeches and words, by which he often means the seven lower sefiroth, called not only dibburim but also debharim. In Hebrew dabhar means “word” as well as “thing,” and this coincidence was obviously decisive for the formation of Isaac’s thought.
The sefiroth, above all the seven lower ones, are the words or things “which shape reality.” They take the place of the ma’amaroth, the logoi of the Bahir. The “Thought,” too, already comes from this text, as we saw in the previous chapter. But what is entirely new is the emphasis laid on a domain of the divine that is above all reflective contemplation, indeed above the divine Thought itself, a domain called by Isaac “the cause of Thought” and designated by a new term: ‘en-sof.
The birth of this concept is of great interest for the history of the Kabbalah. This designation is usually explained as a borrowing from Neoplatonism. Christian Ginsburg, whose essay on the Kabbalah has been appropriated by many authors (who do not always bother to acknowledge their source), says:
“ … Any doubt upon this subject must be relinquished when the two systems are compared. The very expression En Sof which the Kabbalah uses to designate the Incomprehensible One, is foreign, and is evidently an imitation of the Greek Apeiros. The speculations about the En Sof, that he is superior to actual being, thinking and knowing, are thoroughly Neo-Platonic.”
Ginsburg, however, proceeded on the completely erroneous assumption that the oldest document of the authentic Kabbalah was the Neoplatonic catechism on the sefiroth composed by Azriel, Isaac’s disciple. There the notion is in fact explained in a manner that comes particularly close to Neoplatonic thought. But this says nothing about the origin of the concept. Indeed, the expression is strange, by virtue of its very grammatical formation.
It certainly is not a rendering of a fixed philosophical idiom, whether it be from the Greek or from the corresponding Arabic (la-nihaya)—in spite of the readiness with which some scholars have adopted this view.
The form ‘en-sof corresponds in no way to the translations of privative notions in medieval Hebrew literature: in these the conjunction Ulti always precedes the negated notion; the negation ayin is never employed for this purpose. Thus “inconceivable” is rendered by bil-ti-mussag and not by ‘en hassagah, and “infinite” is Ulti ba’al-takh-lith and not ‘en-sof.
The form ‘en-sof is altogether unusual, and Graetz had good reason to see it in a proof of the late origin of the term. However, he should have added that in the Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages, too, it represents a completely isolated phenomenon. It is only in biblical literature that we find forms such as ‘en ‘onim or ‘en ‘eyyal, for powerless. Subsequently, locutions of this kind disappear completely.
How, then, are we to understand the origin of the term ‘en-sof? It did not result from a deliberate translation, but from a mystical interpretation of texts that contain the composite term ‘en-sof in a perfectly correct adverbial sense, and not as a specific concept. The doctrine of Saadya Gaon, in particular, abounds with affirmations of the infinity of God—in fact, it is asserted at the very beginning of his well-known “Supplication” (Siddur R. Saadia , 47), and in the old Hebrew paraphrase, known among the Provençal Kabbalists as well as the German Hasidim, it is reiterated incessantly.
Tobias ben Eliezer, who wrote around 1097, also stressed precisely this quality of God, in the context of a reference to the mystical Hekhaloth writings. For him God is “the first up to the unfathomable, the primordial beginning up to the infinite (‘ad ‘en-takhlith), among the last up to infinity (‘ad ‘en-sof). ” The adverbial construction is perfectly correct.
“Up to infinity” results from a combination of “up to there, where there is no end.” Expressions of this kind, in which ‘en-sof has the function of an adverbial complement, are found with particular frequency in the writings of Eleazar of Worms. We find the same usage in the Bahir (cf. p. 130 preceding). Thus, Eleazar writes, for example: “When he thinks of that which is above, he should not set any limit to this thought, but thus [should he think of God]:
” … high, higher up to the Boundless [‘ad ‘en-qes]; down deep, who can find him; and the same above in the expanse of all the heavens . . . and outside the heavens up to the infinite [le’en- sof].” Or: “in the Throne of Glory are engraved holy names, which are not transmitted to any mortal, and which sing hymns unto infinity [meshorerim shiroth le’en-sof].”
The transition here from the innumerable hymns sung by holy names and angels to a hypostasis that, as a mystical reader might perhaps conceive it, “sings hymns to ‘en-sof” seems easy enough. The term ‘en-sof came into being when one of the Provençal kabbalists read this combination of words that actually represents a phrase as a noun, possibly influenced by the aforementioned kind of adverbial composites and perhaps also by some expressions in the Bahir.”
Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 265-7.