The Sound of the Alef

by Esteban

“Before all Creation he rested, transcendent, in himself, hidden in the power of his own reality. But at the beginning of Creation, “His kabhod became manifest, and the explication of his knowledge consisted in five things.” The author in fact names, but does not explain, these five things, which lead to gnosis. They obviously belong to the sphere of language mysticism and are called tiqqun, ma ‘ amar, seruf, mikhlal, heshbon.

It appears that they constitute the processes by which the letters are placed in harmony (tiqqun), assembled into words (ma’ amar), permutated (seruf), collected together in all their combinations (mikhlal), and calculated according to their numerical value (heshbon). Here, too, the process of emanation coincides with the process of language, but the details do not become clear.

These five events are, as the author says in a curious image, “united in the ramifications of the root of movement [probably meaning the root of the movement of language], which is strengthened in the root of the thirteen pairs of opposites” and unfolds from a thin breath, the sound of the ‘alef, into the name of God (if I understand this difficult text correctly).

These thirteen pairs of opposites are, at the same time, the thirteen middoth derived from Exodus 34:6, which play such a great role in Jewish theology as the modes of God’s action. God acts in the middoth positively as well as negatively, which enables us to perceive a connection with the kabbalistic notion of middah that we found in Isaac.

Here, however, not the sefiroth are meant but the powers or modes of action that are enclosed in the first sefirah and erupt from it. It is in these five modes of the movement of language that everything is realized “like a source for the flame and a flame for the source” prolonged “up to the unfathomable and infinite light, which is concealed in the excess of the hidden darkness. And the knowledge of the unity and of its principle refers to this darkness.”

The divine unity acts therefore out of the effusive darkness from which come all the lights, which are connected to it as the flame to its source. This world of images does not appear to me far removed from that of John Scotus Erigena and Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite; it is more closely related to them than to the world of the Bahir.

Among the Hebrew Neoplatonists such language is not used to express the divine unity, and we touch here upon a possible connection that will emerge more often in the course of this investigation. It seems that the kabbalists of Provence combined the doctrine of the aeons, as found among the gnostics and in the Bahir, with Erigena’s doctrine of the causae primordiales, which in all their multiplicity are nevertheless the unity of the divine sapientia.

Such a relationship is historically plausible. It is not difficult to suppose that the first kabbalists of Provence and Aragon, around 1180-1220, had direct or indirect knowledge of Scotus Erigena, whose influence reached its high point at that time, just before the condemnation of 1210. Many Cathars too seem to have made use of Erigena’s work as is suggested by two extant testimonies. Writings of Erigena were no rarity in the cities where the first kabbalists lived, before Honorius III ordained the destruction of all copies found in France.

But from this speculative and novel introduction, the Book ‘Iyyun proceeds to an explanation of the primordial darkness and the potencies issuing from it. This explanation claims to be a kind of commentary on a Hekhaloth text by Nehunya ben Haqqanah that however, is not identical with any of the Hekhaloth writings known to us. It is apparently against this commentary and, by the same token, against the Book ‘Iyyun in general (along with the Bahir and other writings) that the antikabbalistic attack in Meir ben Simon’s epistle is directed.

Around 1245, therefore, the existence of such a commentary on the Hekhaloth, “where one finds things in the spirit of their [namely, the kabbalists’] heresy” was known in Provence. This text names the signet rings sealing heaven and earth much as we also find them in the Wertheimer version of the “Greater Hekhaloth” (chap. 23).

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 313-5.