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Category: Alphabet

Intertwining Branches of Good and Evil

“But it is not only the good that has its origin in the irradiation of lights of the emanation; there also exists a positive evil, which is related to the root of death. In this way Isaac adopts a modified form of the corresponding idea of the Bahir concerning the nature of evil.

The oppositions discussed in chapter 4 of the Book Yesirah, in connection with the seven consonants of the Hebrew alphabet that can be pronounced in two different ways, also include that of life and death; and Isaac explains that “after the cause of life, the cause of death was emanated.”

Also at the beginning of chapter 2 he emphasizes that in each case the poles of oppositions come “from an autonomous principle.” Death is therefore something more and something other than the mere cessation of life. It has a positive root.

Certainly Isaac stresses at the same time that in the world of the sefiroth and of the “inner essences,” good and bad are not yet dissociated from one another but are harmoniously united, be-‘ah-duth ube-shalom. Only when the “roots” continue to develop into a tree—and in the emanation that later derives from it and to which the double letters correspond—does evil also exist in isolation.

Otherwise, Isaac’s thinking remains determined by the image of the organic body (on chap. 4). The letters are like the branches of the tree and in them the intertwined pattern of good and evil is unfolded, so that each good middah also has its corresponding evil and vice versa.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 293.

Eschatological Elevation of the Soul After Death

“The Bahir’s idea of the sefiroth appears in Isaac’s writings in a fully crystallized form. In his commentary on the Yesirah 4:3, the verse 1 Chronicles 29:11 is used for the first time as a biblical reference for the names and the sequence of the seven lower sefiroth, especially the first five among them: “Yours, Lord, are the greatness (gedullah), might (geburah), splendor (tif’ereth), triumph (nesah), and majesty (hod)—yes all (kol) that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship (mamlakhah) and preeminence above all.”

From here come the designations not yet used in the Bahir, of gedullah for hesed, tif’ereth for ‘emeth, and hod. Isaac himself for the most part uses the names hesed and pahad (as in the Bahir) instead of gedullah and geburah. The name tif’ereth, however, is already familiar to him.

Whereas the word kol, occurring in the aforementioned verse, already served in the Bahir as an epithet designating the “Righteous,” Isaac uses for this sefirah the noun “Righteous” and the epithet “Foundation of the world.” For the last sefirah, on the other hand, he employs almost exclusively an epithet still not familiar to the Bahir, although it is undoubtedly alluded to there.

This epithet is ‘atarah, a synonym for kether, which designates the lowest of the ten “crowns.” Like the Bahir, he names the first three sefiroth kether or mahshabah, hokhmah and binah.

In his commentary on Yesirah, Isaac mentions many of these sefiroth in the framework of fixed schemata, but this does not always enable us to comprehend the sequence of the sefiroth within them. What is strange is that in point of fact the structure of the sefiroth beyond the supreme three only interests him in detail when it is a question of prayer mysticism, or the interpretation of certain ritual commandments. They have their importance as stages of the contemplative ascent or of the eschatological elevation of the soul, after death, to even higher spheres.

But never are any coherent thoughts presented concerning their function and structure. This is particularly the case for the potencies of tif’ereth, yesod and ‘atarah, which play an especially important role in the evolution of the doctrine of the sefiroth. In contrast to this lack of interest in detail, one discerns in Isaac a more pronounced interest in the totality of the spiritual potencies expressed in language and, in a more general manner, in spiritual entities.

Having said that, the terminological differences between concepts like sefiroth, middoth, letters (of the alphabet) and hawwayoth (literally: essences) are by no means always clear, and their interpretation is often fraught with difficulties.

However, these difficulties are closely related to what is truly new in Isaac’s Kabbalah. Indeed, from the historical point of view their interest lies in the combination of the world of ideas of the Bahir and the entirely new elements that erupt, inspired by gnostic ideas, into the oldest form of the Kabbalah as represented by the Bahir.

This combination reflects speculative interests whose origin is no longer essentially determined by Gnosticism but rather by Neoplatonism and a language mysticism generated by the latter. Isaac is visibly struggling with new thoughts for which he is as yet unable to find clear and definitive expression. The awkwardness of his new terminology militates against the supposition that this lack of clarity, which often makes it so difficult to penetrate his meaning, is intentional.

His new terminology seems to be derived from philosophy, although we cannot identify its philosophical sources in the Hebrew tradition. The special importance of Isaac’s commentary on the Yesirah lies in the attempt to read into the old texts the new, speculative thoughts of a contemplative mystic. But we are no less surprised by the boldness with which he presents far-reaching ideas in his other cosmological fragments and in his remarks concerning the mystical theory of sacrifice. The particular manner in which Isaac applies his ideas to the task of man, to the connection between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and to eschatological matters merits closer consideration.

The path of the mystic, described by Isaac at the beginning of his commentary on the Yesirah, is (as Isaac of Acre already recognized in his paraphrase of several of these passages in his own commentary) that of systematically uncovering the divine—by means of reflective contemplation and within the innermost depths of such contemplation. Isaac postulates three stages in the mystery of the deity and its unfolding in creation and revelation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 263-5.

Footnote 48, An Amulet

“Through 231 gates everything goes forth. It is found therefore, that every creature and every speech [language] goes forth out of one name” (2:5). Does this mean that the alphabet, in its sequence, constitutes a mystical name? Of such a conception of the alphabet, Franz Dornseiff (Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie, 2d ed. [Leipzig, 1925], 69-80) collected abundant testimonies from the Greek and Latin sources; cf. also A. Dieterich, ABC—Denkmäler, Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 56 (1900): 77-105.

In the Wiener Jahres hefte 32 (1940): 79-84, Joseph Keil published an important Hebrew-Greek amulet that contains, with an obviously magical intention, the Hebrew alphabet in Greek transcription in the so-called at-bash order. In this order the alphabet is written in two rows boustrophedon and two letters are vertically connected in pairs.

The amulet should be dated between the second and fourth centuries, but certainly no later. (I was able to identify clearly, though with some effort, the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 28:58, which was in one of the three lines that neither Keil nor Ludwig Blau—to whom he showed the amulet in 1926—was able to decipher.

It is only natural that the view that the alphabet constitutes “One name, to wit the name of 22 letters” should have passed into the early Kabbalah, as is attested by the Commentary on the Prayer Book, composed about 1260, by the (anonymous?) commentator Sefer ha-Manhig on the Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer, Ms. British Museum, Mar-goliouth 743, fol. 96b.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 24-35.

Sinatic Hebrew an Alphabetical Representation of Sumerian Cuneiform?

“…there is extensive archeological evidence of a much older Hebrew alphabet, called Gezer or Sinatic (after Mount Sinai), as the original and most ancient Hebrew.

Sinatic Hebrew is in fact the oldest known alphabet, suddenly appearing about the time of Abraham (circa 1850 BCE). The original Sinatic Hebrew became virtually extinct after the decimation of Lachish circa 701 BCE.

The Sinatic alphabet could have evolved as an alphabetic representation of the twenty-six Sumerian cuneiform ciphers, the world’s oldest known non-alphabetic language.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg. 56.

Gematria

“Gematria is one of the rules for interpreting the Torah, and is partially a high-level system of numerology.

It is defined by Scholem as, “explaining a word or group of words according to the numerical value of the letters, or of substituting other letters of the alphabet for them in accordance with a set system. All Hebrew letters are equally values and words, so for example the letter Aleph, signifying “A,” also means “one,” as well as being a word meaning ‘ox.'” The table given lists the major values and meanings of the twenty-two letters. This allows the letters to be taken as symbols expressing differing aspects of the Universe, either as separate entities, or when combined together in words.”

(…)

“Although some Kabbalists denied the use of Gematria as relevant, other workers such as Abulafia dealt with Gematria so deeply that their works need “decoding” rather than reading. It is said that the Torah is likewise written, and that “mistakes” in the original Greek and Hebrew texts are not mistakes, but rather spellings and variations necessary to ensure the numbers underlying them were correct.”

–Frater FP, The Magician’s Kabbalah, pg. 81.

Divine Language Influencing Reality

“The Christian kabbalists were most impressed by the Jewish nonsemantic treatment of language…the various names of God and the celestial powers were for them a new revelation. The various transmutations of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as the numerological methodologies, which are essentially midrashic rather than kabbalistic, became the center of their speculations. The Hebrew concept of language as an expression of infinite divine wisdom contrasted….with the Christian attitude towards scriptures.”

He then cites Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, secretary to Emperor Charles V, and his De Occulta Philosophia (1531).

“The meeting with the Jewish conception of divine language enabled the Christian kabbalists to adopt the belief in the ability of language–especially names, and in particular divine names–to influence reality.”

He then cites, “Venetian scholar Francesco Giorgio (1460-1541), especially in his well-known De Harmonia Mundi (1525).”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 64-6.

The Creation of the Universe

“Even more extravagant than the Muslims were the Jews. The first chapter of the Jewish Bible contains the famous sentence: And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light;” the Kabbalists argued that the virtue of that command from the Lord came from the letters of the words.

The Sepher Yetzirah (Book of the Formation), written in Syria or Palestine around the sixth century, reveals that Yehovah of the Armies, God of Israel and God Omnipotent, created the universe by means of the cardinal numbers from one to ten and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. That numbers may be instruments or elements of the Creation is the dogma of Pythagoras and Iamblichus; that letters also are is a clear indication of the new cult of writing.

The second paragraph of the second chapter reads: “Twenty-two fundamental letters: God drew them, engraved them, combined them, weighed them, permutated them, and with them produced everything that is and everything that will be.” Then the book reveals which letter has power over air, and which over water, and which over fire, and which over wisdom, and which over peace, and which over grace, and which over sleep, and which over anger, and how (for example) the letter kaf, which has power over life, served to form the sun in the world, the day Wednesday in the week, and the left ear on the body.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

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