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Category: Creation

Lenzi: The Mythology of Scribal Succession

“The text of the ULKS is as follows:

“During the reign of Ayalu, the king, Adapa was sage.

During the reign of Alalgar, the king, Uanduga was sage.

During the reign of Ameluana, the king, Enmeduga was sage.

During the reign of Amegalana, the king, Enmegalama was sage.

During the reign of Enmeušumgalana, the king, Enmebuluga was sage.

During the reign of Dumuzi, the shepherd, the king, Anenlilda was sage.

During the reign of Enmeduranki, the king, Utuabzu was sage.

After the flood,(?) during the reign of Enmerkar, the king, Nungalpirigal was sage, whom Ištar brought down from heaven to Eana. He made the bronze lyre, whose . . . (were) lapis lazuli, according to the technique of Ninagal (Ninagal is Ea’s smith). The lyre was placed before Anu . . ., the dwelling of (his) personal god.?

During the reign of Gilgamesh, the king,? Sin-leqi-unnini was scholar.

During the reign of Ibbi-Sin, the king, Kabti-ili-Marduk was scholar.

During the reign of Išbi-Erra, the king, Sidu, a.k.a. Enlil-ibni, was scholar.

During the reign of Abi-ešuh, the king, Gimil-Gula and Taqiš-Gula were the scholars.

During the reign of . . ., the king, Esagil-kin-apli was scholar.

During the reign of Adad-apla-iddina, the king, Esagil-kin-ubba (this name … despite chronological problems, is probably to be identified with Saggil-kina-ubbib, the author of The Babylonian Theodicy; see van Dijk, “Die Inschriftenfunde,” 51) was scholar.

During the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the king, Esagil-kin-ubba was scholar.

During the reign of Esarhaddon, the king, Aba-Enlil-dari was scholar, whom the Arameans call Ahiqar.

. . . Nikarchos.

Tablet of Anu-belšunu, son of Nidintu-Anu, descendant of Sin-leqi-unnini, the lamentation-priest of Anu and Antu. An Urukean. (Copied) by his own hand. Uruk, 10 Ayyar, 147th year of Antiochus, the king.

The one who reveres Anu will not carry it off.”

Gaining a historical perspective on the scholarly genealogical tradition attested in the text of ULKS is the first element of contextualizing our text. Clearly, the ULKS is unique.

 Text:  "IN ERIDU: ALULIM RULED AS KING 28,800 YEARS. ELALGAR RULED 43,200 YEARS. ERIDU WAS ABANDONED. KINGSHIP WAS TAKEN TO BAD-TIBIRA. AMMILU'ANNA THE KING RULED 36,000 YEARS. ENMEGALANNA RULED 28,800 YEARS. DUMUZI RULED 28,800 YEARS. BAD-TIBIRA WAS ABANDONED. KINGSHIP WAS TAKEN TO LARAK. EN-SIPA-ZI-ANNA RULED 13,800 YEARS. LARAK WAS ABANDONED. KINGSHIP WAS TAKEN TO SIPPAR. MEDURANKI RULED 7,200 YEARS. SIPPAR WAS ABANDONED. KINGSHIP WAS TAKEN TO SHURUPPAK. UBUR-TUTU RULED 36,000 YEARS. TOTAL: 8 KINGS, THEIR YEARS: 222,600" MS in Sumerian on clay, probably Larsa Babylonia, 2000-1800 BC, 1 tablet, 8,1x6,5x2,7 cm, single column, 26 lines in cuneiform script. 5 other copies of the Antediluvian king list are known only: MS 3175, 2 in Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, one is similar to this list, containing 10 kings and 6 cities, the other is a big clay cylinder of the Sumerian King List, on which the kings before the flood form the first section, and has the same 8 kings in the same 5 cities as the present.  A 4th copy is in Berkeley: Museum of the University of California, and is a school tablet. A 5th tablet, a small fragment, is in Istanbul. The list provides the beginnings of Sumerian and the world’s history as the Sumerians knew it. The cities listed were all very old sites, and the names of the kings are names of old types within Sumerian name-giving. Thus it is possible that correct traditions are contained, though the sequence given need not be correct. The city dynasties may have overlapped. It is generally held that the Antediluvian king list is reflected in Genesis 5, which lists the 10 patriarchs from Adam to Noah, all living from 365 years (Enoch) to 969 years (Methuselah), altogether 8,575 years.  It is possible that the 222,600 years of the king list reflects a more realistic understanding of the huge span of time from Creation to the Flood, and the lengths of the dynasties involved.  The first of the 5 cities mentioned , Eridu, is Uruk, in the area where the myths place the Garden of Eden, while the last city, Shuruppak, is the city of Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah. Jöran Friberg: A remarkable Collection of Babylonian Mathematical Texts. Springer 2007.  Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences.  Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, vol. 6, Cuneiform Texts I. pp. 237-241. Andrew George, ed.: Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection, Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology, vol. 17,  Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, Cuneiform texts VI. CDL Press, Bethesda, MD, 2011, text 96, pp. 199-200, pls. LXXVIII-LXXIX. Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton: A survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed., Grand Rapids, Mi., Zondervan Publ. House, 2009, p. 206.  Zondervan Illustrated Bible, Backgrounds, Commentary. John H. Walton, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan, 2009, vol 1, p. 482, vol. 5, p. 398. Babylonia 2000 - 1800 BC

MS 2855
MS in Sumerian on clay, probably Larsa Babylonia, 2000-1800 BC, 1 tablet, 8,1×6,5×2,7 cm, single column, 26 lines in cuneiform script.
5 other copies of the Antediluvian king list are known only: MS 3175, 2 in Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, one is similar to this list, containing 10 kings and 6 cities, the other is a big clay cylinder of the Sumerian King List, on which the kings before the flood form the first section, and has the same 8 kings in the same 5 cities as the present.
A 4th copy is in Berkeley: Museum of the University of California, and is a school tablet. A 5th tablet, a small fragment, is in Istanbul.
The list provides the beginnings of Sumerian and the world’s history as the Sumerians knew it. The cities listed were all very old sites, and the names of the kings are names of old types within Sumerian name-giving. Thus it is possible that correct traditions are contained, though the sequence given need not be correct. The city dynasties may have overlapped.
It is generally held that the Antediluvian king list is reflected in Genesis 5, which lists the 10 patriarchs from Adam to Noah, all living from 365 years (Enoch) to 969 years (Methuselah), altogether 8,575 years.
It is possible that the 222,600 years of the king list reflects a more realistic understanding of the huge span of time from Creation to the Flood, and the lengths of the dynasties involved.
The first of the 5 cities mentioned, Eridu, is Uruk, in the area where the myths place the Garden of Eden, while the last city, Shuruppak, is the city of Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah.
Jöran Friberg: A Remarkable Collection of Babylonian Mathematical Texts. Springer 2007.
Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences.
Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, vol. 6, Cuneiform Texts I. pp. 237-241. Andrew George, ed.: Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection, Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology, vol. 17,
Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, Cuneiform texts VI. CDL Press, Bethesda, MD, 2011, text 96, pp. 199-200, pls. LXXVIII-LXXIX.
Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton: A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed., Grand Rapids, MI., Zondervan Publ. House, 2009, p. 206.
Zondervan Illustrated Bible, Backgrounds, Commentary. John H. Walton, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, MI., Zondervan, 2009, vol 1, p. 482, vol. 5, p. 398.
2000 – 1800 BC

It lists seven well-known antediluvian kings, each paired with his corresponding apkallū-sage, then a single post-diluvian king-apkallū pair, followed by eight post-diluvian kings, each with his corresponding ummânu-scholar (in one case, two scholars).

The list is arranged from start to finish in what one must recognize as an attempt at chronological order. Focusing on the ummânū, the implication of the text is rather clear: the human, post-diluvian scholars are the direct professional descendants of the earlier semi-divine apkallū.

In a previous study I called this traditional genealogical relationship the “mythology of scribal succession.”

Alan Lenzi, The Uruk List of Kings and Sages and Late Mesopotamian ScholarshipJANER 8.2, Brill, Leiden, 2008. pp. 140-3.

Parallels Between the Enuma Elish and Genesis

“The close relation existing between the Babylonian account of the Creation and the narrative in Genesis i, 1-11, 4a has been recognized from the time of the first discovery of the former, 1 and the old and new points of resemblance between them may here be briefly discussed.

According to each account the existence of a watery chaos preceded the creation of the universe; and the Hebrew word tehôm, translated “the deep” in Gen. i, 2, is the equivalent of the Babylonian Tiamat, the monster of the deep personifying chaos and confusion.

In the details of the Creation there is also a close resemblance between the two accounts. In the Hebrew narrative the first act of creation is that of light (Gen. i, 3-5), and it has been suggested that a parallel possibly existed in the Babylonian account, in that the creation of light may have been the cause of the revolt of Tiamat.

From the new fragments of the poem we now know that the rebellion of the forces of disorder, which was incited by Apsû and not Tiamat, was due, not to the creation of light, but to his hatred of the way of the gods which produced order in place of chaos 2

A parallelism may still be found, however; in the original form of the Babylonian myth, according to which the conqueror of the dragon was undoubtedly a solar deity. 3 Moreover, as has been pointed out above, 4 day and night are vaguely conceived in the poem as already in existence at the time of Apsû’s revolt, so that the belief in the existence of light before the creation of the heavenly bodies is a common feature of the Hebrew and the Babylonian account.

The second act of creation in the Hebrew narrative is that of a firmament which divided the waters that were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament (Gen. i, 6-8).

In the Babylonian poem the body of Tiamat is divided by Marduk, and from one-half of her he formed a covering or dome for heaven, i.e. a firmament, which kept her upper waters in place. Moreover, on the fragment S. 2,013 1 we find mention of a Ti-amat e-Zi-ti and a Ti-amat shap-li-ti, that is, an Upper Tiamat (or Ocean) and a Lower Tiamat (or Ocean), which are the exact equivalents of the waters above and under the firmament. 2

The third and fourth acts of creation, as narrated in Gen. i, 9-13, are those of the earth and of vegetation. Although no portion of the Babylonian poem has yet been recovered which contains the corresponding account, it is probable that these acts of creation were related on the Fifth Tablet of the series. 1

Berossus expressly states that Bel formed the earth out of one half of Omorka’s body, and as his summary of the Babylonian Creation story is proved to be correct wherever it can be controlled, it is legitimate to assume that he is correct in this detail also.

Moreover, in three passages in the Seventh Tablet the creation of the earth by Marduk is referred to: … “Since he created the heaven and fashioned the firm earth”; 2 the new fragment … states, “He named the four quarters (of the world)”; 3 and another new fragment … definitely ascribes to Marduk the title “Creator of the earth.” 4

That the creation of vegetation by Marduk was also recorded in the poem may be concluded from the opening lines of the Seventh Tablet, which are inscribed on the new fragment … and … ascribe to him the titles “Bestower of planting,” “Founder of sowing,” ” Creator of grain and plants,” and add that he “caused the green herb to spring up.” 1

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. lxxxi-lxxxv.

Babylonian Creation Myths Echo Down the Centuries

” … The evidence furnished by these recently discovered tablets with regard to the date of Babylonian legends in general may be applied to the date of the Creation legends.

While the origin of much of the Creation legends may be traced to Sumerian sources, 1 it is clear that the Semitic inhabitants of Mesopotamia at a very early period produced their own versions of the compositions which they borrowed, modifying and augmenting them to suit their own legends and beliefs.

The connection of Marduk with the Dragon-Myth, and with the stories of the creation of the world and man, may with considerable probability be assigned to the subsequent period during which Babylon gradually attained to the position of the principal city in Mesopotamia.

On tablets inscribed during the reigns of kings of the First Dynasty we may therefore expect to find copies of the Creation legends corresponding closely with the text of the series Enuma elish. It is possible that the division of the poem into seven sections, inscribed upon separate tablets, took place at a later period; but, be this as it may, we may conclude with a considerable degree of confidence that the bulk of the poem, as we know it from late Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian copies, was composed at a period not later than B.C. 2000.

The political influence which the Babylonians exerted over neighbouring nations during long periods of their history was considerable, and it is not surprising that their beliefs concerning the origin of the universe should have been partially adopted by the races with whom they came in contact.

That Babylonian elements may be traced in the Phoenician cosmogony has long been admitted, but the imperfect, and probably distorted, form in which the latter has come down to us renders uncertain any comparison of details. 1

Some of the beliefs concerning the creation of the world which were current among the Egyptians bear a more striking resemblance to the corresponding legends of Babylonia. Whether this resemblance was due to the proto-Semitic strain which probably existed in the ancient Egyptian race, 1 or is to be explained as the result of later Babylonian influence from without, is yet uncertain.

But, whatever explanation be adopted, it is clear that the conception of chaos as a watery mass out of which came forth successive generations of primeval gods is common to both races. 2

It is in Hebrew literature, however, that the most striking examples of the influence of the Babylonian Creation legends are to be found.”

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. lxxix-lxxxi.

The Cuneiform Puzzle of the Creation

” …  George Smith recovered the opening lines of the First Tablet, which describes the condition of things before Creation when the primeval water-gods, Apsû and Tiamat, personifying chaos, mingled their waters in confusion.

The text then briefly relates how to Apsû and Tiamat were born the oldest of the gods, the first pair, Lahmu and Lahamu, being followed after a long interval by Anshar and Kishar, and after a second interval by other deities, of whose names the text … only preserves that of Anu.

George Smith perceived that this theogony had been reproduced by Damascius in his summary of the beliefs of the Babylonians concerning the creation of the world. 1

Now, since Damascius mentions Ἴλλινος and Ἀός along with Ἀνός, it was clear that the text of the poem included a description of the birth of the elder Bel (i.e. Enlil or Illil) and of Ea in the passage in which Anu’s name occurs. But as the text … breaks off … the course of the story after this point has hitherto been purely a matter for conjecture.

It appeared probable that the lines which followed contained a full account of the origin of the younger gods, and from the fact that Damascius states that Βῆλος, the Creator of the world, was the son of (i.e. Ea) and Δαύκη (i.e. Damkina), it has been concluded that at any rate special prominence was given to the birth of Bel, i.e. Marduk, who figures so prominently in the story from the close of the Second Tablet onwards.

The new fragments of the First Tablet show that the account of the birth of the gods in the Creation Series is even shorter than that given by Damascius, for the poem contains no mention of the birth and parentage of Marduk.

After mentioning the birth of Nudimmud (i.e. Ea), 2 the text proceeds to describe his marvellous wisdom and strength, and states that he had no rival among the gods; the birth of no other god is recorded after that of Ea, and, when Marduk is introduced later on, his existence, like that of Mummu and of Gaga, appears to be tacitly assumed.

It would seem, therefore, that the reference made by Damascius to Marduk’s parentage was not derived from the text of the Creation Series, but was added by him to complete his summary of the Babylonian beliefs concerning the origin of the gods.”

Leonard William King, The Seven Tablets of Creation, London, 1902. pp. xxxiii-xxxvii.

Shemittah Without Limit

“In this state, the Torah is not “legible” for human beings. At the Sinaitic revelation, God taught Moses how to read the Torah by a division into letters and words, in such manner that it yielded a meaning in the Hebrew language. These considerations also opened the door to the possibility of alternative mystical readings, and it is precisely this notion that the Book Temunah presents in such a radical fashion.

In fact, according to this book, the world in which we live and which we know as the creation that began so and so many thousand years ago is not the first. It was preceded by another shemittah: the aeon of Grace, in the course of which all the sefiroth acted under the determining regime of this principal sefirah.

The world “built by Grace” at that time—according to the interpretation given by the kabbalists to Psalms 89:3—bears some resemblance to the Golden Age of Greek mythology. This shemittah was entirely bathed in light. The spheres of the heavens were simple and not composed of four elements; men stood at the highest spiritual pinnacle and possessed a pure body.

Even the cattle and other animals stood as high then as the animals that bear the Merkabah in our shemittah. The cult practiced by the creatures resembled the adoration of God by the angels in the present aeon. There was neither an exile of the body, as that of Israel, nor an exile of the souls, which is the transmigration of souls.

Man looked like the celestial man whom Ezekiel saw upon the throne. The manifestation of the primordial Torah as beheld by the creatures of that shemittah came exclusively from the side of Grace. Since there existed no evil inclination and no tempting serpent, the Torah of this shemittah (that is, the manner in which the mystical letters were combined) contained nothing concerning impurities or prohibitions. Even those letters had a simple form and were not in large measure composite, as at present.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, p. 467.

Opening and Closing of the Cosmic Book

“The historical origins of this doctrine remain to be examined. It is entirely conceivable that it came from the Orient to Provence, where it became associated at a later date with the doctrine of the sefiroth. The penchant for great numbers in the cosmic cycles, which quickly led beyond the 50,000 years of a cosmic jubilee, corresponds to similar tendencies in India and the Ismailite gnosis.

As early as the thirteenth century (as Bahya ben Asher attests), the single yobhel had become 18,000 and the seven shemittoth had mushroomed to thousands. The view that the slowing down of the revolutions of the stars at the end of every period of creation took place in geometric progression led to an extension of the 7,000 years of every single shemittah, reaching prodigious numbers.

On the other hand these ideas may also have roots, however tenuous, in the Aggadah. Several old rabbinic dicta were quoted by the kabbalists in this context for example, the epigram of R. Qatina in Sanhédrin 97a: “Six millennia shall the world exist, and in the following one it shall be desolate,” deduced, paradoxically enough from Isaiah 2:11.

Apparently the idea of such cosmic weeks arose independently of any scriptural foundation. Similarly, the same talmudic text declares: “As the land lies fallow once in seven years, the world too lies fallow one thousand years in seven thousand,” and only later, in the eighth millennium, the new aeon, which is the “world to come,” will begin.

The midrashic text known as Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer speaks in chapter 51 of a periodic opening and closing of the cosmic book or, to be more exact, of an unrolling of the celestial scroll, indicating a similar notion of continual creation.

Another motif that later attained great importance among the kabbalists was provided by the dictum of R. Abbahu (third century) in Bereshith Rabba, section 9 (and the parallel paraphrase in Shemoth Rabba), who deduced from Ecclesiastes 3:11 that “God created and destroyed worlds before creating this one; He said, these please me, those do not please me.”

Here the motif of the worlds that succeed our creation is combined with that of previous worlds, a motif that also plays a role in the doctrine of the shemittah. The destruction of the world is explained by the kabbalists of Gerona as the interruption of the current of the emanation, which no longer flows toward the lower worlds, toward heaven and earth, but remains closed in on itself. Creation, then, remains in a chaotic state, and only when the current is once again renewed is new life formed.

In the Book Temunah the doctrine of the shemittoth is elaborated in great detail and closely linked, above all, with the mystical conception of the nature of the Torah. There exists a supreme Torah, which we have already encountered on page 287 as torah qedumah. This primordial Torah is none other than the divine Sophia, containing within itself in pure spirituality, the traces of all being and all becoming.

Its letters are “very subtle and hidden, without figure, form, or limit.” But when the lower sefiroth emanate, they act in every shemittah in a different manner, according to the particular law of each one. No shemittah is by itself capable of manifesting all the power of God, expressed in the Sophia and in the primordial Torah.

Rather, the timeless and self-enclosed content of this primordial Torah is distributed at the time of the cosmic and historical creation in such a way that each shemittah unveils a particular aspect of the divine revelation, and with that, the intention pursued by God in this particular unit of creation.

This means, in effect, that the specific causality of each shemittah is expressed in a corresponding revelation of the Torah. The spiritual engrams hidden in the primordial Torah certainly do not undergo any change in their essence, but they are manifested in various permutations and forms as constituted by the letters of the Torah, and as combined in different manners in accordance with the changing shemittoth.

The presupposition of the one Torah that is at the same time the highest and most all-embracing mystical essence thus serves as a justification of the existence of the most diverse manifestations in the changing shemittoth. The fundamental principle of the absolute divine character of the Torah is thus maintained, but it receives an interpretation that renders possible a completely new conception.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 465-6.

The Torah is the Name

“In a more mystical sense, it is true, the ‘asiluth represents the name or the names of God, as has been shown in the preceding chapter. This theosophic conception was preserved in Gerona. Creation can subsist only to the extent that the name of God is engraved in it.

The revelation of the name is the actual revelation, and the Torah is not merely a conglomeration of the names of God, but, in its very essence, nothing but this one name itself. This doctrine, which transmuted an originally magical tradition into a strictly mystical one, was clearly expressed for the first time in Gerona, and from there reached the author of the Zohar.

Light-mysticism for the emanation and language-mysticism for the divine name remain the two principal means by which the world of the sefiroth could be described.

For Nahmanides, the ten sefiroth are the “inwardness” of the letters. The beginning and the end of the Torah together form, according to a mystical pun, the “heart,” heart of creation of creation; in terms of gematria, the traditional mysticism of numbers the numerical value of the word (thirty-two) also indicates the thirty-two paths of wisdom active in it.

This “heart” is nothing other than the “will” of God itself, which maintains the creation as long as it acts in it. For it becomes the Nothing, the Nothing (the inversion of the same two letters), as soon as the will reverses its direction and brings all things back to their original essentiality, “like someone who draws in his breath.”

But this return of all things to their proprietor is also their return to the mystical pure Nothingness. The primordial beginning of creation consisted in the emergence of hokhmah from the infinite plenitude of the “supreme crown” or the will, in an act of limitation, simsum, in which the all-embracing divine kabhod was restricted.

This restriction of the light at first produced a darkness, into which there flowed the clear light of hokhmah. We thus find in Nahmanides the oldest form of the doctrine of a self-contraction of God at creation, which, however, is not a contraction of the ‘en-sof itself, as taught by later kabbalists, but of the first sefirah.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 448-9.

The Pure Spirituality of the Future World

“But there are various attitudes with regard to prayer itself corresponding to the three principles of all reality, which Azriel borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle while giving them a mystical twist. These three principles are matter, form, and sieresis; this last notion is, however, influenced by the Hebrew translation and replaced by the principle of Nought.

The change of matter into ever-new forms takes place by means of this Nought, which can be made to refer on the one hand—and entirely in the sense of the genuine Aristotelian doctrine—to the privation of that which, in the transformations, is new each time, and, on the other hand—in the sense of the kabbalists—to the influence of the sefirotic principle of Stern Judgment. In either case this notion can link up with that of the mystical Nought, from which everything creative proceeds.

For Azriel, these principles present themselves essentially as follows: the Nought is that which is present in everything that arises as the medium of its transformation. The sefirah of Stern Judgment and delimitation is at the same time the power of transformation inherent in things.

Matter, on the other hand, persists in itself and is renewed without being transformed, like the living stream whose waters are renewed every minute but nevertheless are always the same. This power comes, according to Azriel, from the sefirah of Mercy, by means of which God renews and preserves at the same time, every day, his Creation.

However, according to him, form is a potency inherent in matter, by virtue of which matter receives an influx of ever-new forms. It is similar to the source from which the pool expands.

Accordingly there exist three degrees of prayer in which these three principles are reflected. The lowest is prayer without spirituality, the prayer that is not pervaded by the life of the soul flowing from the source of binah. This, according to Azriel, is the “fixed prayer” mentioned in and rejected by the Mishnah (Berakhoth 14:2), because it is like the stagnant water of a pool into which no life flows from any source.

Above it, there is the prayer that the Mishnah defines as the “imploring of grace,” tahanunim, in which the vitality of the source gushes forth with great force. This is the prayer of the “form.”

The highest prayer, however, is that of the devotee who casts off everything that impedes him and who leads the word whose origin is in the Nought back to its Nought. Here, we can easily follow the transformation of the concept of the Nought or Nothing into a mystical category.

This prayer is named tefillah, in the proper sense of the Hebrew term, which the author derives from pillul, “judgment.” So too must the prayer rise from the petition for the fulfillment of bodily needs to that of the needs of the soul, and from there to the pure spirituality of the life of the future world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 420-1.

Mystical Spelling of the Divine Name

“In the writings of the ‘Iyyun circle, the sefiroth undergo a transformation: each one, indeed even each of the thirty-two paths of the Sophia, becomes an autonomous world in which the theosophist immerses himself.

In fact, even the mystical spelling of the divine name with twenty-four points, which Pseudo-Hai transmits here and which no doubt goes back to Oriental sources of Jewish magic, is interpreted in this manner.

The spelling obviously imitates the magical alphabet and characters as they are frequently found in amulets and that, in Jewish magic, are encountered, for example, in the old “alphabets of the angels.”

They appear below:


The twenty-four points or stars of this script correspond, according to the author, to the twenty-four books of the biblical canon, which are perhaps woven from this “hidden name.”

The author instructs the initiate that each of these points in and of itself represents an entire world. This use of the term “worlds” for different levels of being is undoubtedly Neoplatonic. It first penetrated into kabbalistic literature in the ‘Iyyun circle.

As we have seen, Isaac the Blind speaks of the “world of separation” below the sefiroth, but it seems he still did not take the step of considering the sefiroth themselves as just so many worlds. The upper world is henceforth no longer that of the separate intelligences, as it was for the philosophers and in Isaac’s fragments on cosmogony, but the world of the divine emanations itself. In the “Book of the Unity” of Pseudo-Hammai it is said that before Creation all the powers were intertwined and hidden in God,

“ … until there came the time of the will of the first Acting One, and they emerged from potentiality to spiritual reality, and the emanation of the upper world emanated to that of the tenth fundamental stone which is called, in the language of the sages of the mysteries, the “condensed light,” ‘or ‘abh. On account of its condensation they also name it “mixed darkness,” for all the powers of the flames are mixed in it, but are also differentiated in it, and it is the foundation of all the spiritual and corporeal worlds . . . and the last seal of all the [other] seals [emanated in the higher sefiroth].”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 328-30.

The Supreme Mystery

“Whereas one of these names thus illustrates the way from magic to Neoplatonic mysticism, the other marks the way from the theory of language of the grammarians to the magic of names, that is, in the opposite direction. Both currents meet in an impressive manner in the Book ‘Iyyun and related writings.

The sequel no longer makes any direct reference to the primordial darkness. First, an “order of the master of the world” is expounded, then an “order of Metatron,” the second part obviously being conceived as some sort of explanation of the Shi’ur Qomah.

The two parts describe, in their own fashion and constantly confusing Merkabah gnosis with Neoplatonic images, the potencies by means of which God acts at Creation as well as the supreme hierarchies of essences emanating from him, the hawwayoth.

The exposition quotes other, presumably also fictitious, writings. At the end of the text it suddenly seems as if R. Ishmael had read all the foregoing aloud to Nehunya ben Haqqanah, as if everything had come from the aforementioned book of Hekhaloth.

The framework of the old Merkabah literature clearly serves here as a receptacle for contents that are alien to it. There is scarcely any relationship between these ideas (in which the doctrine of the sefiroth is mentioned only very incidentally) and the world of the Book Bahir.

The thirteen potencies manifested from the supreme mystery, setherelyon ha-ne ‘elam—no doubt the aforementioned primordial darkness—are enumerated by name. They are:

  1. The primordial hokhmah;
  2. The wondrous or hidden light, ‘or mufla;
  3. Hashmal;
  4. The cloud, ‘arafel;
  5. The throne of splendor;
  6. The ‘ofan of greatness;
  7. The cherub;
  8. The wheels of the Merkabah;
  9. The surrounding ether;
  10. The curtain;
  11. The Throne of Glory;
  12. The place of the souls, also called “chambers of greatness”;
  13. The outer Holy Temple.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 316.

The Sound of the Alef

“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.

The Secret Signature of the Letters

“Isaac’s picture of the universe rests, therefore, on the idea that the different realms of Creation, each according to its rank in the hierarchy of things, are in communication with the roots of all being as given in the world of the sefiroth.

The limited powers proceed from the unlimited powers, and the secret signature of the letters acts in everything, but nowhere more clearly than in man. But to the current that flows downward there corresponds another, upward movement.

When Isaac says in his commentary on Yesirah (end of chapter 3) that “all things return to the root of their true being,” he means, in this context, that a thing can act only in that which is related to its principle.

But his disciples already understood expressions of this kind in the sense of a return of all things to God. “Everything issues from the first Cause, and everything returns to the first Cause.”

Such a return can have both an ontological and an eschatological aspect. Even before the end of all things all being seeks to return, in accordance with its nature, to its origin, in the spirit of the ancient philosophical thesis of the appetitus naturalis, which the Neoplatonists above all rendered popular in the Middle Ages.

But also, the eschatological nuance of a “restoration of all things to their original being,” hashabath kol ha-debharim le-haw-wayatham, is not absent among Isaac’s pupils, who probably derived it from him.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 299-300.

On the Evil Status of Goats

“Nevertheless, many extant fragments prove that Isaac had a certain interest in questions relating to the nature of Sammael, whose name had become for the Jews of the Middle Ages, the principal one associated with the devil and his dominion. The following dictum of Isaac makes good sense when viewed against the background of the large number of shepherds populating the western Languedoc:

He who lives with herds of sheep, even if it is in the high mountains and in the desert wastes, which are uninhabited, has no need to fear Satan and the evil powers, for no evil spirit rules among them. But he who lives among goats [of him it can be said] that even when he is surrounded by ten houses and a hundred men, an evil spirit rules over them.

In another fragment, we learn that Sammael’s origins lie in the power of the sefirah pahad, channeled to him through the last sefirah “without any other intermediary.” He has, therefore, a legitimate position in the sacred totality of Creation.

It was only when he pitted himself in the war of Amaleq against Israel and the sacred order it represents—a war that has always been interpreted in Jewish tradition as a metaphysical event of enormous significance—that he lost this legitimate place. Since then he receives his power only indirectly, from planetary spirits, and “no longer by the path of the primordial order of Creation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 297.

Man as the “Great Seal”

“The divine power spreading from the sefiroth into Creation, from the world of the Throne and the angels outward, also descends below the human domain to living beings of a lower order, even to plants.

Trees, too, have a mystical root in those of Paradise, which represent the primordial images of all future trees. Everything below is linked to that which is above, to which it owes its existence, until it is linked by a chain of this kind to the Infinite.

”All creatures on earth depend on the higher powers, and these on still higher, up to the infinite cause.”

This cosmic chain is, at least in the realm of the sefiroth, a magnetic one. The sefiroth and logoi “rise above themselves like something rising under the influence of a magnet and thus their end [in the words of the Book Yesirah] is [enclosed] in its beginning” (on 1:7).

But in addition to the connection through emanation there is also one through vision, sefiyah. In connection with Yesirah 1:6, we learn that this vision itself is the magnetic act of communication in which everything ascends to its origins.

The Book of Creation says that the vision of the sefiroth is like lightning, and Isaac explains:

“The vision is the meditation of one thing out of the other. . . . Every cause is taken up and rises and then looks down from a cause that is higher than itself. . . . Everything is in the other and in communication with the other.”

Thus, not only does God contemplate the depths of his own wisdom when he produces the world, but a contemplative communication of the same kind also takes place among the sefiroth.

The contemplation of the mystic in a state of kawwanah is thus not unlike that which occurs among the spiritual essences themselves. In creation, it is not the divine middoth, the “fathers,” that act directly but rather the derivative middoth, toladoth, which issue from them. In isolation, without communicating with “fathers” or “mothers,” they are unable to produce anything.

Man too is inserted into this process. He is …

” … built out of combinations of the letters” (chap. 3). “And this higher edifice of spirit [ruah] that directs him [also] directs the All, and thus the All is connected to the upper and the lower ones and is composed of the world, the year and the soul. . . . And the soul is the determining factor in the All” (ibid.).

Man, our text continues, is “the quintessence of all creatures, a great seal, in which the beginning and the end” of all creatures are enclosed.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 290.

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.

The God Khepera Utters His Own Name at the Creation

“But in the present chapter we are not so much concerned with the ordinary as with the extraordinary uses to which a name might be put, and the above facts have only been mentioned to prove that a man’s name was regarded as an essential part of himself, and that the blotting out of the name of an individual was synonymous with his destruction.

Without a name no man could be identified in the judgment, and as a man only came into being upon this earth when his name had been pronounced, so the future life could only be attained after the gods of the world beyond the grave had become acquainted with it and had uttered it.

According to the story of the Creation which is related in the Papyrus of Nesi-Amsu, (see my paper in Archæologia, Vol. LII., London, 1891) before the world and all that therein is came into being, only the great god Neb-er-tcher existed, for even the gods were not born.

Now when the time had come for the god to create all things be says, “I brought (i.e., fashioned) my mouth, and I uttered my own name as a word of power, and thus I evolved myself under the evolutions of the god Khepera, and I developed myself out of the primeval matter which had evolved multitudes of evolutions from the beginning of time.

“Nothing existed on this earth [before me], I made all things. There was none other who worked with me at that time.”

Elsewhere, that is to say, in the other version of the story, the god Khepera says, “I developed myself from the primeval matter which I made, I developed myself out of the primeval matter. My name is ‘Osiris,’ the germ of primeval matter.”

Here, then, we have a proof that the Egyptians regarded the creation as the result of the utterance of the name of the god Neb-er-tcher or Khepera by himself.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. P. 161.

Thoth and Words of Power at the Creation

“On the amulet of the Buckle we have inscribed the words, “May the blood of Isis, and the powers of Isis, and the words of power of Isis be mighty to protect this mighty one,” etc., and in the address which Thoth makes to Osiris he says, “I am Thoth, the favoured one of Râ, the lord of might, who bringeth to a prosperous end that which he doeth, the mighty one of words of power, who is in the boat of millions of years, the lord of laws, the subduer of the two lands,” etc. (See Chapters of Coming forth by Day, p. 340 f).

From the above passages we not only learn how great was the confidence which the deceased placed in his words of power, but also that the sources from which they sprang were the gods Thoth and Isis.

It will be remembered that Thoth is called the “scribe of the gods,” the “lord of writing,” the “master of papyrus,” the “maker of the palette and the ink-jar,” the “lord of divine words,” i.e., the holy writings or scriptures, and as he was the lord of books and master of the power of speech, he was considered to be the possessor of all knowledge both human and divine.

At the creation of the world it was he who reduced to words the will of the unseen and unknown creative Power, and who uttered them in such wise that the universe came into being, and it was he who proved himself by the exercise of his knowledge to be the protector and friend of Osiris, and of Isis, and of their son Horus.

From the evidence of the texts we know that it was not by physical might that Thoth helped these three gods, but by giving them words of power and instructing them how to use them.

We know that Osiris vanquished his foes, and that he reconstituted his body, and became the king of the underworld and god of the dead, but he was only able to do these things by means of the words of power which Thoth had given to him, and which he had taught him to pronounce properly and in a proper tone of voice.

It is this belief which makes the deceased cry out, “Hail, Thoth, who madest Osiris victorious over his enemies, make thou Ani to be victorious over his enemies in the presence of the great and sovereign princes who are in Tattu,” or in any other place.

Without the words of power given to him by Thoth, Osiris would have been powerless under the attacks of his foes, and similarly the dead man, who was always identified with Osiris, would have passed out of existence at his death but for the words of power provided by the writings that were buried with him.

In the Judgment Scene it is Thoth who reports to the gods the result of the weighing of the heart in the balance, and who has supplied its owner with the words which he has uttered in his supplications, and whatever can be said in favour of the deceased he says to the gods, and whatever can be done for him he does.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 127-9.

Vanquishing the Serpent Fiend Apep

“It will be remembered that the XXXIXth Chapter of the Book of the Dead is a composition which was written with the object of defeating a certain serpent, to which many names are given, and of delivering the deceased from his attacks.

In it we have a description of how the monster is vanquished, and the deceased says to him, “Râ maketh thee to turn back, O thou that art hateful to him; he looketh upon thee, get thee back.

He pierceth thy head, he cutteth through thy face, he divideth thy head at the two sides of the ways, and it is crushed in his land; thy bones are smashed in pieces, thy members are hacked from off thee, and the god Aker hath condemned thee, O Âpep, thou enemy of Râ.

Get thee back, Fiend, before the darts of his beams! Râ hath overthrown thy words, the gods have turned thy face backwards, the Lynx hath torn open thy breast, the Scorpion hath cast fetters upon thee, and Maât hath sent forth thy destruction.

The gods of the south, and of the north, of the west, and of the east, have fastened chains upon him, and they have fettered him with fetters; the god Rekes hath overthrown him, and the god Hertit hath put him in chains.” (See Chapters of Coming Forth by Day, p. 89).

The age of this composition is unknown, but it is found, with variants, in many of the copies of the Book of the Dead which were made in the XVIIIth dynasty. Later, however, the ideas in it were developed, the work itself was greatly enlarged, and at the time of the Ptolemies it had become a book called “The Book of Overthrowing Âpep,” which contained twelve chapters.

At the same time another work bearing the same title also existed; it was not divided into chapters, but it contained two versions of the history of the Creation, and a list of the evil names of Âpep, and a hymn to Râ. (I have given a hieroglyphic transcript of both works, with translations, in Archæologia, Vol. LII).

E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1901. Pp. 78-80.

The Great Name of God

“Also related to the magic of language mysticism is the author’s view that the six dimensions of heaven are “sealed” (1:13) by the six permutations of “His great name Yaho” (Hebrew YHW). These three consonants, utilized in Hebrew as matres lectionis for the vowels ia, and o, which are not written, make up the divine name Yaho, which contains the three consonants of the four-letter name of God, YHWH, as well as the form Yao, which penetrated into the documents of Hellenistic syncretism where its permutations likewise play a role. The signs that were subsequently developed to designate vowels were still unknown to the author.

This idea concerning the function of the name Yaho or Yao suggests important parallels. In the system of the Gnostic Valentinus, Iao is the secret name with which the Horos (literally: the limit, the limitation!) frightens away from the world of the pleroma the Sophia-Akhamoth who is in pursuit of Christ.

Does not the cosmos (as distinct from the pleroma), sealed by means of the six permutations of Yao in the Book Yesirah, constitute a sort of monotheistic parallel, perhaps even inspired by polemical intentions, to this Valentinian myth? In another text of a manifestly Jewish-syncretistic character, we similarly find the name Iao, as an invocation that consolidates the world in its limits, a perfect analogy to the sealing in Yesirah: in the cosmogony of the Leiden magical papyrus the earth writhed when the Pythian serpent appeared “and reared up powerfully. But the pole of heaven remained firm, even though it risked being struck by her. Then the god spoke: Iao! And everything was established and a great god appeared, the greatest, who arranged that which was formerly in the world and that which will be, and nothing in the realm of the Height was without order any more.”

The name Iao appears again among the secret names of this greatest god himself. It is difficult not to suspect a relation here between Jewish conceptions and those of Gnosticism and syncretism. This “sealing” of the Creation by means of the divine name belongs to the old stock of ideas of the Merkabah gnosis; it is attested in chapter 9 of the “Greater Hekhaloth.” What is said in the “Book of Creation” of the “six directions” of space is here said of the “orders of the Creation,” therefore, of the cosmos in general, whose preservation within its established arrangements, sidre bereshith, is due to its “sealing” by the great name of God.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 31-3.

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.

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.


The Book Bahir

The Book Bahir, (anonymous, 1185), attributed to Rabbi Nehunia ben ha-Kanah, “begins with a few statements concerning the creation. In the first part of the book there are many discussions of the letters of the alphabet, their shapes, and the meaning of their names.”

“This work is the first Jewish treatise that presents in a positive manner the concept of transmigration of souls, the reincarnation or rebirth of the same souls again and again.”

(I had no idea that reincarnation had any place in Jewish Kabbalah).

 This work is technically the earliest work of the Kabbalah, based on three major concepts which are not found in earlier Jewish sources. 

The first is the description of the divine world consisting of ten hypostases, ten divine powers, which are called ma’amarot (utterances), which were known in later kabbalalistic writings as the ten sefirot

The second is the identification of one of the ten divine powers as feminine, separate from the other nine, and thus introducing gender dualism into the image of the divine realms. 

The third is the description of the divine world as a tree (ilan); the work states that the divine powers are positioned one above the other like the branches of a tree. But the image was one of an upside-down tree, its roots above and its branches growing downward, toward the earth.

These three concepts became characteristic of Kabbalah as a whole, (excepting Abraham Abulafia, who rejected the concept of the ten sefirot), and the presence of these three concepts identifies works as part of the tradition of Kabbalah. 

“In addition to these three concepts there is in the Book Bahir a more dramatic description of the realm of evil than those usually found in earlier Jewish sources, but there is no final separation between God and Satan. The powers of evil are described as the fingers of God’s left hand.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 20-2.

Dr. John Dee, the Monas, and the Hebrew Alphabet as the Device of Divine Creation.

“…Dee was fascinated with the application of the exegetical techniques of cabbala to alchemy. He was well aware that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalence, and that the computation of these numbers in words and comparison with other significant words was believed to provide insights into various levels of reality. The fourth-century Sefer Ytzirah, or Jewish Book of Formation, gives a cosmogonic account of God engraving the universe with the twenty-two foundational letters of the Hebrew alphabet.” 

–Peter J. Forshaw, “The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica,” AMBIX, November, 2005, pg. 252 (6).

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