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Category: Joseph Dan

The Etymology of the Name “Moses”

“Josephos has preserved an extract from the Egyptian historian Manetho, which relates the Egyptian version of the story of the Exodus as it was told in the second century before our era. In this it is stated that the earlier name of Moses was Osarsiph, and that he had been priest of Heliopolis or On.

Here it is evident that Moses and Joseph have been confounded together. The name of Joseph, who married the daughter of the priest of On, has been decomposed into two elements, the first of which is the divine name Jeho, and this has been changed into its supposed Egyptian equivalent Osar or Osiris.

It is clear that, whatever might have been his opinion about the name of Joseph, Manetho had no doubt that that of Moses was purely Israelitish. It was not until he had become the Israelitish lawgiver and had ceased to be an Egyptian priest that Osarsiph took the name of Moses.

But Moses finds no satisfactory etymology in the pages of the Hebrew lexicon. It stands alone among Hebrew proper names, like Aaron and David. We do not hear of any other persons who have borne the name. If, therefore, it is Semitic, it must belong to an older stratum of Semitic nomenclature than that preserved to us in the Old Testament. We must look to other branches of the Semitic stock for its explanation.

There is only one other branch of the Semitic family whose records are earlier than those of the Hebrews. Arabic literature begins long after the Christian era, when Jewish and Greek and even Christian names and ideas had penetrated into the heart of the Arabian peninsula.

The Arabic language, moreover, belongs to a different division of the Semitic family of speech from that to which Hebrew belongs. To compare Arabic and Hebrew together is like comparing Latin with modern German. There is, however, one Semitic language which has the closest affinities to Hebrew, and this is also the language of which we possess records older than those of the Hebrew Scriptures. I need hardly say that I am referring to Assyrian.

Now the Assyrian equivalent of the Hebrew Mosheh, “Moses,” would be mâsu, and, as it happens, mâsu is a word which occurs not unfrequently in the inscriptions. It was a word of Accadian origin, but since the days of Sargon of Accad had made itself so thoroughly at home in the language of the Semitic Babylonians as to count henceforth as a genuinely Semitic term.

Mâsu signified as nearly as possible all that we mean by the word “hero.” As such, it was an epithet applied to more than one divinity; there was one god more especially for whom it became a name.

This god was the deity sometimes called Adar by Assyrian scholars, sometimes Nin-ip, but whose ordinary name among the Assyrians is still a matter of uncertainty. He was a form of the Sun-god, originally denoting the scorching sun of mid-day. He thus became invested with the sterner attributes of the great luminary of day, and was known to his worshippers as “the warrior of the gods.”

The title of Mâsu, however, was not confined to Adar. It was given also to another solar deity, Merodach, the tutelar god of Babylon and the antagonist of the dragon of chaos, and was shared by him with Nergal, whose special function it was to guard and defend the world of the dead.

But Nergal himself was but the sun of night, the solar deity, that is to say, after he had accomplished his daily work in the bright world above and had descended to illuminate for a time the world below.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 45-7.

Moses, Joseph, and the Jews

Book xviii. 3, 3, 5. Book xxxvi. 2, 3, 6.

“The origin of the Jews was from Damascus, a most famous city of Syria, whence also the Assyrian kings, and queen Semiramis sprang. The name of the city was given it from king Damascus, in honour of whom the Syrians consecrated the sepulchre of his wife Arathis as a temple, and regard her as a goddess worthy of the most sacred worship.

After Damascus, Azelus, 122 and then Adores, Abraham, and Israhel were their kings. But a prosperous family of ten sons made Israhel more famous than any of his ancestors. Having divided his kingdom in consequence, into ten governments, he committed them to his sons, and called the whole people Jews, from Judas, who died soon after the division, and ordered his memory to be held in veneration by them all, as his portion was shared among them.

The youngest of the brothers was Joseph, whom the others, fearing his extraordinary abilities, secretly made prisoner, and sold to some foreign merchants. Being carried by them into Egypt, and having there, by his great powers of mind, made himself master of the arts of magic, he found, in a short time, great favour with the king; for he was eminently skilled in prodigies, and was the first to establish the science of interpreting dreams.

And nothing, indeed, of divine, or human law seems to have been unknown to him; so that he foretold a famine or dearth in the land (of Egypt), some years before it happened, and all Egypt would have perished by famine, had not the king, by his advice, ordered the corn to be laid up for several years: such being the proofs of his knowledge, that his admonitions seemed to proceed, not from a mortal, but a god.

His son was Moses, whom, besides the inheritance of his father’s knowledge, the comeliness of his person also recommended. But the Egyptians, being troubled with scabies and leprosy, and moved by some oracular prediction, expelled him, with those who had the disease, out of Egypt, that the distemper might not spread among a greater number.

Becoming leader, accordingly, of the exiles, he carried off by stealth the sacred utensils of the Egyptians, who, endeavouring to recover them by force of arms, were obliged by tempests to return home; and Moses, having reached Damascus, the birth-place of his fore-fathers, took possession of Mount Sinai; on his arrival at which, after having suffered, together with his followers, from a seven days’ fast in the deserts of Arabia, he consecrated every seventh day, (according to the present custom of the nation), for a fast-day, and to be perpetually called a Sabbath, because that day had ended at once their hunger and their wanderings.

And, as they remembered that they had been driven from Egypt for fear of spreading infection, they took care, in order that they might not become odious, from the same cause, to the inhabitants of the country, to have no communication with strangers; a rule which, from having been adopted on that particular occasion, gradually became a custom and part of their religion.

After the death of Moses, his son Aruas 123 was made priest for celebrating the rites which they brought from Egypt, and soon after created king; and ever afterwards, it was a custom among the Jews to have the same chiefs both for kings and priests; and, by uniting religion with the administration of justice, it is almost incredible how powerful they became.”

―Extracted from the Philippine History of Justin, the Abbreviator of Trogus Pompeius.

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876, pp. 78-81.

On the Golem

“The life force of the golem is the Hebrew alphabet, the secret name of God inserted under his tongue, or the word “truth,” one of God’s names, engraved on his forehead. (When the first Hebrew letter of “truth” is erased it becomes “dead.”) The legend of the golem conformed to, and strengthened, the image of the kabbalah as a doctrine that could bring great benefits, but one that also includes some sinister, dangerous elements.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 107-8.

On Habad Hasidism

The original teachings of the founder of Habad Hasidism and his disciples “tended to be intensely mystical, calling the visible universe a delusion, and preaching the submersion of individual characteristics and desires in quest of a complete fusion with the divine “nothingness,” the supreme Godhead.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 100.

Kabbalistic Panentheism

The main theories of the Besht and the Megid emphasized that “there is no place from which He is absent,” a kabbalistic panentheistic system. (Pantheism postulates that “everything is God,” while panentheism claims that “God is inside everything.”)

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 91.

Shabbatai Zevi and Sacred Hypocrisy

“The theological challenge facing Nathan of Gaza and other Sabbatian thinkers changed dramatically late in 1666, when Shabbatai Zevi was summoned to the palace of the Ottoman sultan. He emerged from the meeting wearing the Muslim cap. Having been threatened, Shabbatai Zevi did not hesitate for long before converting to Islam. Judaism was suddenly faced with a situation in which the messiah committed the worst possible sin that generations of Jews were educated to avoid. One has, when faced with a demand to convert, to become a martyr and “sanctify the holy name” rather than betray one’s God, people and tradition. Shabbatai Zevi, who should have been the example of religious perfection and who was regarded not only as a divine messenger but also as a divine incarnation, did the exact opposite.”

Scholem later explained that this was not only deliberate, but necessary, including the “discovery” of numerous verses and statements in the Bible, the Talmud and the Zohar that indicate the necessity of the messiah’s conversion to an “evil” religion.

“Several thousands of Sabbatians followed Shabbatai Zevi in the last decades of the seventeenth century and converted to Islam… Most Sabbatians, however, remained within Jewish communities, and created an underground of believers in all strata of Jewish society, simple people, intellectuals, and rabbis. They imitated their messiah in a kind of “sacred hypocrisy:” They pretended to be orthodox Jews, adhering to the ancient exilic tradition, while secretly they worshiped the messiah and the Torah of the age of redemption.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 89-90.

Reincarnation in Jewish Kabbalah

“The concept of reincarnation (gilgul) became central in the psychological doctrines of the Lurianic school, perhaps for the first time in the history of the kabbalah. There are five strata in the soul, reflecting the structure of the sefirot; each of these components has its own history, and each wanders from body to body, from generation to generation, independent of the other parts. Each soul, therefore, is a meeting of parts that have their own history and experiences.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 82.

This Could Be the Last Moment

“Every moment, every deed, can be the crucial, final one, deciding the fate of the universe.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 79.

The Purpose of Creation is to Correct a Flaw

“The most innovative concept that lies at the heart of Luria’s teaching is the imperfection of beginning. Existence does not begin with a perfect Creator bringing into being an imperfect universe; rather, the existence of the universe is the result of an inherent flaw or crisis within the infinite Godhead, and the purpose of creation is to correct it.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 75.

Self-Immolation in Jewish Practice

Rabbi Joseph Karo authored the Shulhan Arukh (The Laid Table). He claimed that it was “dictated by a divine messenger, a magid, whom he regarded as a manifestation of the shekhinah.”

Incredibly, Dan comments that “…Safed scholars went as far as inflicting themselves with pain and wounds, including self-immolation, which is very rare in Jewish practice.”

“Isaac Luria, who revolutionized the kabbalah in this period, arrived in Safed in 1570 when these practices were at their peak.” Luria was born in Safed in 1534, but migrated to Egypt and then later returned. Luria died because of the plague two years later, in 1572, at the age of 38. The most important of Luria’s teachings were published by Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby in 1941.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg.73.

Marsilio Ficino and Christian Kabbalah

“Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico dela Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.


“Every person, every deed, every moment is integrated in the vast mythical project of the tikkun, whether they know and wish it or not. One cannot resign from this cosmic struggle; such a resignation constitutes a sin, which empowers the satanic forces.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 58.

The Shefa

“This put in the center of the kabbalistic worldview a powerful concept of interdependence between man and God, in which the commandments were the instruments used by man in order to influence the processes of the divine world, and ultimately shape his own fate.”

“The mythical processes that dominate this interaction are described in the Zohar and later works as being based on one dynamic aspect of the divine world … usually called the shefa, the flow of divine spirituality from the extreme, highest stages in the divine world down to the lower divine powers, and then to even lower realms, those of the archangels and angels, and finally the material world and to human beings. This divine flow is the necessary sustenance of all existence, even of the divine emanations themselves. Nothing can exist without deriving spiritual power from this divine flow.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 54-5.

The Other

“…the first kabbalistic dualistic system was presented by … Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, entitled Treatise on the Emanations on the Left … written in Castile about 1265…(describing) “a parallel system of seven divine evil powers, the first of which is called Samael and the seventh, feminine one is called Lilith … “he was the first to bring them together and present them as a divine couple, parallel to God and the shekhinah, who rule over a diverse structure of evil demons, who struggle for dominion in the universe against the powers of goodness, the emanations on the right … Rabbi Isaac was the first to present a hierarchy of evil powers and evil phenomena, including illnesses and pestilence, connecting all of them in one system.”

“Rabbi Isaac presented a mythological description of the relationship between the satanic powers; he described the “older Lilith” and “younger Lilith,” the latter being the spouse of Asmodeus, whom Samael covets. The realm of evil includes images of dragons and snakes and other threatening monsters.”

“Unlike Rabbi Ezra of Girona, (Rabbi Isaac) …. did not find the root of evil’s existence in the Garden of Eden and human sin. Evil evolved from the third sefirah, binah, as a distorted side effect of the process of emanation. It continues throughout the history of the world, and will come to an end in the final apocalyptic struggle between Samael and the messiah.”

“De Leon even preserved a hint to the title of Rabbi Isaac’s treatise. In the Zohar the realm of evil is called sitra ahra, an Aramaic phrase meaning “the other side.” “Other” is the unmentionable left side, which is also the name of God’s archenemy, Samael.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 50-3.

Evil in the Rabbinic Tradition

“Rabbinic tradition … is remarkably ignorant of the existence of independent powers of evil … Satan in his various manifestations … is a power within the divine court and God’s system of justice … The first indication of a satanic rebellion against God in rabbinic literature is found in the eighth-century midrash Pirkey de-Rabbi Eliezer, but this seemed to have little impact until the twelfth century. The section of this midrash in which the rebellion is described was included in the Book Bahir, serving as its concluding chapter.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 49.

On the Femininity of the Shekhinah

“The Book Bahir, the first work of the kabbalah, is the earliest source we have that might imagine the shekhinah as a feminine power … She is described as wife, bride, and daughter of the masculine power … The Zohar, and other kabbalistic works from the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth, made the myth of the feminine shekhinah a central element in their descriptions of the divine world, made her the purpose of rituals and religious experiences, and established this as one of the most prominent components of the kabbalistic worldview.”

“Gershom Scholem regarded the concept of the feminine shekhinah in the Book Bahir as the appearance of a gnostic concept within the early kabbalah. It could be regarded as an ancient Jewish gnostic concept that surfaced in the kabbalah in the Middle Ages after being transmitted in secret for many centuries, or the result of the influence of Christian Gnosticism, which emphasized the role of feminine powers in the divine world.

“… The femininity of the shekhinah is the result of the influence of the intense Christian worship of the Madonna, the Mother of Christ, that peaked in the twelfth century.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 48.

More on the Shekhinah

“Some late midrashic compilations use the term “shekhinah” to designate an entity that is separate from God himself. Rav Saadia Gaon, the great leader of the Jews in Babylonia, made a clear theological statement to this effect in the first half of the tenth century. In his philosophical work, “Beliefs and Ideas,” written in Arabic around 930 CE … Saadia could not accept physical references to the infinite, perfect God, so he postulated that all such references relate not to God himself but to a created angel, supreme and brilliant but still a creature, which is called kavod (glory, honor) in the Bible and shekhinah by the rabbis. Since Saadia, therefore, the shekhinah is conceived in Jewish writings as a lower power, separate from God, which has its main function in the process of revelation to the prophets. It can assume physical characteristics, and it can be envisioned by human eyes … By the late twelfth century the shekhinah was conceived as a separate, emanated divine power that is revealed to the prophets and assumes other worldly functions. In all these sources there is no hint of this entity being feminine.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 47.

The Shekhinah

“The feminine power in the divine world, best known by the name shekhinah (divine residence) … is the tenth and lowest power in the divine realm, and therefore closest to the material, created world and to human beings. She is the divine power that is envisioned by the prophets, and after their death the righteous reside in her realm. As the lowest sefirah she is closest to the sufferings of the people of Israel, and is most exposed to the machinations of the evil powers, who constantly try to establish dominion over her. Being feminine, she is the weakest among the divine powers, and the satanic forces can achieve a hold and draw her away from her husband (the male divine figure, often the totality of the other nine sefirot, or, sometimes specifically the sixth sefirah, tiferet), thus disrupting the harmony of the divine world. She is dependent on divine light, which flows from above; she is like the moon, which does not have light of its own, only the reflection of the sun’s light.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 45-6.

Names of God and the Sefirot

“Most kabbalists integrated the biblical names of God into the system of the sefirot. Thus, for instance, the tetragrammaton–the biblical name of God written in four letters, YHVH, which in Hebrew, it is forbidden to pronounce–was interpreted as presenting the first sefirah, keter, in the almost-hidden little point above the first letter, yod, which represents the second sefirah, divine wisdom (hokhmah).

The first letter, he, is the binah, followed by the vav, which represents the number six, and thus relates to the six central sefirot from hesed to yesod. The last he represents the female entity, the shekhinah

It can be stated that the system of the sefirot is viewed by most kabbalists to represent the hidden, secret name or names of God …

Kabbalists utilized the names that were used by pre-kabbalistic esoterics, including the names of twelve, forty-two, and seventy-two letters, and integrated them into this system.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 44.

The Ein Sof

“The concept of an infinite, perfect supreme being that cannot change, a concept absent from Jewish thought in antiquity, is dominant in both philosophy and kabbalah. This concept, which was expressed in the most powerful terms by Aristotelian thinkers when they discussed the primal cause or the unmoved mover, was accepted wholeheartedly by Jewish medieval thinkers. Kabbalistic terminology often used the term “ein sof,” no end, infinite, to designate this supreme entity.”

“The process of emanation that brought forth the system of the sefirot was the kabbalistic answer to the question, “How can anything different emerge from the unchanging and eternal divinity?”

“Many kabbalists insisted that the ein sof is not indicated by any biblical phrase, because its perfection and unchanging character put it beyond language, even divine language … The realm of ein sof in the kabbalah is therefore beyond language, beyond any kind of description, and essentially it is not different from the rationalistic designations of the infinite supreme eternal entity.”

“This and other such systems attempt to build a bridge between the timelessness of the ein sof and the sefirot, which exist in time … The most important aspect of ein sof in kabbalistic thought is as the ultimate source of the flow of the purest divine light (shefa) that constantly provides the power to exist in both divine and earthly realms. Emanation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing vital process that maintains the existence of all beings.

“The kabbalists differed from the neo-Platonists in the intense dynamism and mythological elements that they introduced into their system, especially in the lower realms of existence, and in their belief in the capacity of human deeds and behavior to influence processes in the divine world.”

As above, so below, and vice versa.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 39-41.

Secrecy, Misattribution, Misdirection, Obscurantism and Mystification

“The kabbalah in the Middle Ages inherited from ancient Jewish traditions a prohibition on discussing matters that relate to the divine world (ma’aseh merkavah), as well as a sizable body of descriptions and speculations concerning the nature and structure of that realm.

The result of this clash between the kabbalah’s interest in describing the divine world and the ancient ban was three-fold: first the medieval kabbalists insisted on esotericism, keeping the kabbalah secret; second, they used pseudo-epigraphy, attributing their works to ancient figures, mainly tanaim, the sages of the Mishnah; and third, they were traditionalists, who claimed that they were not revealing anything new, just copying or writing down traditions received from previous generations, either orally or in secret writings.

An additional precaution used by several kabbalistic writers was obscurantism and mystification, using hints and opaque references that cannot be understood by any “outside” reader who is not familiar with the particular terminology.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 37.

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.

Swiss Army Kabbalah

Joseph Dan claims that kabbalah transformed from a uniquely Jewish religious tradition into a European concept, “integrated with Christian theology, philosophy, science and magic, at the end of the fifteenth century.”

He stresses that there is no unanimity about the definition of the term “kabbalah,” that it is used differently, to refer to different things, by Christian cabalists, Jewish orthodox thinkers and others. “The confusion is increased by the fact that there is no unanimity in the usage of the term either within Judaism or outside of it, so that various, different and conflicting conceptions of what the kabbalah is prevail in both cultures.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 61.

You Say Kabbalah, I Say Cabala

Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico de la Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.

The Zohar and Reflection.

“The author of the Zohar put on, when writing this work, several layers of disguise, hiding his own personality, time, and language. He created an artificial language, an Aramaic that is not found in the same way anywhere else, innovating a vocabulary and grammatical forms. He attributed the work to ancient sages, and created a narrative that occurs in a distant place at another time …

“The radical mythological descriptions of the divine powers, the unhesitating use of detailed erotic language, and the visionary character of many sections–these are unequaled in Jewish literature, and place the Zohar among the most daring and radical works of religious literature and mysticism in any language.”

“…. the Zoharic worldview is based on the concept of reflection: everything is the reflection of everything else. The verses of scriptures reflect the emanation and structure of the divine world; as does the human body, in the anthropomorphic concept of the sefirot, and the human soul, which originates from the divine realm and in its various parts reflects the functions and dynamism of the sefirot.

“…The structure of the temple in Jerusalem and the ancient rituals practiced in it are a reflection of all other processes, in the universe, in man, and within the heavenly realms….Everything is a metaphor for everything else….All of this is presented as a secret message, a heavenly revelation to ancient sages, using conventional, authoritative methodologies.”

—-Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 32-4

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.

More on Creation Through the Powers of the Alphabet.

“The Sefer Yezira (The Book of Creation) describes the process of creation mainly by the power of the letters of the alphabet. It dates to the 10th Century AD, though it was regarded as an ancient work. It was clearly developed and edited for several generations before it emerged into view. The exact date of its origin is unknown. Some assert that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, while others claim that it was written in the 9th century, with Islamic influences. The consensus seems to be that it dates to the third or fourth century, but there is no definitive evidence.

The concluding sentences state that Abraham knew the secrets of this work, so it is traditionally ascribed to Abraham the Patriarch.

The Book of Creation describes a system of cosmogony and cosmology different from Genesis, yet cites no authority and rarely refers to Bible verses.

“The universe was hewed, according to the first paragraph, by thirty-two “wondrous paths of wisdom,” and engraved in “three books.” The “paths” are described as ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These sefirot are not divine powers….” They are “described as the directions or dimensions of the cosmos, (north, south, east, west, up, down, beginning, end, good, and evil), as well as the holy beasts of Ezekiel’s chariot, the stages of the emergence of the three elements (divine spirit, air or wind, and water and fire), and other characteristics that are unclear.”

“Early commentators interpreted the sefirot as the ten basic numbers from one to ten.”

“The central concept … is harmonia mundi, (harmony of the universe). There are three layers of existence, the cosmic, that of time, and that of man. Each letter, or group of letters, is in charge of one aspect of each layer.”

“Thus … the Hebrew letters that can be pronounced in two different ways–whose number, according to this work, is seven–in the cosmos, are in charge of the seven planets; in “time,” are in charge of the seven days of the week; and, in man, are in charge of the seven orifices in the head (eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth).

“The twelve letters that the author describes as “simple” are in charge of the twelve zodiac signs, the twelve months, and the twelve principal limbs, and so on. This model was used by subsequent thinkers to develop the concept of human beings as microcosmos, reflecting the characteristics of the cosmos as a whole (especially by Shabbatai Donolo, who used it to interpret the the verse in Genesis 1:27, indicating that man was created in the image of God).”

“The concept that the universe was created by the power of divine speech is an ancient one in Judaism, and the Sefer Yezira developed this idea systematically. The guiding principle seems to have been that if creation is accomplished by language, then the laws of creation are the laws of language. Grammar thus was conceived as the basic law of nature. The author developed a Hebrew grammar based on 231 “roots”–the number of possible combinations of 22 letters. He explained the existence of good and evil in the universe as a grammatical process: if the letter ayin is added to the “root” ng as a prefix, it gives ong, great pleasure, but if it is added as a suffix, it means infliction, malady. The author also insisted that everything in the universe, following grammatical principles, has two aspects, parallel to the gender duality of masculine and feminine.”

“The kabbalists … positioned this work in the heart of Jewish sacred tradition, a source of divine wisdom parallel to that of the Hebrew Bible.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 16-18.

Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction

 Joseph Dan says that Kabbalah can be considered:

a. The essence of Assyrian religion (!?). 

b. The essence of Christianity. 

c. Mysticism. A form of mysticism. 

d. A secret magical tradition. 

“Mysticism” is completely absent from both Jewish and Islamic cultures until the 19th century. The concept of mysticism derives from Christianity, referring to the mystical way of life, prayer and devotion that leads to a mystical union with God. 

Traditional definitions of the term describe “mysticism” as the aspiration and sometime achievement of a direct, experiential relationship with God. One characteristic of mysticism is the denial of language’s ability to express religious truth. “In mysticism, language is apophatic, a “language of unsaying,” language that denies its own communicative message.” Religion can be communicated using words. Mysticism cannot.  

Kabbalah is Jewish. Sufism is Islamic. Christianity was allegedly the original form of mysticism. And yet, “the concept of ancient tradition that permeates the kabbalah, and the sack that early Islamic Sufis wore, which probably gave them this appellation, have no parallel in Christian mysticism.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006. Ppg. 8-10.

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