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Category: Language Mysticism

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 Source of Wisdom

“The Book ‘Iyyun itself makes no mention at all of primordial ether, unless the latter is concealed in the concept of the primordial darkness.

It does, however, play an important role in the “Source of Wisdom.” This small book was always regarded by the kabbalists as one of the most enigmatic works of their literature. Baer of Mezritsch still boasted to his disciple Solomon of Luzk of having studied this book with the founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal-shem who, Baer said, explained it to him word by word.

It consists of two parts. The first is concerned largely with the divine name YHWH, the manner in which it was engendered by the processes of language-mysticism, its wondrous power, and the role of the primordial ether at the origin of all movement of language.

Here it seems that the idea of the spoken word becoming “inscribed” in the air, issuing from the mouth of the person uttering it, was applied to the primordial processes of the creative divine speech. In the second part successive attempts are made to develop a cosmogony.

The name of God—so the book begins—is the unity of the movement of language branching out from the primordial root. This movement grows out of the primordial ether, in the form of the thirteen pairs of opposites that are at the same time the thirteen middoth of divine government.”

Gershom Scholem, The Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 331-2.

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 Mah ‘Elohim of Genesis 1:2

“In another way, however, Isaac’s mysticism of language is easier to understand. From the Sophia, which we have come to know as the primordial Torah as yet undifferentiated by language, the voice is formed in the next sefirah, binah. This voice is not yet audible and is still hidden; it becomes audible only at the later stages of emanation and at the end of this process becomes articulated speech.

But already the hidden voice becomes differentiated, by prolonging itself, into many letters. “Hewn in the pneuma,” which is binah, they acquire, according to Isaac, an exterior and an interior, body and soul. This power of the letters flows into the world beneath the sefiroth, forming on the celestial sphere the secret but nonetheless primordial images of all things in the figure of the 231 gates of this sphere; the gates represent the combinations, two by two, of the elements of the Hebrew alphabet.

There are 462 such combinations, but the other half of this power remains above the sphere. Hence the letters, no matter how they are combined, are only the visible ramifications of the one promordial name.

It remains unsaid, however, whether this primordial name is the Tetragrammaton, the name ‘ehyeh, or some other mystical name underlying both of these. The entire process of emanation remains condensed in all the letters, and “in each individual letter are contained all ten sefiroth” (3:2).

The letter becomes, therefore, a world in itself encapsulating the whole future as something already preformed in it. “In each individual letter there are subtle, inward, and hidden essences ‘without what’ [that have not become anything definite].

Whatever could be chiseled out of them was already in them, just as all a man’s descendants are already in him.”

These secret essences in the letters, which exert their influence in the midst of creation, are conceived “in the manner of the essences given in the Sophia.” It is quite possible that the “whatless” being, being without quiddity, to which this passage refers and which is hidden in the letters, had something to do with the punning definition of the Sophia, given by Isaac’s disciples as being the “potency of the what.” This conception is in perfect accord with the quotation from the Yesirah commentary.

Similar ideas on the development of the world of the sefiroth and what lies below it are found, albeit expressed with enigmatic brevity, in Isaac’s commentary on Genesis 1 (which already ibn Sahula admitted was partly incomprehensible).

Mention is made there of a progression from the “splendor to the Sophia” toward the “light of the Intellect” as the content of the creation of the first day, which, as the mystical primordial day, contained within itself “in spirit, though not yet in their form” all the essences. It is only with the diffusion of the light of the intellect that the light of all other things radiated therefrom; and it seems that for Isaac, the primordial creation of the first day embraces all ten sefiroth.

He interprets the events of the second day of creation as constituting a transition representing the “extension of the spirit in the form.” The souls, too, only “extend in the form” on the second day. We do not learn what constitutes this specifically formative power of the spirit, which is the mah ‘elohim of Genesis 1:2. It is a pneuma that comes from the sefiroth of hokhmah and binah, “and it is called among the sages the power that shapes the form.”

The “sages” named here must be the philosophers, judging by the terminology employed; in the Midrash one finds no such expression. From this supreme pneuma, apparently, come all the souls, which are stamped with the letters engraved in the spirit.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 285-7.

The Letters of the Great Name

“Whatever the precise nature of the supreme sefirah, hokhmah is in any case the “beginning of being” as it is also the “beginning of the dibbur.” Prom hokhmah, all the sefiroth proceed in a clear chain of emanations. In terms of Isaac’s language-mysticism, the divine things are at the same time the divine words. The ideas are names.

This motif, already prefigured in the Bahir where the sefiroth coincided with the ten logoi, now appears in a much profounder form. For the kabbalist, evidently, language-mysticism is at the same time a mysticism of script and of letters. The relation between script and language is a constitutive principle for the Kabbalah.

In the spiritual world, every act of speaking is concurrently an act of writing, and conversely every writing is potential speech, destined to become audible. The speaker engraves, as it were, the three-dimensional space of the word on the plane of the ether.

The script, which for the philologist is only a secondary and otherwise rather useless image of real speech, is for the kabbalist the true repository of its secrets. The phonographic principle of a natural transposition of speech into script and vice versa manifests itself in the Kabbalah in the idea that the sacred letters themselves are the lineaments and signs that the modern phoneticist would want upon his disc.

The creative word of God is legitimately stamped upon just these sacred lines. Beyond language lies the unarticulated reflection, the pure thought, the mute profundity, one could say, in which the nameless reposes. Prom hokhmah on there opens up, identical with the world of the sefiroth, the world of the pure name as a primordial element of language. This is the sense in which Isaac understood the saying of Yesirah 2:5, according to which all language proceeds from a name. The tree of divine powers, which formed the sefiroth in the Bahir, is here transposed to the ramifications of the letters in this great name.

But more than that of the tree, Isaac liked the simile of the coal and the flames (shalhabiyoth) that are fed by it, inspired by another passage of Yesirah (1:7) to which he often has recourse:

“ … Their root [that is, that of language and things] is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, which are mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal, and in the manner of the leaves of the tree, its boughs and branches, whose root is always in the tree . . . and all the debharim become form and all the forms proceed only from the one name, just as the branch comes from the root. It follows therefore that everything is in the root, which is the one name (on 2:5).

The world of language is therefore actually the “spiritual world.” Only that which lives in any particular thing as language is its essential life.

Raising the above to the level of kabbalistic discourse, the words, dibburim, constitute the world of the sefiroth, which are united in their configurations in order to form letters, just as, conversely, the words themselves are the configurations of letters.

Isaac uses both images though their kaleidoscopic relations are not entirely transparent. In any case, letters are for him the elements of the universal script. According to him, the Hebrew word for letters, ‘othiyoth, derives from the verb ‘atha, to come; the letters are “things which come from their cause,” thus, that which “proceeds” from the root.

But each of these elements comprises in ever new configurations all the sefiroth: “In every letter there are the ten sefiroth.” Thus we are told, in connection with Yesirah 4:1 that the ten sefiroth are “inner [or: hidden] essences” whose inner [hidden] being is contained in the hokhmah, and that they are at the same time the roots of principles in which good and evil are still united.

“They [the sefiroth] begin to grow forth like a tree whose beginnings are unrecognizable, until a plant issues from them.” The verbs employed by the Book Yesirah to describe the formation of the letters that God “hewed” in the pneuma suggest to Isaac the image of a mountain from which raw stones are extracted, then hewed and chiseled, and from which well-ordered edifices come into being.

This “edifice” is the world, but the world of the sefiroth as such also represents a building of this type that issues from its elements, and, in the last analysis, from the hokhmah. The sphere in which this hewing of the innermost elements takes place is not the hidden Sophia, where everything is still conceived as united without form, but the sefirah that follows it, binah or teshubah (“that to which all returns”), which is itself a mystical hyle from which the forms are chiseled.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 277-9.

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.

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.

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