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Category: Narbonne

The Lost Book of Rab Hammai

“The tendency of these writings to enumerate celestial beings and their names is sometimes reminiscent of the catalogues to be found in the Pistis Sophia and other gnostic (Mandaean) texts of a later period. Isaac Cohen, who preserved for us many such lists and enumerations, attributed them to a particular group of kabbalists who had not walked the “royal road” followed by the others.

The source of these lists (as distinct from the demonological speculations discussed previously) is said to be a source he called the Book of Rab Hammai, which he claims to have found in Provence in three copies: one in Narbonne, in the possession of the aforementioned anonymous Hasid, and two in Aries.

Here we find ourselves in a very curious situation. The Book of Hammai is lost; Moses of Burgos, Isaac’s disciple, still quoted further catalogues of archons of a gnostic character; the name appears in several other writings that in all probability also originated in Provence.

But no historical personage by this name is known. Whether the Amora Hamma ben Hanina has been transformed into a pseudepigraphic author, or the name Rahmai, rahmai, known to us from the Bahir has perhaps become a Rab Hammai, rab_hammai  or whether we are simply dealing with a new fiction, can no longer be determined.

In the most important of the extant texts, Hammai appears as a speculative author of the eleventh or twelfth century who already relied upon pseudepigraphic kabbalistic writings circulating in the name of Hai Gaon (d.1040). In addition to a “Book of the Unity,” Sefer ha-Yihud, from which only some quotations remain, we have a small tract entitled Sefer ha-‘Iyyun, “Book of the Speculation” (or “Contemplation”), preserved in numerous manuscripts.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 310-1.

Inner Intention of Mystical Meditation

“This brings us back to the question of the actual content of the “revelations of Elijah” as they were disclosed to these mystics of Narbonne, Posquières, and Lunel. Are we to suppose that it merely concerned religious exaltation or revelations of mysteries of diverse kinds, explanations of one thing or another, visions connected with the Merkabah, such as could be deduced, for example, from the description contained in the document under discussion? In that case there would be nothing really new; the experience would merely add more information to a framework whose basic outline was already known beforehand to the praying ascetic.

Or should we perhaps see in these revelations a genuinely new phenomenon that was added to the kabbalistic tradition of the Bahir and lent it a specific character? Since we possess no reliable documents on this subject, it is difficult to answer this question with any certainty. Nevertheless, I would be inclined to interpret our reports in the sense of the second possibility. What was really new in the Kabbalah of the circle of the Provençal scholars and perushim, I would venture to guess, was their doctrine of the mystical meditations at prayer.

It was indeed apparent at the end of the last chapter that here and there texts concerning the mystical meaning of prayer or of specific prayers are already found in the Bahir and that, for example, a verse that plays as important a role in the liturgy as the Qedushah (Isa. 6:3) was there correlated with the aeons or sefiroth. But in the Bahir we are dealing with commentaries, not with instructions for meditations intended to accompany recitation of the verse at the very moment of prayer.

What is a new step and what surpasses this position is the linking of the individual words of the main prayers with specific sefiroth. This development gave rise, among the kabbalists, to the doctrine of kawwanah, which occupies such a major position in the history of the Kabbalah.

In his recitation—for according to talmudic prescription the prayers must be uttered aloud not only thought—he who prays must concentrate his soul upon one or several divine middoth. In this sense the kawwanah represents only a practical application of the doctrine of the existence of the sefiroth or aeons in the world of the Godhead. The prayer is a symbolic reiteration of processes that occur in the pleroma of the deity.

Hence it no longer resembles the old magical prayers that also, as we have seen, filtered through into the circles of the Hasidim and the first kabbalists. There too the person who prays pronounces magical words or holy names, largely incomprehensible nomina barbara that make up part of the text of the prayer itself. The kawwanah, on the other hand, represents a process that takes place exclusively within the domain of thought. It is most remarkable indeed that kabbalistic usage is, in this respect, very similar to that of the scholastics for whom intentio does not mean ”intention” in our usual sense but rather the energy or tension of the act of cognition. (The etymology would be derived from the tension of the bow when directing the arrow.)

The kawwanah of meditation is the tension with which the consciousness (of a person performing a prayer or another ritual act) is directed to the world or object before him. Nothing is pronounced but the words of the statutory prayers, as they had been fixed of old, but the mystical meditation mentally accompanies the current of words and links them to the inner intention of the person who is praying.

Among the German Hasidim the beginnings of such a process seem to be inherent in the prayer itself; among the kabbalists of Provence these initial stages led to a comprehensive discipline of contemplation concerned with man’s communication with God.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 242-4.

Conjuring Shaddiel

“In the middle of the thirteenth century there lived in Narbonne an old kabbalist, also a disciple of Eleazar of Worms, “of whose teacher it was attested [that is, by the people of Narbonne, and not only by the former student himself] that Elijah, may his memory be blessed, revealed himself to him every Day of Atonement.”

Whether this teacher was the Eleazar just named or some other Provençal kabbalist is not clear. But the identity of the teacher is of less importance for us than the information concerning the date when the prophet Elijah regularly appeared to him. In the Talmud such an appearance of Elijah on the Day of Atonement is mentioned, to my knowledge, only once in passing ( Yoma 19b) and not as something that is repeated periodically. This revelation, whose supreme value is thrown into sharp relief by the fact of its occurrence on the most sacred day of the year, was certainly attained only after spiritual preparation and special concentration.

We possess two texts that give an exact description of the magic rituals for conjuring up the archon who is in charge of the mysteries of the Torah. These rituals take place precisely during the night of the Day of Atonement. The first of these texts is a responsum attributed to two fictitious Babylonian geonim of the eleventh century that appears to have been composed in Provence around 1200 in an artificial Aramaic.

We are given here, among other things, an utterly fantastic report concerning a very peculiar procedure that the scholars of earlier times supposedly followed on that night in order to conjure up “Shaddiel, the great king of the demons (shedim) who rule in the air,” thereby to acquire possession and knowledge of “all the mysteries of heaven.”

This mixture of angelology and demonology is very strange. It seems to me impossible that this ritual, transferred in this instance to Babylonia, was ever really practiced. But it does indicate the mood of the group from which it stems.

The second part likewise contains theurgic instructions, but these, we may assume, describe a ritual that was actually performed. These directions constitute only one link in a long chain of incantations given since very early times for conjuring up the “archons of the Torah.”

At the end of the “Greater Hekhaloth” there is a text, Sar Torah, that is also found independently and has the same aim. We possess several other conjurations of this kind that originated in the Orient and passed, in part, into the manuscripts of the German Hasidim. This text too, which similarly prescribes the eve and the night of the Day of Atonement as the time for the performance of these rituals, certainly originated in materials that came from Babylonia through Italy to France.

But the content, half conjuration and half prayer, leaves no doubt that in its extant form it was edited in France. The text contains a long list of things that one of these perushim wished to learn from the archon of the Torah. He desires that his heart be opened to the study of the Torah, with special emphasis on the various types of gematria and number-mysticism and on the comprehension of various talmudic disciplines—such as cosmogony, the Merkabah, the divine glory, the kabhod—as well as many other specific subjects of the talmudic tradition that the author considered worth knowing.

There is nothing to indicate the author’s acquaintance with the Kabbalah; his area of interest coincides, regarding theosophical matters as well, with that of the German and French Hasidim. At the same time, we learn that in those circles too one hoped for revelations concerning the exoteric and esoteric Torah during the night of the Day of Atonement. We have before us, therefore, the sort of prayer that Jacob the Nazirite might have recited had he wished to prepare himself for a revelation of this kind.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 240-2.

On the Oral Transmission

“On the other hand it would be a mistake to overlook the possibility that such an esoteric conception of the symbols of the Merkabah in the spirit of the Book Bahir might be found in the writings of Eleazar of Worms, especially as he refers to an oral tradition concerning the mystical significance of such symbols.

“When it is said in the book of the Merkabah that the angels who are placed over the doors of the seven Hekhaloth ride fiery horses that eat fiery coals. . . . It is well known that there is no eating and drinking in the supernal regions. But if I were to write down the interpretation, someone who is not worthy might see it and arrive at corrupt conceptions of it. . . . That is why [such an interpretation can be transmitted] only by way of tradition, kabbalah, that is to say, through oral transmission.”

The first kabbalists also interpreted the prophets’ descriptions of the Merkabah and the revelations of the authors of the Hekhaloth literature as symbols of profoundly spiritual states. It is not without reason that the anonymous kabbalistic commentary on the Merkabah, whose true author can be identified as Jacob ben Cohen of Soria, is attributed in some manuscripts to “the Kabbalah of the Hasid R. Eliezer of Worms.”

In Narbonne around 1250, Jacob Cohen and his brother Isaac met a “Hasid and kabbalist,” a pupil of Eleazar, who apparently knew how to combine the Hasidic tradition with the kabbalistic tradition of the Provençal group. Perhaps this anonymous disciple was more loyal to the oral transmission of his teacher’s ideas than we are able to conclude from a simple comparison of his writings with those of the earliest kabbalists.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 183-4.

Kabbalistic Foundations of Magic

I have briefly developed here some of the fundamental concepts of the Book Yesirah because they are of essential importance for the understanding of what follows and because this book was later read and interpreted by the kabbalists as a vade mecum for the Kabbalah. In contrast to later interpretations, the special charm of this text consists in the frequently felicitous and in any event ever-vivid imagery and fullness of meaning it lends to most of the concepts newly created in order to express abstractions. The author finds concrete and appropriate designations for notions that, until then, Hebrew did not know how to render in adequate terms.

That he failed on certain points and that his images sometimes remain obscure for us—which only encouraged their subsequent reinterpretation—is a clear sign of the difficulty of his efforts and of the energy with which he undertook them. The book’s solemn and enigmatic manner of speaking made it possible for the Jewish philosophers as well as the kabbalists of the Middle Ages to appeal to its authority.

Saadya, in the earliest extant (although certainly not the oldest) commentary interpreted it around 933 in accordance with his philosophic conception of the doctrine of Creation and his Jewish theology in general. Since then, a complete series of more or less detailed Hebrew and Arabic commentaries continued to be written down to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Everyone found in the book more or less what he was looking for, and the fact that Yehudah Halevi devoted extensive attention to it, almost a complete commentary, in the fourth tractate of his principal work of philosophy and theology, Sefer ha-Kuzari (around 1130), may serve as an indication of the great authority the book enjoyed.

But at the same time, this text also remained influential in entirely different circles, those who saw in its theory of language some sort of a foundation of magic, or those for whom the doctrine of the book included authentic elements of the Merkabah gnosis and of cosmogony.

The Book Yesirah was studied in the schools of the sages of Narbonne as well as among the French rabbis of the school of the tosafists and among the German Hasidim of the same period, and many commentaries have come down to us from these circles, which were generally averse to philosophic speculation.

It offers remarkable parallels, to say the least, to the turn which the Kabbalists gave to the doctrine of the sefiroth. It is no longer possible to say with certainty to what extent the study of the Book Yesirah was regarded in these circles as an esoteric discipline in the strict sense of the term. Perhaps one could view the text as situated at the limits of esotericism, partly within it, but partly already beyond it.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 33-5.

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