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Tag: Abraham Abulafia

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, 2

Ilan Sefirot - Kabbalistic Divinity map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI

Ilan Sefirot. Kabbalistic Divinity Map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI. 

“In Christian tradition, the four levels are excavated through a labour of interpretation which brings surplus meaning to the surface. Yet it is a labour performed without altering the expression-plane, that is, the surface of the text.

The commentator tries in many ways to correct scribal errors, so as to re-establish the only and original version according to the alleged intention of the original author. For some kabbalistic currents, by contrast, to read means to anatomize, as it were, the very expression-substance, by three fundamental techniques: notariqon, gematria and temurah.

Notariqon was the technique of using acrostics to cipher and decipher a hidden message. The initial (or final) letters of a series of words generate new words. Such a technique was already a familiar artifice in poetry during the late antique and Middle Ages, when it was used for magic purposes under the name of ars notoria.

Kabbalists typically used acrostics to discover mystic relations. Mosé de Leon, for example, took the initial letters of the four senses of scripture (Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod) and formed out of them PRDS.

Since Hebrew is not vocalized, it was possible to read this as Pardes or Paradise. The initial letters of Moses’s question in Deuteronomy 30:12, “Who shall go up for us to heaven?,” as they appear in the Torah form MYLH, or “circumcision,” while the final letters give YHWH, Jahveh.

The answer is therefore: “the circumcised will go up to God.” Abulafia discovered that the final letters of MVH (“brain”) and LB (“heart”) recall the initial letters of two Sefirot, Hokmah (wisdom) and Binah (intelligence).

Gematria was based on the fact that, in Hebrew, numbers are indicated by letters; this means that each Hebrew word can be given a numerical value, calculated by summing the numbers represented by its letters.

This allows mystic relations to be established between words having different meanings through identical numerical values. It is these relations that the kabbalist seeks to discover and elucidate.

The serpent of Moses, for example, is a prefiguration of the Messiah because the value of both words is 358. Adding up the letters in YHWH, we get 72, and kabbalistic tradition constantly searched for the seventy-two names of God.

Temurah is the art of anagrams. In a language in which vowels must be interpolated, anagrams are more exciting than in other idioms. Mosé Cordovero wondered why there appeared in Deuteronomy a prohibition against wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.

He found the answer when he discovered that the letters of that passage could be recombined to produce another text which warned Adam not to take off his original garment of light and put on the skin of the serpent, which symbolized demonic power.

Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century) systematically combined the letter Alef with each of the four letters of the tetragrammaton YHWH; then he vocalized each of the resulting units by every possible permutation of five vowels, thus obtaining four tables with fifty entries each.

Eleazar ben Yudah of Worms went on to vocalize every unit using twice each of the five vowels, and the total number of combinations increased geometrically (cf. Idel 1988b: 22-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 27-8.

 

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.

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