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Tag: Aggadah

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.


“Occasionally even the mystical illumination produced by the effluence of the divine power from one sefirah to another is designated as sod ha-‘ibbur. In general, the kabbalists of Gerona restricted the transmigration of souls, on the basis of Job 33:29, to three rebirths following the first entry of the soul into the human body, though they admitted the existence of exceptional cases.

An important detail has been transmitted from the school of Nahmanides. In the famous disputation with the ex-Jew Paulus Christiani, the monk invokes the well-known aggadah according to which the Messiah was born at the hour of the destruction of the Temple.

To this Nahmanides replied: “Either this aggadah is not true, or else it has another explanation according to the mysteries of the sages.” Although the wording of this reply clearly points to kabbalistic teaching, it has not been understood until now.

Nahmanides does indeed give a plausible—literal and exoteric—explanation of the aggadah, to the effect that the Messiah was currently biding his time in the terrestrial paradise, but his true opinion can be gleaned from the questions of his disciple Shesheth des Mercadell concerning metempsychosis, where this aggadah figures as a proof text for this doctrine.

What the aggadah means to say is, therefore, that since the destruction of the Temple the soul of the Messiah is in the process of ‘ibbur. On this point, Nahmanides and his school depart from the older idea of the Bahir section 126, according to which the soul of the Messiah does not inhabit a human body before.

On the other hand, this text already exhibits the transition to the doctrine, first attested shortly after Nahmanides, to the effect that the name of Adam is an abbreviation (ADaM) of the three forms of existence of this soul in Adam, David, and the Messiah.

This would imply that the Messiah has to pass through various stages of incarnation so that his essence “always lives among us” in one form or another. The idea that also arose shortly after Nahmanides and according to which “soul sparks” can fly off from a central soul and thus pass simultaneously through many bodies is not yet attested in Gerona.

This doctrine was also used in the school of Solomon ibn Adreth in order to eliminate the difficulty that would arise at the resurrection of the dead for the different bodies through which one single soul had passed. The different bodies of the resurrected would be inhabited by sparks of the same soul, thus providing a solution to the problem.

According to Azriel there also exist souls of such exalted rank that they do not return to the world of bodies, but remain in the “world of life” and thus do not participate at all, or only in a purely spiritual sense, in the resurrection.

In this manner the kabbalists seem to move, at least as regards a privileged category of superior souls, in the direction of a denial of bodily resurrection—precisely the view for which the radical Maimonideans were so bitterly rebuked. It should be added, however, that this idea appears only in strictly esoteric contexts describing the eschatological progress of the souls after their departure from the terrestrial world and was never formulated in a dogmatic manner.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 459-60.

There are 18,000 Worlds

“The creative power of God, however, not only in the one world that we know, but all nine sefiroth—with the exception of the first, in which no contraries exist since it is the Nought—unfold in their double action toward the sides of Stern Judgment and of Mercy, and each produces a thousand worlds in each direction.

The universe would thus contain a total of 18,000 worlds, a figure that once again takes up an old talmudic aggadah but that also has its counterpart in certain Muslim speculations, in Ismailite gnosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 452.

On the Apocatastasis

“Only in the messianic era will the position of Sammael be restored; the Throne of God, which for the present is damaged, will then be repaired.

It thus appears that Isaac the Blind was a follower of the doctrine of the ultimate “restoration of Satan,” the apocatastasis.

Since, as is well known, Judaism recognized no official dogmatic authority that was entitled to determine the content of the faith, this question too, which played such an important role in the history of the Christian churches, remained open and a subject of dispassionate discussion.

Opinions were divided, and many mystics adhered to the “restoration” doctrine. Later kabbalistic theories exhibiting the same tendency, such as Joseph ibn Gikatilla’s Mystery of the Serpent, probably owe their inspiration to Isaac the Blind.

What is curious in the case of Isaac is that Sammael did not fall from his exalted rank, as one would expect, at the time of Adam’s sin—for which the Aggadah holds him responsible—but only at the time of the battle against Amaleq.

In this detail he was not followed by later kabbalists; even when they defended the doctrine of apocatastasis they placed it in relation to the reestablishment of the harmony of all things, which had been disturbed by Adam’s original sin.

However, also for ibn Gikatilla (as for Isaac), the serpent drew his original power directly from the sacred domain of the emanations, standing outside its “walls” and acting as the genius of the entire sublunar world. There, too, the rebellion of the serpent introduces disorder into the harmonious union of the worlds and isolates Sammael as genius of evil.

Isaac’s view that the supreme angelic powers draw their influx directly from the tenth sefirah is also found in Ezra, who attests to having received “from the lips of the son of the master,” that is, from Isaac the Blind, the doctrine “that Metatron is only a messenger, and not a specific thing bearing that name.

Rather, every messenger is called in Greek metator, and perhaps the messengers received the influx of the [tenth sefirah] named ‘atarah to fulfill their mission.”

Metatron is therefore not a proper name at all but a designation for the whole category of celestial powers performing a mission. This conception is far more prosaic than that taught by his father, the Rabad (cf. the passage quoted, p. 212), in his commentary on the Talmud.

Is this the whole truth about Isaac’s view, or merely an occasional remark? No other kabbalist ever denied the existence of a specific angelic being called Metatron, even if he adopted Isaac’s etymology.

The etymology itself is apparently taken from the old talmudic dictionary ‘Arukh of Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome, which was well known in Provence (as metator). Isaac obviously did not think of identifying Metatron with the last sefirah, the Shekhinah, although the identification is found later, among the first generation of Catalan kabbalists.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 298-9.

The Realm of Mixture

“According to the Aggadah, the Torah was given twenty-six generations after the creation of the world. But according to the rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 105, God gave His “word” (that is, the Torah) after 1,000 generations had passed. The contradiction is resolved by the talmudic Aggadah by saying that God had dispersed 974 generations of impious men among all the future generations where, in fact, they are the evildoers.

In the Bahir, these evil ones are therefore the bad grapevines, which, however, are not denied the opportunity to submit to a new test and to emerge as righteous. Section 39 says the same thing when it speaks of all the souls flying “up to 1,000 generations” from the mystical region of the Sabbath. The idea that the generation that goes is, according to the number of existing souls, the same as that which returns (section 86), points in the same direction. Here, too, the justification, as we have seen, resulted from the revision of an aggadic parable in the Talmud.

Only if Israel is worthy will it receive the new souls coming from the Sabbath or the east—from the seventh logos (section 104). The majority of the souls must wander until they are redeemed and can return from the world of mixture. The collection of the semen that is dispersed in the cosmos, the realm of mixture, is an old gnostic symbol that acquired great significance in the mystery rites of certain antinomian gnostic sects.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 189-90.

Ioel, Yahoel, Metatron

“This no doubt explains the special connection between most of the commandments and the particular interpretation of the mystery of the Shekhinah, already discussed at the end of section 8 (p. 178, herein). In fulfilling a commandment, man brings into view some of the hidden reflection that rests upon the entire world and upon each of its particulars as well as upon every action; in this manner he thus unites himself with the historical totality of the ecclesia of Israel and with the Shekhinah, which is its innermost part and its mystical reality.

The sefiroth were thus conceived as the interior side of this Shekhinah, as powers that only manifest themselves outwardly in her and through her agency. But even if in this way we can shed some light on the relationship of the oldest kabbalists to the world of their symbols, the historical formation of these symbols themselves can only be adequately explained through their connection with the remnants of the gnostic doctrine of the aeons.

The quotation from Eleazar of Worms shows, moreover, that here the “daughter,” whether gnostic or aggadic, can also be easily identified with the figure of Metatron, the angel or envoy whom God sends before Israel according to Exodus 23:20. This identification is frequently found in Hasidic writings as well as in old kabbalistic documents.

This is clearly a promotion of Metatron, who in the Merkabah gnosis also bears the name Yahoel. The angel himself becomes a figure of the kabhod. An analogous case is presented by the Manichees; according to Theodoret, the light virgin is named loel, which is nothing other than the Hebrew Yahoel, though I would consider this as hardly more than a coincidence. The Book Bahir itself, as I have already stressed, has preserved no speculations concerning Metatron.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 187.

Bakol = Shekhinah

“But what about the oldest text, the Book Bahir itself? Here, too, many passages show that we are dealing with a later exegesis, which reinterprets, on the basis of a medieval mentality, older material that had already become authoritative and confers upon it a symbolic character.

Assuredly, biblical verses could already be interpreted in the talmudic era as symbolic of events taking place on a higher plane of being. The psychological distance between the gnostic exegetes, Jewish or not, and the biblical canon is evident. The elaboration of pagan mythology in terms of gnostic exegesis, as, for example, in the “Naassene sermon” preserved by Hippolytus, indicates a similar psychological distance between ancient myth and its new interpretation.

The Bahir already presents this type of interpretation of the talmudic Aggadah. This can be seen not only in the many passages in which parables drawn from aggadic literature in the Talmud and the Midrash, where they have a perfectly exoteric significance, are transposed to a mystical plane, the new parable often becoming, in the process, much more strange and problematic than the one upon which it is based; we can observe it above all when talmudic quotations themselves are treated as old materials of this kind.

Only during a period when, for the pious consciousness of broad sections of the Jewish population, the Aggadah itself could already claim the authority of a sacred text, and at a time when for other circles its very extravagance became a problem—from the eighth century onward, after the emergence of Karaism—is a passage like section 52 of the Bahir possible. The Talmud, Baba Bathra 16b, transmits various opinions with regard to the value of the birth of daughters.

In this connection, a discussion is reported between mishnaic teachers (second century) concerning Genesis 24:1: “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” “What is meant by ‘in all things?’ R. Meir explained: it means that he had no daughter. R. Yehudah said: Abraham had a daughter whose name was Bakol [literally: with all things].”

The Bahir made this last remark the object of a mystical exegesis, which elevated the strange statement concerning the daughter Bakol to an allegorical plane. Bakol thus becomes a designation for the Shekhinah, the last of the divine powers, which is mentioned at the end of section 51 and to the symbolism of which I shall return. Abraham is there designated as the father of this Shekhinah. Section 52 then continues:

“And whence did Abraham have a daughter? [we learn that] from the verse [Gen. 24:1] the Lord had blessed Abraham with “all things” and [Scripture also] says [Isa. 43:7] “every one” will be called by my Name, etc. Was this “blessing” his daughter or not? [another version: Or was it rather his mother?] Yes, she was his daughter. It is like a king who had a perfect servant . . . Then the king said: What should I give to this servant or what should I do for him? There is nothing left for me to do but to recommend him to my brother, so that he may counsel, protect, and honor him. The servant went home with the king’s great brother and learned his ways. The brother grew very fond of him and called him his friend, as it is said [Isa. 41:8]: Abraham, my friend. He said: What shall I give him or what shall I do for him? Lo, I have made a beautiful vessel, and inside it are beautiful gems to which none can be compared, and they are the jewels of kings. I shall give them to him, and he may partake of them instead of me. That is what is written: God blessed Abraham with “all things.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 87-8,

Jewish Gnosticism

“The decisive step beyond the other gnostic systems consists in the fixing of the number of these powers or aeons at ten, according to the ten sefiroth of the Book of Creation and the ten words of creation through which, according to the ancient Aggadah, God called the world into existence.

Once the number of these “qualities” or middoth of God was fixed they came to be associated with a large number of symbolic names, since each of the epithets by which God could be presented or named was necessarily related to one or another of the middoth. In the Bahir we can still recognize quite clearly the efforts that were made to introduce a more or less consistent terminology in the use of these symbols in relation to specific sefiroth, though it took some time until this process of the definitive crystallization of the symbolism of the old Kabbalah came to its final conclusion.

The different attempts often contradict one another. While the commentators of the Kabbalah strove to bring the symbols into accord or to unify them, the historian naturally has no interest in a harmonistic exegesis of this kind. We shall see several examples that suggest conflicting traditions that were simply juxtaposed in the Bahir. Here, too, the choice of symbols and appellations for this or that sefirah duplicates the process by which the Gnostics designated their aeons. They liked to adopt as names of aeons abstract terms such as thought, wisdom, penitence, truth, grace, greatness, silence, or images such as father, mother, abyss, etc.

These designations, some of which are identical with those found in the ancient documents while others were newly created in accordance with the methods of gnostic exegesis, fill the pages of the Bahir. There, however, they are derived from biblical verses or even the aggadic dicta of the rabbis.

Once again the question is posed: should we admit, at least for one of the strata of the book, the existence of vestiges of an ancient Jewish gnosis, of fragments that antedate the Middle Ages and in which anonymous Jewish Gnostics sought to express their mystical conception of the divinity without impairing their Jewish monotheism?

Or are we dealing with attempts by medieval men, who felt themselves newly stimulated for one reason or another, to view traditions that were intrinsically and purely Jewish from a gnostic perspective? Is our material essentially nothing but the well-known and straightforward Jewish tradition, the adaptation and transformation of which into symbols proves just how great was the psychological and temporal distance between these later authors and the period when the aggadic sayings originally crystallized?

This is the fundamental question that imposes itself upon the reader of the Bahir. It is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of general considerations; only a careful examination of the details can help us here. I do not hesitate, for my part, to affirm that the literature of the Spanish Kabbalah, especially that imbedded in the Zohar, clearly reveals a psychological attitude that, in the Middle Ages, led men to recast ancient talmudic and midrashic material according to an entirely new spirit by means of an exegetical and homiletical method that in its structure was gnostic, but that reached its full development only under the influence of the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 85-6.

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