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Tag: Book Bahir

Bodhisattvas

“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.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

“The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul.

According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it.

Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communio, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah.

In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a ”knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines.

The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona.

The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition.

The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month.

But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor.

Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 456-7.

The Supreme Mystery

“Whereas one of these names thus illustrates the way from magic to Neoplatonic mysticism, the other marks the way from the theory of language of the grammarians to the magic of names, that is, in the opposite direction. Both currents meet in an impressive manner in the Book ‘Iyyun and related writings.

The sequel no longer makes any direct reference to the primordial darkness. First, an “order of the master of the world” is expounded, then an “order of Metatron,” the second part obviously being conceived as some sort of explanation of the Shi’ur Qomah.

The two parts describe, in their own fashion and constantly confusing Merkabah gnosis with Neoplatonic images, the potencies by means of which God acts at Creation as well as the supreme hierarchies of essences emanating from him, the hawwayoth.

The exposition quotes other, presumably also fictitious, writings. At the end of the text it suddenly seems as if R. Ishmael had read all the foregoing aloud to Nehunya ben Haqqanah, as if everything had come from the aforementioned book of Hekhaloth.

The framework of the old Merkabah literature clearly serves here as a receptacle for contents that are alien to it. There is scarcely any relationship between these ideas (in which the doctrine of the sefiroth is mentioned only very incidentally) and the world of the Book Bahir.

The thirteen potencies manifested from the supreme mystery, setherelyon ha-ne ‘elam—no doubt the aforementioned primordial darkness—are enumerated by name. They are:

  1. The primordial hokhmah;
  2. The wondrous or hidden light, ‘or mufla;
  3. Hashmal;
  4. The cloud, ‘arafel;
  5. The throne of splendor;
  6. The ‘ofan of greatness;
  7. The cherub;
  8. The wheels of the Merkabah;
  9. The surrounding ether;
  10. The curtain;
  11. The Throne of Glory;
  12. The place of the souls, also called “chambers of greatness”;
  13. The outer Holy Temple.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 316.

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.

On the Lost Book of the Speculation

“What is surprising in this text is that it constitutes an irruption of Neoplatonic language and concepts into older cosmological and Merkabah teachings, as far removed from the language of the Bahir as it is from that of Isaac the Blind.

The few extant pages appear to have been carelessly thrown together without any sense of structure, and the exposition is in part erratic and opaque. The book is written in a pure Hebrew and in a curiously enthusiastic style. The long superscription says:

“ … The “Book of the Speculation” of the great master Rab Hammai, chief of those who speak of the subject of the inner [hidden] sefiroth, and he unveiled in it the essence of the whole reality of the hidden glory, whose reality and nature no creature can comprehend, [and of all that] in a truthful manner, such as it [the hidden kabhod?] is in the indistinct unity, in the perfection of which the higher and the lower are united, and it [this kabhod] is the foundation of all that is hidden and manifest, and from it goes forth all that is emanated from the wondrous unity. And Rab Hammai has interpreted these subjects according to the method of the doctrine of the Merkabah—’al derekh ma- ‘aseh merkabah—and commented upon the prophecy of Ezekiel.”

The language used in this superscription, as well as in the beginning of the work, is purely speculative. The notion of indistinct unity (‘ahduth shawah) is unknown in prekabbalistic Hebrew texts. The term, as becomes quite clear in the writings of Azriel of Gerona, refers to that unity in which all oppositions become “equal,” that is, identical.

This concept, and the idea of a coincidentia oppositorum in God and the highest sefiroth—which subsequently plays such an important role, particularly in Azriel—seems to appear here for the first time. According to Azriel, God is …

“ … the One who is united in all of His powers, as the fire’s flame is united in its colors, and His powers emanate from His unity as the light of the eyes proceeds from the black of the eye, and they are all emanated from one another like perfume from perfume and light from light, for one emanates from the other, and the power of the emanator is in the emanated, without the emanator suffering any loss.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 312.

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.

The First Sefirah is Passed Over in Silence

“After the resurrection, the righteous and the average realize a new progress in their spiritual and moral perfection, one that takes them beyond everything they attained in their lives. By this adherence to the seven divine middoth, all will share perpetually in the gift of prophecy.

From a brief allusion of ibn Sahula (f. 34a), we can infer that on several occasions Isaac expressed his views on eschatological matters, in the context of which he may also have discussed the preparation for redemption by means of the purification of souls during their transmigrations.

In the extant texts, however, there is no clear statement on this subject, though on one occasion Isaac quotes a relevant passage from the Bahir, section 105.

Isaac of Acre states that in his commentary on Yesirah Isaac the Blind made a hidden allusion to the distinction between the migration of souls (gilgul) and the impregnation of souls (ibbur) as being two different things, but I have not been able to locate this allusion.

It should be clear from the foregoing that Isaac the Blind already had at his disposal a complete system of kabbalistic symbolism, partly inherited from tradition and partly elaborated by himself which he applied to a great variety of biblical and rabbinic subjects.

His epistle to Gerona, which has survived, offers a brief explanation of the last psalm, apparently in response to a question. The psalmist’s tenfold invitation to praise God is interpreted as an allusion to the ten sefiroth, though the first sefirah is passed over in silence, and Isaac counts downward beginning with hokhmah.

His mystical allusions in this epistle scarcely differ from the instructions he gives for the mystical kawwanoth at prayer; there too, he briefly describes the process by which the mystic first traverses the world of the sefiroth from below upward during the profession of the divine unity, the Shema’ Yisrael, and then, in his meditation on the word ‘ehad, “one!” completes and closes the circle of his kawwanah, from above downward.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 308-9.

Intertwining Branches of Good and Evil

“But it is not only the good that has its origin in the irradiation of lights of the emanation; there also exists a positive evil, which is related to the root of death. In this way Isaac adopts a modified form of the corresponding idea of the Bahir concerning the nature of evil.

The oppositions discussed in chapter 4 of the Book Yesirah, in connection with the seven consonants of the Hebrew alphabet that can be pronounced in two different ways, also include that of life and death; and Isaac explains that “after the cause of life, the cause of death was emanated.”

Also at the beginning of chapter 2 he emphasizes that in each case the poles of oppositions come “from an autonomous principle.” Death is therefore something more and something other than the mere cessation of life. It has a positive root.

Certainly Isaac stresses at the same time that in the world of the sefiroth and of the “inner essences,” good and bad are not yet dissociated from one another but are harmoniously united, be-‘ah-duth ube-shalom. Only when the “roots” continue to develop into a tree—and in the emanation that later derives from it and to which the double letters correspond—does evil also exist in isolation.

Otherwise, Isaac’s thinking remains determined by the image of the organic body (on chap. 4). The letters are like the branches of the tree and in them the intertwined pattern of good and evil is unfolded, so that each good middah also has its corresponding evil and vice versa.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 293.

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.

The En-Sof

“They are called in his works the Infinite (‘en-sof), Thought, and Speech. The principle of Speech, dibbur, is divided into the plurality of speeches and words, by which he often means the seven lower sefiroth, called not only dibburim but also debharim. In Hebrew dabhar means “word” as well as “thing,” and this coincidence was obviously decisive for the formation of Isaac’s thought.

The sefiroth, above all the seven lower ones, are the words or things “which shape reality.” They take the place of the ma’amaroth, the logoi of the Bahir. The “Thought,” too, already comes from this text, as we saw in the previous chapter. But what is entirely new is the emphasis laid on a domain of the divine that is above all reflective contemplation, indeed above the divine Thought itself, a domain called by Isaac “the cause of Thought” and designated by a new term: ‘en-sof.

The birth of this concept is of great interest for the history of the Kabbalah. This designation is usually explained as a borrowing from Neoplatonism. Christian Ginsburg, whose essay on the Kabbalah has been appropriated by many authors (who do not always bother to acknowledge their source), says:

“ … Any doubt upon this subject must be relinquished when the two systems are compared. The very expression En Sof which the Kabbalah uses to designate the Incomprehensible One, is foreign, and is evidently an imitation of the Greek Apeiros. The speculations about the En Sof, that he is superior to actual being, thinking and knowing, are thoroughly Neo-Platonic.”

Ginsburg, however, proceeded on the completely erroneous assumption that the oldest document of the authentic Kabbalah was the Neoplatonic catechism on the sefiroth composed by Azriel, Isaac’s disciple. There the notion is in fact explained in a manner that comes particularly close to Neoplatonic thought. But this says nothing about the origin of the concept. Indeed, the expression is strange, by virtue of its very grammatical formation.

It certainly is not a rendering of a fixed philosophical idiom, whether it be from the Greek or from the corresponding Arabic (la-nihaya)—in spite of the readiness with which some scholars have adopted this view.

The form ‘en-sof corresponds in no way to the translations of privative notions in medieval Hebrew literature: in these the conjunction Ulti always precedes the negated notion; the negation ayin is never employed for this purpose. Thus “inconceivable” is rendered by bil-ti-mussag and not by ‘en hassagah, and “infinite” is Ulti ba’al-takh-lith and not ‘en-sof.

The form ‘en-sof is altogether unusual, and Graetz had good reason to see it in a proof of the late origin of the term. However, he should have added that in the Hebrew literature of the Middle Ages, too, it represents a completely isolated phenomenon. It is only in biblical literature that we find forms such as ‘en ‘onim or ‘en ‘eyyal, for powerless. Subsequently, locutions of this kind disappear completely.

How, then, are we to understand the origin of the term ‘en-sof? It did not result from a deliberate translation, but from a mystical interpretation of texts that contain the composite term ‘en-sof in a perfectly correct adverbial sense, and not as a specific concept. The doctrine of Saadya Gaon, in particular, abounds with affirmations of the infinity of God—in fact, it is asserted at the very beginning of his well-known “Supplication” (Siddur R. Saadia [1941], 47), and in the old Hebrew paraphrase, known among the Provençal Kabbalists as well as the German Hasidim, it is reiterated incessantly.

Tobias ben Eliezer, who wrote around 1097, also stressed precisely this quality of God, in the context of a reference to the mystical Hekhaloth writings. For him God is “the first up to the unfathomable, the primordial beginning up to the infinite (‘ad ‘en-takhlith), among the last up to infinity (‘ad ‘en-sof). ” The adverbial construction is perfectly correct.

“Up to infinity” results from a combination of “up to there, where there is no end.” Expressions of this kind, in which ‘en-sof has the function of an adverbial complement, are found with particular frequency in the writings of Eleazar of Worms. We find the same usage in the Bahir (cf. p. 130 preceding). Thus, Eleazar writes, for example: “When he thinks of that which is above, he should not set any limit to this thought, but thus [should he think of God]:

” … high, higher up to the Boundless [‘ad ‘en-qes]; down deep, who can find him; and the same above in the expanse of all the heavens . . . and outside the heavens up to the infinite [le’en- sof].” Or: “in the Throne of Glory are engraved holy names, which are not transmitted to any mortal, and which sing hymns unto infinity [meshorerim shiroth le’en-sof].”

The transition here from the innumerable hymns sung by holy names and angels to a hypostasis that, as a mystical reader might perhaps conceive it, “sings hymns to ‘en-sof” seems easy enough. The term ‘en-sof came into being when one of the Provençal kabbalists read this combination of words that actually represents a phrase as a noun, possibly influenced by the aforementioned kind of adverbial composites and perhaps also by some expressions in the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 265-7.

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.

Revelation of Elijah

“Already in the case of the first Spanish kabbalists, among the disciples of Isaac the Blind, the magical elements in their doctrine of the kawwanah occasionally come to the fore, as we have seen. Similar elements are discernible in the “mysteries of the prayer” of the German Hasidim, in that he who prays must think of the various names of angels as they relate—in respect to the mysticism of words and numbers—to the words of the traditional prayer. But in the earliest kabbalist circles, as far as our information extends, this magical element is missing; at least it does not manifest itself openly.

The teaching of the mystical kawwanah in prayer corresponds perfectly, it seems to me, to the objective and psychological conditions surrounding a doctrine born into an exclusive circle of men who possess the gift of meditation. With it, a new layer is added to the old gnostic elements that were contained in the tradition of the Bahir, elements that these men continued to develop in greater detail.

The creation of this doctrine bears the seal of the vita contemplativa. No element of the old Kabbalah better corresponds to the tradition of a revelation of Elijah, and we may regard this tradition as testimony that in this circle something really new had burst forth from the depths. An indication, if not an absolute proof, of this connection may be found in the fact that the remarks concerning the revelation Elijah is supposed to have vouchsafed to Isaac the Blind or his teachers are found precisely in texts in which the kawwanoth of prayer were collected by the Spanish kabbalists at the end of the thirteenth century.

No other specific doctrine among the kabbalists expressly relates to this revelation and this, perhaps, provides us with a key to our problem. A notion analogous to that of gilluy ‘Eliyahu can be found in Sufi mysticism in the accounts of revelations of Khidr (the Muslim metamorphosis of Elijah). Reports or testimonies concerning such revelations exist with regard to Muhi al-din ibn Arabi (1165-1240) of Andalusia, who shortly before 1200 —the time of Rabad and Isaac the Blind—was still wandering about in Spain (cf. G. Husaini, The Pantheism of Ibn Arabi, 28.).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 245-6.

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.

Two Angels at the Feast of Tabernacles

“The relatively simple content of that tradition also corresponds to Jacob’s other angelological statements, with which we have already become acquainted on page 208. Jacob is said to have received from a certain R. Nehorai in Jerusalem the tradition that the ritual of libations of water and wine on the Feast of Tabernacles was practiced in the Temple of Jerusalem because “at this ritual two angels were present, whose function it was to bring the fruits to ripeness and to lend them flavor.”

One of these angels is certainly Gabriel, whose function (according to B. Sanhedrin 95b) is to cause the fruit to ripen. The other is probably Michael. Water and wine seem to symbolize the qualities of Grace (water) and Sternness (wine), much as in the Book Bahir. Whether this symbolism came from the Orient—together with the angelological tradition —or whether it belongs exclusively to the Provençal stratum of the Bahir cannot be established with certainty.

We know nothing else about this R. Nehorai, and the doctrine of the sefiroth is implied in no other twelfth-century text that can definitely be said to have been composed in the Orient. This pilgrimage of “Rabbenu Jacob Hasid,” which I see no reason to doubt, must have taken place at the earliest not long after the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin, after 1187; before that, under the rule of the Crusaders, access to the city was generally forbidden to Jews.

It cannot be fixed at a date prior to the time Jacob the Nazirite commenced his esoteric studies; it was on the contrary, occasioned by those studies. According to the preceding argument, we have in fact every reason to suppose that such studies were already in vogue before 1187 in the circle of Posquières and of Lunel.

Later legends of the Spanish kabbalists related the visit of the old kabbalist of Lunel to the Orient to the interest in the Kabbalah allegedly displayed by Maimonides toward the end of his life. Our R. Jacob is supposed to have gone to Egypt, where he initiated Maimonides in the esoteric science. This legend, whose origin around 1300 I have examined elsewhere, has no historical value. Even the writings of Abraham, the son of Maimonides, whose penchant for mystical religiosity is quite obvious, draw their inspiration from Sufi sources and do not evince the slightest familiarity with kabbalistic ideas, as has already been mentioned on page 12.

Our discussion of the groups of Jewish ascetics in France devoting themselves to a contemplative life gives added urgency to the question of a possible relationship between the emergence of the Kabbalah and Catharism in the middle of the twelfth century. The only scholar who, to my knowledge, has raised the problem—albeit in a rather aphoristic style—was Moses Gaster in his programmatic The Origin of the Kabbalah (Ramsgate, 1894). It is doubtful, however, whether such a relationship can be deduced with certainty from an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic traditions.

The information regarding the beliefs of Cathar groups or individuals contained in Cathar sources or in the acts of the Inquisition reveal few if any elements parallel to kabbalistic doctrine. There is, no doubt, a general similarity in the fundamental assumption common to both groups regarding the reality of a separate higher world belonging entirely to God himself and in which there occur certain dramatic events that have their counterpart in the lower world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 233-4.

The Brides of Satan

“We may also detect a certain resemblance between the doctrine in the Bahir of Satan as the seducer of souls, as the prince of tohu and the material world fashioned from it, and the conceptions of the Cathars with regard to the role of Satan. To be sure, the texts of the Bahir are formulated in a thoroughly Jewish manner, and from the standpoint of the history of religions might also be rooted in other traditions of an earlier period.

One detail found in the older scholarly literature on the Cathars would certainly seem to provide an unexpected parallel to certain sources of kabbalistic demonology. This is the idea of the two wives of Satan, which is preserved in various statements on the diabolical hierarchy collected by the brothers Jacob and Isaac Cohen of Soria, who brought them back from their travels in Provence around the middle of the thirteenth century.

It would conform to a surprising extent with the same idea, inferred by C. Schmidt from a remark of the generally exceedingly well informed Cistercian Peter de Vaux-Cernay, to the effect that the two biblical figures Ahalah and Ahalibah (Ezek. 23:4) were regarded by certain Cathars as the two wives of Satan.

In reality, however, the source in question refers to the two wives of the supreme deity, of whom one was the mother of Christ while the other was that of Satan. The analogy with the demonological speculations of the Kabbalah is therefore spurious; besides, these speculations have no direct relation to the doctrine of the aeons and the sefiroth, with which they must have become linked at a later date. Most probably the sources of the demonological systems that emerged in Provence, go back to the Orient, although the statements on this subject in the texts available to Isaac Cohen were pseudepigraphic in character.

Incidentally, the idea of Lilith as one of the wives, or even as the true wife, of Satan originated in these sources and subsequently passed into the Zohar. Earlier Oriental sources of Jewish magic mention no such marriage and seem to know nothing about a bride or wife of Satan.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 235.

Heresy in the Bahir

“It is in this sense, above all, that the raising of the hands in Aaron’s blessing (Lev. 9:22) and during the battle against Amaleq (Exod. 17:11) is explained. The raising of the hands in the priestly blessing, at the end of the ‘Amidah prayer, corresponds to the raising of the hands after the sacrifice (section 87): it is a gesture marking the union of the sefiroth, which are specifically mentioned here as being contained in one another.

The victory of Israel over Amaleq when Moses raised his hands is on the same level. Moses directed the “concentration of the heart,” kawwanath ha-leb, to that middah that is named Israel and that contains the Torah of Truth.

“He indicated with the ten fingers of his hands, that [this middah] gave permanence to the ten [logoi], so that if it [this middah] would not assist Israel, the ten logoi would no longer be sanctified every day—and then Israel was victorious.”

The expression kawwanath ha-leb is taken from the Targum and the Midrash and means concentration of the spirit; from the Book Bahir on it was used by the kabbalists in the sense of “mystical meditation” on the sefiroth. It serves as the fundamental concept of their mysticism of prayer. The Midrash already states that Israel’s prayer is not heard now, for it does not know the full, explicit name of God, shem ha-meforash. If, therefore, someone knows this secret, his prayer will be heard. The same idea is very boldly developed in an interpretation of Habakkuk 3:10 in section 95:

“If there are in Israel enlightened men and such as know the secret of the venerable name and raise their hands, they will be heard immediately, for it says [Isa. 58:9]: “Then, when you call, the Lord will answer.” [This is to be understood as follows:] If you invoke [that which is indicated by the word] ‘az, God answers. And what does this ‘az [composed of ‘alef and zayin] signify? This teaches that it is not permitted to invoke the ‘alef alone or to pray to it, but only together with the two letters that are connected with it and that sit highest in the royal dominion. And together with the ‘alef, they are three. Seven of the logoi [still] remain, and that is signified by [the letter] zayin [whose numerical value is seven] and of this it is also said [Exod. 15:1]: “Then sang,” ‘az yashir, [that is, the ‘az praised] “Moses and the Israelites.”

This reinterpretation of the Hebrew word ‘az utilizes an old nonmystical midrash in which this word in Exodus 15:1 is interpreted according to the numerical value of the two consonants, as if Moses had said: “Let us praise the one who thrones above the seven heavens.”

The new idea is: if you invoke (in your kawwanah ) the ten logoi that represent the secret of the true name of God, then God answers! It is understandable that this passage, which speaks so clearly of a prayer addressed to the logoi and sefiroth, would have been considered offensive.

It evidently was one of the many heretical utterances that, according to Meir ben Simon of Narbonne, filled the Bahir. He specifically taxed the kabbalists with praying to the sefiroth as intermediaries instead of to God, thus making themselves guilty of polytheism.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 194-6.

Fallen Spirits

“The same symbolism occurs in the Bahir, but without any antinomian overtones. The souls finally return home to the “house of the father,” whence the king’s son had taken them in order to bring them to his bride. This is reminiscent of the interpretation suggested by many earlier researchers for the gnostic “Hymn of the Soul,” an interpretation that evinces a tendency similar to that with which kabbalists—whether they were historically correct or not— read the symbolism of their sources. In fact, the “house of the father” appears there in a similar context.

The further exposition of this theme in sections 126-127 is rather curious. Once again reinterpreting a talmudic dictum, this text explains that the Messiah can come only when all the souls “in the body of the man” are exhausted and have ended their migration.

“Only then may the ‘new [souls]’ come out, and only then is the son of David allowed to be born. How is that? Because his soul comes forth new among the others.”

The soul of the Messiah is therefore not subject to migration. Here the kabbalistic doctrine evinces a characteristic note of its own. We are not dealing with a reminiscence from earlier doctrines of reincarnation such as are known to us in certain Judéo-Christian doctrines concerning the true prophet, as in the Pseudo-Clementines, which also exercised considerable influence upon corresponding idea among Shiite sects in Islam. There the soul of Adam, the true prophet, traverses the aeon, this world, in many shapes until it finally finds repose in the appearance of the Messiah.

Later on, the kabbalists themselves developed this idea independently, in their assumed chain of reincarnations— Adam-David-Messiah; this doctrine, however, is not known before the end of the thirteenth century. Could this thesis of the Bahir have come into being in the Orient, perhaps even in conscious opposition to certain current ideas? Did it develop completely independent of them? It is difficult to answer these questions.

The German Hasidim know nothing at all of the transmigration of souls and the ideas associated with it, as is shown by the detailed work of Eleazar of Worms on the soul, Hokhmath ha-Nefesh. According to the pessimistic view of the Cathars, all the souls in this world are nothing but fallen spirits. Here, too, there is a distinct contrast to the doctrine of the Bahir, which considers the descent of “new” souls, at any rate, as possible and determined by the good deeds of Israel.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 190-1.

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.

Tracing the Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls

“What matters here is the fact that this doctrine is taught as a mystery, accessible to initiates only, yet at the same time the author also takes it so much for granted that he does not consider it as requiring a special justification. The Cathars too taught it as a secret, which is not surprising since the Church had formally and dogmatically condemned this doctrine, and anyone adhering to it was automatically considered a heretic.

The details of this doctrine as taught by the Cathars are very different. Thus the Bahir does not know the idea of a migration into animal bodies or into any but human forms of existence. The doctrine of the transmigration of souls appeared as an answer to the question of theodicy:

“Why do things go well for an evildoer and badly for a righteous man? Because the righteous man was already [once] in the past an evildoer and he is now being punished. But does one punish a person for [wrongs committed in] the days of his youth? … I do not speak of the [same] life; I speak of the fact that he was already there in the past. His companions said to him: How long will you still speak obscure words?”

In response, R. Rahmai expounds to them, Isaiah 5:2, the parable of the owner of the vineyard who repeatedly replanted and pruned because the grapes were not growing well.

“How often? He said: until the thousandth generations, for it is written [Ps. 105:8]: “The promise He gave for a thousand generations.” And that is the meaning of the dictum [in Hagigah 13b]: 974 generations were wanting; then God arose and implanted them in every generation.” (section 135)

The objections here show that the questioners were completely ignorant of the esoteric doctrine to which the apocryphal R. Rahmai refers. His statements are incomprehensible to them. The notion is taught not in a coherent theoretical exposition but, as is also the case in other passages of the Bahir relating to this doctrine, in the form of parables.

The parable makes express mention of only three unsuccessful attempts to improve the vineyard. It is not clear whether this is already an allusion to the later idea of a triple transmigration. The talmudic passage that is interpreted here in the sense of the transmigration of souls knows nothing of it either.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 188-9.

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.

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.

The Double Hokhmah

“In fact, they occasionally seem to force this hypothesis upon us. In that case it is not too much to assume that the gnostic material of Oriental origin in the Book Bahir, once it was received and adopted by a circle of religiously agitated and productive men, amply suffices to explain the inner development of the Kabbalah up to, and including, the Zohar. But how are we to understand the development that led to that ferment, the evidence of which we have before us in the Book Bahir itself? On this point we are forced to assume the existence of some kind of connection, whether in literary or oral form, with older, premedieval materials.

Certain details, as far as I can see, can have no other explanation and above all cannot be attributed to fortuitous coincidences. They prove that the gnostic symbolisms that occupied a meaningful and comprehensible position within their own framework—as for example in the system of the Valentinian gnosis—found their way into Jewish sources, largely detaching themselves, of course, from their organic connection with gnostic mythology.

Today we can no longer (or not yet?) say anything about the nature of these sources, or whether, perhaps, there once existed entire systems of a Jewish character parallel to the classic systems of Gnosticism or to the later gnostic ramifications of the kind that survived in the Aramaic-Syrian linguistic area, such as, for example, the Mandaean gnosis. Only obscure traces of these sources, not a system but merely fragments of symbols, seem to have come into the hands of the redactors of the Bahir. Nevertheless, their attraction was still strong enough to stimulate the combination of old material with new associations of ideas and, thus, to give it a new content.

A surprising detail of this kind is the doctrine of the double Sophia or hokhmah that among the first kabbalists and as early as the Book Bahir, served as a model for similar symbols occupying a double position within the framework of the divine world, the pleroma.

Thus we have a double “Fear of God” (sections 97, 129, 131), a double “Justice” (sedeq, sections 50, 133), a double he in the Tetragrammaton YHWH (section 20), and also, without a doubt, a double Shekhinah (section 11). The region and position of these power symbols (“the lower he; the lower Justice”) are always, in this case, close to the margin and termination of the world of the aeons, and are connected with the symbolism of the Shekhinah.

But these expositions in the Bahir are most precise in just those instances where they are related to the double hokhmah. That should give us cause for thought. The Gnostics, especially those of the Valentinian school, developed the idea of two aeons that are both called Sophia. One, the “upper Sophia,” is high above, in the world of the pleroma; the other, however, which is also related to the symbolism of the “virgin of light,” is found at its lower end.

The gnostic myth of the cosmic drama told of the fall of the lower Sophia, which succumbed to the temptation of the hyle and fell from the pleroma into the lower worlds, where it is either wholly, or at least in certain parts of its luminous being, “in exile.” Even so, this lower, fallen Sophia remains related to the pneuma, the highest constitutive part of the human soul, the contact between these two entities being described by means of different symbols in different systems. This divine spark in man is connected with the drama of the exile of the “lower Sophia.”

It is precisely in the corresponding levels of the structure of the divine middoth that we find, in different passages of the Bahir, the two hypostases or aeons named hokhmah, as the second and the tenth sefirah. Wisdom simply is, in section 96 for example, the upper Wisdom, the “beginning of the paths of God” in the midst of creation.

When God placed this Wisdom in the heart of Solomon he adapted the upper Wisdom to the form of the lower Wisdom, which he was able to grasp. In the form of the lower Wisdom, which is the “daughter” whom God, as it were, gave in marriage to Solomon, “the thirty-two paths of the Sophia,” all the powers and ways of the pleroma are united (sections 43, 62, 67).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 91-2.

The Shekhinah is Bakol

“The pseudepigraphic disguise that lends it the appearance of an ancient teaching cannot deceive us concerning the true character of this dictum. “The rabbis have taught: Kol, Abraham’s daughter, is not dead. She still exists, and whoever sees her has made a great find, as it is said [Prov. 8:17]: and those who seek me will find me.”

By means of this verse from Proverbs, the daughter is clearly identified as the hokhmah or Sophia, which would be in accord with the symbolism of the Shekhinah in the Bahir, itself related to the mysticism of the Sophia (see following).

It is quite possible that the author of this dictum, preserved only in the Yemenite midrash, knew of an interpretation similar to the one that we read in the Bahir, and which must therefore already have been known in the Orient. But it is just as possible that he produced a similar interpretation quite independently stimulated by the desire to allegorize a strange phrase.

The tradition of the German Hasidim, around 1250, also shows familiarity with older materials that dealt with the interpretation of the Bakol of Genesis 24:1, though in a direction somewhat different from that taken in the Bahir. In connection with this same verse, Ephraim ben Shimshon (ca. 1240) cited a dictum of the adepts of esotericism, ba ‘ale ha-sod, according to which this blessing consisted in God’s charge to the “Prince of the Divine Presence” to grant Abraham’s every wish.

The role of the Shekhinah in the Book Bahir is here assumed by the angel Yahoel, the oldest name of Metatron, prince of the angels, whose relation to the patriarch is not only known from the Apocalypse of Abraham (early second century C.E.), but was also familiar to the German Hasidim of the twelfth century.

However, the particular exegesis relating the word Bakol to Yahoel probably originated in Germany, for it is based on the gematria method of interpretation practiced there at that time.

Whether there is a relation between the Bahir’s reference to the Shekhinah and the idea of the universal presence of the Shekhinah as current at the time particularly among the German Hasidim I would not venture to decide. Such a connection, if it exists, would rest upon a punning interpretation of the Talmud: “The Shekhinah is in every place” (Baba Bathra 25a). By abridging this phrase to shekhinah bakol, “the Shekhinah is in all things,” an association is suggested with the bakol in Genesis 24:1: the Shekhinah is Bakol.

Another example of such a reinterpretation can be found in section 126. The Talmud relates a dictum of the Babylonian amora R. Assi: “The son of David will not come until all the souls in the ‘body’ are exhausted” (Yebamoth 62a, 63b). Here “body” means the storehouse of the préexistent, unborn souls. This traditional interpretation was evidently also known to the Bahir. But there this dictum is further interpreted as a cue for the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: the “body” mentioned there would be the body of man, through which the souls must wander.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 88-90.

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.

The Powers of God

“Moreover, a large part of the book consists of mystical variations on motifs from the Book Yesirah. In fact, the term sefiroth was taken by the Bahir from that work, though it is no longer understood in the sense of ideal numbers that contain within them all the powers of creation, as was the case with the author of the Yesirah.

The sefiroth now signify the aeons, the powers of God, which are also his attributes. The term sefiroth, however, does not occupy an important place in the Bahir. It appears only in section 87, where the ten fingers raised in the benediction of the priests are found to be “an allusion to the ten sefiroth by means of which heaven and earth are sealed.”

In the Book Yesirah itself, only six of the sefiroth perform this function, and in this particular instance the term is evidently identified with a different conception. This is also indicated by the book’s new explanation of the meaning of the term sefiroth.

The word is not derived from safar, to count, but from sappir, sapphire. They are thus sapphirine reflections of the divinity, and Psalm 19:2: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” is interpreted by the author in accordance with this etymology: “the heavens shine in the sapphirine splendor of the glory of God.”

This mystical etymology subsequently became classic in kabbalistic literature. In view of the fragmentary condition of the book, it may not be possible to infer very much from the fact that the term sefiroth is missing in other parts of the text. It nevertheless remains surprising that the notion of the sefiroth was, so to speak, eliminated from just those passages that are very clearly based upon the Book of Creation, but appears as something known and self-evident in precisely a passage that otherwise has no connection with the motifs of the Book Yesirah.

Instead, these aeons, if we may speak of them as such, are described in completely different terms. These names reflect the fullness of meaning and “multivalence” of the aeons in gnostic mythology. They are, as we have seen, the powers of God.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 81-2.

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.