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Tag: Emanations

The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

Mystical Spelling of the Divine Name

“In the writings of the ‘Iyyun circle, the sefiroth undergo a transformation: each one, indeed even each of the thirty-two paths of the Sophia, becomes an autonomous world in which the theosophist immerses himself.

In fact, even the mystical spelling of the divine name with twenty-four points, which Pseudo-Hai transmits here and which no doubt goes back to Oriental sources of Jewish magic, is interpreted in this manner.

The spelling obviously imitates the magical alphabet and characters as they are frequently found in amulets and that, in Jewish magic, are encountered, for example, in the old “alphabets of the angels.”

They appear below:


The twenty-four points or stars of this script correspond, according to the author, to the twenty-four books of the biblical canon, which are perhaps woven from this “hidden name.”

The author instructs the initiate that each of these points in and of itself represents an entire world. This use of the term “worlds” for different levels of being is undoubtedly Neoplatonic. It first penetrated into kabbalistic literature in the ‘Iyyun circle.

As we have seen, Isaac the Blind speaks of the “world of separation” below the sefiroth, but it seems he still did not take the step of considering the sefiroth themselves as just so many worlds. The upper world is henceforth no longer that of the separate intelligences, as it was for the philosophers and in Isaac’s fragments on cosmogony, but the world of the divine emanations itself. In the “Book of the Unity” of Pseudo-Hammai it is said that before Creation all the powers were intertwined and hidden in God,

“ … until there came the time of the will of the first Acting One, and they emerged from potentiality to spiritual reality, and the emanation of the upper world emanated to that of the tenth fundamental stone which is called, in the language of the sages of the mysteries, the “condensed light,” ‘or ‘abh. On account of its condensation they also name it “mixed darkness,” for all the powers of the flames are mixed in it, but are also differentiated in it, and it is the foundation of all the spiritual and corporeal worlds . . . and the last seal of all the [other] seals [emanated in the higher sefiroth].”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 328-30.

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 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.

Letters by Means of Which Heaven and Earth Were Created

The last six sefiroth are defined in an entirely different way; they represent the six dimensions of space, though it is not expressly stated that they emanated from the earlier elements. Nevertheless, it is said of the totality of these sefiroth that their beginning and their end were connected with each other and merged one into the other.

The primal decade thus constitutes a unity—although its nature is not sufficiently defined—but is by no means identical with the deity. The author, no doubt intentionally, employs expressions borrowed from the description of the hayyoth, the animals bearing the Throne in Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah. Hayyoth means literally “living beings,” and it can be said of the sefiroth that they are the “living numerical beings,” but nonetheless creatures:

“Their appearance is like that of a flash of lightning and their goal is without end. His word is in them when they come forth [from Him] and when they return. At His bidding do they speed swiftly as a whirlwind, and before His throne they prostrate themselves” (1:6).

They are the “depths” of all things:

“The depth of the beginning and the depth of the end, the depth of good and the depth of evil, the depth of above and the depth of below—and a single Master, God, the faithful king, rules over all of them from His holy abode” (1:5).

The fact that the theory of the significance of the twenty-two consonants as the fundamental elements of all creatures in the second chapter partly conflicts with the first chapter has caused some scholars (for example, Louis Ginzberg) to attribute to the author the conception of a kind of double creation: the one ideal and pure brought about by means of the sefiroth, which are conceived in a wholly ideal and abstract manner; the other one effected by the interconnection of the elements of speech. According to some views, the obscure word belimah, which always accompanies the word sefiroth, is simply a composite of beli mah—without anything, without actuality, ideal.

However, judging from the literal meaning, it would seem that it should be understood as signifying “closed,” that is, closed within itself. I am inclined to believe that here, too, an as yet unidentified Greek term underlies the expression.

The text offers no more detailed statement of the relationship between the sefiroth and the letters, and the sefiroth are not referred to again. While the numerical-mystical speculation on the sefiroth probably has its origin in neo-Pythagorean sources—Nikomachos of Gerasa, the celebrated author of a mystical arithmology who lived around 140 C.E., came from Palestine east of the Jordan—the idea of “letters by means of which heaven and earth were created” may well come from within Judaism itself.

In the first half of the third century it is encountered in a statement of the Babylonian amora, Rab, originally of Palestine. It is perfectly conceivable that two originally different theories were fused or juxtaposed in the author’s doctrine concerning the thirty-two paths. This range of ideas would fit well in the second or third century in Palestine or its immediate environs.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 27-9.

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