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Tag: Isaac

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.

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.

Debhequth is Communio

“It is this contact, connection, or communio with God that is designated by the Hebrew term debhequth. This kabbalistic concept has its origins in the terminology of the medieval Jewish theologians, especially Bahya ibn Paquda and Abraham ibn Ezra, who employed the biblical verb dabhaq (“adhere, cleave to,”) to express the contact of the soul with God or the divine light. The biblical injunction Deuteronomy 13:5 is cited by Isaac’s pupils as their master’s cue for this doctrine:

“ … Our master the Hasid said: The essential thing in the divine service of the mystics [maskilim] and those who meditate on His name, lies in this [verse]: “and cleave to Him.” And this is a cardinal principle of Torah and of prayer, that one make one’s thought conform with one’s faith, as though it were cleaving to what is above, in order to conjoin the name [of God] in its letters and to link the ten sefiroth to Him as a flame is joined to the coal. With his mouth he must express it according to its paraphrase, but in his heart, he must conjoin it in its true structure.”

Debhequth is therefore not unio but communio. In the sense the term acquired in kabbalistic usage it always contains an element of distance despite its character of intimacy. Debhequth is not becoming one with God but entering into an infinitely close liaison with him, roughly corresponding to that called adhaeresis by medieval Christian mystics.

In Hebrew, debhequth can denote the process as well as the state attained through it. The instrument of this process is the kawwanah. Isaac and his disciples do not speak of ecstasy, of a unique act of stepping outside oneself in which human consciousness abolishes itself.

Debhequth does not consist in tempestuously rushing toward God and becoming absorbed in him; it is a constant state, nurtured and renewed through meditation. In contrast to some later schools, the old kabbalists did not go any further, and in this remained true to their Jewish-theistic character. For them, debhequth or the mystical communio is not, as for many non-Jewish mystics, a transitional stage leading to still higher regions.

Any pantheistic overstepping of the limits they fixed for themselves in their interpretation of the mystical path is far from their thoughts.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 302-3

The Secret Signature of the Letters

“Isaac’s picture of the universe rests, therefore, on the idea that the different realms of Creation, each according to its rank in the hierarchy of things, are in communication with the roots of all being as given in the world of the sefiroth.

The limited powers proceed from the unlimited powers, and the secret signature of the letters acts in everything, but nowhere more clearly than in man. But to the current that flows downward there corresponds another, upward movement.

When Isaac says in his commentary on Yesirah (end of chapter 3) that “all things return to the root of their true being,” he means, in this context, that a thing can act only in that which is related to its principle.

But his disciples already understood expressions of this kind in the sense of a return of all things to God. “Everything issues from the first Cause, and everything returns to the first Cause.”

Such a return can have both an ontological and an eschatological aspect. Even before the end of all things all being seeks to return, in accordance with its nature, to its origin, in the spirit of the ancient philosophical thesis of the appetitus naturalis, which the Neoplatonists above all rendered popular in the Middle Ages.

But also, the eschatological nuance of a “restoration of all things to their original being,” hashabath kol ha-debharim le-haw-wayatham, is not absent among Isaac’s pupils, who probably derived it from him.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 299-300.

On the Evil Status of Goats

“Nevertheless, many extant fragments prove that Isaac had a certain interest in questions relating to the nature of Sammael, whose name had become for the Jews of the Middle Ages, the principal one associated with the devil and his dominion. The following dictum of Isaac makes good sense when viewed against the background of the large number of shepherds populating the western Languedoc:

He who lives with herds of sheep, even if it is in the high mountains and in the desert wastes, which are uninhabited, has no need to fear Satan and the evil powers, for no evil spirit rules among them. But he who lives among goats [of him it can be said] that even when he is surrounded by ten houses and a hundred men, an evil spirit rules over them.

In another fragment, we learn that Sammael’s origins lie in the power of the sefirah pahad, channeled to him through the last sefirah “without any other intermediary.” He has, therefore, a legitimate position in the sacred totality of Creation.

It was only when he pitted himself in the war of Amaleq against Israel and the sacred order it represents—a war that has always been interpreted in Jewish tradition as a metaphysical event of enormous significance—that he lost this legitimate place. Since then he receives his power only indirectly, from planetary spirits, and “no longer by the path of the primordial order of Creation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 297.

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.

Man as the “Great Seal”

“The divine power spreading from the sefiroth into Creation, from the world of the Throne and the angels outward, also descends below the human domain to living beings of a lower order, even to plants.

Trees, too, have a mystical root in those of Paradise, which represent the primordial images of all future trees. Everything below is linked to that which is above, to which it owes its existence, until it is linked by a chain of this kind to the Infinite.

”All creatures on earth depend on the higher powers, and these on still higher, up to the infinite cause.”

This cosmic chain is, at least in the realm of the sefiroth, a magnetic one. The sefiroth and logoi “rise above themselves like something rising under the influence of a magnet and thus their end [in the words of the Book Yesirah] is [enclosed] in its beginning” (on 1:7).

But in addition to the connection through emanation there is also one through vision, sefiyah. In connection with Yesirah 1:6, we learn that this vision itself is the magnetic act of communication in which everything ascends to its origins.

The Book of Creation says that the vision of the sefiroth is like lightning, and Isaac explains:

“The vision is the meditation of one thing out of the other. . . . Every cause is taken up and rises and then looks down from a cause that is higher than itself. . . . Everything is in the other and in communication with the other.”

Thus, not only does God contemplate the depths of his own wisdom when he produces the world, but a contemplative communication of the same kind also takes place among the sefiroth.

The contemplation of the mystic in a state of kawwanah is thus not unlike that which occurs among the spiritual essences themselves. In creation, it is not the divine middoth, the “fathers,” that act directly but rather the derivative middoth, toladoth, which issue from them. In isolation, without communicating with “fathers” or “mothers,” they are unable to produce anything.

Man too is inserted into this process. He is …

” … built out of combinations of the letters” (chap. 3). “And this higher edifice of spirit [ruah] that directs him [also] directs the All, and thus the All is connected to the upper and the lower ones and is composed of the world, the year and the soul. . . . And the soul is the determining factor in the All” (ibid.).

Man, our text continues, is “the quintessence of all creatures, a great seal, in which the beginning and the end” of all creatures are enclosed.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 290.

The Mystical Radicalism of Isaac

“It corresponds to the sefirah of the divine Mercy, or tifereth. The lowest sefirah, on the other hand, contains, by virtue of its correspondence to the action of divine judgment in the world, the Oral Torah, which is black fire burning upon an underlayer of white fire. “But the form of the letters is without vowels and is only potentially engraved in this black fire, which is like ink [on white parchment].” In the white fire itself the forms of the letter still do not actually appear, and where they do so we are already (in the symbolism of the black fire) in the domain of the Oral Torah.

“ … And thus the Written Torah cannot adopt corporeal form, except through the power of the Oral Torah; that is, that the former cannot be truly understood without the latter, just as the mode of divine Mercy can only be grasped and perceived through the mode of Judgment. And the figures of color, gawwanim, of black, which are those of Judgment, rise up and spread out over the configurations of white, which are those of Mercy, like the light of the coal. For the power of the colored configuration of the flames prevails until the light of the coal can no longer be perceived at all because of the excess of flames covering it.”

The simile of the coal and its flames is the same as that employed by Isaac so often in his commentary on Yesirah. The mystical Written Torah is still hidden, as it were, under the invisible form of the white light represented by the parchment of the Torah scroll and is in no way perceptible to the ordinary eye.

It is only when the mystical lights, in the play of flames, sometimes veer away from one another that they offer a momentary glimpse of the white light or the sphere of divine Mercy. At such moments, “many a prophet” can “snatch, by means of the ‘crown of royalty,’ [the last sefirah, accessible to their contemplation] something of this mystical splendor, each according to the spiritual degree of which he is worthy.” But this can be no more than a momentary intuition.

A truly lasting contemplation of this hidden form of the white light is as inconceivable as that of the sun by a terrestrial eye. Only Moses, the master of all the prophets, could attain a continuous contemplation of this “luminous mirror” and by virtue of his prophetic rank enter into spiritual communication with it.

The language of this symbolism is identical to that found in other of Isaac’s fragments. Hidden behind mystical symbols, we find a conception according to which there simply is no Written Torah within reach of the ordinary mortal.

Everything we call by that name has already passed through the mediation of the Oral Torah. The Torah apprehensible to man is not the hidden form in the white light but precisely the obscure light that already had adopted definite forms and determinations and that thereby designates the quality of divine Sternness, the quality of Judgment.

The Torah scroll itself symbolizes that. The ink and the parchment form a unity. But the element rendered visible by the ink is the blackness, the “obscure mirror” of the Oral Torah; the true secret of the Written Torah, which embraces everything, is contained in the signs, still not visible, of the white parchment.

In a word, there is only an Oral Torah, and the concept of a Written Torah has its place, in the final analysis, in the mystical domain, the sphere accessible only to the prophets. Therefore, here, at the very beginning of the historical appearance of the Kabbalah in the West, we have a thesis whose mystical radicalism can hardly be surpassed and was in fact not surpassed in the entire history of the Kabbalah.

It proves, more than anything else we know of him, that Isaac was a genuine esotericist. Isaac’s fragment fell into oblivion, but his thesis was taken up and elaborated more than once in the history of the Kabbalah, at times in much less veiled language.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 288-9.

The Mah ‘Elohim of Genesis 1:2

“In another way, however, Isaac’s mysticism of language is easier to understand. From the Sophia, which we have come to know as the primordial Torah as yet undifferentiated by language, the voice is formed in the next sefirah, binah. This voice is not yet audible and is still hidden; it becomes audible only at the later stages of emanation and at the end of this process becomes articulated speech.

But already the hidden voice becomes differentiated, by prolonging itself, into many letters. “Hewn in the pneuma,” which is binah, they acquire, according to Isaac, an exterior and an interior, body and soul. This power of the letters flows into the world beneath the sefiroth, forming on the celestial sphere the secret but nonetheless primordial images of all things in the figure of the 231 gates of this sphere; the gates represent the combinations, two by two, of the elements of the Hebrew alphabet.

There are 462 such combinations, but the other half of this power remains above the sphere. Hence the letters, no matter how they are combined, are only the visible ramifications of the one promordial name.

It remains unsaid, however, whether this primordial name is the Tetragrammaton, the name ‘ehyeh, or some other mystical name underlying both of these. The entire process of emanation remains condensed in all the letters, and “in each individual letter are contained all ten sefiroth” (3:2).

The letter becomes, therefore, a world in itself encapsulating the whole future as something already preformed in it. “In each individual letter there are subtle, inward, and hidden essences ‘without what’ [that have not become anything definite].

Whatever could be chiseled out of them was already in them, just as all a man’s descendants are already in him.”

These secret essences in the letters, which exert their influence in the midst of creation, are conceived “in the manner of the essences given in the Sophia.” It is quite possible that the “whatless” being, being without quiddity, to which this passage refers and which is hidden in the letters, had something to do with the punning definition of the Sophia, given by Isaac’s disciples as being the “potency of the what.” This conception is in perfect accord with the quotation from the Yesirah commentary.

Similar ideas on the development of the world of the sefiroth and what lies below it are found, albeit expressed with enigmatic brevity, in Isaac’s commentary on Genesis 1 (which already ibn Sahula admitted was partly incomprehensible).

Mention is made there of a progression from the “splendor to the Sophia” toward the “light of the Intellect” as the content of the creation of the first day, which, as the mystical primordial day, contained within itself “in spirit, though not yet in their form” all the essences. It is only with the diffusion of the light of the intellect that the light of all other things radiated therefrom; and it seems that for Isaac, the primordial creation of the first day embraces all ten sefiroth.

He interprets the events of the second day of creation as constituting a transition representing the “extension of the spirit in the form.” The souls, too, only “extend in the form” on the second day. We do not learn what constitutes this specifically formative power of the spirit, which is the mah ‘elohim of Genesis 1:2. It is a pneuma that comes from the sefiroth of hokhmah and binah, “and it is called among the sages the power that shapes the form.”

The “sages” named here must be the philosophers, judging by the terminology employed; in the Midrash one finds no such expression. From this supreme pneuma, apparently, come all the souls, which are stamped with the letters engraved in the spirit.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 285-7.

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 Unknowable

“To this correspond two statements of Isaac that refer to the hidden subject of the third person, past tense, which Hebrew does not mark by a specific termination. In his comment on Genesis 1, he says: “In every place [in the Scriptures] where you find simply bam’, ‘asa, ‘he created, he made,’ know that it [the subject] is above the pure thought.”

But in his commentary on Yesirah 1:1 he explains the hidden subject of the verb haqaq, as “that which thought cannot attain.” Since for Isaac (who knows nothing of a definition of the Will as the first emanated being) the mahshabah itself is the first sefirah, then that which it cannot attain would therefore be nothing other than ‘en-sof, which is itself transcendent and hidden in relation to thinking.

The pure thought would be the supreme creative sphere of being, while ‘en-sof, as the Unknowable, already existed before all thought. Quite possibly this was in fact Isaac’s opinion, and I find nothing in his own statements to contradict this supposition. The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that all his disciples, Ezra ben Solomon, Azriel, Jacob ben Shesheth, and above all his own nephew, Asher ben David, who was closest to him, identify the Unknowable, at times explicitly, at times implicitly, with the first sefirah.

The rules of simple logic would lead to the conclusion that Isaac is the common source of this identification. The divine Thought would then be that which cannot be attained by human thought, and Isaac would therefore employ the word mahshabah in different senses: in one context it would designate the Thought of God, but in the expression “that which cannot be attained by thought,” the reference would be to human thought.

However, in the fragment of his commentary on Genesis, he even speaks, as we saw, of that which is above the “pure Thought,” that is, above the divine Thought. I cannot resolve this difficulty without doing violence to the texts. The unknowable in God is identified by the Christian Neoplatonist, Scotus Erigena, with the Nothing from which all creation proceeds.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 270-2.

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.

Finally, Here is the True Kabbalah

“The transition from the usual meaning of the word Kabbalah to the esoteric nuance was easily made. We find the first sign of it in Yehudah ben Barzilai. Speaking of the creation of the Holy Spirit, which is the Shekhinah, he says: “The sages did not deal with it at length, in order that men would not come to form ideas concerning ‘what is above,’ etc. and that is why they were accustomed to transmitting this thing in whispers and in secret, as a tradition to their pupils and to the sages.”

The ordinary expression “to transmit something as Kabbalah [orally]” here acquires through the addition of the adverbs “in whispers and in secret” the quality of an esoteric tradition. Somewhat similar is the use of the term in an Arabic text of 1223 that counters Maimonides in its assertion that where the Kabbalah of the sages of Israel is mentioned the reference is to the baraithoth of the Hekhaloth literature as the true interpretation of Ma’aseh Merkabah (A. Harkavy, in his appendix Hadashim gam Yeshanim to the Hebrew translation of Graetz’s Geschichte 5:47).

But contrary to Harkavy’s view, this passage in no way proves that the term Kabbalah in its novel, technical sense was known in the Orient in 1223. That, precisely, is Kabbalah, in the sense of the Provençal school. But Eleazar of Worms also cites traditions of this kind—for example, with respect to the names of the angels—as “Kabbalah.” Besides, still other expressions were used in Isaac’s circle. In a letter sent to Gerona, Isaac himself speaks in this sense of hokhmah, wisdom or science, without adding the adjective penimith, “esoteric,” although this often occurs in other places.

In the twelfth century, the expression of sefarim penimiyyim appears in France for writings considered there as esoteric literature, such as Seder ‘Eliyahu Zutta.

In the liturgical manual Sefer ha-Manhig, composed in 1204 by Abraham ben Nathan ha-Yarhi of Lunel, who in his youth had studied with the Rabad, the “Greater Hekhaloth” are twice designated by this term.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 261-3.

Gabriel, the Angel, on the Pearl

“And again, there shall be unto thee a sign that the Saviour shall come from thy seed, and that He shall deliver thee with thy fathers and thy seed after thee by His coming. Your salvation was created in the belly of Adam in the form of a Pearl before Eve. And when He created Eve out of the rib He brought her to Adam, and said unto them, ‘Multiply you from the belly of Adam.’ The Pearl did not go out into Cain or Abel, but into the third that went forth from the belly of Adam, and it entered into the belly of Seth.”

“And then passing from him that Pearl went into those who were the firstborn, and came to Abraham. And it did not go from Abraham into his firstborn Ishmael, but it tarried and came into Isaac the pure. And it did not go into his firstborn, the arrogant Esau, but it went into Jacob the lowly one. And it did not enter from him into his firstborn, the erring Reuben, but into Judah, the innocent one. And it did not go forth from Judah until four sinners had been born, but it came to Fares (Perez), the patient one.”

“And from him this Pearl went to the firstborn until it came into the belly of Jesse, the father of thy father. And then it waited until six men of wrath had been born, and after that it came to the seventh, David, [David was the eighth of Jesse’s sons] thy innocent and humble father; for God hateth the arrogant and proud, and loveth the innocent and humble. And then it waited in the loins of thy father until five erring fools had been born, when it came into thy loins because of thy wisdom and understanding.”

“And then the Pearl waited, and it did not go forth into thy firstborn. For those good men of his country neither denied Him nor crucified Him, like Israel thy people; when they saw Him Who wrought miracles, Who was to be born from the Pearl, they believed on Him when they heard the report of Him. And the Pearl did not go forth into thy youngest son ‘Adrami. For those good men neither crucified Him nor denied Him when they saw the working of miracles and wonders by Him that was to be born from the Pearl, and afterwards they believed in Him through His disciples.”

“Now the Pearl, which is to be your salvation, went forth from thy belly and entered into the belly of ‘Iyorbe’am (Rehoboam) thy son, because of the wickedness of Israel thy people, who in their denial and in their wickedness crucified Him. But if He had not been crucified He could not have been your salvation. For He was crucified without sin, and He rose [again] without corruption. And for the sake of this He went down to you into Sheol, and tore down its walls, that He might deliver you and bring you out, and show mercy upon all of you.”

“Ye in whose bellies the Pearl shall be carried shall be saved with your wives, and none of you shall be destroyed, from your father Adam unto him that shall come, thy kinsman ‘Eyakem (Joachim), and from Eve thy mother, the wife of Adam, to Noah and his wife Tarmiza, to Tara (Terah) and his wife ‘Aminya, and to Abraham and his wife Sara (Sarah), and to Isaac and his wife Rebka (Rebecca), and to Jacob and his wife Leya (Leah), and to Yahuda and his bride Te’emar (Tamar), and to thy father and his wife Bersabeh (Bathsheba), and to thyself and Tarbana thy wife, and to Rehoboam thy son and his wife ‘Amisa, and to Iyo’akem (Joachim) thy kinsman, who is to come, and his wife Hanna.”

“None of you who shall have carried the Pearl shall be destroyed, and whether it be your men or your women, those who shall have carried the Pearl shall not be destroyed. For the Pearl shall be carried by the men who shall be righteous, and the women who have carried the Pearl shall not be destroyed, for they shall become pure through that Pearl, for it is holy and pure, and by it they shall be made holy and pure; and for its sake and for the sake of Zion He hath created the whole world.”

“Zion hath taken up her abode with thy firstborn and she shall be the salvation of the people of Ethiopia for ever; and the Pearl shall be carried in the belly of ‘Ayorbe’am (Rehoboam) thy son, and shall be the saviour of all the world. And when the appointed time hath come this Pearl shall be born of thy seed, for it is exceedingly pure, seven times purer than the sun. And the Redeemer shall come from the seat of His Godhead, and shall dwell upon her, and shall put on her flesh, and straightway thou thyself shalt announce to her what my Lord and thy Lord speaketh to me.”

“I am Gabriel the Angel, the protector of those who shall carry the Pearl from the body of Adam even to the belly of Hanna, so that I may keep from servitude and pollution you wherein the Pearl shall dwell. And Michael hath been commanded to direct and keep Zion wheresoever she goeth, and Uriel shall direct and keep the wood of the thicket [Compare Gen. xxii, 13] which shall be the Cross of the Saviour. And when thy people in their envy have crucified Him, they shall rush upon His Cross because of the multitude of miracles that shall take place through it, and they shall be put to shame when they see its wonders.”

“And in the last times a descendant of thy son ‘Adramis shall take the wood of the Cross, the third [means of] salvation that shall be sent upon the earth. The Angel Michael is with Zion, with David thy firstborn, who hath taken the throne of David thy father. And I am with the pure Pearl for him that shall reign for ever, with Rehoboam thy second son; and the Angel Uriel is with thy youngest son ‘Adrami[s]. This have I told thee, and thou shalt not make thy heart to be sad because of thine own salvation and that of thy son.”

And when Solomon had heard these words, his strength came [back] to him on his bed, and he prostrated himself before the Angel of God, and said, “I give thanks unto the Lord, my Lord and thy Lord, O thou radiant being of the spirit, because thou hast made me to hear a word which filleth me with gladness, and because He doth not cut off my soul from the inheritance of my father because of my sin, and because my repentance hath been accepted after mine affliction, and because He hath regarded my tears, and hath heard my cry of grief, and hath looked upon my affliction, and hath not let me die in my grief, but hath made me to rejoice before my soul shall go forth from my body.”

“Henceforward [the thought of] dying shall not make me sorrowful, and I will love death as I love life. Henceforward I will drink of the bitter cup of death as if it were honey, and henceforward I will love the grave as if it were an abode of costly gems. And when I have descended and have been thrust down deep into Sheol because of my sins, I shall not suffer grief, because I have heard the word which hath made me glad. And when I have gone down into the lowest depth of the deepest deep of Sheol, because of my sins, what will it matter to me?”

“And if He crush me to powder in His hand and scatter me to the ends of the earth and to the winds because of my sins, it will not make me sorrowful, because I have heard the word that hath made me to rejoice, and God hath not cut my soul off from the inheritance of my fathers. And my soul shall be with the soul of David my father, and with the soul of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob my fathers. And the Saviour shall come and shall bring us out from Sheol with all my fathers, and my kinsmen, old and young.”

“And as for my children, they shall have upon earth three mighty angels to protect them. I have found the kingdom of the heavens, and the kingdom of the earth. Who is like unto God, the Merciful, Who showeth mercy to His handiwork and glorifieth it, Who forgiveth the sins of the sinners and Who doth not blot out the memorial of the penitent? For His whole Person is forgiveness, and His whole Person is mercy, and to Him belongeth praise.” Amen.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Kebra Nagast, p. 111-4. [1922], at

The Sefer HaShmoth (Book of Names)

“…The Sefer HaShmoth (Book of Names)…is a book of Divine Names…it is a valuable key that can help open locks guarding the mysteries that lay hidden in Hebrew (and Arabic) qabalistic books, and provides Names of Power by which one can light the entire Tree. Secondly, it is the primary source of “Angelic Tree Language,” comprised of one series of Tree-maps that allude to distinctly different paths of ascension through the planes of consciousness and a second series that allude to different stations of perfected souls who have completed the ascension.”

“It is said that Adam gave the book to his son Seth and it was then passed down the generational line to Enoch son of Yared. When Enoch ascended and “walked with Elohim,” he took the book with him. The Sefer HaShmoth came back into the world again with the Covenant of Abraham. Abraham gave the book to Ishmael, Isaac, and his offspring by his concubines. Isaac’s copy was handed down to Master Mosheh (Moses) and was later sealed in the vault of the first Temple of Jerusalem. Buried in the Temple vault, access to the book was limited to those who had the psychic skill to “see/read” it in Yetzirah (Astral World of Formation), and the strength to survive the impact of its power without shattering their shells.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  60.