Samizdat

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Tag: Joseph Dan

On the Golem

“The life force of the golem is the Hebrew alphabet, the secret name of God inserted under his tongue, or the word “truth,” one of God’s names, engraved on his forehead. (When the first Hebrew letter of “truth” is erased it becomes “dead.”) The legend of the golem conformed to, and strengthened, the image of the kabbalah as a doctrine that could bring great benefits, but one that also includes some sinister, dangerous elements.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 107-8.

On Habad Hasidism

The original teachings of the founder of Habad Hasidism and his disciples “tended to be intensely mystical, calling the visible universe a delusion, and preaching the submersion of individual characteristics and desires in quest of a complete fusion with the divine “nothingness,” the supreme Godhead.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 100.

Kabbalistic Panentheism

The main theories of the Besht and the Megid emphasized that “there is no place from which He is absent,” a kabbalistic panentheistic system. (Pantheism postulates that “everything is God,” while panentheism claims that “God is inside everything.”)

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 91.

Shabbatai Zevi and Sacred Hypocrisy

“The theological challenge facing Nathan of Gaza and other Sabbatian thinkers changed dramatically late in 1666, when Shabbatai Zevi was summoned to the palace of the Ottoman sultan. He emerged from the meeting wearing the Muslim cap. Having been threatened, Shabbatai Zevi did not hesitate for long before converting to Islam. Judaism was suddenly faced with a situation in which the messiah committed the worst possible sin that generations of Jews were educated to avoid. One has, when faced with a demand to convert, to become a martyr and “sanctify the holy name” rather than betray one’s God, people and tradition. Shabbatai Zevi, who should have been the example of religious perfection and who was regarded not only as a divine messenger but also as a divine incarnation, did the exact opposite.”

Scholem later explained that this was not only deliberate, but necessary, including the “discovery” of numerous verses and statements in the Bible, the Talmud and the Zohar that indicate the necessity of the messiah’s conversion to an “evil” religion.

“Several thousands of Sabbatians followed Shabbatai Zevi in the last decades of the seventeenth century and converted to Islam… Most Sabbatians, however, remained within Jewish communities, and created an underground of believers in all strata of Jewish society, simple people, intellectuals, and rabbis. They imitated their messiah in a kind of “sacred hypocrisy:” They pretended to be orthodox Jews, adhering to the ancient exilic tradition, while secretly they worshiped the messiah and the Torah of the age of redemption.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 89-90.

Messiah as Mediator

“Nathan proclaimed that each Jew should give the messiah spiritual force in the form of faith in him, and the messiah will then focus the powers of the whole people to achieve the final victory over the forces of evil. Thus, Nathan introduced into Judaism the concept of a mediated religious relationship with God, giving the messiah (for the first time in a millennium and a half) the role of being the intermediary between the worshipper and the supreme Godhead, and allotting to him a position of an incarnated divine power.”

Conversely, “Luria and his disciples described a direct relationship between man and God, and viewed the tikkun as the involvement of every individual in the process of redemption…”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 87-8.

Reincarnation in Jewish Kabbalah

“The concept of reincarnation (gilgul) became central in the psychological doctrines of the Lurianic school, perhaps for the first time in the history of the kabbalah. There are five strata in the soul, reflecting the structure of the sefirot; each of these components has its own history, and each wanders from body to body, from generation to generation, independent of the other parts. Each soul, therefore, is a meeting of parts that have their own history and experiences.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 82.

This Could Be the Last Moment

“Every moment, every deed, can be the crucial, final one, deciding the fate of the universe.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 79.

The Purpose of Creation is to Correct a Flaw

“The most innovative concept that lies at the heart of Luria’s teaching is the imperfection of beginning. Existence does not begin with a perfect Creator bringing into being an imperfect universe; rather, the existence of the universe is the result of an inherent flaw or crisis within the infinite Godhead, and the purpose of creation is to correct it.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 75.

Self-Immolation in Jewish Practice

Rabbi Joseph Karo authored the Shulhan Arukh (The Laid Table). He claimed that it was “dictated by a divine messenger, a magid, whom he regarded as a manifestation of the shekhinah.”

Incredibly, Dan comments that “…Safed scholars went as far as inflicting themselves with pain and wounds, including self-immolation, which is very rare in Jewish practice.”

“Isaac Luria, who revolutionized the kabbalah in this period, arrived in Safed in 1570 when these practices were at their peak.” Luria was born in Safed in 1534, but migrated to Egypt and then later returned. Luria died because of the plague two years later, in 1572, at the age of 38. The most important of Luria’s teachings were published by Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby in 1941.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg.73.

Marsilio Ficino and Christian Kabbalah

“Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico dela Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.

Tikkun

“Every person, every deed, every moment is integrated in the vast mythical project of the tikkun, whether they know and wish it or not. One cannot resign from this cosmic struggle; such a resignation constitutes a sin, which empowers the satanic forces.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 58.

The Shefa

“This put in the center of the kabbalistic worldview a powerful concept of interdependence between man and God, in which the commandments were the instruments used by man in order to influence the processes of the divine world, and ultimately shape his own fate.”

“The mythical processes that dominate this interaction are described in the Zohar and later works as being based on one dynamic aspect of the divine world … usually called the shefa, the flow of divine spirituality from the extreme, highest stages in the divine world down to the lower divine powers, and then to even lower realms, those of the archangels and angels, and finally the material world and to human beings. This divine flow is the necessary sustenance of all existence, even of the divine emanations themselves. Nothing can exist without deriving spiritual power from this divine flow.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 54-5.

The Other

“…the first kabbalistic dualistic system was presented by … Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, entitled Treatise on the Emanations on the Left … written in Castile about 1265…(describing) “a parallel system of seven divine evil powers, the first of which is called Samael and the seventh, feminine one is called Lilith … “he was the first to bring them together and present them as a divine couple, parallel to God and the shekhinah, who rule over a diverse structure of evil demons, who struggle for dominion in the universe against the powers of goodness, the emanations on the right … Rabbi Isaac was the first to present a hierarchy of evil powers and evil phenomena, including illnesses and pestilence, connecting all of them in one system.”

“Rabbi Isaac presented a mythological description of the relationship between the satanic powers; he described the “older Lilith” and “younger Lilith,” the latter being the spouse of Asmodeus, whom Samael covets. The realm of evil includes images of dragons and snakes and other threatening monsters.”

“Unlike Rabbi Ezra of Girona, (Rabbi Isaac) …. did not find the root of evil’s existence in the Garden of Eden and human sin. Evil evolved from the third sefirah, binah, as a distorted side effect of the process of emanation. It continues throughout the history of the world, and will come to an end in the final apocalyptic struggle between Samael and the messiah.”

“De Leon even preserved a hint to the title of Rabbi Isaac’s treatise. In the Zohar the realm of evil is called sitra ahra, an Aramaic phrase meaning “the other side.” “Other” is the unmentionable left side, which is also the name of God’s archenemy, Samael.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 50-3.

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.

More on the Shekhinah

“Some late midrashic compilations use the term “shekhinah” to designate an entity that is separate from God himself. Rav Saadia Gaon, the great leader of the Jews in Babylonia, made a clear theological statement to this effect in the first half of the tenth century. In his philosophical work, “Beliefs and Ideas,” written in Arabic around 930 CE … Saadia could not accept physical references to the infinite, perfect God, so he postulated that all such references relate not to God himself but to a created angel, supreme and brilliant but still a creature, which is called kavod (glory, honor) in the Bible and shekhinah by the rabbis. Since Saadia, therefore, the shekhinah is conceived in Jewish writings as a lower power, separate from God, which has its main function in the process of revelation to the prophets. It can assume physical characteristics, and it can be envisioned by human eyes … By the late twelfth century the shekhinah was conceived as a separate, emanated divine power that is revealed to the prophets and assumes other worldly functions. In all these sources there is no hint of this entity being feminine.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 47.

The Shekhinah

“The feminine power in the divine world, best known by the name shekhinah (divine residence) … is the tenth and lowest power in the divine realm, and therefore closest to the material, created world and to human beings. She is the divine power that is envisioned by the prophets, and after their death the righteous reside in her realm. As the lowest sefirah she is closest to the sufferings of the people of Israel, and is most exposed to the machinations of the evil powers, who constantly try to establish dominion over her. Being feminine, she is the weakest among the divine powers, and the satanic forces can achieve a hold and draw her away from her husband (the male divine figure, often the totality of the other nine sefirot, or, sometimes specifically the sixth sefirah, tiferet), thus disrupting the harmony of the divine world. She is dependent on divine light, which flows from above; she is like the moon, which does not have light of its own, only the reflection of the sun’s light.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 45-6.

Names of God and the Sefirot

“Most kabbalists integrated the biblical names of God into the system of the sefirot. Thus, for instance, the tetragrammaton–the biblical name of God written in four letters, YHVH, which in Hebrew, it is forbidden to pronounce–was interpreted as presenting the first sefirah, keter, in the almost-hidden little point above the first letter, yod, which represents the second sefirah, divine wisdom (hokhmah).

The first letter, he, is the binah, followed by the vav, which represents the number six, and thus relates to the six central sefirot from hesed to yesod. The last he represents the female entity, the shekhinah

It can be stated that the system of the sefirot is viewed by most kabbalists to represent the hidden, secret name or names of God …

Kabbalists utilized the names that were used by pre-kabbalistic esoterics, including the names of twelve, forty-two, and seventy-two letters, and integrated them into this system.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 44.

The Ein Sof

“The concept of an infinite, perfect supreme being that cannot change, a concept absent from Jewish thought in antiquity, is dominant in both philosophy and kabbalah. This concept, which was expressed in the most powerful terms by Aristotelian thinkers when they discussed the primal cause or the unmoved mover, was accepted wholeheartedly by Jewish medieval thinkers. Kabbalistic terminology often used the term “ein sof,” no end, infinite, to designate this supreme entity.”

“The process of emanation that brought forth the system of the sefirot was the kabbalistic answer to the question, “How can anything different emerge from the unchanging and eternal divinity?”

“Many kabbalists insisted that the ein sof is not indicated by any biblical phrase, because its perfection and unchanging character put it beyond language, even divine language … The realm of ein sof in the kabbalah is therefore beyond language, beyond any kind of description, and essentially it is not different from the rationalistic designations of the infinite supreme eternal entity.”

“This and other such systems attempt to build a bridge between the timelessness of the ein sof and the sefirot, which exist in time … The most important aspect of ein sof in kabbalistic thought is as the ultimate source of the flow of the purest divine light (shefa) that constantly provides the power to exist in both divine and earthly realms. Emanation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing vital process that maintains the existence of all beings.

“The kabbalists differed from the neo-Platonists in the intense dynamism and mythological elements that they introduced into their system, especially in the lower realms of existence, and in their belief in the capacity of human deeds and behavior to influence processes in the divine world.”

As above, so below, and vice versa.

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 39-41.

Secrecy, Misattribution, Misdirection, Obscurantism and Mystification

“The kabbalah in the Middle Ages inherited from ancient Jewish traditions a prohibition on discussing matters that relate to the divine world (ma’aseh merkavah), as well as a sizable body of descriptions and speculations concerning the nature and structure of that realm.

The result of this clash between the kabbalah’s interest in describing the divine world and the ancient ban was three-fold: first the medieval kabbalists insisted on esotericism, keeping the kabbalah secret; second, they used pseudo-epigraphy, attributing their works to ancient figures, mainly tanaim, the sages of the Mishnah; and third, they were traditionalists, who claimed that they were not revealing anything new, just copying or writing down traditions received from previous generations, either orally or in secret writings.

An additional precaution used by several kabbalistic writers was obscurantism and mystification, using hints and opaque references that cannot be understood by any “outside” reader who is not familiar with the particular terminology.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 37.

Divine Language Influencing Reality

“The Christian kabbalists were most impressed by the Jewish nonsemantic treatment of language…the various names of God and the celestial powers were for them a new revelation. The various transmutations of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as the numerological methodologies, which are essentially midrashic rather than kabbalistic, became the center of their speculations. The Hebrew concept of language as an expression of infinite divine wisdom contrasted….with the Christian attitude towards scriptures.”

He then cites Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, secretary to Emperor Charles V, and his De Occulta Philosophia (1531).

“The meeting with the Jewish conception of divine language enabled the Christian kabbalists to adopt the belief in the ability of language–especially names, and in particular divine names–to influence reality.”

He then cites, “Venetian scholar Francesco Giorgio (1460-1541), especially in his well-known De Harmonia Mundi (1525).”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 64-6.

Swiss Army Kabbalah

Joseph Dan claims that kabbalah transformed from a uniquely Jewish religious tradition into a European concept, “integrated with Christian theology, philosophy, science and magic, at the end of the fifteenth century.”

He stresses that there is no unanimity about the definition of the term “kabbalah,” that it is used differently, to refer to different things, by Christian cabalists, Jewish orthodox thinkers and others. “The confusion is increased by the fact that there is no unanimity in the usage of the term either within Judaism or outside of it, so that various, different and conflicting conceptions of what the kabbalah is prevail in both cultures.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 61.

You Say Kabbalah, I Say Cabala

Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico de la Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.

The Zohar and Reflection.

“The author of the Zohar put on, when writing this work, several layers of disguise, hiding his own personality, time, and language. He created an artificial language, an Aramaic that is not found in the same way anywhere else, innovating a vocabulary and grammatical forms. He attributed the work to ancient sages, and created a narrative that occurs in a distant place at another time …

“The radical mythological descriptions of the divine powers, the unhesitating use of detailed erotic language, and the visionary character of many sections–these are unequaled in Jewish literature, and place the Zohar among the most daring and radical works of religious literature and mysticism in any language.”

“…. the Zoharic worldview is based on the concept of reflection: everything is the reflection of everything else. The verses of scriptures reflect the emanation and structure of the divine world; as does the human body, in the anthropomorphic concept of the sefirot, and the human soul, which originates from the divine realm and in its various parts reflects the functions and dynamism of the sefirot.

“…The structure of the temple in Jerusalem and the ancient rituals practiced in it are a reflection of all other processes, in the universe, in man, and within the heavenly realms….Everything is a metaphor for everything else….All of this is presented as a secret message, a heavenly revelation to ancient sages, using conventional, authoritative methodologies.”

—-Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 32-4

The Book Bahir

The Book Bahir, (anonymous, 1185), attributed to Rabbi Nehunia ben ha-Kanah, “begins with a few statements concerning the creation. In the first part of the book there are many discussions of the letters of the alphabet, their shapes, and the meaning of their names.”

“This work is the first Jewish treatise that presents in a positive manner the concept of transmigration of souls, the reincarnation or rebirth of the same souls again and again.”

(I had no idea that reincarnation had any place in Jewish Kabbalah).

 This work is technically the earliest work of the Kabbalah, based on three major concepts which are not found in earlier Jewish sources. 

The first is the description of the divine world consisting of ten hypostases, ten divine powers, which are called ma’amarot (utterances), which were known in later kabbalalistic writings as the ten sefirot

The second is the identification of one of the ten divine powers as feminine, separate from the other nine, and thus introducing gender dualism into the image of the divine realms. 

The third is the description of the divine world as a tree (ilan); the work states that the divine powers are positioned one above the other like the branches of a tree. But the image was one of an upside-down tree, its roots above and its branches growing downward, toward the earth.

These three concepts became characteristic of Kabbalah as a whole, (excepting Abraham Abulafia, who rejected the concept of the ten sefirot), and the presence of these three concepts identifies works as part of the tradition of Kabbalah. 

“In addition to these three concepts there is in the Book Bahir a more dramatic description of the realm of evil than those usually found in earlier Jewish sources, but there is no final separation between God and Satan. The powers of evil are described as the fingers of God’s left hand.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 20-2.

Prayers as Reflections of Intrinsic Harmonies.

“Rabbi Judah the Pious developed a unique conception of the Hebrew prayers, intensely mystical in character, which viewed the text of the traditional prayers as a reflection of a hidden, intrinsic numerical harmony that binds together the words and letters of the sacred texts and all phenomena of existence.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pg. 19. 

More on Creation Through the Powers of the Alphabet.

“The Sefer Yezira (The Book of Creation) describes the process of creation mainly by the power of the letters of the alphabet. It dates to the 10th Century AD, though it was regarded as an ancient work. It was clearly developed and edited for several generations before it emerged into view. The exact date of its origin is unknown. Some assert that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, while others claim that it was written in the 9th century, with Islamic influences. The consensus seems to be that it dates to the third or fourth century, but there is no definitive evidence.

The concluding sentences state that Abraham knew the secrets of this work, so it is traditionally ascribed to Abraham the Patriarch.

The Book of Creation describes a system of cosmogony and cosmology different from Genesis, yet cites no authority and rarely refers to Bible verses.

“The universe was hewed, according to the first paragraph, by thirty-two “wondrous paths of wisdom,” and engraved in “three books.” The “paths” are described as ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These sefirot are not divine powers….” They are “described as the directions or dimensions of the cosmos, (north, south, east, west, up, down, beginning, end, good, and evil), as well as the holy beasts of Ezekiel’s chariot, the stages of the emergence of the three elements (divine spirit, air or wind, and water and fire), and other characteristics that are unclear.”

“Early commentators interpreted the sefirot as the ten basic numbers from one to ten.”

“The central concept … is harmonia mundi, (harmony of the universe). There are three layers of existence, the cosmic, that of time, and that of man. Each letter, or group of letters, is in charge of one aspect of each layer.”

“Thus … the Hebrew letters that can be pronounced in two different ways–whose number, according to this work, is seven–in the cosmos, are in charge of the seven planets; in “time,” are in charge of the seven days of the week; and, in man, are in charge of the seven orifices in the head (eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth).

“The twelve letters that the author describes as “simple” are in charge of the twelve zodiac signs, the twelve months, and the twelve principal limbs, and so on. This model was used by subsequent thinkers to develop the concept of human beings as microcosmos, reflecting the characteristics of the cosmos as a whole (especially by Shabbatai Donolo, who used it to interpret the the verse in Genesis 1:27, indicating that man was created in the image of God).”

“The concept that the universe was created by the power of divine speech is an ancient one in Judaism, and the Sefer Yezira developed this idea systematically. The guiding principle seems to have been that if creation is accomplished by language, then the laws of creation are the laws of language. Grammar thus was conceived as the basic law of nature. The author developed a Hebrew grammar based on 231 “roots”–the number of possible combinations of 22 letters. He explained the existence of good and evil in the universe as a grammatical process: if the letter ayin is added to the “root” ng as a prefix, it gives ong, great pleasure, but if it is added as a suffix, it means infliction, malady. The author also insisted that everything in the universe, following grammatical principles, has two aspects, parallel to the gender duality of masculine and feminine.”

“The kabbalists … positioned this work in the heart of Jewish sacred tradition, a source of divine wisdom parallel to that of the Hebrew Bible.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 16-18.

On Jewish Esoterica.

Joseph Dan states that “A small library of about two dozen treatises reached us from the writings of Jewish esoterics in late antiquity dealing with these two subjects, the secret of creation and the secret of the divine realm, the merkavah. It is known as the “Hekhalot (celestial palaces or temples) and Merkavah” literature, because several of the treatises have these terms in their titles.”

“The most detailed work in this group is Seder Rabba de-Bereshit (The Extended Description of Genesis). The second main subject in this small library is magic.”

Dan refers to the “most elaborate ancient Jewish directory for magical formulas,” the Harba de-Moshe (The Sword of Moses), which includes “several hundred magical incantations and procedures …” from “magical remedies to love potions to walking on water.”

Magic is prominently addressed in the Sefer ha-Razim (The Book of Secrets). The third main subject is the description of the chariot in Ezekiel and other biblical sections describing the abode of God. The texts include detailed lists of angels, naming them and their functions, as well as discussions of the secret names of God and the archangels.

The fourth subject “describes an active procedure by which a person can ascend to the divine realms and reach the highest level, and even “face God in his glory.” The process of ascension is termed “descent to the chariot,” and the sages who accomplish it are called yordey ha-merkavah (the descenders to the chariot). These are first-person accounts attributed to Rabbi Akibah and Rabbi Ishmael. These sages overcame many dangers to “join with the angels in the celestial rituals of praise to God.”

The Shiur Komah (The Measurement of the Height) relates a list of God’s limbs, beard, forehead, eyes and irises, designated by obscure, strange, unpronounceable names, measured in terms of miles, feet and fingers. The basic measurement used is the length of the whole universe (derived from Isaiah 40:12), yet each divine limb is trillions of times longer. It is the source of the sefirot, the kabbalistic system of divine attributes. 

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 13-15.

Creation by Alphabet

“The ancient Sefer Yezira, the Book of Creation, describes the process of creation mainly by the power of the letters of the alphabet.”

There is a parable that states that four sages entered a pardes, a royal garden, to study these scriptures. One died, a second went insane, the third became a heretic, and only the fourth, Rabbi Akibah ben Joseph, “entered in peace and came out in peace.”

The expression “entrance to the pardes” was understood to refer to a profound religious experience of entering the divine realm and encountering God. The term pardes is derived from the Persian, and adopted in its Greek form as “Paradise.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pg. 12-13.