"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Tag: Messiah

Eco: Postel’s Universalistic Utopia, 2


An unattributed and undated portrait of Guillaume Postel (1510-84), published by George Saliba. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“After various peregrinations, Postel found himself in Venice, where, in 1547, he was appointed chaplain of the Hospital of Sts. John and Paul (called the Ospedaletto), and censor of books published in the Hebrew language in that city.

While in the Ospedaletto, he was appointed confessor to its founder, the fifty year old Johanna, or Mother Zuana, a woman who had dedicated her life to helping the poor. Gradually, the conviction grew on Postel that in meeting Johanna, he had come into contact with a great prophetic spirit.

He conceived for her a mystic passion in which he saw her as the mother of the world, destined to redeem humanity from its original sin.

After rereading the kabbalist text, the Zohar, Postel identified Johanna as Shekinah as well as with the angelical pope whose coming had been foretold in the prophecies of Joachim a Fiore.

Finally, he identified her as the second Messiah. According to Postel, the feminine component of humanity, guilty of the sin of Eve, had not been saved by Christ. The salvation of the daughters of Eve would only occur with the coming of a second Messiah (on Postel’s “feminism” cf. Sottile 1984).

The question whether Johanna was truly a mystic with extraordinary capacities or whether these were just qualities that Postel projected into her is hardly an important issue for us.

What is important rather is that there was now established an intense spiritual communion: Johanna, the kabbala, universal peace, the last age foretold by Joachim, were all thrown into a single crucible; what emerged was Johanna in the role formerly held by Ignatius Loyola in Postel’s utopian schemes.

What is more, “Johanna’s “immaculate conception” produces her “little son,” Postel, the new Elias” (Kuntz 1981: 91).

Rumors of singular goings on at the Ospedaletto soon spread, however, and in 1549, Postel was forced to leave Venice. He resumed his wanderings in the Orient, returning to Venice the following year only to learn of the death of Johanna.

According to tradition, on hearing the news he fell into a state of prostration mixed with ecstasy in which he claimed to be able to stare into the sun for an hour. He felt the spirit of Johanna gradually invading his body (Kuntz: 1981: 104). He began to proclaim his belief in metempsychosis.

Postel next returned to Paris where, with great public acclaim, he resumed his teaching. Yet soon he was announcing the advent of the era of Restitution, a golden century under the sign of Johanna.

Once again, he found himself at the center of a philosophical and religious turmoil. When the king forced him to abandon teaching, he set off on a new journey through various cities, ending up again in Venice, arriving just in time to prevent his books from being placed on the Index.

He was questioned by the Inquisition, which tried to induce him to recant. In 1555, in recognition of his services to science and politics, he was declared “non malus sed amens,” not guilty but insane.

His life was spared, but he was imprisoned, first in Ravenna and afterwards in Rome.

At the request of the French religious authorities, Postel was later transferred to Paris, in 1564. He retired to the monastery of Saint-Martin-des-Champs where he lived until his death in 1587. During this period, he wrote a repudiation of his heretical doctrines concerning Mother Johanna.

Apart from this final capitulation, Postel seems to have been a relentless defender of ideas which, for this period, were quite unconventional. His particular vision of utopia must be regarded within the cultural context of his time.

Demonet (1992: 337ff) underlines that his idea of the “restitution” of Hebrew as the language of universal concord also required that infidels recognize their error and accept the Christian revelation.

None the less, as Kuntz notes (1981: 49), Postel was neither an orthodox Catholic nor an orthodox Protestant; his moderate and pacifist positions infuriated, in fact, extremists of both persuasions.

Some of his doctrines were theologically ambiguous: he claimed that Christianity was the only religion that verified the message of Judaism, but–at the same time–that to be a good Christian it was not necessary to belong to a sect (Catholic church included), but rather to feel the presence of the divine within.

It followed that a true Christian could, and even should, observe Jewish law, and that the Muslims could be considered half-Christians.

More than once, Postel condemned the persecution of the Jews. He spoke of the Jewishness of all men, talking of Christian-Jews instead of Jewish Christians (Kuntz 1981: 130).

He claimed that the true tradition of Christianity was Judaism with its name changed, and lamented that Christianity had lost its Judaic roots.

Such positions could only be seen as extremely provocative by a church still clinging to the pre-Renaissance doctrine that Christianity represented both the correction and the cancellation of Judaism.

In order to affirm, as Postel did in his De orbis, the existence of a harmony between the faiths, it was necessary to exercise a tolerance on a number of theological issues. Postel’s doctrine has thus been described as a universalistic theism (Radetti 1936).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 77-80.

Eco: The Mother Tongue


The Hebrew alphabet. Compiled and posted by Assyrio on Wikipedia. The copyright holder releases this work into the public domain, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.  

Humiliter dedicata a amico miles Georgius Hand IV, polyglottis et πολυμαθής.

“Despite this, Abulafia did not think that this matrix of all languages (which coincides with the eternal, but not with the written, Torah) corresponded yet to Hebrew. Here Abulafia made a distinction between the twenty-two letters as a linguistic matrix, and Hebrew as the mother tongue of humanity.

The twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the ideal sounds which had presided over the creation of the seventy existing languages. The fact that other languages had more vowels depended on the variations in pronouncing the twenty-two letters. In modern terminology, the new foreign sounds would be called allophones of the fundamental Hebrew phonemes.

Other kabbalists had observed that the Christians lacked the letter Kheth, while the Arabs lacked Peh. In the Renaissance, Yohanan Alemanno argued that the origins of these phonetic deviations in non-Hebrew languages were the noises of beasts; some were like the grunting of pigs, others were like the croaking of frogs, still others were like the sound of a crane.

The assimilation of bestial sounds showed that these were the languages of peoples who had abandoned the right path and true conduct of their lives. In this sense, another result of the confusion of Babel was the multiplication of letters.

Alemanno was aware that there were also other peoples who considered their languages as superior to all others. He cited Galen, who claimed that Greek was the most pleasing of all languages and the one that most conformed to the laws of reason.

Not daring to contradict him, he attributed this fact to affinities he saw as existing between Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian.

For Abulafia, the twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the entire gamut of sounds naturally produced by the human vocal organs. It was the different ways of combining these letters that had given rise to the different languages.

The word zeruf (combination) and the word lashon (language) had the same numerical value (386): it followed that the rules of combination provided the explanation to the formation of each separate language.

Abulafia admitted that the decision to represent these sounds according to certain graphic signs was a matter of convention; it was, however, a convention established between God and the prophets.

Being aware that there existed other theories which claimed that the sounds which expressed ideas or things were conventional (he could have encountered such an Aristotelian and Stoic notion in Jewish authors like Maimonides), Abulafia, nevertheless, invoked a rather modern distinction between conventionality and arbitrariness.

Hebrew was a conventional but not an arbitrary language. Abulafia rejected the claim, maintained, among others, by certain Christian authors, that, left entirely to itself, a child would automatically begin to speak Hebrew: the child would be unaware of the convention.

Yet Hebrew remained the sacred mother tongue, because the names given by Adam, though conventional, were in accordance with nature. In this sense, Hebrew was the proto-language.

Its existence was a precondition for all the rest, “For if such a language did not precede it, there couldn’t have been mutual agreement to call a given object by a different name from what it was previously called, for how would the second person understand the second name if he doesn’t know the original name, in order to be able to agree to the changes.” (Sefer or ha-Sekhel; cf. Idel 1989: 14).

Abulafia lamented that his people in the course of their exile had forgotten their original language. He looked on the kabbalist as a laborer working to rediscover the original matrix of all the seventy languages of the world.

Still, he knew that it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that all the secrets of the kabbala would be definitively revealed. Only then, at the end of time, would all linguistic differences cease, and languages be reabsorbed back into the original sacred tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 32-3.

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism, 2

Ilan Sefirot - Kabbalistic Divinity map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI

Ilan Sefirot. Kabbalistic Divinity Map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI. 

“In Christian tradition, the four levels are excavated through a labour of interpretation which brings surplus meaning to the surface. Yet it is a labour performed without altering the expression-plane, that is, the surface of the text.

The commentator tries in many ways to correct scribal errors, so as to re-establish the only and original version according to the alleged intention of the original author. For some kabbalistic currents, by contrast, to read means to anatomize, as it were, the very expression-substance, by three fundamental techniques: notariqon, gematria and temurah.

Notariqon was the technique of using acrostics to cipher and decipher a hidden message. The initial (or final) letters of a series of words generate new words. Such a technique was already a familiar artifice in poetry during the late antique and Middle Ages, when it was used for magic purposes under the name of ars notoria.

Kabbalists typically used acrostics to discover mystic relations. Mosé de Leon, for example, took the initial letters of the four senses of scripture (Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod) and formed out of them PRDS.

Since Hebrew is not vocalized, it was possible to read this as Pardes or Paradise. The initial letters of Moses’s question in Deuteronomy 30:12, “Who shall go up for us to heaven?,” as they appear in the Torah form MYLH, or “circumcision,” while the final letters give YHWH, Jahveh.

The answer is therefore: “the circumcised will go up to God.” Abulafia discovered that the final letters of MVH (“brain”) and LB (“heart”) recall the initial letters of two Sefirot, Hokmah (wisdom) and Binah (intelligence).

Gematria was based on the fact that, in Hebrew, numbers are indicated by letters; this means that each Hebrew word can be given a numerical value, calculated by summing the numbers represented by its letters.

This allows mystic relations to be established between words having different meanings through identical numerical values. It is these relations that the kabbalist seeks to discover and elucidate.

The serpent of Moses, for example, is a prefiguration of the Messiah because the value of both words is 358. Adding up the letters in YHWH, we get 72, and kabbalistic tradition constantly searched for the seventy-two names of God.

Temurah is the art of anagrams. In a language in which vowels must be interpolated, anagrams are more exciting than in other idioms. Mosé Cordovero wondered why there appeared in Deuteronomy a prohibition against wearing garments of mixed wool and linen.

He found the answer when he discovered that the letters of that passage could be recombined to produce another text which warned Adam not to take off his original garment of light and put on the skin of the serpent, which symbolized demonic power.

Abraham Abulafia (thirteenth century) systematically combined the letter Alef with each of the four letters of the tetragrammaton YHWH; then he vocalized each of the resulting units by every possible permutation of five vowels, thus obtaining four tables with fifty entries each.

Eleazar ben Yudah of Worms went on to vocalize every unit using twice each of the five vowels, and the total number of combinations increased geometrically (cf. Idel 1988b: 22-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 27-8.


Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism



Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-97), The Tower of Babel (1594), Musée du Louvre, Paris. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“Our story opened with a reference to an eastern text, the Bible. By the time of the last church Fathers, however, knowledge of the language in which this text was composed had been lost. Thus we were able to begin our story by reading the Bible directly in the Latin of the Vulgate.

The Christian West would begin to come to terms with Hebrew only from the Renaissance onwards. However, in the same centuries in which Hebrew was forgotten by Christian scholars, in the Jewish milieu of Provence and Spain there flowered a current of Hebrew mysticism destined to have a profound influence  on Europe’s search for the perfect language: kabbala, a mystical current that regarded creation itself as a linguistic phenomenon.”

Editorial Note

There are many ways to write Kabbala, but Eco in this text writes it that way. I will include tags for “kabbalah” as well, so you can search for affiliated texts, which are numerous. Other ways to write it include “cabala” and “qabbalah” and “qabala,” but in the case of Cabala and similar transliterations like Cabbala the reference is to a completely separate system of thought which Eco addresses below.

 The Reading of the Torah

“The kabbala (from qabbalah, which might be rendered as “tradition”) was a technique of interpretation grafted onto the practice of commenting  on the Torah, that is, on the books of the Pentateuch, together with the practice of rabbinical commentary known as the Talmud.

In this way, the kabbala appears pre-eminently as a technique of reading and interpreting the sacred text. Yet the actual Torah rolls upon which the kabbalistic scholar labored served him merely as a point of departure: underneath the letters in which the Torah was written, the kabbalist sought to descry the shape of the eternal Torah, created by God before all worlds, and consigned to his angels.

According to some, the primordial Torah was inscribed in black flames upon white fire. At the moment of its creation, it appeared as a series of letters not yet joined up in the form of words.

For this reason, in the Torah rolls there appear neither vowels, nor punctuation, nor accents; for the original Torah was nothing but a disordered heap of letters. Furthermore, had it not been for Adam’s sin, these letters might have been joined differently to form another story.

For the kabbalist, God will abolish the present ordering of these letters, or else will teach us how to read them according to a new disposition, only after the coming of the Messiah.

One school of the kabbalistic tradition, characterized in recent studies as the theosophical kabbala, endeavored to find beneath the letters of the sacred text references to the ten Sefirot, or the ten hypostases of the divinity.

The theosophy of the Sefirot might be compared to the various theories of cosmic chains appearing in the Hermetic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonic traditions; the ten Sefirot were hypostases in the sense of representing either increasing grades of emanation, and, therefore, ten intermediate steps between God and the world, or ten internal aspects of the divinity itself.

In either case, in so far as they represented various ways in which the infinite expands itself, actually or potential, into the finite universe, they also constituted a series of channels or steps through which the soul passes on its journey of return to God.

The kabbalist uses the Torah as a symbolic instrument; beneath the letters of the Torah, beneath the events to which, to the uninstructed, its words seem to allude, there is a text which reveals a mystic and metaphysical reality.

To use this instrument to uncover this reality, however, the text needs to be read not only literally but also in three other senses: allegorical-philosophical, hermeneutic and mystic. This is reminiscent of the four ways of reading scripture in Christian exegetical tradition.

Beyond this point, however, all analogies between the kabbala and Christian exegesis break down, and kabbalism proceeds by its own, radically individual, route.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 25-7.


An Excerpt from the Prophecies of Baba

“As Rahmani pointed out, some quotations of the Baba text are found in Dionysius Bar Salibi’s work Against the Muslims. They are very brief and restricted to the most suitable sentences (see p. 229, n. 7, and p. 230, n. 1, below); there can be no doubt that they do not go back to a complete text of Baba’s work but are derived from the same collection in which we find them today.

Bar Salibi wrote his work Against the Muslims before his work Against the Jews, which was written in 1477 Sel./l 165-6. Thus, we know for certain that his source for the Baba quotations must have been written before that date, but how long before remains an open question, except that being addressed to unbelievers it is likely to antedate the twelfth century by, at least, a few centuries.

It seems that little attention has been paid to Baba’s prophecies since their publication, and the edition is not easily available. Therefore, a modest attempt to translate the text into English has been appended here:

The Prophecy of Baba, the God of Harran.

Listen to the statements of Baba who also lived in Harran, whose book is being read attentively by the pagans, who is called by them a prophet, whom they esteem more than all the philosophers, and in whom they take refuge. With the divine power’s approval of his prophecy, he announced and spoke openly about the Messiah, as did Balaam, the soothsayer. He made the following statement in his first book, which is called ‘Revelation‘ (Gelydnd).

I did not want to say these things, but I was required against my will to write about these things that are going to be, while there will be tears and lamentation when they are going to happen. For the light that is prior to the world came to earth and appeared in the body of the earth without mankind knowing it.

Thereafter, it returned again and went up to its place on high by the side of that glory that is concealed from everybody. And while it is there in its place, so-called (?) inhabitants of Harran will come, and the inhabitants of the city of Sin will say that it is Baba’s insanity, <not> wisdom coming from the sons of heaven.

Shaking ‘Azzfiz in which all exaltation (?) is, they will expel those who dwell in it, and it will become a house of martyrs, and all the rest a place of shame.

From the same book:

For the gnosis of light that is immortal, imperishable sacrifices, and incorruptible splendor (will) appear on earth, having its dwelling in heaven and controlling heaven and earth.

Life is in it for all who take refuge in it. The inhabitants of Harran were liars. <It is> all that was and is, and it is prior to everything.

Wisdom takes up residence and dwells in it. Beside this splendor, nothing has subsistence.

Earth, earth! Do not drink error, but know the light that has appeared and subsists and does not perish, ascending on high and serving on earth for years! Shortly, evil will come because of their sin, and their foot will not be steady until they see the light that has appeared and worship it rightly.

From the same book:

And they will say the sweet word: ‘Come, let us fall upon the ground and worship God, the Creator of the earth!’ And there shall be a great and holy temple on earth, and the entire people will bring a sacrifice to God in perfect love.

From the second book:

They will behold the ray that sprang from where they did not expect it. It will be visible from their place.

It will appear with all its appropriate fittings in great, incomprehensible splendor, and all those who dwell on earth will notice the glory of the brilliance that was concealed and became revealed.

I saw in the mind as if I was spoken to as follows: The progeny of splendor and light was born from the earth for gain and loss, for subsistence and fall.

Woe, woe! For after a while, no stone of the house of the gods in your midst that is glorious and exalted like the Capitol in Rome, will be left upon the other. Do not tremble, for if you know the splendor of the ray, many things that (seem) important will be like nought.

The ray of the Lord will openly descend upon the earth, and they will be without signs until the ascent of the radiance. The inhabitants of Persia will come bringing gifts for the ray. Glorious is the divine guidance, and marvelous the miracle that will appear upon earth. It is above words and understanding; it is incomprehensible and unaccountable. Thereafter, the world will dwell in peace for a while.

The kingdom of the east will be aroused. It will go up and destroy the city of Judah. ‘Abor (Eber) will descend into captivity, and Babil will serve in servitude, because of the miraculous progeny, concerning <whom> I (she ?) said …. (?).

Thereafter, the kings of the west will be roused, and they will come up to our place. They will slaughter sacrifices and bring offerings in the midst of ‘Azzuz.

They will seek to abolish the religion, while unable to say so because others after them will believe and rule.

Baba then said that after a long time, a big name from the south will come and sit down in the midst of ‘Azzuz. He will honor its initiates, but over all those who do not heed his words, the sword will rule.

Baba then spoke about the apostles: His apostles, that is, his runners, are contemptible.

He indicated openly that the Apostles of the Messiah are contemptible and simple people (Qiedyote). He sent them out, and they ran over the whole world. With the help of the divine power that was clinging to them, they were able to catch all mankind (and bring them) to Life, doing great and miraculous deeds.

The soothsayer spoke again further about the progeny of splendor on earth, as follows: <Above> all and dwelling in everything —that miracle that was done.”

The Syriac and the Arabic texts have identical remarks concerning the reluctance of the seer, and there is some similarity in the statements concerning the big name from the south and his powerful rule in the one text, and the Abyssinian ruler and the power gained by the good Harranians in the other.

The “sons of heaven” who play an important role in the Syriac text certainly are identical with the “people of heaven” in the Arabic. All these agreements may, however, be credited to the literary type to which both texts belong.

The assumption that the Syriac text is an outright Christian forgery finds support in the fact that the Baba passages appear in the context of clearly supposititious statements attributed to various famous figures. The difference is that Baba was not famous or internationally known but of strictly local interest which at best extended to, say, Edessa and Antioch.

There are the Christian concepts of the ray springing from the glory in heaven and other ideas best explained as Christian in origin. However, if one reads the Syriac text carefully, one cannot help being struck by the tenuousness of the Christian allusions and the fact that practically all of them could have been easily superimposed upon a text that might have spoken about a gnostically transformed Christ in a kind of Biblical phraseology or, rather, about the gnostic light in general.

Concepts such as the light coming down to earth, the gnosis of light, the incorruptible splendor (nuhrd), or the progeny of light and splendor, can be read as gnostic. With regard to the pagan cult in Harran, the text lacks clarity and seems to contain contradictory statements, but expressions of hope for its preservation and renewed glory in the fact of violent attacks upon it by hostile elements (which may have been Christians or Muslims) seem to be prevalent.

The remark about the Apostles must have been originally intended as a slur upon them, branding them as evil characters. Above all, if there really existed a book ascribed to Baba, of which our text has preserved only excerpts, the comparative irrelevance of the excerpts chosen leaves little room for doubt that that book cannot have had much to do with Christianity (which, if it were a Christian falsification, would be its only reason for existence).

There is a good possibility that the Syriac text has, in fact, preserved remnants of Harranian gnostic literature that were only slightly adapted to the purpose which the Christian author had in mind when using them.

For the Arabic text, considerably less doubt seems indicated.

The author obviously hopes for the persistence and flourishing of paganism. It would be far-fetched to assume that a Christian or a member of an heretical Christian sect that had remained at least basically Christian would have gone that far in his mystification in order to provide local color and the appearance of authenticity. We cannot be fully certain, but in all likelihood, the Arabic text is a rare survival of Harranian “Sabian” literature, translated from an Aramaic original presumably dating from the Umayyad period.”

F. Rosenthal, “The Prophecies of Baba the Harranian,” in S.H. Taqizadeh, A Locust’s Leg: Studies in Honor of S.H. Taqizadeh, 1962, pp. 220-32.

A Missing or Defective Letter, a 23 Character Alphabet, and Seven Books of the Torah

“Hence the author of the Book Temunah transfers his interest from the redemption at the end of the current shemittah (about which he has little to say anyway) to the vision of the following one. The vision of the end of the present shemittah, of the gradual extinction of humanity, and of the slowing down of the rhythm of life in the entire creation—of which older Jewish messianism knew nothing—already forms part of this newly erupting sense of utopia.

In this  conception of redemption, the Messiah himself no longer plays a visible role; interest is completely focused on the cosmic processes.

For the historian of religion, the most striking aspect of the doctrine of shemittoth resides in the close link between a rigorous Jewish piety that maintains the revelatory character of the Torah and the vision of a change in the manifestation of the Torah in the other shemittoth. We have a clear case of Utopian antinomianism.

The assertion of the Temunah that “what is forbidden below is permitted above” (fol. 62a) entails the logical inference that what is forbidden according to the reading of the Torah in our present aeon might be permitted and even required in other aeons, when some other divine quality—Mercy, for example, instead of Stern Judgment—governs the world.

In fact, in both the Book Temunah itself and writings that follow in its footsteps we find astonishing statements regarding the Torah that imply a virtual antinomianism.

Two ideas should be stressed at this point. Several passages suggest that in the current shemittah one of the letters of the Torah is missing. This lack can be understood in two ways. It could signify that one of the letters has a defective form, contrary to its past perfection, that would of course be restored in a future shemittah.

However, as the book indefatigably asserts, since each letter represents a divine potency, the imperfection of its form could mean that the sefirah of Stern Judgment that predominates today effectively restricts the efficacy of the divine lights, which are therefore unable to reveal themselves perfectly.

According to this view, one such “defective” or incomplete letter of the alphabet is shin, which in its perfect form should have four heads, but which is written at present with three: Shin But the statement also could signify that today one of the letters of the alphabet is missing completely: it has become invisible in our aeon but will reappear and become legible once again in the future aeon.

Such a view evidently implies a thoroughly changed attitude toward the received Torah. In fact, it can (and did) lead to the supposition that all the prohibitions we read in the present text of the Torah are due to this absent letter.

The alphabet, and with it the complete Torah, are actually based upon a series of twenty-three letters; if we find in the Torah positive and negative commandments, it is only because this letter has dropped out of the present text. Everything negative is connected with the missing letter of the original alphabet.

According to another and no less audacious idea, the complete Torah contained in reality seven books, corresponding to the seven sefiroth and shemittoth. It is only in the current shemittah that, through the restrictive power of Stern Judgment, two of these books have shrunk to the point that only a bare hint of their existence remains.

The proof text of this assertion was a passage in the Talmud (Shabbath 116a), according to which the book of Numbers actually consists of three books. A tradition from the school of Nahmanides specifies that the power inherent in the Torah will manifest itself in the future aeon in such manner that we shall again perceive seven books.

The Book Temunah itself (fol. 31a) avers that the first chapter of Genesis is merely the vestige of a fuller Torah revealed to the shemittah of Grace, but which has become invisible in our shemittah, as the light of this earlier book has disappeared.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 471-3.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallen Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incarnations of the Divine

“Buddhism provides detailed descriptions of the incarnations of the Buddha, and of the one to come called Maitreya.

The sage Lao Tze, to whom is ascribed the Tao Te Ching, was the revered divine incarnation who sired the development of Taoism.

And Zoroaster was the messianic wellspring who transmitted the Zend Avesta and originated the tradition passed down through the Farsis.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  111-2.


“Some Messiahs appear to be completely or partially veiled from awareness of their true identity until awakened to it by a Perfect Master who has incarnated to do so, or through a supra-conscious experience of the Divine.

Master Mosheh was dramatically changed by his experience of the “Burning Bush.”

The Qur’an also tells us that Master Mosheh was “guided” by Al Kidr, often referred to as the “Green One” or “The Jew.”

The Perfect Master John baptized Master Yeshuvah in the Holy Spirit.

The monk Tota Puri struck the Bengali avatar Sri Ramakrishna in the center of his forehead with a sharp rock. It immediately sent him into a nirvikalpa samadhi that lasted for six months and culminated twelve years of intense spiritual practices, after which Ramakrishna commenced his activity as a World Teacher.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  107.

Awaiting the Prophet Elijah

“The Qu’ran is the final revelation of the Lord (as Allah) to the children of Abraham. It was transmitted through the Prophet Mohammed, the “Seal of the Shemite prophets.”

The only prophet yet to come is the reappearance of Eliyahu (Elijah), who will herald the final messianic advent of Allah as “The Last,” which the Qu’ran calls the Day of Judgement” (Yom Ah-Din).

The Qu’ran encompasses 6,666 verses in 114 titled surahs (chapters) of varying length.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  71.

The Revelations of the Prophet Elijah and the Celestial Academy

” … Their accounts emphasize the mystical inspiration, namely, the “appearance of the Holy Spirit,” in one of the most distinguished families representing the rabbinic culture of Provençal Jewry. These sources name several historical personalities to whom the prophet Elijah is said to have revealed himself (gilluy Eliyahu)-, that is, they were the recipients of celestial mysteries of which earlier tradition knew nothing until then, and which came to them as revelations from above.

These revelations may have been of a purely visionary character, or they may have been experiences of illumination sustained while in a state of contemplation. I have expressed my opinion elsewhere on the meaning of this category of gilluy Eliyahu, which is of considerable importance for an understanding of the relationship between religious authority and mysticism in Judaism.

The prophet Elijah is for rabbinic Judaism the guardian of the sacred tradition. In the end, with the arrival of the Messiah, he will bring the divergent opinions of the teachers of the Torah into harmony. To the pious, he now reveals himself on diverse occasions in the marketplace, on the road, and at home. Important religious traditions of the Talmud and even an entire midrashic work are attributed to his instruction. He is present every time a child is admitted into the Covenant of Abraham—that is, at the establishment of the sacral connection between the generations by means of circumcision. It is by no means the mystics alone who encounter him; he may just as well reveal himself to the simple Jew in distress as to one perfect in saintliness and learning.

As the zealot of God in the Bible, he is the guarantor of the tradition. He is, as I have written, “not the kind of figure of whom it could be supposed that he would communicate or reveal anything whatsoever which stood in fundamental contradiction to such a tradition.” A tradition that was acknowledged to have come from the prophet Elijah therefore became part, in the consciousness of the faithful, of the main body of Jewish tradition, even if it brought something new; and it stood above any possible suspicion of foreign influence or heretical attitude.

It is no wonder, then, that at important turning points in the history of Jewish mysticism—precisely at those times when something new appeared—constant reference was made to revelations of the prophet Elijah. Understood in this sense, “tradition” included not only that which was transmitted on earth and in history, but also that which was received from the “celestial academy” above.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 35-6.

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.

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.