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Tag: Middoth

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.

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.

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.

Yoser Bereshith

“In its initial stage of development in the circle of the Rabad, the doctrine of kawwanah differed in at least one important and instructive point from the form in which it was to become familiar to his successors. As soon as the kabbalists grasped the fundamental difference between the Emanator and the emanated, between the hidden God, subsequently to be called by them ‘en-sof, and the attributes or sefiroth by which he manifested himself and through which he acts, they immediately emphasized the thesis that there can be no kawwanoth addressed directly to ‘en-sof.

The nature of the hidden God excludes any such possibility. If we could meet him in kawwanah he would no longer be that hidden God, whose concealment and transcendence cannot be sufficiently emphasized. It would therefore only be logical for the kabbalists to argue that kawwanah could be related only to his middoth, the being and reality of which affect us, whereas kawwanah directed toward ‘en-sof is impossible.

When the kabbalists’ propaganda in favor of mystical prayer reached wider circles, this thesis, with its far from innocent implications, must have incensed a good number of people. In the circle of the Rabad, however, we still find kawwanoth directed without the least scruple toward the “Cause of causes,” which is but a philosophical expression for the Lord of the attributes and of the other causes that depend upon him.

We find here certain prayers directed to the Creator of the world, yoser bereshith, but also others in which the kawwanah is addressed directly to the Cause of causes. The difference between the latter and the Creator of the world has already been discussed previously. Kawwanoth of this kind had already disappeared by the time of Rabad’s son.

It is precisely this difference in the conception of the kawwanah that proves the genuineness of these traditions, which at least partially contradict the communis opinio of later generations. One may suppose that the doctrine of the kawwanah initially represented a sort of compromise between different tendencies.

Some of the oldest kabbalists still considered the direct orientation toward the Cause of causes to be possible, although the pleroma of middoth, potencies or forms whose nature was not yet speculatively defined, already absorbed their interest. Their gnostic way of seeing things likewise penetrated their prayer mysticism, without being able to overcome it entirely.

In sum, we can in fact say that this oldest Kabbalah was nourished by two sources: the elaboration of ancient traditional literary sources that served as a kind of raw material and the illuminations experienced by certain individuals for whom “at the beginning a door was opened to the science of the Kabbalah.”

These illuminations no longer occur, as in the time of the Merkabah mystics, by way of an ecstatic ascent to the divine Throne. The transmission of celestial mysteries concerning cosmogony and the Merkabah no longer takes place, either, in the ways indicated in the Hekhaloth literature.

The difference is considerable. Instead of rapture and ecstasy we now have meditation, absorption in oneself, and the pious, inward communion, debhequth, with the divine. The doctrine of the mystical kawwanah in prayer is about to supplant the doctrine of the ascent of the soul. The objective elements, so to speak, of the Hekhaloth literature (that is, the descriptions of the world of the Merkabah) serve as the foundation for a reinterpretation that conceives of everything that had existed there in terms of mystical symbols.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 246-7.

Living Prayer is an Encounter

“It is difficult to determine to what extent this kawwanah also contained, from the outset, a magical element of action whose goal was to force the divine middoth, toward which the intention of the mediation was directed, to emanate something of their power upon the person who prays.

The oldest of these kawwanoth to have been preserved, those of Jacob the Nazirite and the Rabad, are undoubtedly instructions relating to mystical mediations in the sense explained here, and nothing in them indicates the pursuit of another, magical aim. But let us not be deceived on this point: the differences between these domains are sometimes extremely subtle and the transition from the realm of pure contemplation to that of magic can take place in a completely unexpected manner.

Sometimes it simply depends upon the forms of expression employed in the prayer. In the abstract, we can easily imagine that, by the manner in which he expressed the sense of his prayer, the person who prayed hoped to draw to himself a power from above or, in other words, to attain a position in which his prayer would be heard. This kind of prayer may well be called magical.

We might contrast it with another, pure form of prayer in which the person who prays rises spiritually from degree to degree and strives to become contemplatively absorbed in the domain of the highest middoth or of the divine Thought itself; such a prayer may be said to contain a mystical kawwanah. In terms of abstract definitions of this kind, the kawwanoth of the oldest kabbalists certainly incline toward mysticism. But I strongly doubt whether in the concrete act of prayer performed with kawwanah, the distinction can be maintained.

The living prayer is indeed, as Yehudah Halevi formulated it in one of his poems, an encounter: “As I went towards you, I found you on the road towards me.”

It is entirely possible that here, too, the two elements come together. Only in extreme cases does the encounter of the human and the divine will assume an unequivocally clear form that is entirely magical or altogether free of magical elements. The history of the doctrine of the kawwanah among the kabbalists may serve as a typical example of the various possibilities latent in every mystical doctrine of prayer.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 244-5.

Inner Intention of Mystical Meditation

“This brings us back to the question of the actual content of the “revelations of Elijah” as they were disclosed to these mystics of Narbonne, Posquières, and Lunel. Are we to suppose that it merely concerned religious exaltation or revelations of mysteries of diverse kinds, explanations of one thing or another, visions connected with the Merkabah, such as could be deduced, for example, from the description contained in the document under discussion? In that case there would be nothing really new; the experience would merely add more information to a framework whose basic outline was already known beforehand to the praying ascetic.

Or should we perhaps see in these revelations a genuinely new phenomenon that was added to the kabbalistic tradition of the Bahir and lent it a specific character? Since we possess no reliable documents on this subject, it is difficult to answer this question with any certainty. Nevertheless, I would be inclined to interpret our reports in the sense of the second possibility. What was really new in the Kabbalah of the circle of the Provençal scholars and perushim, I would venture to guess, was their doctrine of the mystical meditations at prayer.

It was indeed apparent at the end of the last chapter that here and there texts concerning the mystical meaning of prayer or of specific prayers are already found in the Bahir and that, for example, a verse that plays as important a role in the liturgy as the Qedushah (Isa. 6:3) was there correlated with the aeons or sefiroth. But in the Bahir we are dealing with commentaries, not with instructions for meditations intended to accompany recitation of the verse at the very moment of prayer.

What is a new step and what surpasses this position is the linking of the individual words of the main prayers with specific sefiroth. This development gave rise, among the kabbalists, to the doctrine of kawwanah, which occupies such a major position in the history of the Kabbalah.

In his recitation—for according to talmudic prescription the prayers must be uttered aloud not only thought—he who prays must concentrate his soul upon one or several divine middoth. In this sense the kawwanah represents only a practical application of the doctrine of the existence of the sefiroth or aeons in the world of the Godhead. The prayer is a symbolic reiteration of processes that occur in the pleroma of the deity.

Hence it no longer resembles the old magical prayers that also, as we have seen, filtered through into the circles of the Hasidim and the first kabbalists. There too the person who prays pronounces magical words or holy names, largely incomprehensible nomina barbara that make up part of the text of the prayer itself. The kawwanah, on the other hand, represents a process that takes place exclusively within the domain of thought. It is most remarkable indeed that kabbalistic usage is, in this respect, very similar to that of the scholastics for whom intentio does not mean ”intention” in our usual sense but rather the energy or tension of the act of cognition. (The etymology would be derived from the tension of the bow when directing the arrow.)

The kawwanah of meditation is the tension with which the consciousness (of a person performing a prayer or another ritual act) is directed to the world or object before him. Nothing is pronounced but the words of the statutory prayers, as they had been fixed of old, but the mystical meditation mentally accompanies the current of words and links them to the inner intention of the person who is praying.

Among the German Hasidim the beginnings of such a process seem to be inherent in the prayer itself; among the kabbalists of Provence these initial stages led to a comprehensive discipline of contemplation concerned with man’s communication with God.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 242-4.

The Double Hokhmah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Gnosticism

“The decisive step beyond the other gnostic systems consists in the fixing of the number of these powers or aeons at ten, according to the ten sefiroth of the Book of Creation and the ten words of creation through which, according to the ancient Aggadah, God called the world into existence.

Once the number of these “qualities” or middoth of God was fixed they came to be associated with a large number of symbolic names, since each of the epithets by which God could be presented or named was necessarily related to one or another of the middoth. In the Bahir we can still recognize quite clearly the efforts that were made to introduce a more or less consistent terminology in the use of these symbols in relation to specific sefiroth, though it took some time until this process of the definitive crystallization of the symbolism of the old Kabbalah came to its final conclusion.

The different attempts often contradict one another. While the commentators of the Kabbalah strove to bring the symbols into accord or to unify them, the historian naturally has no interest in a harmonistic exegesis of this kind. We shall see several examples that suggest conflicting traditions that were simply juxtaposed in the Bahir. Here, too, the choice of symbols and appellations for this or that sefirah duplicates the process by which the Gnostics designated their aeons. They liked to adopt as names of aeons abstract terms such as thought, wisdom, penitence, truth, grace, greatness, silence, or images such as father, mother, abyss, etc.

These designations, some of which are identical with those found in the ancient documents while others were newly created in accordance with the methods of gnostic exegesis, fill the pages of the Bahir. There, however, they are derived from biblical verses or even the aggadic dicta of the rabbis.

Once again the question is posed: should we admit, at least for one of the strata of the book, the existence of vestiges of an ancient Jewish gnosis, of fragments that antedate the Middle Ages and in which anonymous Jewish Gnostics sought to express their mystical conception of the divinity without impairing their Jewish monotheism?

Or are we dealing with attempts by medieval men, who felt themselves newly stimulated for one reason or another, to view traditions that were intrinsically and purely Jewish from a gnostic perspective? Is our material essentially nothing but the well-known and straightforward Jewish tradition, the adaptation and transformation of which into symbols proves just how great was the psychological and temporal distance between these later authors and the period when the aggadic sayings originally crystallized?

This is the fundamental question that imposes itself upon the reader of the Bahir. It is a question that cannot be answered on the basis of general considerations; only a careful examination of the details can help us here. I do not hesitate, for my part, to affirm that the literature of the Spanish Kabbalah, especially that imbedded in the Zohar, clearly reveals a psychological attitude that, in the Middle Ages, led men to recast ancient talmudic and midrashic material according to an entirely new spirit by means of an exegetical and homiletical method that in its structure was gnostic, but that reached its full development only under the influence of the Bahir.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 85-6.

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