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Tag: Sefirah

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.


“We shall forgo a closer analysis of the views of this circle on the constitution of creation but shall nevertheless mention the important contribution made by Nahmanides, in marked opposition to Maimonides, with his doctrine of “hidden miracles.”

This doctrine, repeatedly expounded by him as the foundation of the whole Torah, sees the natural law in certain respects as mere appearance behind which is concealed, in reality, a continuum of secret miracles. Hidden miracles are those that give the impression of being nothing more than the effects of the natural course of events, although they are not.

In relation to man, the world is not “nature” at all but a perpetually renewed miracle. In fact, the blessedness of man depends upon his acceptance of this doctrine! Nahmanides may thus well be described as an occasionalist of the purest stripe—at least as regards Israel’s relationship to nature. The opinion of most authorities, including Maimonides, that God does not always act by means of miracles and that the world in general takes its natural course is, according to Nahmanides, a major error, the refutation of which is the purpose and meaning of the revelation of the Torah.

It is true that Maimonides himself in his Treatise on the Resurrection had already explained the coincidence of the promises in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 33 on the one hand and the natural law on the other as a “permanent miracle,” and as a “miraculous sign greater than all the others.”

Bahya ibn Paquda, too, and above all Yehudah Halevi, discussed this subject at length. They too teach that events appear to occur in an order conforming to the natural law whereas in truth they follow the religious order that regulates them in consonance with the Torah’s promises of reward and punishment for Israel in accordance with its conduct.

But the notion of hidden miracles is not yet formulated by these authors; Nahmanides took it from the astrological theory of Abraham ibn Ezra and reinterpreted it in a kabbalistic spirit. God acts in nature in secret ways and introduces into its course a supernatural causal chain that is linked to the moral order of the world and to its system of rewards and punishments.

The hidden miracles are not historical, local, or individual events that are directly recognizable as miracles; they represent the action of individual providence within the natural order.

As YHWH, who suspends the natural order from outside, God brings about manifest miracles; as ‘El Shaddai, he causes the hidden miracles for the Patriarchs and for all Israel through the power of the Shekhinah, the sefirah malkhuth, his “royal dominion,” thanks to which Israel is removed from the causality of natural law and placed in a higher causal order of permanent miracles.

Divine intervention, in the form of rewards and punishments, occurs at every instant; rain and sunshine do not come from the hidden harmony of creation but are, in this sense, hidden miracles.

Since they are by no means inherent in the inner necessity of the course of nature, these hidden miracles must be announced explicitly in the Torah, whereas doctrines such as the immortality of the soul or retribution in the beyond after death necessarily follow, according to Nahmanides, from the natural course of things and therefore need not be explicitly mentioned in the Torah. This doctrine may well be expressed in the words of the eighteenth-century German poet and thinker G. E. Lessing: “The greatest miracle is that the true, the genuine miracles can and should become so ordinary to us.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 453-4.

The Torah is the Name

“In a more mystical sense, it is true, the ‘asiluth represents the name or the names of God, as has been shown in the preceding chapter. This theosophic conception was preserved in Gerona. Creation can subsist only to the extent that the name of God is engraved in it.

The revelation of the name is the actual revelation, and the Torah is not merely a conglomeration of the names of God, but, in its very essence, nothing but this one name itself. This doctrine, which transmuted an originally magical tradition into a strictly mystical one, was clearly expressed for the first time in Gerona, and from there reached the author of the Zohar.

Light-mysticism for the emanation and language-mysticism for the divine name remain the two principal means by which the world of the sefiroth could be described.

For Nahmanides, the ten sefiroth are the “inwardness” of the letters. The beginning and the end of the Torah together form, according to a mystical pun, the “heart,” heart of creation of creation; in terms of gematria, the traditional mysticism of numbers the numerical value of the word (thirty-two) also indicates the thirty-two paths of wisdom active in it.

This “heart” is nothing other than the “will” of God itself, which maintains the creation as long as it acts in it. For it becomes the Nothing, the Nothing (the inversion of the same two letters), as soon as the will reverses its direction and brings all things back to their original essentiality, “like someone who draws in his breath.”

But this return of all things to their proprietor is also their return to the mystical pure Nothingness. The primordial beginning of creation consisted in the emergence of hokhmah from the infinite plenitude of the “supreme crown” or the will, in an act of limitation, simsum, in which the all-embracing divine kabhod was restricted.

This restriction of the light at first produced a darkness, into which there flowed the clear light of hokhmah. We thus find in Nahmanides the oldest form of the doctrine of a self-contraction of God at creation, which, however, is not a contraction of the ‘en-sof itself, as taught by later kabbalists, but of the first sefirah.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 448-9.

The Pure Spirituality of the Future World

“But there are various attitudes with regard to prayer itself corresponding to the three principles of all reality, which Azriel borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle while giving them a mystical twist. These three principles are matter, form, and sieresis; this last notion is, however, influenced by the Hebrew translation and replaced by the principle of Nought.

The change of matter into ever-new forms takes place by means of this Nought, which can be made to refer on the one hand—and entirely in the sense of the genuine Aristotelian doctrine—to the privation of that which, in the transformations, is new each time, and, on the other hand—in the sense of the kabbalists—to the influence of the sefirotic principle of Stern Judgment. In either case this notion can link up with that of the mystical Nought, from which everything creative proceeds.

For Azriel, these principles present themselves essentially as follows: the Nought is that which is present in everything that arises as the medium of its transformation. The sefirah of Stern Judgment and delimitation is at the same time the power of transformation inherent in things.

Matter, on the other hand, persists in itself and is renewed without being transformed, like the living stream whose waters are renewed every minute but nevertheless are always the same. This power comes, according to Azriel, from the sefirah of Mercy, by means of which God renews and preserves at the same time, every day, his Creation.

However, according to him, form is a potency inherent in matter, by virtue of which matter receives an influx of ever-new forms. It is similar to the source from which the pool expands.

Accordingly there exist three degrees of prayer in which these three principles are reflected. The lowest is prayer without spirituality, the prayer that is not pervaded by the life of the soul flowing from the source of binah. This, according to Azriel, is the “fixed prayer” mentioned in and rejected by the Mishnah (Berakhoth 14:2), because it is like the stagnant water of a pool into which no life flows from any source.

Above it, there is the prayer that the Mishnah defines as the “imploring of grace,” tahanunim, in which the vitality of the source gushes forth with great force. This is the prayer of the “form.”

The highest prayer, however, is that of the devotee who casts off everything that impedes him and who leads the word whose origin is in the Nought back to its Nought. Here, we can easily follow the transformation of the concept of the Nought or Nothing into a mystical category.

This prayer is named tefillah, in the proper sense of the Hebrew term, which the author derives from pillul, “judgment.” So too must the prayer rise from the petition for the fulfillment of bodily needs to that of the needs of the soul, and from there to the pure spirituality of the life of the future world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 420-1.

The Angel Anafiel

“In older parts of the genuine Hekhaloth literature the rank reserved for this angel is even higher than that of Metatron. His position is now combined with speculations concerning the first sefirah, not in the strict kabbalistic conception but in the spirit of the Book Yesirah’s definition of the first sefirah as the pneuma of the living God, which could be understood metaphorically as a “branch of God”—in fact the literal meaning of ‘Anafiel.

In the fragment under consideration, various determinations intersect. The first sefirah is unexplorable because it is without limits. But it is, at the same time, also the consonant taw, an intelligible potency that becomes an angel even higher than the hashmal, higher, therefore, than the potency of the Merkabah, to which such great importance was attributed by the ‘Iyyun circle.

The supreme angel of the Merkabah, ‘Anafiel is therefore at the same time the first sefirah, and he stands in the place usually occupied in the writings of this group by the primordial ether. But this sefirah is also a secret primordial image, temunah, in the figure of Man; in other words, it is the ‘adam qadmon whom we met in a very different context in other writings of this circle.

This conforms perfectly with the cherub-mysticism of the German Hasidim. Ezekiel 1:26 is related to ‘Anafiel. Indeed, he is at the same time the indivisible, indifferent will, rason shaweh, which produces all the creatures; as such he also is the pneuma that directs, in the spirit of Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah, the inner movement of the spiritual beings emerging from him in the process of differentiation. This movement is born when the will turns toward its origin in the “marvelous and nameless light” above it.

In accordance with this idea, the “Book of the True Unity” explains ‘Anafiel as the seraph and the angel posted over the unity, whose power is ramified in seven lights that “stand before the place of the unity as a burning fire” and that are identical with the seven seraphim enumerated in chapter 7 of the “Tractate of the Hekhaloth.”

Perhaps this decomposition of the supreme luminous power into seven seraphim or lights ought to be approximated to certain notions of the Cathars, for whom the Paraclete was sevenfold and who spoke of the seven animae principales.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 345-6.

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.

On the Apocatastasis

“Only in the messianic era will the position of Sammael be restored; the Throne of God, which for the present is damaged, will then be repaired.

It thus appears that Isaac the Blind was a follower of the doctrine of the ultimate “restoration of Satan,” the apocatastasis.

Since, as is well known, Judaism recognized no official dogmatic authority that was entitled to determine the content of the faith, this question too, which played such an important role in the history of the Christian churches, remained open and a subject of dispassionate discussion.

Opinions were divided, and many mystics adhered to the “restoration” doctrine. Later kabbalistic theories exhibiting the same tendency, such as Joseph ibn Gikatilla’s Mystery of the Serpent, probably owe their inspiration to Isaac the Blind.

What is curious in the case of Isaac is that Sammael did not fall from his exalted rank, as one would expect, at the time of Adam’s sin—for which the Aggadah holds him responsible—but only at the time of the battle against Amaleq.

In this detail he was not followed by later kabbalists; even when they defended the doctrine of apocatastasis they placed it in relation to the reestablishment of the harmony of all things, which had been disturbed by Adam’s original sin.

However, also for ibn Gikatilla (as for Isaac), the serpent drew his original power directly from the sacred domain of the emanations, standing outside its “walls” and acting as the genius of the entire sublunar world. There, too, the rebellion of the serpent introduces disorder into the harmonious union of the worlds and isolates Sammael as genius of evil.

Isaac’s view that the supreme angelic powers draw their influx directly from the tenth sefirah is also found in Ezra, who attests to having received “from the lips of the son of the master,” that is, from Isaac the Blind, the doctrine “that Metatron is only a messenger, and not a specific thing bearing that name.

Rather, every messenger is called in Greek metator, and perhaps the messengers received the influx of the [tenth sefirah] named ‘atarah to fulfill their mission.”

Metatron is therefore not a proper name at all but a designation for the whole category of celestial powers performing a mission. This conception is far more prosaic than that taught by his father, the Rabad (cf. the passage quoted, p. 212), in his commentary on the Talmud.

Is this the whole truth about Isaac’s view, or merely an occasional remark? No other kabbalist ever denied the existence of a specific angelic being called Metatron, even if he adopted Isaac’s etymology.

The etymology itself is apparently taken from the old talmudic dictionary ‘Arukh of Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome, which was well known in Provence (as metator). Isaac obviously did not think of identifying Metatron with the last sefirah, the Shekhinah, although the identification is found later, among the first generation of Catalan kabbalists.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 298-9.

On the Evil Status of Goats

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystical Radicalism of Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mah ‘Elohim of Genesis 1:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Letters of the Great Name

“Whatever the precise nature of the supreme sefirah, hokhmah is in any case the “beginning of being” as it is also the “beginning of the dibbur.” Prom hokhmah, all the sefiroth proceed in a clear chain of emanations. In terms of Isaac’s language-mysticism, the divine things are at the same time the divine words. The ideas are names.

This motif, already prefigured in the Bahir where the sefiroth coincided with the ten logoi, now appears in a much profounder form. For the kabbalist, evidently, language-mysticism is at the same time a mysticism of script and of letters. The relation between script and language is a constitutive principle for the Kabbalah.

In the spiritual world, every act of speaking is concurrently an act of writing, and conversely every writing is potential speech, destined to become audible. The speaker engraves, as it were, the three-dimensional space of the word on the plane of the ether.

The script, which for the philologist is only a secondary and otherwise rather useless image of real speech, is for the kabbalist the true repository of its secrets. The phonographic principle of a natural transposition of speech into script and vice versa manifests itself in the Kabbalah in the idea that the sacred letters themselves are the lineaments and signs that the modern phoneticist would want upon his disc.

The creative word of God is legitimately stamped upon just these sacred lines. Beyond language lies the unarticulated reflection, the pure thought, the mute profundity, one could say, in which the nameless reposes. Prom hokhmah on there opens up, identical with the world of the sefiroth, the world of the pure name as a primordial element of language. This is the sense in which Isaac understood the saying of Yesirah 2:5, according to which all language proceeds from a name. The tree of divine powers, which formed the sefiroth in the Bahir, is here transposed to the ramifications of the letters in this great name.

But more than that of the tree, Isaac liked the simile of the coal and the flames (shalhabiyoth) that are fed by it, inspired by another passage of Yesirah (1:7) to which he often has recourse:

“ … Their root [that is, that of language and things] is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, which are mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal, and in the manner of the leaves of the tree, its boughs and branches, whose root is always in the tree . . . and all the debharim become form and all the forms proceed only from the one name, just as the branch comes from the root. It follows therefore that everything is in the root, which is the one name (on 2:5).

The world of language is therefore actually the “spiritual world.” Only that which lives in any particular thing as language is its essential life.

Raising the above to the level of kabbalistic discourse, the words, dibburim, constitute the world of the sefiroth, which are united in their configurations in order to form letters, just as, conversely, the words themselves are the configurations of letters.

Isaac uses both images though their kaleidoscopic relations are not entirely transparent. In any case, letters are for him the elements of the universal script. According to him, the Hebrew word for letters, ‘othiyoth, derives from the verb ‘atha, to come; the letters are “things which come from their cause,” thus, that which “proceeds” from the root.

But each of these elements comprises in ever new configurations all the sefiroth: “In every letter there are the ten sefiroth.” Thus we are told, in connection with Yesirah 4:1 that the ten sefiroth are “inner [or: hidden] essences” whose inner [hidden] being is contained in the hokhmah, and that they are at the same time the roots of principles in which good and evil are still united.

“They [the sefiroth] begin to grow forth like a tree whose beginnings are unrecognizable, until a plant issues from them.” The verbs employed by the Book Yesirah to describe the formation of the letters that God “hewed” in the pneuma suggest to Isaac the image of a mountain from which raw stones are extracted, then hewed and chiseled, and from which well-ordered edifices come into being.

This “edifice” is the world, but the world of the sefiroth as such also represents a building of this type that issues from its elements, and, in the last analysis, from the hokhmah. The sphere in which this hewing of the innermost elements takes place is not the hidden Sophia, where everything is still conceived as united without form, but the sefirah that follows it, binah or teshubah (“that to which all returns”), which is itself a mystical hyle from which the forms are chiseled.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 277-9.

The Unknowable

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

Scholem on the Kabbalistic Elements

“The ten primordial numbers are called sefiroth—a Hebrew noun, newly formed here, that bears no relation to the Greek word sphaira, but is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to count.”

Steinschneider’s contention (Mathematik bei den Juden [Hildesheim, 1965], p. 148) that the original term acquired its specific kabbalistic meaning as a result of the similarity to the Greek word is not borne out by an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic texts. By introducing a new term, sefirah, in place of the usual mispar, the author seems to indicate that it is not simply a question of ordinary numbers, but of metaphysical principles of the universe or stages in the creation of the world.

The possibility that the term refers to emanations from God himself can be excluded in view of both the wording and the context; it could only be read into the text by later reinterpretation. Each of these primordial numbers is associated with a particular category of creation, the first four sefiroth undoubtedly emanating from each other.

The first one is the pneuma of the living God, ruah ‘elohim hayyim (the book continues to use the word ruah in its triple meaning of breath, air, and spirit). From the ruah comes forth, by way of condensation, as it were, the “breath of breath,” that is, the primordial element of the air, identified in later chapters with the ether, which is divided into material and immaterial either (SIC, should probably be ether).

The idea of an “immaterial ether,” ‘awir she’eno nithpas, like the other Hebrew neologisms in the book, seems to correspond to Greek conceptions. From the primordial air come forth the water and the fire, the third and the fourth sefiroth. Out of the primordial air God created the twenty-two letters; out of the primordial fire, the Throne of Glory and the hosts of angels.

The nature of this secondary creation is not sufficiently clear, for the precise terminological meaning that the author gave to the verbs haqaq and hasab, which belong to the vocabulary of architecture, can be interpreted in different ways. He does not utilize the Hebrew word for “create,” but words that mean “engrave” (is this to designate the contours or the form?) and “hew,” as one hews a stone out of the rock. The Aristotelian element of the earth is not known to the author as a primordial element.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 26-7.

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.

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.