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Tag: Sod

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.

 

Malkhuth, Mystery of All Mysteries

“Most significant in this regard is a passage of his Sefer ha-Hokhmah, a commentary on the mystical forty-two-letter name of God. In a text on the tefillin of God, which are composed of the prayers (tefilloth) of Israel, it is said of the crown (‘atarah), which by these prayers ascends from below to rest upon God’s head then to be called Aktariel, in thoroughly kabbalistic language:

“For the tefillah sits at God’s left like a bride by a bridegroom, and she is called the king’s daughter, sometimes she is also called, according to her mission [to those here below] daughter of the voice [the talmudic expression for the celestial voice that mortals sometimes hear]. Of this Solomon said [reinterpreting Proverbs 8:30]: And I was Shekhinah by him, and the name of the Shekhinah is ‘ehyeh [I was] and the word next to it [in the verse] can also be explained, according to the Targum, as “she became great.”

For she is called the king’s daughter because the Shekhinah is with him in his house and it is to this that reference is made [in Ps. 91:1] to the dwelling in the shadow of shaddai [sel, “shadow,” being taken here in the sense of ‘esel, “by”] which means: He has a shadow which is called “by him” and this is the tenth kingdom, malkhuth, and it is the mystery of all mysteries. And we know that the word sod, mystery, can be interpreted [by the method of letter-mysticism] as the word malkhuth.

On every side of the Shekhinah are the crowns of royalty. And she herself is 236,000 myriads of parasangs long [that is, she is the theophany of God upon his throne, as described in the Shi’ur Qomah]. . . . And she directs the world and is named angel of God by virtue [of this her] mission, but with her no separation [from God] takes place.

And of this the verse [Exod. 23:20] said: I am sending an angel before you. This is the Shekhinah. And it is in this sense that the sages explain the verse [Num. 16:4]: Moses fell on his face, that is, because the Shekhinah was [there], he prostrated himself before God. That is why the prophets saw the Shekhinah, which is emanated, as it is said in Sefer Hekhaloth that the Shekhinah dwells beneath the cherub, and [originally] angels and men saw it.

But when the generation of Enoch sinned, the Shekhinah ascended heavenward. As for the Creator and Master of the Shekhinah, he is hidden from all and has neither measure [as in the Shi’ur Qomah] nor likeness, and no eye saw him. . . . And this is the mystery of the crown and the mystery of the Shekhinah, and whoever has this knowledge has a part in the world to come, inherits both worlds, and is saved from the judgment of Gehenna and he is beloved above and cherished below.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 184-5.

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