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Tag: Talmud

Eco: The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism

 

Lucas_van_valckenborch,_torre_di_babele,_1594,_02

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

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

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

Editorial Note

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

 The Reading of the Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Augury Through the Flights of Birds and the Voice of the Thunder

“The divine storm-bird,” however, who invested himself by stealth with the attributes of Mul-lil, and carried the knowledge of futurity to mankind, served to unite the two species of augury which read the future in the flight of birds and the flash of the lightning.

The first species was but a branch of the general pseudo-science which discovered coming events from the observation of animals and their actions, while the second species was closely allied to the belief that in the thunder men heard the voice of the gods. The old belief marked its impress upon Hebrew as well as upon Assyro-Babylonian thought.

“The voice of thy thunder was in the whirlwind,” says the Psalmist; and nothing can show more clearly what must once have been the Canaanitish faith than the poetic imagery of another Psalm (xxix.):

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;

the God of glory thundereth;

the Lord is upon many waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars;

yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. …

The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness;

the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests.”

In the Talmud, “the voice of the Lord” has become the bath qôl, or “daughter of the voice,” a supernatural message from heaven which sometimes proceeded from the Holy of Holies, sometimes, like the δαιμονιον of Socrates, assumed the form of an intuition directing the recipient as to his course in life.

This prophetic voice of heaven was heard in the thunder by the Accadians as well as by the Semites. I have already noticed that the Accadians believed the sounds of nature to be divine voices, from which the initiated could derive a knowledge of the future.

At Eridu it was more especially the roar of the sea in which the Sumerian priest listened to the revelations of his deities, and this perhaps was the oracle through which Oannes had spoken to men. In the rival city of northern Babylonia, where the supreme god presided over the realm of the dead, and not over the waters of the sea, the divine voice came to men in the thunder.

By the side of Mul-lil, the lord of the ghost-world, stood Mul-me-sarra (Wül-mö-sára), “the lord of the voice of the firmament.” Mul-me-sarra, in fact, was but Mul-lil himself in another form, and hence, as lord of Hades, was the author, not only of the thunder, but of subterranean noises as well.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, 299-300.

Syncretic Istar

“But who, all this while, was the goddess, whom one legend made the faithful wife enduring even death for her husband’s sake, while another regarded her as the most faithless and cruel of coquettes?

I have already spoken of her as the goddess of love, and such, indeed, she was to the Babylonian or Assyrian of later days. In the story of her descent into Hades, her residence in the lower world is marked by all cessation of intercourse between male and female in the animal creation, as well as among the gods of heaven.

It was this feature of the story which caused it to find its way into the literature of another people, and to survive the days when the clay tablets of Assyria and Babylon could still be read. We find it serving to point a moral in the pages of the Talmud.

We are there told how a pious rabbi once prayed that the demon of lust should be bound, and how his petition was granted. But society quickly fell into a state of anarchy. No children were born; no eggs even could be procured for food; and the rabbi was at length fain to confess that his prayer had been a mistaken one, and to ask that the demon should again be free.

But though a moral signification thus came to be read into the old Babylonian myth, it was a signification that was originally entirely foreign to it. Prof. Tiele has clearly shown that the legend of Istar’s descent into Hades is but a thinly-veiled description of the earth-goddess seeking below for the hidden waters of life, which shall cause the Sun-god and all nature with him to rise again from their sleep of death.

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from an intaglio at Rome. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from an intaglio at Rome.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

The spirits of earth, the gnomes that guard its treasures below, watch over the waters, and not until they are led forth and placed on their golden throne can their precious treasure be secured. It is the earth who loses her adornments, one by one, as she passes slowly downward into the palace-prison of the infernal goddess, and it is the earth who is once more gladdened at spring-time with the returning love of the youthful Sun-god.

Istar, then, must primitively have been the goddess of the earth, and the bride of Tammuz at Eridu must accordingly have been his mother Dav-kina. This alone will explain the persistent element in the myth as it made its way to the Greeks, according to which the mother of Tammuz was also his sister.

Istar, Tillili, Dav-kina, were all but different names and forms of the same divinity. We have just seen that Tillili, at all events, was the primordial earth.

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a heliogravure in Ménant's Recherches sur la Glyptique orientale. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a heliogravure in Ménant’s Recherches sur la Glyptique orientale.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

What Istar was primitively, however, will not explain what she became in those later ages of Babylonian history to which our monuments belong. Her origin faded more and more into the background; new elements entered into her character; and she absorbed the attributes and functions of numberless local divinities. The Istar of Assur-bani-pal or Nabonidos was the inheritress of cults and beliefs which had grown up in different localities and had gathered round the persons of other deities.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 250-2.

Lilith

“Some of the supernatural beings resemble our elves and fairies and the Indian Rakshasas. Occasionally they appear in comely human guise; at other times they are vaguely monstrous. The best known of this class is Lilith, who, according to Hebrew tradition, preserved in the Talmud, was the demon lover of Adam. She has been immortalized by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Of Adam’s first wife Lilith, it is told

(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)

That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,

And her enchanted hair was the first gold.

And still she sits, young while the earth is old,

And, subtly of herself contemplative,

Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,

heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where

Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent

And soft shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?

Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went

Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent

And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Lilith is the Babylonian Lilithu, a feminine form of Lilu, the Sumerian Lila. She resembles Surpanakha of the Ramayana, who made love to Rama and Lakshmana, and the sister of the demon Hidimva, who became enamoured of Bhima, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the various fairy lovers of Europe who lured men to eternal imprisonment inside mountains, or vanished for ever when they were completely under their influence, leaving them demented.

The elfin Lilu similarly wooed young women, like the Germanic Laurin of the “Wonderful Rose Garden,” who carried away the fair lady Kunhild to his underground dwelling amidst the Tyrolese mountains, or left them haunting the place of their meetings, searching for him in vain:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As ere beneath the waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover…

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey dew hath fed

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.

Another materializing spirit of this class was Ardat Lili, who appears to have wedded human beings like the swan maidens, the mermaids, and Nereids of the European folk tales, and the goddess Ganga, who for a time was the wife of King Shantanu of the Mahabharata.

The Labartu, to whom we have referred, was a female who haunted mountains and marshes; like the fairies and hags of Europe, she stole or afflicted children, who accordingly had to wear charms round their necks for protection. Seven of these supernatural beings were reputed to be daughters of Anu, the sky god.

The Alu, a storm deity, was also a spirit which caused nightmare. It endeavoured to smother sleepers like the Scandinavian hag Mara, and similarly deprived them of power to move. In Babylonia this evil spirit might also cause sleeplessness or death by hovering near a bed. In shape it might be as horrible and repulsive as the Egyptian ghosts which caused children to die from fright or by sucking out the breath of life.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Opening and Closing of the Cosmic Book

“The historical origins of this doctrine remain to be examined. It is entirely conceivable that it came from the Orient to Provence, where it became associated at a later date with the doctrine of the sefiroth. The penchant for great numbers in the cosmic cycles, which quickly led beyond the 50,000 years of a cosmic jubilee, corresponds to similar tendencies in India and the Ismailite gnosis.

As early as the thirteenth century (as Bahya ben Asher attests), the single yobhel had become 18,000 and the seven shemittoth had mushroomed to thousands. The view that the slowing down of the revolutions of the stars at the end of every period of creation took place in geometric progression led to an extension of the 7,000 years of every single shemittah, reaching prodigious numbers.

On the other hand these ideas may also have roots, however tenuous, in the Aggadah. Several old rabbinic dicta were quoted by the kabbalists in this context for example, the epigram of R. Qatina in Sanhédrin 97a: “Six millennia shall the world exist, and in the following one it shall be desolate,” deduced, paradoxically enough from Isaiah 2:11.

Apparently the idea of such cosmic weeks arose independently of any scriptural foundation. Similarly, the same talmudic text declares: “As the land lies fallow once in seven years, the world too lies fallow one thousand years in seven thousand,” and only later, in the eighth millennium, the new aeon, which is the “world to come,” will begin.

The midrashic text known as Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer speaks in chapter 51 of a periodic opening and closing of the cosmic book or, to be more exact, of an unrolling of the celestial scroll, indicating a similar notion of continual creation.

Another motif that later attained great importance among the kabbalists was provided by the dictum of R. Abbahu (third century) in Bereshith Rabba, section 9 (and the parallel paraphrase in Shemoth Rabba), who deduced from Ecclesiastes 3:11 that “God created and destroyed worlds before creating this one; He said, these please me, those do not please me.”

Here the motif of the worlds that succeed our creation is combined with that of previous worlds, a motif that also plays a role in the doctrine of the shemittah. The destruction of the world is explained by the kabbalists of Gerona as the interruption of the current of the emanation, which no longer flows toward the lower worlds, toward heaven and earth, but remains closed in on itself. Creation, then, remains in a chaotic state, and only when the current is once again renewed is new life formed.

In the Book Temunah the doctrine of the shemittoth is elaborated in great detail and closely linked, above all, with the mystical conception of the nature of the Torah. There exists a supreme Torah, which we have already encountered on page 287 as torah qedumah. This primordial Torah is none other than the divine Sophia, containing within itself in pure spirituality, the traces of all being and all becoming.

Its letters are “very subtle and hidden, without figure, form, or limit.” But when the lower sefiroth emanate, they act in every shemittah in a different manner, according to the particular law of each one. No shemittah is by itself capable of manifesting all the power of God, expressed in the Sophia and in the primordial Torah.

Rather, the timeless and self-enclosed content of this primordial Torah is distributed at the time of the cosmic and historical creation in such a way that each shemittah unveils a particular aspect of the divine revelation, and with that, the intention pursued by God in this particular unit of creation.

This means, in effect, that the specific causality of each shemittah is expressed in a corresponding revelation of the Torah. The spiritual engrams hidden in the primordial Torah certainly do not undergo any change in their essence, but they are manifested in various permutations and forms as constituted by the letters of the Torah, and as combined in different manners in accordance with the changing shemittoth.

The presupposition of the one Torah that is at the same time the highest and most all-embracing mystical essence thus serves as a justification of the existence of the most diverse manifestations in the changing shemittoth. The fundamental principle of the absolute divine character of the Torah is thus maintained, but it receives an interpretation that renders possible a completely new conception.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1962, pp. 465-6.

Not All Human Souls Are Blessed

“The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul.

According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it.

Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communio, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah.

In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a ”knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines.

The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona.

The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition.

The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month.

But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor.

Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 456-7.

There are 18,000 Worlds

“The creative power of God, however, not only in the one world that we know, but all nine sefiroth—with the exception of the first, in which no contraries exist since it is the Nought—unfold in their double action toward the sides of Stern Judgment and of Mercy, and each produces a thousand worlds in each direction.

The universe would thus contain a total of 18,000 worlds, a figure that once again takes up an old talmudic aggadah but that also has its counterpart in certain Muslim speculations, in Ismailite gnosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 452.

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.

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.

Conversing with Moses and Metatron

“From a somewhat earlier period, around 1200, comes the Hebrew protocol, recorded in Rouen, of the appearance of a prophet of the same type, R. Shemuel ha-Nabi, who conversed, in the presence of witnesses, with Moses and the angel Metatron as well as with the tosafist masters Rabbenu Tam and R. Elias of Paris, and who communicated mystical revelations dealing with talmudic matters.

Similar revelations concerning talmudic and halakhic questions likewise occurred in the Languedoc, in the neighborhood of the Rabad and the same generation. Even if we regard as metaphorical rather than strictly mystical the expressions employed by Rabad (see pp. 205-6) with regard to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in his school, the occurrence of such revelations is conclusively proven by the curious case of Jacob of Marvège (today in the Department of Lozère), who flourished around 1200.

He sought the answers to halakhic problems through “dream questions,” she’eloth halom, that is, through a visionary procedure. Alongside figures of this kind there also appeared pure mystics whose illuminations were of an inward kind that resulted, when the occasion warranted it, in esoteric doctrines.

How did these revelations come about? Did they appear spontaneously, without preparation, to mystically inclined souls, or were they the result of specific acts and rituals that required a certain preparation? Is it possible that a theurgic element also played a role? There is no unequivocal answer to these questions. We do, however, possess certain testimonies suggesting that in this Provençal circle such revelations were linked, at least in part, to a specific ritual and that they were even tied to a particular day.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 239-40.

Men with Mystical Tendencies

“The similarities between this phenomenon and Christian monasticism on the one hand and the condition of the perfecti or bonshommes among the Cathars on the other, are especially striking, despite the clear divergences resulting from the different attitudes of Judaism and Christianity toward celibacy. The Nazirites are not simply hasidim in the well-defined sense of the Book of the Pious and German Hasidism.

But it is evident that we are dealing with a parallel stratum in the Jewish communities, many of whose members undoubtedly also inclined toward the more radical demands of German Hasidism. At the end of his halakhic work Rabad himself picked out of his talmudic material precisely that definition of hasiduth that most closely approximated the mentality of the German Hasidim.

R. Ezra of Gerona, in his commentary on the aggadoth, also calls Jacob the Nazirite by the name Jacob the Hasid. What is important for us is the existence of a stratum with society that by its very definition and vocation had the leisure for a contemplative life. It goes without saying that such a stratum could give rise to men with mystical tendencies.

Members of this group are also mentioned in the earliest kabbalistic sources after Jacob the Nazirite as representatives of a mystical tradition; the names may as well be those of historical personalities as of fictitious figures appearing in pseudepigraphic documents. Indeed, it is precisely the fictitious character of these names of perushim and nezirim that seems so characteristic of the mood prevailing in these kabbalistic circles.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 229-31.

Conjuring Shaddiel

“In the middle of the thirteenth century there lived in Narbonne an old kabbalist, also a disciple of Eleazar of Worms, “of whose teacher it was attested [that is, by the people of Narbonne, and not only by the former student himself] that Elijah, may his memory be blessed, revealed himself to him every Day of Atonement.”

Whether this teacher was the Eleazar just named or some other Provençal kabbalist is not clear. But the identity of the teacher is of less importance for us than the information concerning the date when the prophet Elijah regularly appeared to him. In the Talmud such an appearance of Elijah on the Day of Atonement is mentioned, to my knowledge, only once in passing ( Yoma 19b) and not as something that is repeated periodically. This revelation, whose supreme value is thrown into sharp relief by the fact of its occurrence on the most sacred day of the year, was certainly attained only after spiritual preparation and special concentration.

We possess two texts that give an exact description of the magic rituals for conjuring up the archon who is in charge of the mysteries of the Torah. These rituals take place precisely during the night of the Day of Atonement. The first of these texts is a responsum attributed to two fictitious Babylonian geonim of the eleventh century that appears to have been composed in Provence around 1200 in an artificial Aramaic.

We are given here, among other things, an utterly fantastic report concerning a very peculiar procedure that the scholars of earlier times supposedly followed on that night in order to conjure up “Shaddiel, the great king of the demons (shedim) who rule in the air,” thereby to acquire possession and knowledge of “all the mysteries of heaven.”

This mixture of angelology and demonology is very strange. It seems to me impossible that this ritual, transferred in this instance to Babylonia, was ever really practiced. But it does indicate the mood of the group from which it stems.

The second part likewise contains theurgic instructions, but these, we may assume, describe a ritual that was actually performed. These directions constitute only one link in a long chain of incantations given since very early times for conjuring up the “archons of the Torah.”

At the end of the “Greater Hekhaloth” there is a text, Sar Torah, that is also found independently and has the same aim. We possess several other conjurations of this kind that originated in the Orient and passed, in part, into the manuscripts of the German Hasidim. This text too, which similarly prescribes the eve and the night of the Day of Atonement as the time for the performance of these rituals, certainly originated in materials that came from Babylonia through Italy to France.

But the content, half conjuration and half prayer, leaves no doubt that in its extant form it was edited in France. The text contains a long list of things that one of these perushim wished to learn from the archon of the Torah. He desires that his heart be opened to the study of the Torah, with special emphasis on the various types of gematria and number-mysticism and on the comprehension of various talmudic disciplines—such as cosmogony, the Merkabah, the divine glory, the kabhod—as well as many other specific subjects of the talmudic tradition that the author considered worth knowing.

There is nothing to indicate the author’s acquaintance with the Kabbalah; his area of interest coincides, regarding theosophical matters as well, with that of the German and French Hasidim. At the same time, we learn that in those circles too one hoped for revelations concerning the exoteric and esoteric Torah during the night of the Day of Atonement. We have before us, therefore, the sort of prayer that Jacob the Nazirite might have recited had he wished to prepare himself for a revelation of this kind.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 240-2.

Fallen Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Realm of Mixture

“According to the Aggadah, the Torah was given twenty-six generations after the creation of the world. But according to the rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 105, God gave His “word” (that is, the Torah) after 1,000 generations had passed. The contradiction is resolved by the talmudic Aggadah by saying that God had dispersed 974 generations of impious men among all the future generations where, in fact, they are the evildoers.

In the Bahir, these evil ones are therefore the bad grapevines, which, however, are not denied the opportunity to submit to a new test and to emerge as righteous. Section 39 says the same thing when it speaks of all the souls flying “up to 1,000 generations” from the mystical region of the Sabbath. The idea that the generation that goes is, according to the number of existing souls, the same as that which returns (section 86), points in the same direction. Here, too, the justification, as we have seen, resulted from the revision of an aggadic parable in the Talmud.

Only if Israel is worthy will it receive the new souls coming from the Sabbath or the east—from the seventh logos (section 104). The majority of the souls must wander until they are redeemed and can return from the world of mixture. The collection of the semen that is dispersed in the cosmos, the realm of mixture, is an old gnostic symbol that acquired great significance in the mystery rites of certain antinomian gnostic sects.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 189-90.

Tracing the Doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls

“What matters here is the fact that this doctrine is taught as a mystery, accessible to initiates only, yet at the same time the author also takes it so much for granted that he does not consider it as requiring a special justification. The Cathars too taught it as a secret, which is not surprising since the Church had formally and dogmatically condemned this doctrine, and anyone adhering to it was automatically considered a heretic.

The details of this doctrine as taught by the Cathars are very different. Thus the Bahir does not know the idea of a migration into animal bodies or into any but human forms of existence. The doctrine of the transmigration of souls appeared as an answer to the question of theodicy:

“Why do things go well for an evildoer and badly for a righteous man? Because the righteous man was already [once] in the past an evildoer and he is now being punished. But does one punish a person for [wrongs committed in] the days of his youth? … I do not speak of the [same] life; I speak of the fact that he was already there in the past. His companions said to him: How long will you still speak obscure words?”

In response, R. Rahmai expounds to them, Isaiah 5:2, the parable of the owner of the vineyard who repeatedly replanted and pruned because the grapes were not growing well.

“How often? He said: until the thousandth generations, for it is written [Ps. 105:8]: “The promise He gave for a thousand generations.” And that is the meaning of the dictum [in Hagigah 13b]: 974 generations were wanting; then God arose and implanted them in every generation.” (section 135)

The objections here show that the questioners were completely ignorant of the esoteric doctrine to which the apocryphal R. Rahmai refers. His statements are incomprehensible to them. The notion is taught not in a coherent theoretical exposition but, as is also the case in other passages of the Bahir relating to this doctrine, in the form of parables.

The parable makes express mention of only three unsuccessful attempts to improve the vineyard. It is not clear whether this is already an allusion to the later idea of a triple transmigration. The talmudic passage that is interpreted here in the sense of the transmigration of souls knows nothing of it either.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 188-9.

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.

The Shekhinah is Bakol

“The pseudepigraphic disguise that lends it the appearance of an ancient teaching cannot deceive us concerning the true character of this dictum. “The rabbis have taught: Kol, Abraham’s daughter, is not dead. She still exists, and whoever sees her has made a great find, as it is said [Prov. 8:17]: and those who seek me will find me.”

By means of this verse from Proverbs, the daughter is clearly identified as the hokhmah or Sophia, which would be in accord with the symbolism of the Shekhinah in the Bahir, itself related to the mysticism of the Sophia (see following).

It is quite possible that the author of this dictum, preserved only in the Yemenite midrash, knew of an interpretation similar to the one that we read in the Bahir, and which must therefore already have been known in the Orient. But it is just as possible that he produced a similar interpretation quite independently stimulated by the desire to allegorize a strange phrase.

The tradition of the German Hasidim, around 1250, also shows familiarity with older materials that dealt with the interpretation of the Bakol of Genesis 24:1, though in a direction somewhat different from that taken in the Bahir. In connection with this same verse, Ephraim ben Shimshon (ca. 1240) cited a dictum of the adepts of esotericism, ba ‘ale ha-sod, according to which this blessing consisted in God’s charge to the “Prince of the Divine Presence” to grant Abraham’s every wish.

The role of the Shekhinah in the Book Bahir is here assumed by the angel Yahoel, the oldest name of Metatron, prince of the angels, whose relation to the patriarch is not only known from the Apocalypse of Abraham (early second century C.E.), but was also familiar to the German Hasidim of the twelfth century.

However, the particular exegesis relating the word Bakol to Yahoel probably originated in Germany, for it is based on the gematria method of interpretation practiced there at that time.

Whether there is a relation between the Bahir’s reference to the Shekhinah and the idea of the universal presence of the Shekhinah as current at the time particularly among the German Hasidim I would not venture to decide. Such a connection, if it exists, would rest upon a punning interpretation of the Talmud: “The Shekhinah is in every place” (Baba Bathra 25a). By abridging this phrase to shekhinah bakol, “the Shekhinah is in all things,” an association is suggested with the bakol in Genesis 24:1: the Shekhinah is Bakol.

Another example of such a reinterpretation can be found in section 126. The Talmud relates a dictum of the Babylonian amora R. Assi: “The son of David will not come until all the souls in the ‘body’ are exhausted” (Yebamoth 62a, 63b). Here “body” means the storehouse of the préexistent, unborn souls. This traditional interpretation was evidently also known to the Bahir. But there this dictum is further interpreted as a cue for the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: the “body” mentioned there would be the body of man, through which the souls must wander.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 88-90.

Bakol = Shekhinah

“But what about the oldest text, the Book Bahir itself? Here, too, many passages show that we are dealing with a later exegesis, which reinterprets, on the basis of a medieval mentality, older material that had already become authoritative and confers upon it a symbolic character.

Assuredly, biblical verses could already be interpreted in the talmudic era as symbolic of events taking place on a higher plane of being. The psychological distance between the gnostic exegetes, Jewish or not, and the biblical canon is evident. The elaboration of pagan mythology in terms of gnostic exegesis, as, for example, in the “Naassene sermon” preserved by Hippolytus, indicates a similar psychological distance between ancient myth and its new interpretation.

The Bahir already presents this type of interpretation of the talmudic Aggadah. This can be seen not only in the many passages in which parables drawn from aggadic literature in the Talmud and the Midrash, where they have a perfectly exoteric significance, are transposed to a mystical plane, the new parable often becoming, in the process, much more strange and problematic than the one upon which it is based; we can observe it above all when talmudic quotations themselves are treated as old materials of this kind.

Only during a period when, for the pious consciousness of broad sections of the Jewish population, the Aggadah itself could already claim the authority of a sacred text, and at a time when for other circles its very extravagance became a problem—from the eighth century onward, after the emergence of Karaism—is a passage like section 52 of the Bahir possible. The Talmud, Baba Bathra 16b, transmits various opinions with regard to the value of the birth of daughters.

In this connection, a discussion is reported between mishnaic teachers (second century) concerning Genesis 24:1: “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” “What is meant by ‘in all things?’ R. Meir explained: it means that he had no daughter. R. Yehudah said: Abraham had a daughter whose name was Bakol [literally: with all things].”

The Bahir made this last remark the object of a mystical exegesis, which elevated the strange statement concerning the daughter Bakol to an allegorical plane. Bakol thus becomes a designation for the Shekhinah, the last of the divine powers, which is mentioned at the end of section 51 and to the symbolism of which I shall return. Abraham is there designated as the father of this Shekhinah. Section 52 then continues:

“And whence did Abraham have a daughter? [we learn that] from the verse [Gen. 24:1] the Lord had blessed Abraham with “all things” and [Scripture also] says [Isa. 43:7] “every one” will be called by my Name, etc. Was this “blessing” his daughter or not? [another version: Or was it rather his mother?] Yes, she was his daughter. It is like a king who had a perfect servant . . . Then the king said: What should I give to this servant or what should I do for him? There is nothing left for me to do but to recommend him to my brother, so that he may counsel, protect, and honor him. The servant went home with the king’s great brother and learned his ways. The brother grew very fond of him and called him his friend, as it is said [Isa. 41:8]: Abraham, my friend. He said: What shall I give him or what shall I do for him? Lo, I have made a beautiful vessel, and inside it are beautiful gems to which none can be compared, and they are the jewels of kings. I shall give them to him, and he may partake of them instead of me. That is what is written: God blessed Abraham with “all things.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 87-8,

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.

Shema’ Yisrael

“The passage occurs in connection with a statement of Rabbi Rahmai concerning the expression “twelve tribes of God” in Psalms 122:4. It follows rather abruptly on a relatively long magical text devoted to the names of God and is found in connection with the symbolism of the “source” that also appears in important passages elsewhere in the book.

Starting from the conception of God as the origin of a source that irrigates everything else, the text interprets the twelve tribes in the upper world as the channels through which the water of the source is conducted. This source is perhaps the name of God, which, through the twelve channels, indicates the thirteen attributes of the divinity, deduced by Talmudic theology from Exodus 34:6.

The discourse concerning the elements of language appears as the continuation of this section 82. The vowels have the form of points, therefore of circles; the consonants, on the other hand, are square, which is in the nature of the Hebrew script.

And just as there is a chain of analogies: God—soul—vowel—circle, so also the corresponding members of each pair should be correlated, to wit, the primordial images of the twelve tribes—bodies—consonants —square. It is difficult to separate one series of symbolism from the other. If these symbols are themselves older, then the pair vowel-consonant which figures among them must also belong to an older tradition reaching back beyond the book Kuzari. In that case the continuation of the paragraph, at first sight enigmatic, can also be interpreted in a logical and consistent manner. The text says:

“And the vowel comes along the way of the “channels” to the consonants through the scent of the sacrifice, and it descends from there, as it is frequently said: the savor is a thing which descends toward God. For [the first] YHWH [of the two four-letter divine names mentioned one after another in Exod. 34:6] descends toward [the second] YHWH, and that is the meaning of Scripture [Deut. 6:4]: “Hear 0 Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one.’”

Here, therefore, the symbolism is transferred to the magic of the sacrifice. Through the savor of the sacrifice the current of life enters from the soul, which is the source, into the attributes, which are the tribes, the consonants or the bodies. By means of a sacramental magic it is attracted toward them through the twelve channels introduced in section 82 in the form of a simile. And corresponding to this mysterious event at the hour of sacrifice, in the prayer, which mystically replaces the sacrifice, is the “unification” of the name of God in the formula of Shema’ Yisrael.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 64-5.

The Original Content of the Kabbalah

” … Traditions differ in matters of detail. According to some, it was Rabbi David, the father of Rabbi Abraham ben David (known in Hebrew literature by the acronym Rabad) and not Abraham ben Isaac, his father- in-law, who was the first to receive this Kabbalah. Albeck assumed Isaac the Blind was the son and not the grandson of Abraham ben Isaac, but the analysis of the oldest sources does not confirm this assumption. Around these scholars, but especially around Isaac the Blind, there crystallized the oldest groups of Provençal kabbalists that we are still able to identify.

The pupils of Rabad and his son, coming from Spain to study in the talmudic academies of Provence, were the principal agents of the Kabbalah’s transplantation to Spain and its propagation in that country. Nothing permits us to suppose that the Kabbalah, in the precise sense of the term, became known in Spain other than through this channel or by way of a parallel path that would point to Provence.

Here, to be sure, we must ask what the exact significance of the word Kabbalah was at this time in the circle of the kabbalists themselves. Kabbalah is a fairly common word in rabbinic Hebrew: it simply means “tradition.” In the Talmud, it served to designate the non-Pentateuchal parts of the Hebrew Bible. Later, every tradition was called by this name, without its entailing any specifically mystical nuance.

That it was already employed by the philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol in the sense it would acquire among the kabbalists is a widespread but completely false assumption. It has just a little to do with the Aramaic word qibhla, “amulet.” The Spanish kabbalists still knew very well several generations later what original notion their predecessors had in mind when they employed the term Kabbalah. As late as the year 1330, Meir ben Solomon ibn Sahula, a pupil of Solomon ibn Adreth, expressed himself clearly and directly on the origin and meaning of this new discipline.

“It is incumbent upon us,” he writes in the preface to his commentary on the Book Yesirah, “to explore all of these things according to the measure of our understanding, and to follow, in what concerns them, the path taken by those who, in our generation and in the preceding generations, for two hundred years, are called kabbalists, mequbbalim, and they call the science of the ten sefiroth and some of the reasons for the [biblical] commandments by the name Kabbalah.”

It follows, then, that in the eyes of these kabbalists the new theosophic conception of God, based upon the doctrine of the ten sefiroth of the Book Yesirah as well as upon the mystical reasons founded on this doctrine for certain ritual precepts of the Torah, constitute the original content of the Kabbalah.

In the author’s own opinion, this teaching is by no means ancient; it does not go back many centuries. Rather, it is about two hundred years old, which brings us back, for its initial stage, to the period of the first revelations of the prophet Elijah —that is, in Provence, toward the middle of the thirteenth century. The chain of kabbalistic traditions that contains the names mentioned previously accords perfectly with this information. It should be noted, also, that the clear awareness on the part of this later kabbalist of the relative youth of the Kabbalah in no way prevents him from considering it a path to knowledge that is ”incumbent upon us” to follow.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 37-9.

The Revelations of the Prophet Elijah and the Celestial Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gershom Scholem on Correspondences

“All reality is constituted in the three levels of the cosmos—the world, time, and the human body, which are the fundamental realm of all being—and comes into existence through the combination of the twenty-two consonants, and especially by way of the “231 gates,” that is, the combinations of the letters into groups of two (the author apparently held the view that the roots of Hebrew words were based not on three but on two consonants).

Among the three realms there exist precise correlations, which no doubt also expresses relations of sympathy. The twenty-two consonants are divided into three groups, in accordance with the author’s peculiar phonetic system. The first contains the three “matrices,” ‘alef, mem, and shin. These in turn correspond to the three elements deduced in the first chapter in connection with the sefiroth—ether, water, fire—and from these all the rest came into being. These three letters also have their parallel in the three seasons of the year (again an ancient Greek division!) and the three parts of the body: the head, the torso, and the stomach.

The second group consists of the seven “double consonants” that in the Hebrew phonology of the author have two different sounds. They correspond, above all, to the seven planets, the seven heavens, the seven days of the week, and the seven orifices of the body. At the same time, they also represent the seven fundamental opposites in man’s life: life and death, peace and disaster, wisdom and folly, wealth and poverty, charm and ugliness, sowing and devastation, domination and servitude. To these correspond, in addition, the six directions of heaven and the Temple in the center of the world, which supports all of them (4:1-4).

The twelve remaining “simple” consonants correspond to man’s twelve principal activities, the signs of the zodiac, the twelve months, and the twelve chief limbs of the human body (the “leaders”). The combinations of all of these elements contain the root of all things, and good and evil, “pleasure and sorrow” (‘oneg and nega‘, which have the same consonants) have their origin in the same process, only according to a different arrangement of the elements (2:4).

This cosmogony and cosmology, based on language-mysticism, betray their relationship with astrological ideas. From them, direct paths lead to the magical conception of the creative and miraculous power of letters and words. It is by no means absurd to imagine that our text not only pursued theoretical aims, but was intended for thaumaturgical use as well. That is how the tradition of the early Middle Ages understood it, at least in part, and it would not have been wrong, in this case, to establish a connection between our text (or its prototype) and the story of the two masters of the Talmud, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshayah, who every Friday studied the “halakhoth concerning Creation” and by means of it created a calf that they then proceeded to eat.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 29-31.

The 32 Paths of the Sophia

“Besides these literary monuments of the Merkabah gnosis, there was another, extremely curious text which circulated widely during the Middle Ages, excercising a great influence in many lands and in diverse circles: the “Book of Creation,” Sefer Yesirah. Concerning the origin and spiritual home of this work, which numbers only a few pages, divergent opinions have been voiced, although to date it has been impossible to come to any reliable and definitive conclusions.

This uncertainty is also reflected in the various estimates of the date of its composition, which fluctuate between the second and the sixth centuries. This slender work is also designated in the oldest manuscripts as a collection of “halakhoth on the Creation,” and it is not at all impossible that it is referred to by this name in the Talmud. In the two different versions that have come down to us, it is divided into chapters whose individual paragraphs were likewise regarded by medieval tradition as mishnaic.

[ … ]

The book’s strong link with Jewish speculations concerning divine wisdom, hokhmah or Sophia, is evident from the first sentence:

“In thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom God . . . [there follows a series of biblical epithets for God] engraved and created His world.”

These thirty-two paths of the Sophia are the ten primordial numbers, which are discussed in the first chapter, and the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, which are described in a general way in chapter 2 and more particularly in the following chapters as elements and building blocks of the cosmos.

The “paths of the Sophia” are thus fundamental forces that emanate from her or in which she manifests herself. They are, as in the old conception of the Sophia herself, the instruments of creation. In her or through her—the Hebrew preposition permits both translations—God, the master of the Sophia, “engraved” Creation. The symbolism of the number thirty-two reappears also in some Christian gnostic documents, but it is in this text that it seems to be established for the first time and in the most natural manner.

Mention should, however, be made of Agrippa von Nettesheim, who informs us (De occulta philosophia 2:15) that thirty-two was considered by the Pythagoreans as the number of righteousness because of its well-nigh unlimited divisibility. More recently Nicholas Sed has discussed in a remarkable essay the relationship of the symbolism of the Book Yesirah with the Samaritan Memar of Marqah.

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 24-6.

 

Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.

Gershom Scholem on the Secret Doctrine of the Talmud

“I have elsewhere dealt at length with this Merkabah-mysticism of the so- called Hekhaloth literature, and shown that a genuine and unbroken chain of tradition links these writings to the secret doctrine of the Talmud. Large parts of this literature still belong to the talmudic period itself, and the central ideas of these texts go back to the first and second centuries.

To be sure, these texts, which in their present form belong in part to the genre of apocalyptic pseudepigraphy, are not always as old as they pretend to be. But even in these later adaptations, the underlying traditional material dates back to the period indicated. The mystical hymns found in several of the most important texts may definitely be traced back at least to the third century; here it is the literary form itself that militates against the idea of a later revision. The conceptions that find expression here surely were not developed later; in fact, they may date from a much earlier time.

These writings contain instructions for obtaining the ecstatic vision of the celestial regions of the Merkabah. They describe the peregrinations of the ecstatic through these regions: the seven heavens and the seven palaces or temples, Hekhaloth, through which the Merkabah mystic travels before he arrives at the throne of God. Revelations are made to the voyager concerning the celestial things and the secrets of the Creation, the hierarchy of the angels, and the magical practices of theurgy.

Having ascended to the highest level, he stands before the throne and beholds a vision of the mystical figure of the Godhead, in the symbol of the “likeness as the appearance of a man” whom the prophet Ezekiel was permitted to see upon the throne of Merkabah. There he receives a revelation of the “measurement of the body,” in Hebrew Shi’ur Qomah, that is, an anthropomorphic description of the divinity, appearing as the primal man, but also as the lover of the Song of Songs, together with the mystical names of his limbs.

The age of this Shi’ur Qomah mysticism, which scandalized the consciousness of later, “enlightened” centuries, may now be fixed with certainty. Contrary to the views that once prevailed, it must be dated to the second century, and certainly not later. It is undoubtedly connected with the interpretation of the Song of Songs as a mystical allegory of God’s relation with Israel.

Just as in the earliest days God revealed himself to the entire community of Israel, as was the case at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, where he was visibly manifest upon his Merkabah (this idea is attested in midrashic interpretations that undoubtedly go back to the tannaim), so is this revelation repeated in the relations between God and the mystic initiated into the secrets of the Merkabah.

The most important fragments of these descriptions transmitted in the Shi’ur Qomah make explicit reference to the depiction of the lover in many passages of the Song of Songs; this depiction thus offers a biblical veneer for what are evidently theosophic mysteries whose precise meaning and exact connections still escape us.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 19-21.

Shabbatai Zevi and Sacred Hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are in Deuteronomy and Exodus.

After the mountain was covered by a cloud for six days, Moses went up “in the mount forty days and forty nights.”

–Exodus 24:16-18.

Moses said, “the Lord delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the Lord spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.”

–Deuteronomy 9:10

Moses was gone for so long, that the children of Israel decided that something had happened to him. Aaron accordingly fashioned a golden calf, and he built an altar before it. The children of Israel worshipped it. When Moses and Joshua came down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, “he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and brake them beneath the mount.”

–Exodus: 32:19.

Then the Lord told Moses, “Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.”

–Exodus: 34:1.

According to Jewish tradition, Exodus 20:1-17 constitutes God’s first recitation and inscription of the Ten Commandments on the two tables. These were broken by Moses, and replaced by two different tablets, which were then placed inside the Ark of the Covenant:

1. “You shall have no other gods before me.”

2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

3. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

4. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

6. “You shall not murder.”

7. “You shall not commit adultery.”

8. “You shall not steal.”

9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet his wife. or his male servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Of all Biblical laws and commandments, the Ten Commandments alone were “written with the finger of God,” (Exodus: 31:18), and alone were placed in the Ark of the Covenant.

–(Exodus: 25:21).

There are 603 other commandments in the Torah, which form the basis of Jewish law. Elsewhere, there are references to “613 Mitzvot,” which are also commandments. Not sure about the discrepancy.

Allegedly there were ten commandments on each stone tablet, one set for the children of Israel, and one for the Lord. A covenant is comparable to a contract or to a treaty. Each party would receive and keep a copy.

The Talmud claims that the tablets were written on both sides, with the text penetrating to the reverse side. What is more, the writing was legible on both sides. It was not the reverse side of the writing on the surface. This is considered miraculous.

The Zohar and Reflection.

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

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

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

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

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

The Book Bahir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of Jewish Esotericism.

The origins of Jewish esotericism derive from a talmudic statement made in the Mishnah (Hagiga 2:1), circa 1st century CE. It was forbidden to expound two particular sections of scripture in public, and hazardous to even study them in small groups. The sections are the chapters of the Book of Genesis, describing the creation of the cosmos, called ma’aseh bereshit (the work of genesis) in the Talmud

The second section was the first book of the Book of Ezekiel, called the ma’aseh merkavah (the work of the chariot), being the prophet Ezekiel’s description of the vision of the celestial chariot in Ezekiel 1 and 10. 

They were regarded as spiritually and even physically dangerous. 

—-Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pg. 11.