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Tag: Yesirah

The Mystery of ben Belimah

“In the history of Jewish literature, Nahmanides is often considered to exemplify the “most Jewish” spirit; he was the one among Spanish Jews who expressed the deepest convictions regarding the Judaism of his time and embodied what was best and highest in it. From the point of view of a “refined” Judaism or the pure halakhah, it must indeed appear as an aberration that so clear a mind, one that easily penetrated the most complicated halakhic problems, should have become involved with the Kabbalah.

But it is precisely this dimension of his personality that must be grasped if we wish to understand the phenomenon. Without the Kabbalah and its contemplative mysticism Nahmanides, would be as little understood in his Jewish context as would, in the Christian context, a man like Ramón Lull (who was active in Catalonia a generation later and whose teaching exhibited structurally many analogies with the doctrine of the sefiroth) if one ignored his Ars contemplativa, in which his Christianity reached its culmination, and judged him solely on the basis of his wide-ranging activities in all other possible domains.

From this point of view, Nahmanides’ commentary on Yesirah, which develops his conception of God, is of particular importance. The gnostic doctrine of the aeons and the Neoplatonic doctrine of the emanation are combined, and we see how well they harmonize with a Jewish consciousness.

The monotheism of Nahmanides, the Jewish coloration of which is certainly beyond question, is unaware of any contradiction between the unity of God and its manifestation in the different sefiroth, each of which represents one of the aspects by which the kabhod of God reveals itself to the Shekhinah.

In his commentary on the Torah, in which he had to deal only with God’s activity in His creation, making use of the symbols of theosophy, Nahmanides could avoid touching upon this crucial point; he only discussed it in this document intended for kabbalists.

From whom Nahmanides actually received the esoteric tradition is an open question. He does mention, in his commentary on Yesirah, the Hasid Isaac the Blind, but not as his master. Nor does the letter that Isaac sent to him and to his cousin Jonah Gerondi, of whom we shall have occasion to speak later, indicate any direct discipleship.

Nahmanides refers to Yehudah ben Yaqar as his master, especially in the halakhic writings. Contrariwise, in a series of undoubtedly genuine traditions going back to Nahmanides’ most important disciple, Solomon ibn Adreth, there emerges the thoroughly enigmatic figure of a kabbalist by the name of ben Belimah—the personal first name is never mentioned—who is said to have been the connecting link between him and Isaac the Blind.

Meir ibn Sahula, in his commentaries on the traditions of Nahmanides (fol. 29a), contrasts those he had received from ben Belimah with those deriving from Isaac. In very old marginal notes emanating from the circle of Gerona and preserved in Ms. Parma, de Rossi 68, mention is made of a debate between Nahmanides and ben Belimah over the fate of Naboth’s spirit (1 Kings 22); the debate suggests that ben Belimah posited some kind of transmigration of souls or metamorphosis also for the higher spirits, even within the world of the sefiroth up to binah.

The existence of such a kabbalist therefore seems established beyond doubt, no matter how enigmatic his name. It is neither a family name nor a patronymic. Belimah is not known to me as a woman’s name, and it is extremely unlikely that Solomon ibn Adreth would have transmitted the name in a corrupted form to his disciples.

There remains the hypothesis of a pseudonym deliberately substituted for another name that was kept secret for reasons unknown to us and in a manner completely contrary to the habit of this circle. The pseudonym seems to be derived from B. Hullin 89a, where Job 26:7 is applied to Moses and Aaron who, when assailed by the Israelites, changed themselves into nothing!

The kabbalist in question thus may possibly have been a [ . . . ] ben Moses (rather than [ . . . ] ben Aaron). B. Dinur’s suggestion that the pseudonym refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (because of his attitude in the Maimonidean controversy) seems improbable. Perhaps new manuscript discoveries will one day clarify matters.

In any case, this name, whose literal translation would be “son of the Nought” or “son of seclusion,” provokes the historian’s curiosity. It remains uncertain whether ben Belimah should be located in Gerona, which is quite possible, or in Provence, where Nahmanides could have met with him during his youth.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 389-91.

The First Sefirah is Passed Over in Silence

“After the resurrection, the righteous and the average realize a new progress in their spiritual and moral perfection, one that takes them beyond everything they attained in their lives. By this adherence to the seven divine middoth, all will share perpetually in the gift of prophecy.

From a brief allusion of ibn Sahula (f. 34a), we can infer that on several occasions Isaac expressed his views on eschatological matters, in the context of which he may also have discussed the preparation for redemption by means of the purification of souls during their transmigrations.

In the extant texts, however, there is no clear statement on this subject, though on one occasion Isaac quotes a relevant passage from the Bahir, section 105.

Isaac of Acre states that in his commentary on Yesirah Isaac the Blind made a hidden allusion to the distinction between the migration of souls (gilgul) and the impregnation of souls (ibbur) as being two different things, but I have not been able to locate this allusion.

It should be clear from the foregoing that Isaac the Blind already had at his disposal a complete system of kabbalistic symbolism, partly inherited from tradition and partly elaborated by himself which he applied to a great variety of biblical and rabbinic subjects.

His epistle to Gerona, which has survived, offers a brief explanation of the last psalm, apparently in response to a question. The psalmist’s tenfold invitation to praise God is interpreted as an allusion to the ten sefiroth, though the first sefirah is passed over in silence, and Isaac counts downward beginning with hokhmah.

His mystical allusions in this epistle scarcely differ from the instructions he gives for the mystical kawwanoth at prayer; there too, he briefly describes the process by which the mystic first traverses the world of the sefiroth from below upward during the profession of the divine unity, the Shema’ Yisrael, and then, in his meditation on the word ‘ehad, “one!” completes and closes the circle of his kawwanah, from above downward.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 308-9.

The Secret Signature of the Letters

“Isaac’s picture of the universe rests, therefore, on the idea that the different realms of Creation, each according to its rank in the hierarchy of things, are in communication with the roots of all being as given in the world of the sefiroth.

The limited powers proceed from the unlimited powers, and the secret signature of the letters acts in everything, but nowhere more clearly than in man. But to the current that flows downward there corresponds another, upward movement.

When Isaac says in his commentary on Yesirah (end of chapter 3) that “all things return to the root of their true being,” he means, in this context, that a thing can act only in that which is related to its principle.

But his disciples already understood expressions of this kind in the sense of a return of all things to God. “Everything issues from the first Cause, and everything returns to the first Cause.”

Such a return can have both an ontological and an eschatological aspect. Even before the end of all things all being seeks to return, in accordance with its nature, to its origin, in the spirit of the ancient philosophical thesis of the appetitus naturalis, which the Neoplatonists above all rendered popular in the Middle Ages.

But also, the eschatological nuance of a “restoration of all things to their original being,” hashabath kol ha-debharim le-haw-wayatham, is not absent among Isaac’s pupils, who probably derived it from him.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 299-300.

Intertwining Branches of Good and Evil

“But it is not only the good that has its origin in the irradiation of lights of the emanation; there also exists a positive evil, which is related to the root of death. In this way Isaac adopts a modified form of the corresponding idea of the Bahir concerning the nature of evil.

The oppositions discussed in chapter 4 of the Book Yesirah, in connection with the seven consonants of the Hebrew alphabet that can be pronounced in two different ways, also include that of life and death; and Isaac explains that “after the cause of life, the cause of death was emanated.”

Also at the beginning of chapter 2 he emphasizes that in each case the poles of oppositions come “from an autonomous principle.” Death is therefore something more and something other than the mere cessation of life. It has a positive root.

Certainly Isaac stresses at the same time that in the world of the sefiroth and of the “inner essences,” good and bad are not yet dissociated from one another but are harmoniously united, be-‘ah-duth ube-shalom. Only when the “roots” continue to develop into a tree—and in the emanation that later derives from it and to which the double letters correspond—does evil also exist in isolation.

Otherwise, Isaac’s thinking remains determined by the image of the organic body (on chap. 4). The letters are like the branches of the tree and in them the intertwined pattern of good and evil is unfolded, so that each good middah also has its corresponding evil and vice versa.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 293.

Man as the “Great Seal”

“The divine power spreading from the sefiroth into Creation, from the world of the Throne and the angels outward, also descends below the human domain to living beings of a lower order, even to plants.

Trees, too, have a mystical root in those of Paradise, which represent the primordial images of all future trees. Everything below is linked to that which is above, to which it owes its existence, until it is linked by a chain of this kind to the Infinite.

”All creatures on earth depend on the higher powers, and these on still higher, up to the infinite cause.”

This cosmic chain is, at least in the realm of the sefiroth, a magnetic one. The sefiroth and logoi “rise above themselves like something rising under the influence of a magnet and thus their end [in the words of the Book Yesirah] is [enclosed] in its beginning” (on 1:7).

But in addition to the connection through emanation there is also one through vision, sefiyah. In connection with Yesirah 1:6, we learn that this vision itself is the magnetic act of communication in which everything ascends to its origins.

The Book of Creation says that the vision of the sefiroth is like lightning, and Isaac explains:

“The vision is the meditation of one thing out of the other. . . . Every cause is taken up and rises and then looks down from a cause that is higher than itself. . . . Everything is in the other and in communication with the other.”

Thus, not only does God contemplate the depths of his own wisdom when he produces the world, but a contemplative communication of the same kind also takes place among the sefiroth.

The contemplation of the mystic in a state of kawwanah is thus not unlike that which occurs among the spiritual essences themselves. In creation, it is not the divine middoth, the “fathers,” that act directly but rather the derivative middoth, toladoth, which issue from them. In isolation, without communicating with “fathers” or “mothers,” they are unable to produce anything.

Man too is inserted into this process. He is …

” … built out of combinations of the letters” (chap. 3). “And this higher edifice of spirit [ruah] that directs him [also] directs the All, and thus the All is connected to the upper and the lower ones and is composed of the world, the year and the soul. . . . And the soul is the determining factor in the All” (ibid.).

Man, our text continues, is “the quintessence of all creatures, a great seal, in which the beginning and the end” of all creatures are enclosed.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 290.

The Mystical Radicalism of Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mah ‘Elohim of Genesis 1:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Letters of the Great Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unknowable

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Elevation of the Soul After Death

“The Bahir’s idea of the sefiroth appears in Isaac’s writings in a fully crystallized form. In his commentary on the Yesirah 4:3, the verse 1 Chronicles 29:11 is used for the first time as a biblical reference for the names and the sequence of the seven lower sefiroth, especially the first five among them: “Yours, Lord, are the greatness (gedullah), might (geburah), splendor (tif’ereth), triumph (nesah), and majesty (hod)—yes all (kol) that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship (mamlakhah) and preeminence above all.”

From here come the designations not yet used in the Bahir, of gedullah for hesed, tif’ereth for ‘emeth, and hod. Isaac himself for the most part uses the names hesed and pahad (as in the Bahir) instead of gedullah and geburah. The name tif’ereth, however, is already familiar to him.

Whereas the word kol, occurring in the aforementioned verse, already served in the Bahir as an epithet designating the “Righteous,” Isaac uses for this sefirah the noun “Righteous” and the epithet “Foundation of the world.” For the last sefirah, on the other hand, he employs almost exclusively an epithet still not familiar to the Bahir, although it is undoubtedly alluded to there.

This epithet is ‘atarah, a synonym for kether, which designates the lowest of the ten “crowns.” Like the Bahir, he names the first three sefiroth kether or mahshabah, hokhmah and binah.

In his commentary on Yesirah, Isaac mentions many of these sefiroth in the framework of fixed schemata, but this does not always enable us to comprehend the sequence of the sefiroth within them. What is strange is that in point of fact the structure of the sefiroth beyond the supreme three only interests him in detail when it is a question of prayer mysticism, or the interpretation of certain ritual commandments. They have their importance as stages of the contemplative ascent or of the eschatological elevation of the soul, after death, to even higher spheres.

But never are any coherent thoughts presented concerning their function and structure. This is particularly the case for the potencies of tif’ereth, yesod and ‘atarah, which play an especially important role in the evolution of the doctrine of the sefiroth. In contrast to this lack of interest in detail, one discerns in Isaac a more pronounced interest in the totality of the spiritual potencies expressed in language and, in a more general manner, in spiritual entities.

Having said that, the terminological differences between concepts like sefiroth, middoth, letters (of the alphabet) and hawwayoth (literally: essences) are by no means always clear, and their interpretation is often fraught with difficulties.

However, these difficulties are closely related to what is truly new in Isaac’s Kabbalah. Indeed, from the historical point of view their interest lies in the combination of the world of ideas of the Bahir and the entirely new elements that erupt, inspired by gnostic ideas, into the oldest form of the Kabbalah as represented by the Bahir.

This combination reflects speculative interests whose origin is no longer essentially determined by Gnosticism but rather by Neoplatonism and a language mysticism generated by the latter. Isaac is visibly struggling with new thoughts for which he is as yet unable to find clear and definitive expression. The awkwardness of his new terminology militates against the supposition that this lack of clarity, which often makes it so difficult to penetrate his meaning, is intentional.

His new terminology seems to be derived from philosophy, although we cannot identify its philosophical sources in the Hebrew tradition. The special importance of Isaac’s commentary on the Yesirah lies in the attempt to read into the old texts the new, speculative thoughts of a contemplative mystic. But we are no less surprised by the boldness with which he presents far-reaching ideas in his other cosmological fragments and in his remarks concerning the mystical theory of sacrifice. The particular manner in which Isaac applies his ideas to the task of man, to the connection between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds, and to eschatological matters merits closer consideration.

The path of the mystic, described by Isaac at the beginning of his commentary on the Yesirah, is (as Isaac of Acre already recognized in his paraphrase of several of these passages in his own commentary) that of systematically uncovering the divine—by means of reflective contemplation and within the innermost depths of such contemplation. Isaac postulates three stages in the mystery of the deity and its unfolding in creation and revelation.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 263-5.

Footnote 55 on the Use of the Name Iao

“On the use of the name Iao in the magic of the age of syncretism there is an abundance of material. Most of the older examples have been collected by W. von Baudissin, Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1876), 179-254. The passage from Yesirah is not referred to by Baudissin, nor did R. Reitzenstein make use of it in his treatment of the Book Yesirah, for which he assumes an ultimately Hellenistic origin reaching back to the second century; his arguments are based on a comparative study of letter-mysticism in late antiquity; see Reitzenstein, Poimandres (Leipzig, 1904), 291.

As an historian with a broad perspective, Reitzenstein perhaps had a clearer view than many other Jewish scholars, who often regarded the Book Yesirah as if it were suspended in a vacuum in the midst of the history of religions. It should also be noted, in this connection, that in the Coptic Pistis Sophia, chap. 136, Iao appears in a similar context: Jesus calls out his name as he turns toward the four corners of the world.

The sealing of the six directions of space by means of the permutations of Iao corresponds to the idea that this name is the master of the four directions of the world, that is, the master of the cosmos. Cf. the material assembled by Erik Peterson, Heis Theos (Göttingen, 1926), 306-307. Peterson’s interpretation of the magical name Arbathiao as “the four Iao” is, however, utterly unconvincing. The magical name is nothing other than a syncretistic transcription of the Tetragrammaton as “the tetrad [of the four letters of the name YHWH upon which is based the name] of Iao.”

This is proven by the corresponding form Tetrasya, which we find in the Hebrew writings of the Hekhaloth and which was still unknown to Peterson; cf. my Major Trends, 56, 363. The terminology employed in the Yesirah for these three directions of space is also very ancient: the phrase “above and below, in front and behind, right and left” is used in exactly the same manner in Akkadian, and is evidently also behind the wording of the Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 (first century), where “in front” and “behind” are to be understood spatially.

This usage was no longer understood by the amoraim, and was in any case transferred from the spatial to the temporal, as S. E. Löwenstamm, “On an Alleged Gnostic Element in Mishnah Hagiga II, 1″ (in Hebrew) in M. Haram (ed.), Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem, 1960), 112-121, has shown, drawing upon Akkadian material. His explanations furnished additional linguistic evidence in support of the antiquity of the Book Yesirah, although precisely the passage under consideration here escaped his attention.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 33-4