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Absorbing PerfectionsKabbalah and Interpretation$

Moshe Idel

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780300083798

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300083798.001.0001

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The World-Absorbing Text

The World-Absorbing Text

(p.26) 1 The World-Absorbing Text
Absorbing Perfections

Moshe Idel

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the development of the status of biblical text within ancient Jewish sources, as well as the major impact that occurred later on. It begins with a discussion of the text and the interpreter as ways to determine the nature of midrashic exegesis, along with an overview of the four main characteristics of a postbiblical rabbinic conceptualization of the Torah. From here the chapter moves to discuss the presence of the hidden layer of the Torah, which can be found in writings that exist before the masters of Hasidei Ashkenaz and Kabbalistic literature. It then looks at different views of God in Talmudic-midrashic literature and rabbinic literature. The chapter also touches on the Book of Creation or the Sefer Yetzirah.

Keywords:   biblical text, midrashic exegesis, Torah, Kabbalistic literature, Talmudic-midrashic literature, rabbinic literature, Book of Creation, Sefer Yetzirah, Hasidei Ashkenaz

The entire Torah is not [embodied] in the world But the entire world is Torah.


I. Cultural Choices

Although most of the following discussion will rotate around the Hebrew Bible, its various perceptions and multiple modes of interpretations, it is hard to delineate a systematic textology, namely a unified approach to the status and nature of the biblical text, or of the ways of its interpretation in the biblical literature. Those concerns arise gradually in the Jewish postbiblical literatures. In this chapter I shall address succinctly the expansion of the status of the biblical text in ancient Jewish sources and one of their later major reverberations.

The nature of midrashic exegesis is determined by two main components of the interpretive experience: the text and the interpreter. The text is the canonized Hebrew Bible, whose precise borders are delimited and whose sacrosanct status is (p.27) sealed. The situation of the interpreter is altogether different. As the text became fixed, the terms of the interpreter's task altered. The divine spirit, which was conceived of as instrumental in the formation of the canon, was then excluded from the interpretive process. The rabbinic interpreter, no more than a simple human being before divine revelation, had now to function without the divine help so necessary to fathoming the messages inherent in the text. In penetrating the intricacies of the Bible, he had only two tools: the tradition he inherited and his own intellectual abilities and capacity to apply the authorized rules of interpretation. The Godhead was now conceived of as expecting that man, on his own, would articulate His intentions as instilled for eternity within the revealed book, and He Himself was portrayed as an arduous student of the Torah.

Man faced, then, a silent Godhead and a text conceived of for centuries as the single authoritative source of divine guidance. No wonder that close scrutiny of the Bible, motivated by and combined with an overwhelming conviction that everything is hinted at or solved by the biblical verses, became the main intellectual activity of Jewish spiritual leadership. The whole of its literary output in the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods was aimed at elucidating the legal part of the Bible and explaining its narrative portions. The authoritative rabbinic Jewish texts were regarded as but pleiades of stars rotating around the Bible, while the other kinds of texts (philosophical, historical, apocalyptic, magical, mystical, or literary) were successfully excluded from the rabbinic universe and condemned to total oblivion. Some remnants of the nonrabbinic Jewish literary creations that did survive became planets in Christian literatures; only seldom did they penetrate the rabbinic firmaments. Other texts were simply suppressed, though they continued to be esoterically transmitted among select groups. Such was the case with various types of mystical treatise (the greatest of these coming to comprise the so-called Heikhalot literature) as well as with certain magical texts that remained in usage in more popular circles.

This “purification” of Jewish literature contributed to the emergence of a relatively uniform attitude toward the biblical text. But the apocalyptical, magical, mythical, and mystical perceptions of this text, which, naturally, could not be totally eradicated, continued to survive as vague hints or fragments incorporated into classical rabbinic literature. This literature, which was intended as a vast interpretation of the canon for the benefit of the large Jewish public, was consumed by a community who sought in it the guidance and instruction that it was once the role of the prophet or priest to supply.

Let us delve briefly into the main components of the midrashic literature examined from the point of view of its hermeneutics. (Some of the more technical issues will be addressed later, in Chapter 6.) First and foremost, it seems that (p.28) its disseminators were leading figures in Jewish communities or academies, speakers who delivered their homilies before an open audience without any restrictions regarding the age or the competence of the participants. The language of their discourses was generally perspicuous and aimed at explaining relatively simple items related to the biblical texts. Such explanation was usually achieved without resort to complex or systematic theological concepts. Further, these homilies took the form, it seems, of primarily oral speeches, delivered as part of or in connection with the oral religious service. The language of these homilies served a highly social function, its central feature being its public or collective communication. Indeed, there is a strong affinity that links the ancient Jewish interpreter, using authorized hermeneutic devices and perceiving the text as speaking mainly to the Jewish community, and the plain, public language he used in order to deliver his message. In effect, one implies the other.

As long as Jewish culture was given the chance to develop more or less autonomously, without a close encounter with or pressure from other theological systems, it generated mostly self-interpretative literature of this type. However, when attacked or criticized by sectarians, like the Karaites, or by outsiders, like the Islamic theologians, some Jewish masters reacted by absorbing some of the theological positions of their opponents, trying thereby to evidence the complete compatibility of Jewish texts with the intellectual standards of other traditions, such as Islamic Kalam or Aristotelianism. One of the most dramatic consequences of this apologetic reinterpretation of Judaism was the further suppression of some of the apocalyptic, magical, mythical, and mystical elements that survived in a diluted fashion in rabbinic sources, or in their primary form in Hebrew texts existing outside the authoritative Jewish literature. But just as the purification of Jewish literature caused a relocation of the mysterious, mystical, or magical elements in Midrash, so the rationalistic reconstructions of Judaism prompted a powerful reaction from a variety of circles, wherein an amalgam of older traditions, including the same mystical, mythical, and magical elements, came to the surface in more overt and more crystallized forms.1

II. An Accent on Textuality: Rabbinic Concepts

Let me list what I understand as the four major characteristics of the postbiblical rabbinic conceptualization of the Torah, which apparently are new in this literature. They constitute the rabbinic imaginaire that redefined the boundaries of the Torah. As some of these features have been dealt with elsewhere in scholarship, and as the present framework strives to portray the Jewish mystical literatures, I cannot offer in this chapter a detailed analysis of all these characteristics but will (p.29) elaborate on the first two alone. Naturally, they do not exhaust the rich gamut of understandings of the Torah in these literatures.

  1. 1. Torah is conceived of as a preexistent entity, which not only precedes the creation of the world but also serves as the paradigm of its creation.2

  2. 2. Torah encompasses the whole range of supernal and mundane knowledge, serving thereby as the depository of the perfect and complete gnosis and as an indispensable bridge between man and the divine.

  3. 3. Torah study is a religious imperative, as it embodies the will of God, which has to be further explicated by the intense devotion to the perusal and analysis of the contents inherent in the biblical text. Even God was not exempted from this religious obligation, and His study of the Torah became a leitmotif in rabbinic thought.

  4. 4. Torah is regarded, in some rabbinic texts and in a plethora of Kabbalistic ones, as the “daughter” of God.3

Such a special status of the text is different from that of the myths prevalent among the ancients and medieval Gnostics, or the various forms of pagan myths in the Near East, or those types of myths that were preferred in the regular scholarly expositions of the nature of mythology. First and foremost, in rabbinic sources there is an hypostatical understanding of the Torah, but not, insofar as ancient texts are concerned, a full personification. The sacred book does not possess a changing will of itself but rather embodies the dynamic will of its author. It has a feminine gender but only very marginally is it described in an erotic or sexual manner or characterized as playing the role of the divine wife or a goddess, though a more erotic role may be detected in the context of the relationship between the Torah and the people of Israel.4 This last role was already “occupied” in Jewish thought by other hypostases, like those that represent the collective Jewish nation (knesset yisraʾel) or the iconic representation of Jacob engraved on the divine throne.5

However, even these obvious differences between the more common Near Eastern myths and the above descriptions of the Torah cannot attenuate the mythological nature of the conception of this literary entity in some important trends of rabbinism. Its conceptualization proposes a canonization of events (some of them primordial) and of ritual by telescoping them into a mythical zone; I propose to call this literary zone a mesocosmos, an ontological universe that is the prototype of both cosmogonic processes and human behavior. According to some rabbinic texts, the Torah includes even directives concerning how to influence the status of the divine power.6 This radical ontologization of the Torah in rabbinism is of (p.30) paramount importance for understanding some later basic developments in Kabbalistic ontology in general and Kabbalistic textology in particular.7 The ontological approach to the sacred text, which sometimes may presuppose a unique status for Hebrew, serves as one of the most powerful nexuses between the rabbinic literature, interested mostly in the ritual and legendary aspects of the Bible, and the theosophical Kabbalah, which projected the primordial Torah into the bosom of the divine.

III. Torah: The Hidden Dimension

In this section I would like to point out the existence of the concept of a hidden layer of the Torah in writings that predate both Kabbalistic literature and the masters of Hasidei Ashkenaz. The existence of such an understanding means that the dynamics of the development of the processes of arcanization will have to be analyzed as starting much earlier and to take into consideration presymbolic secret layers. It seems that without allowing magical arcanization a role in subsequent hermeneutical developments, the picture of Jewish hermeneutics will remain fragmentary.

The reception of the Torah by Moses in heaven has been described in several rabbinic and Jewish magical sources as preceded by a contest between him and the angels. After Moses' victory, the angels, which previously had opposed God's revealing the Torah to him, gave him the secret divine names.8 Thus, the reception of the Torah was accompanied, according to several early medieval sources, by the disclosure of divine names—secret formulas, many of them unknown in classical Jewish texts and conceived as reflecting divine powers or attributes.9 The most important discussion of this issue, found in the preface of a magical book entitled Ma¿ayan ha-Hokhmah, will be translated and discussed later.10 The assumption that potent names emerge out of the verses of the Torah has been expressed in Ma¿ayan ha-Hokhmah by the verb yotzeʾim,11 which means “go out.” In that context it appears that a certain linguistic exegetical technique is able to extract from a regular verse something that is found in it. Interestingly enough, an early medieval midrash, called Midrash Konen, explains an operation performed by God himself on the text of the Torah: “He took the Torah and opened it and took out from her one name, which has not been transmitted to any creature, as it is written,12 ‘This is my name forever’13 … He opened the Torah and took out a second name…. He opened the Torah and took out a third name.”14

The opening of the Torah and the taking out of names seem to reflect a certain understanding of the “emergence” of the names from the text, conceived of now as a box where the names are deposited and, presumably, kept in secret. This implies another type of imaginary, in comparison to that of Ma¿ayan ha-Hokhmah, (p.31) where the secrets, though also closely related to the text of the Torah, are disclosed by an external agent, angels, which teach Moses where precisely in the Bible to find the verse that generates the name pertinent to the cure of a malady or offering a remedy for a certain problem. In Midrash Konen, however, the Torah is conceived of as preexisting creation and as the source of the creative processes, by means of three divine names found in it. Let me designate this approach as intratextual. It means that the additional layer of understanding of some parts of the Torah is generated by a rearrangement of the linguistic units that constitute the interpreted text, an approach I propose to call intracorporal, not by the introduction of an elaborate nomenclature whose conceptualization is extraneous to the interpreted text—what may be referred to as the extratextual or intercorporal approach.15 This approach is closer to a use of the Torah than an interpretation of it,16 though the rearrangement of the linguistic material is presented as disclosing a dimension within the canonical text.

IV. The Cosmological Torah

In the vast talmudic-midrashic literature several different ways of understanding the biblical account of creation are present. One of them, possibly influenced by Platonic thought, portrays God as consulting or contemplating the Torah as an architectonic model and creating the world according to its pattern.17 The universe of language, as it was preestablished in the sacrosanct structure of the canon, is, according to such a view, the blueprint of the material cosmos. The peculiar arrangement of the linguistic material in the Torah is apparently regarded as compelling God Himself. He is now conceived of not as a totally free agent, a creator who may shape the nature of the world according to His unpredictable will, but as a power that enacts, on another plane and using other material, the content of a preexistent Torah. The act of creation is, in this view, an act of imposing the inner structure of the Torah on an undefined material. What seems to be absent from this description is the conception that letters are the raw material out of which the world is going to be created. Its primary material, its hyle, is not specified, but its “form,” to speak in Aristotelian terms, is language as embodied in the Torah.

Interestingly, this presentation of creation did not specify whether God's contemplation of the Torah was accompanied by a pronunciation of its content as part of creation. This way of describing the creational process envisions Torah as the paradigm and is especially important for understanding the paramount centrality of Torah in Judaism, more specifically its commandments, whose performance is regarded as safeguarding the existence of heaven and earth.18

Another version of creation connected to language is expressed, tangentially, (p.32) in a well-known statement according to which Bezalel created the tabernacle using his knowledge of the way heaven and earth were created by combination of letters.19 According to this interpretation of the talmudic statement, Bezalel was cognizant of this peculiar method of creation, namely the technique of combining letters rather than using letters as raw material, as implied in the interpretation proposed by Scholem.20 Depicted as the paragon of Jewish artisans, Bezalel was described as uniquely wise, his name being understood to mean “[being] in the shade of God.” His knowledge of the combinatory device used by God, based on linguistic technique, enabled him to accomplish a creation that is second only to the creation of God—the creation of the tabernacle. The peculiar wisdom of the builder of the temple, Solomon, is well known; however, even he is not described as being in the possession of the combinatory practice that served God. In this description of creation, it is not clear whether God or Bezalel pronounced the peculiar combination of letters involved in the creational process.

The third midrashic theory regarding linguistic creation depicts God as using divine names. According to one version, He used letters that constitute His name in order to create heaven but other letters in order to create earth.21 Again, it would be unreasonable to assume that these letters entered in the physical constitution of the creation; they are, apparently, the creative forces that served God rather than the basic elements of the universe. Also, in this description the pronunciation of the divine name is not implied.

The next important theory of linguistic creation, and seemingly the most influential one, argues that the actual pronunciation of the creational words, mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis, is the basic explanation of the account of creation.22 God is sometimes referred as “He who spoke and the world came into being.” The authors of this view identify ten creative words in Genesis 1, called maʾamarot, and interesting mystical speculations stemming from this assumption were to emerge in a long series of later Jewish mystical sources.23

V. The Book as the Paradigm of Creation in Rabbinic Literature

An interesting claim in rabbinic literature, reiterated later by Kabbalists, is the view of God as looking into the preexistent book of the Torah and creating the world. In this case, an extradivine pattern is contemplated by God acting as a demiurge, which follows a certain preexisting plan. The book seems to contain the universe, at least virtually, while God actualizes it just as an architect follows the preliminary plan. Preexistence, perhaps even primordiality, already confers on the Torah the aura of a cosmic book, which is corroborated by the divine gazing at it in order to create the world.24

Before examining the medieval treatments of the midrashic views, let me address (p.33) a text whose precise date and origins are obscure but must have been composed earlier than the twelfth century25 that assumes that God, when creating the world, had been contemplating Sefer Yetzirah, itself a book describing the creation of the world by letter combinations. Indubitably, this book serves as the paradigm for the world, just as the Torah did in Genesis Rabba'. I assume that this short treatise was composed by a more mystically and magically oriented author.26 Indeed, whereas the midrashic source about the Torah as contemplated by God is presumably concerned with the semantic and graphic aspects of the canonical book, when Sefer Yetzirah is mentioned the plausible assumption is that God was conceived of as contemplating all the combinations of two letters, exposed in this book as the technique of creating the world.27 The paramount mathematical nature of the combination of two letters implies the obliteration of the semantic aspects of language, and in fact of any significant message; therefore the divine intention, as manifested either in history or in commandments, is absent in this book. As we shall see in Chapter 12, the transition between the structured Torah as represented by verses and the status of its unconjugated letters before creation become an ongoing topic in Jewish mystical literatures.

What do the two instances of contemplating books in order to create the world mean? In my opinion, both texts subsumed the creator to their preexisting linguistic structures which, though authored by God, are nevertheless so definitive that even God is compelled to act in accordance with their order. The creating author, powerful as he may be, is therefore construed as obedient to the written articulation of his own will. Or, to put it in a different way, in some late ancient Jewish texts both God and man should contemplate and implement the structure of the primordial book, which was revealed in the present form as part of the Sinaitic revelation. In the contest between the author and his book, as represented by pre-Kabbalistic statements, in the first round the book won. In fact, this awareness is well formulated in a remarkable statement attributed to God Himself: “Rabbi Jeremy in the name of R. Hiyya bar Abba said: it is written,28 ‘They had deserted Me, and did not keep My Torah.’ May they desert me but keep my Torah, because out of their studying Torah, the light within it will cause them to repent.”29

If the choice must be made between the author and the book, a preference for the book is explicitly recommended by the author himself. The book did not yet absorb the author but it would become the most important type of preoccupation that would ultimately cause the return of the student to God. It is reasonable to assume that God is not conceived of as the “meaning” of the Torah, as Jesus was imagined to be in the Greek Bible. The Hebrew Bible was conceived of as having an independent message, teaching a way of life that will ultimately bring someone (p.34) to God. Thus, it is not the presence, the passion, or the fate of God that gives meaning to the Bible, but a modus vivendi that can be extracted from a study of the biblical text. However, the ideal of attaining an experience of meeting God is not obliterated by the immersion in an enterprise that is profoundly text-oriented.

Let me address now another concept of the Torah that is recurrent in rabbinic literature and influential in Kabbalistic literature: the Torah as an entity upon which the world depends long after its creation. The assumption that the world stands, or exists—in Hebrew ‘omed—upon the Torah, namely the study of the book, recurs in rabbinic literature.30 I assume that a variety of understandings of these statements is possible, ranging from a more metaphorical one, which would assume that the world is none other than human society, to a more literal one, which would assume an ontological dependence of the created universe on the ongoing study and observance of the Torah. While the more metaphorical stands were preferred in some forms of Jewish thought, in some of the main schools of Kabbalah the more literal and thus ontological understanding becomes prevalent. We shall survey some instances of the creational and sustaining aspects of the Torah later, especially in Chapter 4.

VI. Sefer Yetzirah and Linguistic Creational Processes

The crucial formulation of the creation by means of language, which served as the cornerstone of medieval linguistic mysticism in Judaism, is to be found in a short treatise that is not part of the classical talmudic-midrashic literature. It is Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation,31 that contributed the theory that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet entered the process of creation not only as the creative force but also as the elements of its material structure.32 Given the great importance of this book for many of the discussions below, especially in Chapters 11 and 12, it is appropriate here to describe briefly some of its main statements. What is unique to its linguistic theory, in comparison to the views expressed in the two other bodies of Jewish literature surveyed above, seems to be the very discussion of the emergence of language. In the Bible and in the midrashic-talmudic literature the implicit assumption is that language was not created but used, that language is coexistent with God. The very question of the production of its elements or the processes of the interaction between them was not addressed at all. Therefore, the little treatise under consideration addresses questions of the origin and organization of language but, unlike the two other corpora mentioned above, is less interested in the way ordinary language organizes reality. The search for origin often represents a certain nostalgia that reflects an uneasiness with the prevalent forms of established culture, and this seems to be the case with the linguistic thought of Sefer Yetzirah.

(p.35) It is not the accepted formulations of language that inspired the discourse of this booklet but the ontology of the elements that precede their coalescence into language. If the later dating of this book from sometime after the fifth century is accepted, an uneasiness with the rabbinic formulation of the canonic Bible and its emphasis on commandments may underlie the discussions in Sefer Yetzirah. However, even if a much earlier dating is proven, we may assume that this treatise articulates a spiritual trend different from the one that is to become the more dominant form of discourse in the rabbinic sources, a fact widely recognized by scholars. Here language in its consonant form, and mainly less semantic status, is considered the archetype of the world, having a transcendental existence, and also the stuff of the cosmos, thus expressing a much more immanentist approach. Another cardinal topic that occurs only in this version of linguistic creation is the description of the extraction of the letters of the alphabet from the second sefirah, the pneuma, out of which God has carved the alphabet. After the completion of the emergence of the twenty-two Hebrew letters, God combined them in all possible permutations of two letters as part of the cosmogonic processes. Given the impact of this book, let me succinctly address some of the magical-linguistic elements found therein. In the second chapter God is portrayed as creating the Hebrew letters that served as the tools, and perhaps also the prime matter, for the creation of the world: “Twenty-two letters, He engraved them and He extracted them and weighted them and permuted them and combined them, and He created by them ‘the soul of all the formation,’ and ‘the soul of all the speech,’ which will be formed in the future.”33

The Hebrew verbs expressing the divine creation of the letters are, respectively, haqaq, hatzav, shaqal, hemir, tzeref, and tzar. Three of these verbs, haqaq, hatzav, and tzeref, also occur elsewhere, in connection with the creation of the world.34 Two of them, haqaq and hatzav, recur more than once in similar contexts.35 Four of these verbs expressing divine acts are also among the verbs that describe, at the end of the treatise, an act of the patriarch Abraham, who is portrayed as contemplating and looking, seeing and investigating and understanding. It is then written that he “engraved, extracted and combined and formed, and he was successful.”36 The Hebrew verbs related to the creation and manipulation of letters are haqaq, hatzav, tzeref, and tzar. The recurrence of these verbs in the first and last chapters of the same book suggests that Abraham's deeds are understood as a case of imitatio dei. Man, or an elitist figure represented here by Abraham, may manipulate letters in a manner patently similar to God's primordial operation. Thus the correspondences between the two agents are quite explicit. This conclusion raises a question: What is the meaning of Abraham's “success”? I assume that, by dint of the parallelism between the two discussions, God's creation of the “soul of all the (p.36) formation” (nefesh kol yetzur) and the “soul of all the speech” (nefesh kol dibbur) implies that Abraham also has been able to replicate these creations. As I have suggested elsewhere, the formation in late-antiquity Hebrew designated by the term yetzur is to be understood as standing for an anthropoid.37 Thus, by imitating the divine acts, some of them including operations related to language like permutation and combination of letters, man is able to create here in the lower sphere. In other words, Sefer Yetzirah offers a special kind of imitatio dei, not by means of an act of intellection, as in Jewish Neoaristotelianism, nor by performance of commandments, as in talmudic thought, nor by love or suffering, as in Christianity. It is by exploiting the creative power of language that the perfecti are able to imitate God.

It should be emphasized, however, that it is not by delivering a semantic message, as in ritual behavior, or transmitting a certain kind of information to others that man is able to imitate God. Rather, this mimesis is attained by a combinatory practice that does not copy any preexisting pattern nor reproduce any preexisting message. God and man are conceived of as exhausting all the potential inherent in the linguistic units, as actualizing the nonsemantic parts of all the possible combinations of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It is more the seriousness of homo ludens than the understanding of homo sapiens that is able to imitate God. Indeed, recourse to the idea of God as playing occurs sometimes in medieval interpretations of the combinatory technique of Sefer Yetzirah; the term used was shaʾashuʾa, as we shall see in the next section. However, homo faber is also present in the parallels between God and man: both were presented as creating, formatting, by means of language. To a great extent, the sapiens part of man, and of God, has been minimized by the conspicuous stress placed on the importance of the meaningless combinations of two letters.

This parallelism based on the activation of language is not exclusive to Sefer Yetzirah; it also occurs in a well-known talmudic passage found in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, where Bezalel, the biblical builder of the tabernacle, is described as having been acquainted with the combination of letters that served in the process of the creation of heaven and earth.38 Again, man imitates God by permuting letters in a context that conspicuously deals with a certain form of creation. This affinity between the talmudic statement and that found in Sefer Yetzirah has a definite significance: it shows, unlike an opinion expressed more recently,39 that a central aspect of Sefer Yetzirah, namely its linguistic magic, which includes an imitatio dei, is shared at least by two different layers of ancient Jewish literature. We should also mention in this context that a rather magical view of the creation of the world by means of linguistic material—the various letters of the divine names—was also expressed in rabbinic literature.40 Thus, the magician using the divine names, or some of their letters, not only relies on the inherent power of (p.37) those letters but at the same time imitates divine creative acts. Yet unlike the more clear-cut medieval parallelism between the lower and supernal languages, in Sefer Yetzirah and the passage from Berakhot it seems that the same type of linguistic unit is used by both God and the perfect religious persons. The letters were indeed created by God, but they entered the constitution of the world, and the mystic is able to use them. Thus, when imitating God's acts, the mystic is, according to these two texts, also resorting to His same tools.

According to this version of creation, there is no mention of the Torah as the archetype. Neither are the divine names crucial for understanding the process of creation in the Book of Creation; they occur only as seals securing the extremities of the world. It is noteworthy that this theory, which focuses on letters and their combinations rather than the Torah and the divine names, occurs in a work that was composed outside the literary genres characteristic of the halakhic-midrashic writings. The emphasis on the combinatory theory that, as we saw in the preceding section, is only hinted at in the talmudic passage about Bezalel assumes a degree of freedom in the usage of the letters, which are no longer conceived of as forming the fixed and powerful combinations of the letters in the canonic Torah. Now God is not copying the content of the Torah, transposing it on another plane, but is creating freely by resorting to a mathematical combination of letters. No wonder that this treatise does not even touch on the topic of commandments; the common Jewish religious concepts are rather marginal in comparison to the cosmogonic elements that permeate the entire book.41

Let me address now the absorbing element in Sefer Yetzirah. The combinations of letters to which God resorted are described in detail in this book; they consist of all the combinations of two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. However, if the combinatory technique is accepted as valid, all the other combinations, which are ostensibly much more numerous, may reflect the creative aspects of the alphabet in respect to other realms. Plausibly, the created world is one incident, or result, of the cosmogonic aspects of language, which are to be conceived as more comprehensive. Combinations of more letters, or other types of combinations that are not even mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah, could have been conceived of as culminating in the emergence of other universes.

The above rabbinic sources and Sefer Yetzirah represent cases of absorption of the material realm and sometimes also spiritual existence, within an entity conceptualized as the sacred book. The belief in a world-absorbing book42 did not leave too much room for the book of nature, just as the emphasis found in Greek philosophical texts on what has been designated as the book of nature and the kinds of thought influenced by Greek philosophy did not allow the ascent of the textuality of the sacred book.43

(p.38) VII. Torah: A Supernal Garment and a Small Blackboard

God as creator has been described as contemplating the Torah, according to the midrashic text, and as combining letters in Sefer Yetzirah. As seen above, in an anonymous early medieval text God was depicted in a manner that brings together the two divergent descriptions. (I shall have more to say about this issue in Chapter 12.) Another development in Kabbalah, however, produced the most articulated version of the world-absorbing text: the version of Lurianism commonly called the theory of the malbush and ascribed to R. Israel Saruq, an influential Kabbalist who disseminated his lore in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century. The details of this development have been addressed elsewhere; here I would like to restrict my discussion to the elevation of both Torah and the combinations of letters, following the pattern found in Sefer Yetzirah, to a pretheogonic and precosmogonic stage, which implies a moment of divine delight, sha¿ashu¿a.44

According to this version of Lurianism, Sarug interposed an important phase in the theogonic process, which consists in the theory of the malbush, the divine garment, which is woven of the combinations of the letters as combined in Sefer Yetzirah. This texture of letters, also named Torah, plays a role similar to that of the tehiru in Luria, being the space from which God withdrew and where the creation will take place. In order to enable this process, however, the lower half of the combinations of letters was folded up and evacuated the place that would serve as the locus of the emanative process. Only then did the supernal anthropomorphic configuration called 'Adam Qadmon emerge. Obviously, it is an important change in comparison to other versions of Lurianism; in Sarug's and its sixteenth-century sources the combinatory technique of Sefer Yetzirah was placed above the emanative process concerning the ten sefirot or the various Lurianic configurations named partzufim. The Kabbalists who generated this new status of the combinations of letters as higher than the emanations of anthropomorphic entity returned to the more comprehensive perception of the process of creating an anthropoid according to the technique of Sefer Yetzirah.

A survey of all the main schemes related to the malbush shows that it consists of combinations of letters that are based on Sefer Yetzirah and are identical to the 231 two-letter combinations that are to be pronounced in order to create the golem—the 231 gates—and of the 231 that serve to undo it. The evacuation of the lower 231 gates can be explained as the evacuation of those combinations that may counteract the creation of the divine anthropos, and the Sarugian texts specify that the infolding combinations of letters represent the attribute of judgment, whereas those combinations that remained in place correspond to the attribute of grace. The appearance of the figure of the ʿAdam Qadmon, after mention of the combinations (p.39) of letters, is a close parallel to the technique of creating a golem, which was transposed on the theosophical level.

The primordial Torah, torah qedumah, has been identified with the garment and was described as “woven from the letters forward and backward, upward and downward, and was read from all the sides and from the two parts. On the higher half of the malbush the letters are in the form of seals, [as a] vessel, there are fifteen alphabets which the serving angels are using.”45

From the perspective of this discussion, in principle the predication of the Torah as preexisting the world is nothing new. However, the insertion of the emergence of the Torah as a texture of letters, like those expounded in Sefer Yetzirah and its numerous reverberations in the Middle Ages, within an emanational process generates a more sophisticated theory that is worthy of elaboration. This synthesis is already found in the emerging Kabbalah, as we shall see in the next chapter, and it reverberated in the middle of the sixteenth century in the works of the Jerusalem Kabbalist R. Joseph ibn Tzayyah.46 Yet it seems that only Sarug explicitly combined this view with that of the divine withdrawal, known as the theory of tzimtzum, which assumes that the space of the world was occupied in its entirety by the malbush. Thus, this texture, which is identical to the Torah, occupies both the place where all the worlds will later emerge, namely the emanated and the created worlds, but also the higher part, where it still exists after the evacuation of the lower part. The primordial Torah is therefore much more comprehensive and sublime than all the known subsequent worlds. This Torah, however, is described as folded, in order to allow the several stages of emanation and creation. In other words, though amorphous from the semantic point of view, the texture designated as Torah comprises the two main divine attributes: the creative one, grace, and the destructive one, judgment. But the two cannot remain separated; they should and must be reconnected by the ascent of the lower 231 gates to the 231 higher ones.

Creation, in this version, occurs in locus vacuus of the Torah but formerly was imprinted with its negativity. Creation is therefore dependent on a double negativity: one aspect stems from the view that half of the combinations of letters conceived of as Torah have been evacuated and elevated on high, thus overlapping with the higher part and leaving an empty space where the theogonic and cosmogonic processes will take place; the other has to do with the negative nature of this half of the Torah, whose combinations of letters are conceived of as destructive. This potential tension between the textological and the cosmogonic aspects of reality is quite interesting, for it assumes that the highest, though semantically amorphous, text is not found in our world but dramatically transcends it.

Let me turn our attention to a particular aspect of the Torah/malbush: its (p.40) shape. Though its form is a square, already described in many medieval texts, it is inscribed within a circle, which is the evacuated place resulting from the divine withdrawal. This bringing together of letter combinations with a circle is reminiscent of a theme in some of Abraham Abulafia's discussions, where he contends that ma¿aseh merkavah, the account of the chariot, is numerically tantamount to galgal ha-torah, the sphere or circle of the Torah that is to be understood as the combinatory circles that were related to permuting the letters of the Torah.

The divine chariot, understood here by Abulafia as a complexity of divine names, is the blueprint of the whole Torah, which was conceived by Kabbalists to contain an esoteric level that emerges from reading it as a continuum of divine names.47 Again, as we shall see in more detail below, in the same book Abulafia subordinated creation to the combination of letters of the divine names described as found within the divine realm.48

A younger contemporary of Sarug, R. Joseph Shlomo of Kandia, offers a vision of the Torah as a microcosmos that includes all the worlds. In his Matzref ha-Hokhmah, one of the most perplexing surveys of Kabbalah, he writes: “Our Torah is a small board where there are the inscriptions of all the worlds. And this Torah given by Moses is found also in the [worlds of] ʿA[tzilut]B[eriʾah]Y[etzirah] according to the way it is studied by Kabbalists, since all the worlds have a root on high, but the difference between them is great.”49

The Kabbalist resorts to the topos of the small or concise blackboard, ha-luah ha-qatzar, well known in medieval Jewish literature.50 Moses' Torah, apparently that found in the world of ‘asiyah, is a reflection of the macrocosmos but introduces the three supernal Kabbalistic worlds, in a manner that assumes that the mundane Torah is both dependent on the higher worlds and different from the Torah found there, apparently a theory reminiscent of the theory of accommodation. The author, who was well acquainted with Sarug's Kabbalistic theory of malbush as a text that comprises everything before its emergence, adopts the philosophical stand that the mundane Torah, too, comprises everything.51

VIII. Interpretation and Cosmological Repercussions

Another interesting instance of a world-absorbing understanding of the text is found in a book of R. Moses Hayyim Ephrayyim of Sudylkov. A grandson of the founder of Hasidism, R. Israel Ba¿al Shem Tov, he adduces his grandfather's opinion within the framework of his own homily, which deals with affinities between study of the Torah, including innovations that emerge during study, and cosmic daily changes. Elaborating on the traditional view of God as creating the world anew every day and on the assumption that God created the Torah by contemplating it, the Hasidic master contends that

(p.41) the innovation of the deed of creation is [tantamount to] the innovation of the world that [the people of] Israel are innovating each and every day by their innovations of the Torah, as I heard from my grandfather, blessed be his memory, that the book of the Zohar has each and every day another interpretation,52 as it is written in the Gemara,53 “I have put my words in your mouth”54 “to fix the heavens in place and form the earth, and say to Zion: You are my people.”55 Do not read 'ami [my people] but 'imi [with me] with a hiriq, which means by cooperation: Just as I create heavens and earth by speech, you also [can do] so. And the meaning of the verse “I have put my words in your mouth” in order to “fix heavens in place and form the earth” by the innovation that Israel are innovating in the Torah of Truth, and all the things that are emerging in the world, emerge by the innovation of the Torah that Israel are innovating by their looking into [the Torah] in accordance to their innovation in the Torah, so is the innovation in the world … In accordance with the innovations that they innovate while they learn and study, so does the Holy One, Blessed be He, innovate the deed of creation.56

The interpretation of the inverse order of the phrases from Isaiah 51:16 is associated with a pun. The verb le-haddesh is used in two ways in rabbinic Hebrew: to point to the continual creation and to the innovation emerging during learning. Combined with the two other rabbinic views that God created by contemplating the Torah and the continual creation, the Hasidic master concludes that innovations by study affect in one way or another the very nature of the cosmically existing Torah, which is the source of all the changes that took place in the lower world, the continuous creation. Therefore, by productive and original learning, a person is able to cooperate with God in the process of continuous creation. According to the Hasidic view, the Torah regulates the postcreational processes, which imitate the latest developments in the domain of Torah studies. The nature of Torah innovations is variegated: it apparently consists in mental innovation, emerging from the intellect, by oral study of the Torah and by the very contemplation of the Torah, as we learn later on the same page in the name of the author's brother, R. Barukh of Medzibezh.57 This Hasidic passage is an interesting example of what I have called ergetic exegesis. Representative as this passage is of Hasidic views, it continues much earlier views that had also been adopted by one of the opponents of Hasidism, R. Hayyim of Volozhin.58

XI. Concluding Remarks

I have attempted to describe the various versions of the ancient Jewish views of linguistic creation, and now it is in order to attempt a phenomenology of the role (p.42) of text and language, which will take us beyond the details of the analyzed texts. When fixed in the specific linguistic structures—Torah and the divine name—the archetypal role of the text is central, and a certain axiology, mostly a religious one, is involved: either the commandments as the most important value or the omnipotence of God or the usages of the divine name. However, when the disparate letters are mentioned as basic entities, as is the case in the Book of Creation, the focus becomes a type of anomian—though not antinomian—knowledge, namely a form of gnosis of the primordial processes that is not connected to issues regarding sacred history, classical rituals, or religious commandments. In the first way of using language, a drastic difference between the creator and the created is implicit; He transcends the material world, which emerges as a cosmos (an organized entity), by an act that is essentially different from the nature of the nascent creature. Not so in the type of creation as proposed in Sefer Yetzirah. There the Hebrew letters enter the constitution of the world and became part of its fabric; God Himself is portrayed as immersed in the process of creating, as arranging the letters in the specific permutations that are the source of each and every created entity, though not pronouncing them as in the Midrash. The interest in the specific relationship between each letter and the peculiar astronomical, temporal, and human domain on which it is appointed, so characteristic of the Book of Creation,59 contributed greatly to the atomization of language that become even more manifest in the later stages of Jewish mysticism. Regression—or, as some prefer to say, return—from the informative to the magical and mythic nature of language is triggered by focusing on the singular letter as a topic in itself.

The monadization of language, which is one of the main Kabbalistic modes of perception, means the reduction, and in some cases even the obliteration, of ordinary semantics. Semantic sense, the major channel of linguistic communication effects, retreated from its role as the main function of the word within a text in order to allow an even greater role to power effects. Even in this case, however, meaning does not disappear. It is sometimes found either in the nature of the source of this power or in the specific orientation of the letters as magical tools. The first sort of meaning is exemplified by the astrological and sefirotic lexicons, where each of the letters is described as presided over by a certain supernal power. This is a far more esoteric type of sense, known by the astrologers or Kabbalists, who are in the possession of the linguistic gnosis that is not the patrimony of the common people. In lieu of an agreed language, or a symbolic one, that implies the connection between a whole word and its higher correspondent, the natural and primordial nexus between the higher entity and the isolated linguistic unit becomes the dominant factor. The intrinsic quality of the presiding power, the signified, now supplies the “meaning” of the letter. The higher superstructures, (p.43) astrological or theosophical, are now the sources that engender the dismembered language with an elitist meaning. The dissipation of the ordinary structure of Torah letters as they are linked in words opens the gate for the entrance of the extraordinary; the evacuation of the visible enables the invasion of the invisible.60

On the other hand, the precise correspondences between the various letters and mundane entities, which may point to the influence that those letters can exercise on the lower entities, also infuses letters with a noncommunicative charge. The most conspicuous example in Jewish sources is already present in some discussions in the last parts of Sefer Yetzirah, where a complete list of correspondences between the Hebrew letters and human limbs is supplied. Indeed, this correspondence might have influenced the magical creation of the various limbs of the golem, the anthropoidic creature that is vivified by means of the recitation of the combinations of letters.61

These two different directions of infusing meaning are, to be sure, not mutually exclusive. Indeed, both the astrological and the anthropomorphic structures are explicitly mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah. In this case the separate letters play the role of a mesocosmos that mediates between the astronomical macrocosmos and the human microcosmos. By mediating the transition of power from above to the mundane world, as is the case in the astrological superstructures, or of the human force to the higher entities, as in some of the sefirotic Kabbalists' views of the letters,52 the linguistic mesocosmos is therefore not only a static picture but also an agent that is part of a much more active enterprise, be it magical or theurgical. In the astrological superstructure, the talismanic conception—which is not to be found in all the cases—represents the descent of the supernal power on the corresponding character below. In a “theosophical” correspondence, the affinity is still between the higher, divine attribute or entity and the letter; however, the force that is active in this instance is not generated by the astral bodies but by a human pronunciation of sounds.

On the other hand, we may envision the hypothetical existence of a much more unified, though not always clear, system that included a more comprehensive view of language preceding the Heikhalot literature, which apparently consisted of two levels of language. This hypothesis assumes a prior development, whose articulated steps seem to elude our knowledge. The only significant and influential text that reflects a more comprehensive theory of language, Sefer Yetzirah, stems from circles different from those which generated the Heikhalot literature.53 If a greater weight is allotted to the influence of certain elements in Sefer Yetzirah, and if those elements can be dated to an earlier period than the Heikhalot and most of the Midrashic literatures, then another historical and phenomenological picture emerges, which depends much on the interpretation one offers to some parts of (p.44) this treatise. If a more magical reading of the text is preferred—one that implies the antiquity of the tradition regarding the creation of an entity that will later be called golem—to Sefer Yetzirah itself, a much more complex theory of magical language will better serve the understanding of the ancient Jewish theories of magical language.54

In any case, these discussions demonstrate not only the strong nexus between the book of God and the book of nature but also the subordination of the latter to the former. In my opinion, attempts to observe the book of nature have been minimal in Jewish mystical sources, which presuppose that the simplest and most efficient way to understand reality is to contemplate the book of God, as we shall see in Appendix 6. The paradigmatic and instrumental understandings of the Torah or Sefer Yetzirah conspired to bestow on language a preeminent status in comparison to natural objects. The canonical texts absorbed the attention of the Jewish masters, especially those who had mystical inclinations, who preferred to learn about what they conceived to be the lower effect by contemplating the nature of its alleged supernal cause. By absorbing the cosmological and, as we shall see in the next chapters, divine dimensions, the Torah as understood by rabbinic and many other Jewish authors becomes an absorbing being that imposed a discipline of study demanding total dedication. In a form of mysticism that contended that God looked into the Torah, saw the word ʿor, “light,” and created light, it is more economical to immerse oneself in study of the linguistic paradigm than its material counterpart.55 Or, to cite a formulation found in the so-called camp of the Mitnaggedim, “the Torah encompasses all the worlds, the supernal and the lower ones, the spiritual and the corporeal, because it was the instrument of techne of the Creator of the Beginning. And the essence of the Torah letters is the principle of the mixture of all the powers of the creatures, supernal and lower.”66

To invert Stéphane Mallarmé's famous statement that “tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre,”67 one may assert that letters and the biblical text exist in order to culminate in a world. Unlike the poet's assumption that the book is to be in the future, and thus the world strives for its emergence, the rabbinic and Kabbalistic authors lived within a conceptual framework in which the book preceded the emergence of the world, which may be no more than one small aspect of the comprehensive book.

Or, to resort to the felicitous question that Umberto Eco put in the mouth of the quasi-Kabbalist Diotalevi, “Is there a writing that founds the world and is not the Book?”68


(1.) On this issue see Idel, “Maimonides and Kabbalah.” On magical books that betray an effort to present themselves as a form of interpretation of biblical texts see the discussions about Shimmushei Torah and Shimmushei Tehilim, chap. 5, par. I; chap. 11, pars. III and IV, for their influence on thirteenth-century Kabbalah.

(2.) See Holdrege, Veda and Torah, pp. 175–176, etc., and note 17 below.

(3.) Idel, “The Concept of the Torah,” pp. 41–42; Wolfson, Circle in the Square, pp. 1–29; Holdrege, Veda and Torah, pp. 145–146, 253, 256, 276–277, 302, 312, 338. See also below, note 29, and chaps. 6, par. VI, and 10, par. VIII.

(4.) See, e.g., Holdrege, Veda and Torah, pp. 276–278, 302–303, 372–373.

(5.) See Wolfson, Along the Path, pp. 1–61.

(6.) Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pp. 157–160; Mopsik, Les Grands textes, pp. 42–65.

(7.) See Idel, “The Concept of the Torah;” Holdrege, Veda and Torah.

(8.) See Peter Schaefer, Rivalität zwischen Engeln und Menschen (De Gruyter, Berlin, 1975).

(9.) See Idel, “The Concept of the Torah,” pp. 27–33.

(10.) See below, chap. 5, par. I.

(11.) See more below, chap. 11, note 12.

(12.) Exodus 3:15.

(14.) Midrash Konen, printed in Y. Eisenstein, ʾOtzar ha-Midrashim (New York, 1927), p. 253; Idel, “The Concept of the Torah,” p. 45. See also R. Dov Baer of Mezeritch, ʾOr Torah, p. 47, where these views are attributed to Sefer Yetzirah.

(15.) On intercorporality and intracorporality see below, chaps. 9, 11.

(16.) See Rorty's distinction as discussed in Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, pp. 57–58.

(17.) See Genesis Rabbaʿ 1:1, p. 2. See Baer, Studies, 1:111–112. On the cosmological Torah, its (p.499) sources in earlier Jewish writings, and its identification with Hokhmah, cosmic wisdom, see Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, trans. John Bowden (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981), 1:170–175; Greenberg, Studies, pp. 20–22; Faur, Golden Doves, p. 138. For the Kabbalistic reverberations of this identification see Wolfson, Circle in the Square, p. 54, and below, chap. 3, par. II-B, chap. 6, par. VI, and Appendix 2.

(18.) See BT, ʿAvodah Zarah, fol. 3a; Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, p. 171; and below, chap. 4, par. VI. See also below beside note 30.

(19.) BT, Berakhot, fol. 55a. See also Urbach, The Sages, p. 197.

(20.) Scholem, “The Name of God,” p. 71.

(21.) See, e.g., the tradition mentioned by R. Jacob ben Sheshet, Sefer ha-ʾEmunah ve-ha-Bittahon, in C. D. Chavel, ed., Kitvei ha-Ramban (Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem, 1964), 2:363; Urbach, The Sages, pp. 197–198. Compare also to R. Dov Baer of Mezeritch, ʾOr Torah, p. 47.

(22.) Urbach, The Sages, pp. 197–213.

(23.) See Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, pp. 112–122, and below, chap. 8, pars. V–VI.

(24.) See note 6 above.

(25.) On this text see Scholem, On the Kabbalah, pp. 177–178.

(26.) For more on this text see Moshe Idel, Golem, trans. Azan M. Levi (Schocken, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1996), pp. 271–275 (Hebrew). For more on this text see below, chap. 12, par. IV.

(27.) For the later reverberations of this view in Kabbalah, where all 231 combinations are designated expressly as Torah, see Idel, Golem, pp. 148–154.

(28.) Jeremy 16:11.

(29.) ʾEikhah Rabbati, Petiheta II; Pesiqta ʾde-Rabbi Kahanaʾ, 16:5. In this context see also the importance of the concept of God as student of the Torah, as described by Rawidowicz, “On Interpretation,” pp. 93–94. See also the text referred to above, in note 3.

(30.) See ʾAvot de-Rabbi Nathan, chap. 4; Numbers Rabbaʾ, 30:12; Tanna ʾde-Beiʾ Eliyahu Rabbaʾ, 18:31 etc. On the three pillars on which the world stands see Judah Goldin, Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, ed. B. L. Eichler and J. F. Tigay (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1988), pp. 27–37. See also note 18 above.

(31.) On this treatise see Pines, “Points of Similarity”; Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 21–29. For the crucial role that Sefer Yetzirah played in medieval Jewish thought see, e.g., David Neumark, Geschichte der jüdischen Philosophie des Mittelalters (Berlin, 1907), 1:116–117, 131–132, 182–183; Gruenwald, “Jewish Mysticism”; and now Liebes, Ars Poetica.

(32.) Cf. Scholem, “The Name of God,” pp. 72–74.

(33.) Sefer Yetzirah, 2:2; Cf. the edition of Ithamar Gruenwald, “A Preliminary Critical Edition of Sefer Yezira,” Israel Oriental Studies 1 (1971), par. 19, p. 148; Wolfson, Circle in the Square, pp. 55–56 and 168, note 51.

(34.) Sefer Yetzirah, 3:5; Gruenwald (1971), par. 31, p. 154.

(35.) Sefer Yetzirah, 1:10 and 2:3; Gruenwald (1971), par. 12, p. 144 and par. 17, p. 147.

(36.) Sefer Yetzirah, 6:4; Gruenwald (1971), par. 61, p. 174. See also the imperative of (p.500) knowing, thinking, and formatting, Sefer Yetzirah [Tzur] 2:4, Gruenwald (1971), par. 4, p. 141; Sefer Yetzirah, 1:7, Gruenwald (1971), par. 6, p. 142. On the affinity between the beginning and the end of Sefer Yetzirah see Yehuda Liebes, Hetʾ o shel ʾElishaʿ, pp. 102–103; idem, Ars Poetica, pp. 92, 96–104. Cf., however, Dan, On Sanctity, pp. 253–254.

(37.) Idel, Golem, pp. 12–13.

(38.) See BT, Berakhot, fol. 55a, and Scholem, “The Name of God,” p. 71; Scholem, Kabbalah, p. 26; Gruenwald, “Jewish Mysticism,” p. 28; Dan, “The Religious Meaning,” p. 19; Holdrege, Veda and Torah, pp. 177, 185.

(39.) Compare, however, the different assessment of Dan, “The Religious Meaning.”

(40.) This view emerged out of the early interpretations of Isaiah 28:4. See the numerous instances of using this verse, where a shorter form of the Tetragrammaton occurs, as pointed out in Nicholas Sed, La mystique cosmologique juive (Mouton, Paris, 1981), index, p. 331.

(41.) See Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 23–26. For more on this issue see below, chap. 12.

(42.) Cf. Fodor, Christian Hermeneutics, pp. 258–330.

(43.) See below, Concluding Remarks and Appendix 6.

(44.) On this Kabbalist see, e.g., Scholem, Kabbalah, pp. 132–134, who offered a rather Neoplatonic interpretation of the Sarugian theory which is not corroborated by the authentic Sarugian texts; Alexander Altmann, “Lurianic Kabbalah in a Platonic Key: Abraham Cohen Herrera's Puerta del Cielo,” HUCA 53 (1982), p. 340. I expressed doubts as to the innovative nature of the malbush theory in my “Differing Conceptions of Kabbalah,” pp. 192–193, note 268, for reasons that differ from the point made here, which strengthens the possibility that the malbush theory was not entirely new with Sarug. Compare also the Kabbalistic tradition, quoted by R. Meʾir Poppers, that Vital was acquainted with the concepts related to the processes taking place on the plane higher than the supernal man, but he concealed them; cf. Sefer Zohar ha-Raqiʿa (Siget, 1875), fol. 23d. On the malbush concept and its sources see especially Scholem, On the Kabbalah, pp. 73–74, and idem, “The Name of God,” pp. 181–182; See also Idel, “The Concept of the Torah,” p. 39, note 43; idem, Golem, pp. 148–154, Liebes, Sod ha-ʾEmunah, pp. 321–322, note 167; Wolfson, Circle in the Square, pp. 70–72; 182–183, note 129; 189–190, note 174. On shaʿashuʿa see, e.g., Wolfson, Circle in the Square, pp. 69–71, and the bibliography mentioned there. On malbush in the lateeighteenth-century Kabbalist R. Elijah of Vilnius see Wolfson, “From Sealed Book”; R. Isaac Aizik Haver, ʾOr Torah, in ʿAmudei ha-Torah, p. 51; and R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh ha-Hayyim, pp. 222–223. On delight in the context of Torah study see below, chap. 6, note 32.

(45.) Shever Yosef, printed at the end of R. Hayyim Vital, Shaʿar ha-Yihudim (Koretz, 1783), fol. 20a. On fol. 20b the process of emanation within the reshimu is discussed in the framework of the white and black fires, to be addressed in the next chapter, note 60. On the concept of weaving see below, chap. 9, note 93. On garment and Torah see also below, chap. 12, par. I. The proliferation of this view in Kabbalah is so great that it deserves a detailed analysis in itself. Many later Kabbalists adopted the Sarugian (p.501) version of Lurianic Kabbalah and integrated the theory of malbush in their discussions of the Torah. See note 44 above.

(46.) See below, chap., 2, par. II, and chap. 12, par. VI; Idel, Golem, pp. 149–150, and in a more detailed form in “The Relationship of the Jerusalem Kabbalists and R. Israel Sarug,” Shalem 6 (1992), pp. 165–174 (Hebrew). See also below, chap. 12.

(47.) Sefer Sitrei Torah, Ms. Paris, BN 774, fol. 162a. See also Scholem, Major Trends, p. 143, and Abulafia, Hayyei ha-ʿOlam ha-Baʾ, p. 110. Abulafia's commentary on the Guide was translated into Latin by Flavius Mithridates and known by Pico della Mirandola. See Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola, pp. 136–138; As Wirszubski has noticed, Pico's view of Kabbalah as comprising both the combinations of letters and the theosophical version of the merkavah owes to Abulafia's view only its first part. On the experience of a vision of Torah as a circle or sphere, see also Idel, The Mystical Experience, pp. 109–116, and below, chap. 3, note 41; chap. 11; and app. 2.

(48.) See also Sefer Sitrei Torah, Ms. Paris BN 774, fol. 148b. For more on this issue see below, chap. 12.

(49.) Chap. 9, fol. 27b. On the four worlds of ʾABYAʿ see below, app. 1 and 3.

(50.) This topic deserves a much more elaborate treatment than can be offered here. Compare, e.g., R. Moses Narboni, Commentary on the Guide of the Perplexed, ed. J. Goldenthal (Vienna, 1852), fol. 38b, and especially R. Abraham Shalom, Sefer Never Shalom (Venice, 1575), fol. 127a. On the issue of metaphorical tables see the discussion of the inner tables of law, found in the human spirit, as addressed in Islamic and Jewish thought, in Idel, Language, Torah, and Hermeneutics, pp. 46, 170–171.

(51.) See below, chap. 3, note 52. For a very interesting discussion of accommodation based on the concept of contractions, see R. Dov Baer of Mezeritch, ʾOr Torah, pp. 47–48.

(52.) See below, chap. 3, par. V, and notes 97–98.

(53.) I did not find this interpretation in the Talmud. See, however, BT, Sanhedrin, fol. 99b, and Zohar, I fol. 5a.

(54.) Isaiah 51:16, the second part of the verse.

(55.) Ibid., the first part of the verse.

(56.) Degel Mahaneh ʾEfrayyim, p. 98. For the opposite view, which assumes that the Torah is restructured in accordance with human deeds, see below, chap. 12.

(57.) Ibid., p. 98.

(58.) See, e.g., Nefesh ha-Hayyim, pp. 229–230.

(59.) Cf. the whole chapter 5 of this treatise.

(60.) See also below, chap. 5, par. VI, Roland Barthes's theory of poetic language. On the question of constellation see discussions throughout the book, especially chap. 8.

(61.) See Idel, Golem.

(62.) See, e.g., the role of the letters in the visualizing processes. Cf. Idel, “On Talismanic Language,” pp. 33–32.

(63.) There is no doubt, as has been shown in detail by A. P. Hayman, that the form of religiosity expressed in Sefer Yetzirah reflects a mode of thought that differs dramatically (p.502) from what we know from the Heikhalot literature. See Hayman, “Sefer Yesira and the Hekhalot Literature,” JSJT 6 (1987), pp. 71–86.

(64.) See Scholem, “The Name of God,” pp. 75–76; Gruenwald, “Jewish Mysticism,” pp. 28–29; Idel, Golem, pp. 9–26; Yehuda Liebes, “The Seven Double Letters bgd kfrt: On the Double Reish and the Background of Sefer Yezira,” Tarbiz 61 (1992), pp. 237–248 (Hebrew), where the astrological sources of some linguistic speculations Sefer Yetzirah have been pointed out. Compare, on the other hand, the view of Dan, On Sanctity, pp. 253–254, who does not accept the existence of magical elements in this book, as has been assumed by several scholars.

(65.) See, e.g., Zohar, II, fol. 161a; R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Nefesh ha-Hayyim, p. 223; R. Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Maggid Devarav le-Yaʿaqov, p. 227; R. Benjamin of Zalitch, Sefer Torei Zahav (rpt., Brooklyn, 1983), fol. 3a; idem, ʾAhavat Dodim, p. 116.

(66.) R. Isaac Aizik Haver, ʾOr Torah, in ʿAmudei ha-Torah, p. 23. See also ibid., pp. 26, 31. Compare also the much earlier view found in Gikatilla, Ginnat ʾEgoz, p. 239.

(67.) Mallarmé, Oeuvres Complètes, p. 378. Compare also the fascinating discussion of R. Moses Cordovero, Shiʿur Qomah, fol. 9bc, on the preponderance of the Torah over the world.

(68.) Eco, Foucault's Pendulum, p. 565.