The Origins of Kabbalah – Robert Ambelain (1907–1997)
It would be vain to suppose even for a moment that the Jewish religion before our times was characterized by an absolute monotheism on the one hand, and by a rigorous orthodoxy among the whole of its faithful on the other.
If the early years of nascent Christianity presented an aspect of incessant swarming of sects and individual belief systems, each more strange than the other, then for the Jewish nation it was the reverse phenomenon which took place. At the time of the departure from Egypt, the cult of the God of Israel was a whole. No doubt remnants of more ancient and primitive cults (notably those of the Baalam, the Ephod, the Teraphim, etc.) still manifested themselves within families and clans, but as a private observance, and generally in secret. Then, with time came contact with foreign philosophies, the sojourn in Babylon (caused by the captivity and deportations of the population), study by its doctors, and the exchange of ideas with the intellectual and mystical portion of the Jewish people. Some lived and prospered in a completely official manner, and we know the principle of these sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Therapeutes. But this is to ignore the existence among the popular masses of more secretive schools, diverse sects, sometimes showing a spirit of opposition to the ‘official’ sects.
If would indeed be a most grave historical error to imagine that Judaism formed a singe bloc, which has given birth to no theological, esoteric or heretical variation. We have seen that in his work on the formation of Christianity, Drews concluded that before the Christian era, there already existed among the Jews a representation of the Messiah, which would become that of Christianity. Later on, the disciples of Jesus rightly sought to present him as having united in his life all the circumstances which had been abundantly described by the Prophets, and did this in order to prove his legitimacy after he had accomplished his mission.
Equally, we noted that Drews, in agreement with B. Smith, affirmed that alongside orthodox Judaism there existed in Israel, or at its borders, sects which had assembled the essential elements of the Christian legend – and this long before the birth of the name of Jesus, for the Hebraic orthography is identical. This fact is significant: it is the first trace of the existence of the Kabbalah, Iesoushouah being one of the “Divine Names” of the Sephira Geburah. What we glimpse in the doctrine of these sects puts them in rapport with a syncretistic religion, spread across all Western Asia, in the centuries preceding the Christian era, and which engendered numerous religious groups with specific tendencies. This was Mandeanism or Adonaism. This syncretist religion is based on esoteric revelation, a “gnosis” (manda is synonymous with gnosis), brought down by a god named Ado (“Lord”). In this name we rediscover the root which governed the formation of many of the divine names of these regions: Ado, Ada, Adonai, Adonis, Adam, Atem, Atum. In reality, this esoteric tradition is made from pieces and fragments, and it is constantly in a state of theological parturition!
All the Shemite, Ophite, Naassenian, Cainite, Essenian, Ebionite, Peratean, Sethian and Heliognostic people, and all the pre-Gnostic sects before our era, awaited the mysterious Being who would descend from Heaven and be incarnated in a human form to disperse Demons, purify the Earth and Men, and lead them to the place of the Fortunate Souls in the “Realm of the Father”.
Historical research reveals many Palestinian Jewish doctors in sympathetic relations with the ideas of these sects, which were foreign to Israel. Let us avoid being derailed by the historical error of a strictly faithful monotheistic Judaism, confined within a sealed vase, without any intellectual and dogmatic evolution! Before our era, Mandean sects with a Jewish foundation existed, and there were those – B. Smith proved it – which rightly gave the name of Yeshu, Yeheshuah, Yesoushouah, to a Saving God for whom they waited. Yesh, in Hebrew, signifies fire; at the same time, it designates the lineage, the genealogy. Their Saving God is thus a god of light and of fire. What does Moses tell us? “God is a Fire which burns…”. What was the name of these sects? Iesseenes, Nazoreans, Nazireans…
So we know that the Jewish esoteric sects venerated a Saving God, which they named Yeshu, or Yeheshuah, or Yehoushouah, and a papyrus preserved in the National Library of Paris (N° 174, Greek foundation supplement) contains formulae of conjuration such as: “…I conjure thee, by Yeheshuah Nazarean…” and later on: “…I conjure thee, by the God of the Hebrews: Yeoushuh…”.
We repeat: these sects were before Christianity. Following the advent of this, and with the mystical mingling which followed on the dispersal of the Jewish people, their contacts with the Arabs of North Africa, then those in Spain and Portugal, with their close links with the Greek, Turkish and Balkan populations (contacts which were contemporaneous with this dispersion), all of this secret doctrine was re-melted, boiled and fermented. Finally, facing the danger of such an effervescence, the doctors of Israel, in possession of the true doctrinal esotericism of the Torah, decided amongst themselves to finally reveal the essence of this secret teaching, and we will now see how. On the Galilean Synagogue of Capernaum, recently brought to the light of day, at the front of the temple, shines a Five-rayed Star, the “Shield of David”, the Pythagorean Pentagram, symbol of Knowledge and Understanding.
Now, the national emblem of the Jewish people is the “Seal of Solomon”, the Six- rayed Star, the Hexagram of Medieval Magic, symbol of the Solomonic tradition. Who can explain this difference? Why these different paradigms? The “Seal of Solomon” has its significance partially revealed if one knows that in Hebrew Salem signifies Bliss, and Shlom: Rigor, Justice, Equilibrium. The Hexagram, emblem of General Law, is associated with a Just God, a doctrine supported by the metaphysical concept of Retributive Justice. This is the “Law of Karma” of Far-Eastern philosophies, and that of the Judaic Talmud.
On the other hand, in Hebrew, David signifies: both the historic person of this name and Divine Love. The second school, of which the Synagogue at Capernaum was one of its temples, was connected with the esoteric tradition of “Liberation by Love”, bringing into action the mysterious Law of Pardon which is the arcane guide of Christianity.
With the destruction of the Temple, and the dispersal of the proletarian Jewish tribes, the systematic destruction of the military tribes (Judah, Benjamin), and the sacerdotal tribe (Levi), the elite of Israel disappeared almost completely. Rome knew where to strike… Nowadays, one fact remains almost ignored, and that is that the Jewish people no longer have any sacrificers, the legitimate heirs of Aaron; and rabbis are simple doctors of the Law.
But we ourselves know that this destruction was incomplete, and that there still exist, almost unknown, legitimate descendants of this esoteric priesthood, which we shall consider shortly, in whom are united on the one side the bloody priesthood of Moses and Aaron; and the non-bloody line of Melchizedek, “King of Salem”, entrusted to Abraham. Martinez de Pasqually, and after him his rare Réaux-Croix, are those people. It is an historic fact, ignored by the public at large, which consecrates the true union of the priesthood of Israel and Operative Freemasonry, or the Judaic Fellowship1. Upon the death of Nero, Vespasian returned to Rome. Titus, succeeded his father as Commander of the Roman troops, and seized Giskhala, Gamala, and Tabor. It was a bloodbath, a total massacre, we are told by A. Séché. Johanan took refuge in Jerusalem, where Pharisees and Zealots, aristocrats and plebeians, fought each other in a fratricidal war. Blood flowed in Jerusalem — and Titus was at the gates…
It was then that Simeon bar Yohai, the holy doctor, depositary of the arcane secrets of the Torah, secretly quit Jerusalem and took refuge in Jabhe… The Kabbalah was saved!
And by chance in the great ideological eddies and great persecutions which disturbed the Middle Ages, a priest who was wholly Judaic in origin, left the safety of the ghettos for the wide roads and Rosicrucian cenacles, and was able to penetrate environments which were no longer essentially Jewish, but simply philosophical. Here, we make allusion to the great secret societies which were born during this epoch2. 1 It is a fact that before the fall of Jerusalem, the Grand Master of Stonecutters was proclaimed Pontiff.2 See our work “Martinism”, p. 47 et seq. 12 But, back to the point.
We know that at the margin of the Torah, or official version of the Law, a secret, esoteric version developed, the soul and reason for the existence of the sects encountered during the course of our research. In the voice of the Prophets, the Old Testament frequently insists on the fact that external influences, contact with other peoples, and different religions have been introduced. Truly, that which is called “corruption” should more equitably bear the name of “evolution”, “interpretation”, and “development”, superior to the exclusive use of an intellectual elite more advanced than the general masses.
The primitive Law was not only a sacred book, where the faithful could find, along with the elements of their religion, religious prescriptions, rituals and morality. It was at the same time a civil and criminal code, from which the legislators of Israel extracted maxims and decrees regulating the relationships between members of the profane community.
After the Captivity of Babylon, the life of the people changed, evolved. Esdras “renewed” ‘the sacred texts’, and one may suggest, without daring to swear to it, that these texts, taken in their literal sense, while good for a pastoral and primitive life, no longer sufficed to govern all aspects of the life – above all the spiritual life – of the Jewish people.
On the other side, the special character of national life pushed Israel to isolate itself, to reduce contact and relations with foreign people as much as possible. Israel was, before anything, a proud and haughty people, who did not wish to humble itself by asking its neighbors what it considered it could find itself. At the very least, it doubtless adopted some doctrines of foreign origin and, by reason of this, impure in the words of the Torah, but it took good care to recognize this, and qualified them as very old and purely Judaic, and this hand would be played!… (The Haggadah of the Talmud, as well as the Mi-draschim (Midrash) however, admitted that the Hebrew people had brought back from Babylon the names of the months of the year, those of Angels, and in general the whole of the Kabbalah…).
Driven by the national subtle yet argumentative spirit, the doctors of the Law – combining the functions of legislators, theologians and casuists – abandoned themselves to it to their heart’s content. Among them, a few great and good intelligences, building up a framework with foreign materials, and completing it using particular interpretations as materials, came to hatch the most prodigious metaphysical temple which could issue from human thought. From their metaphysical speculations were born firstly the Mishna, a complementary interpretation of the five books of the Pentateuch or Torah, an interpretation pursued in the minutest detail. The teaching of this would be given by the Tannaim, or doctors of the Law, who from 150 B.C. to 220 A.D. – that is for almost four centuries – would comment with indefatigable zeal upon the Torah.
Before the third century of our era, the Mishna was fragmented. By then the metaphysical baggage transmitted by the Tannaim had become such that its sheer size necessitated such division. Rabbi Yehudah (Judah the Prince), surnamed Ha Nasir, the “Patriarch”, compiled elements of the first collections into a type of manual. The Mishna of Yehudah is still considered to be like a Canon which was soon held as a greater prize than the Pentateuch itself. Thus the treatise Sopherim says that: “The Torah is like water, but the Mishna is like wine”. This is in a double sense. Allegorically, we understand the drunkenness which carries away the drinker of wine, and the cold rationalism which is the portion of the drinker of water; but also in an esoteric and Kabbalistic sense, since the word wine, in Hebrew yain, is numerically equivalent to the word sod, signifying mysteries! One may divine from this conscious subtlety that the Mishna holds the “spirit” of Tradition, and the Torah possesses only the “letter”. One is esoteric, and the other exoteric.
Then, just as the Torah has been commented on and clarified, so the Mishna in its own turn was commented on and clarified within the mystery schools. The successors of the Tannaim, called the Amoraim, or rabbinical “commentators”, in the Synagogues of Libya, Sephoris and Lydda, in Palestine; Syra, Nehardea, Pumbeditha and Uscha in Babylonia, took them as the text for their passionate controversies for three centuries. The conclusion of this secular discussion was called the Gemara, or “complement” (implying the Mishna). A vaster compilation, reuniting the decisions of the Amoraim and the Tannaim was then established, and this was given the title of Talmud, a Hebrew word signifying “ritual”.
This shows that, if the Talmud is a summary of the Gemara, that the Gemara is the commentary and the complement to the Mishna, and that the Mishna is the esoteric text of the Torah; then the Talmud is still more esoteric and more allegoric than the Mishna itself, since it aims to reveal, in an even clearer manner, its mysteries! Now, we know from experience that every time one reveals the sense of a religious text, it is under a new allegory.
We may conclude that to take the Talmud word for word, in applying its teachings to Israel, the Jewish people, and its anathemas to the Goyim, or uncircumcised peoples, is to fall back into the exotericism of the Torah and to reveal nothing at all. On the contrary, the Talmud and all its teachings do not apply themselves to an elect people and to reprobates of this world. In fact, another capital work will teach us this in a few moments, named the Sefer-ha-Zohar, the “Book of Splendor”.
A final conclusion: both Anti-semites and Israelites – fanatics of both camps – are in error, for the Talmud does not address itself to men here below! Israel is the company of the elect, the “blessed of my Father”!
Two Talmudic compendia existed: the one of Jerusalem, completed in the fifth century of our era, and that of Babylon, completed at the beginning of the sixth century. Both reproduced the Mishna, well enough, but the first one gave us the Palestinian Gemara, and the second the Babylonian Gemara. The latter is by far the more considerable. The Talmud of Jerusalem comprises one thin folio, while that of Babylon requires twelve thick volumes in the same format! Therefore it is this latter one which is, nowadays too, the true expression of the Talmud.
In Babylonia, Talmudic studies continued to flourish for a long time, well after all social and intellectual life had apparently disappeared from Palestine. We find these theological organizations again at the end of the twelfth century, in Spain and Portugal. In the twelfth century, in Grenada, Samuel Ibn Naggdila published a remarkable introduction to the study of Talmud; and Gershom Ben Yehudah brought out “Commentaries” of fourteen treatises on Talmud in Mayence and Metz. Another doctor, Solomon Yitzchaki, surnamed Rashi, wrote Aramaic “Commentaries” on almost all the treatises, accompanied by a Gemara. In the twelfth century the famous Maimonides composed a commentary on the Mishna in Arabic, a commentary which remains, even in our times, one of the celebrated classics. In the thirteenth century, German and French rabbis, writing in Aramaic, expanded on the commentaries of Solomon Yitzchaki. Up to the seventeenth century, the Babylonian Talmud preserved an authority superior to that of the Torah itself. This is quite understandable, as it claimed to give the key to the latter; and the majority of Jews only knew the Torah by quotations from the Talmud!
The Haggadah of the Talmud, to which we made allusion above, which talks of the Months and the Angels, gave birth to a veritable Judaic “gnosis”, driven by the mystical fever of doctors of the Law. This gnosis rested upon esoteric commentary on the biblical narratives. This commentary itself had oral tradition as a starting point, issuing from a certain intellectual illumination, which gave real meaning to the texts and banal interpretations that the ignorant crowd were only able to comprehend at that level.
This oral tradition, coming from mystical illumination, is the “Word”, or “tradition transmitted by word“, in Hebrew Cabala and in French Kabbale! (see in particular the Jerusalem Targum, called the Targum of Onkelos). So we can see that, as in Christian texts, there was a long period of fermentation, official or occult, which ceaselessly brewed and adjusted that original “revelation” obtained by illumination, added commentaries which sometimes came from foreign concepts, and attached other heterodox or external “practices” in terms of their origins, which brought about Judaic esotericism, or Kabbalah.
One can say without fear that it was the universal and eternal initiatory fermentation which, deposited in the heart of the esotericism of Israel, as in the heart of any religion, made known or not, gave rise to the birth of the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah is but the Eternal Doctrine, dissimulated under all Symbols and in all legendary stories, simply conveyed by the traditions come from the beginning of ages, and which drop their roots in the original mystery of the people of Sumeria and Akkadia. It is the semitic appearance of this eternal Doctrine, which can only borrow its ways of expression from among the racial, hereditary or didactic concepts of Western peoples, and more precisely Mediterranean peoples. Christianity has been its principal messenger, which rests before all other influences upon the Old Testament. This Kabbalah was the crucible where, in the Middle Ages, that peculiar heritage of the peoples of the white race of Western Europe came to blend with the later Celtic traditions. This resulted in a curious metaphysical and philosophical ensemble, in which the pagan resurgence, specifically that of Ancient Italy and Greece; the traditions of Pythagoras, borne by the corporations and trades; Celtic survivals in the tradition of popular and earth-based sorcery; and Gnostic Christian esotericism, constituted this strange “climate” in which was born Medieval Magic: the Faustian cycle.
It is then that the Sefer-ha-Zohar or “Book of Splendor” appeared. We do not insist on the historic detail of its origins, for they remain uncertain. Its first publication, and even all or part of its drafting, is attributed to Moses de Leon, a Jew living in Spain in the thirteenth century. But the doctrines taught by the Zohar are linked to those of mystical Hebrew works earlier than the aforementioned thirteenth century. Moses de Leon attributes it to the famous Simeon, called bar Yohai, the disciple of Akiba, but the best legitimization of a work is in its intrinsic worth; the author and the date are less important than the book, and the sublimity of the Zohar remains uncontestable. We conclude that the Zohar is the exoteric summarization of thirty centuries of Judaic mysticism.
It is composed of eight principle treaties, which are :
1) the “Mysteries of the Torah”,
2) the “Youth”,
3) the “Mystical Midrash on The Torah”, 4) the “Mysterious Search”,
5) the “Come and See”,
6) the “Great Assembly”,
7) the “Lesser Assembly”,
8) the “Book of Secrets”, or the Sepher Dzeniouta.
The classic editions are those of: Mantoue (1560, in-quarto), Dublin (1623, in-folio), Constantinople (1736), Amsterdam (1714) and (1805). That of 1714 is considered to be the best, and it is upon this that Jean de Pauly established his French translation of the Zohar, edited by Lafuma.
And so it is indeed by means of the Kabbalah that, in the laboratory of Doctor Faust, he sees the warm hues of his stained glass windows light up, where the Hexagram of Solomon and the Pentalpha of Pythagorus unite and entwine around the Eglantine of the disciples of Hermes, itself irradiated in the heart of the Celtic trefoil! The Easter morning church bells, which tear the Doctor from his mortal melancholy, also celebrate the resurrection of the Temple at Jerusalem which the builders of the Cathedrals transpose in our great gothic metropolitan Cathedrals. It is in these that we once again find this effort towards Synthesis. The Celtic trefoil becomes the modest trilobal rose window; the Hexagram and the Pentagram sign their blind arcades, and the proportional “sections” of the same Eglantines now become marvelous “roses”, bathing (according to the happy definition of Grillot de Givry) the transepts of our sleeping Cathedrals in an unreal light.
And it is also by means of this same kabbalistic “light” that the great Judeo-Christian fusion, foretold by the Doctors of the Church, will be accomplished. Possessing the keys to the Kabbalah, Johannite Christians such as we are, disciples of Martinez de Pasqually or of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, we may better penetrate the mysteries of the two Testaments. Without changing their orthodoxy, we will incorporate them into the very heart of this synthesis. And, according to the enigmatic prophecy of Genesis: “Japheth shall dwell in the tents of Shem”.
By exploring the Kabbalah, pious and sincere Jews will learn that its teachings do not have the polytheistic implications that they wrongly attribute to it. Then, perhaps, as Albert Jounet said in his “Key to the Zohar”, Jews and Christians together will raise their common hopes towards the Uncreated Word, soaring in His eternity, and Who waits for their reconciliation, it seems, in order to manifest Himself anew under the appearance of the Glorious Christ. And so, according to the mysterious Kabbalistic promise, “the Messiah shall come into the World through the merits of the Sepher-ha-Zohar…”.
The adepts of the modern Kabbalah themselves report most distinctly their origin with Isaac the Blind or even his father Abraham, born David of Posquières. Joseph Gikatilla, one of the most fervent, wrote in his Perusch Hahagadah, preserved in the Sefer Hanefesch Hachochamah of Moses de Leon: “The Kabbalah which is in our hands goes back through the chain of traditions to the Maaseh Merkabah from which it passed to the right-hand column, the pious rabbi Isaac the Blind”.
Ben Aderet, in his Respp. (I, No. 94) made allusion to the same men, and didn’t even designate them any more by the word “kabbalists” calling them “masters of the mysteries of the Torah”. “For every precept, he said, certain men who are holders of the mysteries of the Torah, have in their spirit very venerable reasons, though the sins of this generation has dammed the sources of tradition maintained since the destruction of the Temple”.
Above all the Kabbalah stands in opposition to Talmudic casuistry or, if you will, a form of revolt of faith against the law. It is the refuge of those spirits who find themselves ill at ease in the subtle and inextricable mesh of Talmudic laws and who, in the narrow cadre of ritual, cultural and liturgical formulae, seek a source of the living waters.
With the Kabbalah, a very notable intrusion of Christian elements appeared in Jewish mysticism, and that was due to several causes: on the one hand, there was a spirit of opposition against the rationalism of Aristotle which reconciled the spirit of Neoplatonism, and so led them right to the source of ancient philosophy which had contributed the most to feed the fundamental dogmatism of Christianity. On the other hand, the spirit of opposition to Jewish dogmatism often led beyond the true boundaries which separated Jewish doctrine from Christian doctrine. Finally, and independent of all logical reason, fortuitous connections between Jewish and Christian mysticism and their representations were fertile with ideas which were contained in both doctrines at the same time.
In the space which separates mysticism prior to the Kabbalah and the Zohar, we can perceive a particular essay at systematization and classification which allows us to distinguish five principle schools:
1°) The school of Isaac the Blind which one might call the metaphysical school, not because metaphysics was the exclusive element, but because it was the predominant element;
2°) That of Ezra-Azriel, which came from it;
3°) That of Nachmanides, his disciple;
4°) The school of Eleazar of Worms, who especially applied himself to the mysticism of letters and numbers;
5) The school of Abulafia, which followed the two previous schools and developed them in the sense of pure contemplation.
About Isaac the Blind himself we know very little. His successor spoke with respect about his commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah, and on his gift of discerning new souls from old souls, which is to say those which were in their first marriage with the body from those which, according to the laws of metempsychosis, were already making a second or third pilgrimage. Like many of the great initiators, such as Pythagoras and Socrates, he appears mainly to have acted through verbal instruction. In his Bade Aaron, Shem Tov ibn Gaon said many times: “R. Ezra de Geronde (the disciple of Isaac the Blind) composed a commentary on the Haggadoth such as he had received from his master Isaac the Blind”, which certainly seems to indicate that Isaac the Blind concerned himself with interpreting the Haggadoth and prayers, that is to say assuredly to spiritualize them in the sense of his system. But at the same time it resulted in his writing of few works himself. His blindness, common in the traditions of the Kabbalists, was also a sufficient reason alone to explain his moderation as a writer. In any case, it was at BEAU-CAIRE, in this Province, crossroads of so many ideas, the point of intersection of the North and South, with Isaac the Blind, that we can locate the cradle of Practical Kabbalah.
Rosicrucian cenacles, and was able to penetrate environments which were no longer essentially Jewish, but simply philosophical. Here, we make allusion to the great secret societies which were born during this epoch2. 1 It is a fact that before the fall of Jerusalem, the Grand Master of Stonecutters was proclaimed Pontiff.2 See our work “Martinism”, p. 47 et seq. 12 But, back to the point…
This is the doctrine of Ezra as he laid it out in his work entitled: Explanation of the ten Sephiroth in questions and answers. “The Infinite is a Being who is absolutely perfect and without lacuna. So, when one says that there is within him a limitless power, but not the power to limit himself, one introduces a lacuna into his fullness. On the other hand, if one says that this universe – which isn’t perfect – proceeds directly from him, one is declaring that his power is imperfect. Now, as one cannot attribute a lacuna to his perfection, it is necessary to admit that the Ain Soph has the power to limit himself, which power is itself limitless.
“Once this limit issued from him in a first line, and these are the Sephiroth which constitute both the power of perfection and the power of imperfection”. And here now is their gradual action. The first is destiny where presides the power divine, the second is to the power of the angels, the third to prophetic power, the fourth to shed mercy throughout the superior essences, the fifth to shed forth the terror of his power, the sixth to shed pity upon inferior things, the seventh to make grow and fortify the sensitive soul under development, the eighth to produce successive gradation, the ninth to have the power of all the rest emanate forth, the tenth to be the way by which the ensemble of all the other powers spread themselves across the inferior world.
In reality, we think that the Sephiroth originally reduced themselves to the number three and were first of all a reflection of the system of emanation, such as we have met in Ibn Gabirol. With the Treatise on Emanation which belonged to the same school, we have a conception which is a little different from the doctrine; we have moreover a first attempt to reconcile it with anterior mysticism and return this mysticism to the body of the new mysticism. It is not without reason that the author chose the prophet Elias to be his mouthpiece. In fact, Ezra-Azriel alluded to the philosophies because he himself sought to win over everyone to faith. “It is not enough”, he wrote, “to be worthy of these great revelations, to be a studious man; it is necessary above all to be a man of faith. It is not enough to know the Bible, the Mishnah, the Haggadah. All that is vain if one has no faith, if one does not aspire with confidence, in the lassitude of the ordinary course of life, to the sublime and mysterious Merkabah”.
Jellinek (Auswahl Kabbalist Mystik, I, 1853. Leipzig) attributed this work to R. Jacob Nasir (12th Century) and this because Recanati (Comment on the Pentateuch, 173 d) and Isaac of Acco (in his Meirat Enaym, said that the prophet Elias referenced in this work appeared first of all in R. Jacob Nasir. Yet why attach such importance to this pseudo-epigraphy of Elias? For time immemorial, Elias has been an image which has been made to serve all. The Talmudic epoch had already identified him with the Messiah and reserved to him a solution to the problems that the casuists held in suspense and thus unresolved. In the homiletic literature, he is the great censor, the great moralist. It is hardly surprising that the Kabbalists, in their turn, took shelter under the name without which they would have had to reveal that the ideas were their own. Besides, if the revelations of Elias, according to the authors, were reported to Jacob Nasir, these same authors similarly had them come down to Isaac the Blind, Azriel and Nachmanides. We believe it is more likely to attribute this work to a disciple of Isaac the Blind or Ezra who, mourning for the old mysticism, wanted to adopt the new Kabbalah without prejudicing the old one, and attempt a reconciliation between the two.
Sometimes it is thought that the “Prayer of R. Nehunyah ben Hakanah” or the Bahir and “The Book of Intuition” are attached to the same school. For the latter, there is no doubt, but for the Bahir nothing is less certain. It is necessary to say a few words about this. The Bahir is written as a fictional dialogue held between two imaginary doctors. There we find the doctrine of the Sephiroth, perhaps understood in the sense of the new Kabbalah. I say perhaps, for the Sephiroth did not appear there with the names they carry across all theoretical Kabbalah, but under the past denomination of Maamarim, discourse, creative word, word of action.
The time of the appearance of the Bahir is quite difficult to identify. We know, on the one hand, that it existed in 1245, since from this time it was attacked by doctor Meir b. Simon de Narbonne. On the other hand, grammatical observations found there stop us from rejecting a date after the period which has been called the «Age of Hebrew Grammar». These upper and lower limits take us between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The date is definitely close to the birth of the Kabbalah, but it does not prove by that a connection with or dependency on the Bahir and the school of Isaac the Blind. It is not the same with the Book of Intuition.
The Book of Intuition put forward a treatise on the relationship between the Sephiroth with the Ain Soph. God is one, identical in all his powers, like a flame which plays in a variety of colors. These powers emanate from him, as light emanates from the eye, like a scent emanating from a perfume, like the flash of a flame emanating from another fire without which the latter would lose something (here we find both the terminology of Ibn Gabirol and that of Ezra-Azriel). Before creation, God was one, in himself, without movement, without limit, without distinction. The best way to know him consists of combining and calculating the letters of his name. Thus, this leads one to affirm the sole point that one is able to affirm, that one might know what is obscure, enveloped in itself and without differentiation.
This, in its substance, is close to the doctrine of Isaac the Blind and his school; that is to say, the first form of the Kabbalah. (It is important not to forget that each time this word Kabbalah appears.) One can see that this first use was metaphysical, from an abstraction via neo-Platonic abstractions, from a reprise and an arbitrary multiplication of the intermediaries of Ibn Gabirol.
Through its attempt to differentiate the creative modes, it leads us towards pantheism. It includes an attempt to give physical color to the metaphysical laws, borrowed precisely from the color of light, which is also to be seen in the poetry and metaphysics of the Zohar; and finally it is to give spirituality to traditional religion, a mystical idealization of all the elements of the past which can be transformed, a development of new aspirations using ancient formulae. From all this, the body of the Zohar is created.
The efforts of Ezra-Azriel would perhaps not have conquered the Kabbalah with the success they hoped for, if they hadn’t had Moses ben Nachman, commonly called Nachmanides, for a disciple who, coming late to mysticism, benefited it in the eyes of otrthodox and dogmatic doctors with the authority of a lifetime devoted to the study of dogmatic Judaism. After that nobody dared to voice suspicion about a doctrine approved of by a man such as Nachmanides, renowned besides for his traditionalist piety. The poet Meschulam in Vedas Dasiera (Dibre Chachanim, 77) chants thus:
“For us the son of Nachman is a sure citadel; Ezra, Azriel have taught us without error; They are my priests, they illuminate mine altar”. Later on a legend grew up about the manner by which Nachmanides came to the Kabbalah. It is said that, despite the efforts made towards him by an old initiate, he remained intransigent. One day, this Kabbalist committed a flagrant offense and was condemned to death. Before the execution, he called Nachmanides and affirmed that that very evening he would come and find him to celebrate the Sabbath Agape. Indeed, by an occult procedure he substituted an ass for himself which was executed in his place, and that evening he suddenly entered into the room of Nachmanides. This event converted him.
Beyond the prestige that Nachmanides brought to the Kabbalah by his person, he rendered it a second service. First of all, he entered resolutely upon the path that Ezra- Ariel had hardly committed himself to, that is not to content himself with founding a philsophical, theoretical Kabbalah, but to use it to penetrate the law, that law which up till then had been the portion of the Talmudists and Haggadists alone. It was not enough to enunciate mystical doctrines; it was also necessary to use them to vivify the spirit of the Scripture, and above all to interpret the precepts of the Bible – and particularly the Pentateuch – in this way. Nachmanides accorded an important place to this type of vulgarization of the Kabbalah. He was one of those who contributed the most to grafting it onto the sacred texts.
Here are one or two examples which show how Nachmanides pushed spirituality to the limit. He admitted that the first man had been created an androgyne. But he also admitted that the divine breath to animate and ennoble this double form was placed at the intersection of the two bodies, and in order clarify an important idea of the Zohar in advance, we would add that each distinct part carried half a soul.
Nachmanides loved to quote and develop the following Midrashic passage: While man sleeps, the body talks with the sensual soul, the sensual soul talks to the rational soul, the rational soul talks to the angel (guardian angel), etc. For Nachmanides the soul felt itself in bad company with the body, and broke up this marriage whenever it could. Even before the definitive divorce, it took fleeting leaves of absence, going to wander the heavens, making contact once more with its sisters; and when it returned to the body, the latter became conscious of all that the soul had seen. This explains the visions one has in dreams. One may clearly sense the theories dear to the Orphic, Platonic and other initiations.
Nachmanides, while generally maintaining his poems in the realm of traditional Judaism, impregnated some with a mysticism which is somewhat less than conformist with tradition. There we sometimes even find a singular mixture between Kabbalistic and Gnostic elements, between the doctrine of the Sephiroth and that of the Pleroma. Above all it is with regard to the soul that the comparison makes sense. It is by means of channels, called the “channels of error” that, according to Nachmanides, the souls flow out of the “great reservoir”, a term absolutely reminiscent of the gnostic pleroma union of the soul with the body only soils it and whatever it may do, it has no salvation save in divine love, which, having allowed it to stray, takes it back to itself. The Gnostic Sophia, too, having long erred, cannot achieve her salvation except through the direct intervention of the Father.
Nachmanides also takes the effort of his mysticism to a new point: ethics, already in his commentary, but above all in a special work entitled: The Door of Remuneration. The theme dominating this work is his mystical conception of suffering. According to Nachmanides, suffering is almost always a suffering of love. For some it is a warning: God sees with sorrow the celestial soul mired in the misery of the body, and to stop this, He sends him sorrows. It is a great affliction among the heavenly souls and angels to see one of their companions rendered unworthy of its origin and its destiny. Then they all seek to press God, in the hope that, curbing the goodwill which He is ever ready to pour out for a moment, He will rap on this soul with salutary blows. If the soul remains dense to these warnings, they redouble their violence to make the soul pay its ransom on earth, so as not to be obliged to have to pay it in heaven. Even for the just there is a suffering of love; for even the just themselves are not perfect. They have dross within them which the crucible of love separates from their souls. But man cannot inflict these sufferings of love upon himself: he must receive them, and receive them with joy from the divine hand. Woe to him who does not suffer, for this happiness implies that God had abandoned him, and that He had condemned him to not enjoy future happiness ; that He has left him untouched in his present happiness so that he will do nothing to claim his destiny. Man’s sufferings are the wages of extra-terrestrial joy; in addition certain woes are designed to give man a harder life, thereby to make a greater effort and to grow in merit, and therefore earn his right to a joyous future. Finally, there are sorrows which are used to transform into action the seeds of good which the human soul carries within itself. These are to some extent the birth-pangs of a soul rich in virtue.
Nachmanides was already the Master of Practical Kabbalah. For him: “In creating all things God made it so that the superior things would lead the inferior things, and He gave power to the earth and to all that it contained according to the laws fixed by Astrology. For the stars and the angels who are their guides it was His will that their souls and their superior conjunctions would have a repercussion on peoples and on men. There were established also certain laws which allow one to read the future in the entrails of birds, in their voices, and in their flight. This is what the Scripture meant when it said of King Solomon that he knew how to talk to birds”.
Nachmanides also wrote on necromancy, magic, and etc. (Ex., 20, 2; Deut. 18, 9). The evocation of demons or Evil Spirits was, according to him, an art which is required to be studied at length. He spoke about talks he had had with certain masters of the art of conjuration, and he mentioned treaties pertaining to relationships with the Evil Spirits and the manner of making the required instruments (Genesis, 4,22; Derescha, p. 8 and 11).
We can see that the mystical activity of Nachmanides extended itself across the majority of questions then being raised by the theoretical Kabbalah. Nachmanides was reported in particular by disciples of the metaphysical school to be inclined towards speculation to theurgic ends, since to his eyes mysticism, far from being confined to pure research, should lead quickly enough to the conquest and enslavement of cosmic powers. After the Zohar, when the folly of this theurgy affected reason, Nachmanides
In the school of Isaac the Blind, there were still lively glimmers of philosophical speculation. Although these glimmers were too often obscured by clouds of extravagances and a fantastic application of non-Jewish doctrines to Jewish texts, nevertheless one feels that philosophy passed by this route.
It was not the same in what is generally known as the German school, a school which most probably had R. Jehudah Chasid (the Pious) of Ratisbonne as its founder and, in any event, in R. Eleazar of Worms, his disciple, its famous representative. It is his doctrine which will help us to characterize the doctrine of this school. Its traditions had originated in the German school, which goes back to Babylonia. So R. Schem Job said in his Emmunot (39 b) that at the news of the arrival of a great Babylonian Kabbalist, named R. Keschischa, in Apulia, R. Jehudah the Pious ran from Ratisbonne to Corbeil, and from Corbeil to Apulia, to be initiated into the sacred teachings. R. Eleazar of Worms cited other initiators like R. Samuel Ha Chasid, R. Eleasar of Spire, and R. Kalonymos, who in 787 had been transplanted from Lombardy to Mayence by Charlemagne himself (v. Luzzato, il Giudaismo Illustrato, I, 30 et seq.).
It was not that Eleazar of Worms was particularly preoccupied with metaphysical problems. On the contrary, he ignored or claimed to ignore the speculations of the school of Isaac the Blind. He didn’t use the word ‘Ain-Soph’ once, nor that of the ‘Sephiroth’ in the sense that Isaac the Blind and his disciples used them, but proceeded directly to Ibn Ezra and pushed the mathematical form of the mysticism of Ibn Ezra to its final limit, in order to introduce all that inspired him about the mysticism of the Gaonim, and particularly the practical or applied Kabbalah whose most fertile promoter he was. We should here take a quick look at the work of Eleazar of Worms who through Abulafia and through the Zohar caused the bifurcation of theoretical Kabbalah towards practical Kabbalah; and we will speak of the Sefer Raziel.
The Sefer Raziel is said to have been communicated by the angel Raziel (‘Mystery of God’) to Noah at the moment of his entry into the ark. It was written, on a sapphire stone; “in it are great mysteries, the mysteries of the higher degrees, the stars, their revolutions, the function and habit of all the celestial bodies; through the knowledge that it gives one may obtain all the secrets of things, of death and life, the art of healing and the interpretation of dreams, the art of making war and bringing peace”. This stated, the Sefer Raziel is presented as a work having provided the applied Kabbalah and to the Jewish tradition in general its rich arsenal of amulets, talismans, propitiatory formulae, curative formulae, images, magical mixtures, philtres of love and of hate. Even today the echo of these traditions, like that of the name of Eleazar of Worms is not extinct.
Among the disciples of Eleazar of Worms we shall only speak of Menachem, notably of his work entitled “Crown of the Supreme Name”. This work is under the direct influence of the master and in part the “Book of the Name” of Ibn Ezra. It mainly discusses the Tetragrammaton and the ten Sephiroth and he links the one to the other.
This disciple of Eleazar and the second representative of the German school leaned their downfall towards making a primary synthesis between the gifts of this school and the metaphysics of the speculative school, and naturally he did this to the detriment of the latter. The adepts of the German school propagated their form of mysticism as far as Spain. Solomon b. Adret, in his Respp. (No. 548), spoke of a disciple of Eleazar of Worms called Abraham of Cologne (also honorably known in his school). This Abraham of Cologne came to Spain, taught there, and even explained his doctrine before the king of Castille, Alphonse X.
And so we come to him who tried to mix the two schools into a whole in order to put it to the service of pure contemplation, that is to say, to the service of a rather higher form of the Merkabah of the Gaonim. We wish to speak of Abulafia.
To properly understand the ideas of Abulafia, one must take a look at his life. Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia was born in Saragossa in 1240. Up to his thirtieth year, he studied the Bible, the Talmud, medicine, philosophy, notably the works of Saadia and Maimonides. He was an assiduous reader of Ibn Ezra. As for his mystical studies, he himself said in his letter to R. Jehuda Solomon (whom we will meet shortly), and in his mystical commentary on Maimonides that he had been initiated into the doctrine of the school of Nachmanides. “It is there”, he said, “that I was taught the ways by which are revealed true intentions, the mysteries of the Law, and these ways number three: Notarikon (acrology), Gematria (numerical evaluation), and Ziruf (permutation1)”.
The life of Abulafia, though known only from his general works, demonstrates that his spirit tended towards a form of mysticism going beyond the Kabbalah itself. To this point we have several very precise and significant letters. R. Solomon ben Adreth, consulted by the Jews in Italy about the activities of the Prophet-Messiah, wrote a letter to a certain Achitob of Palerma in which he had vigorously attacked Abulafia and had reproached him for understanding nothing of the essential elements of the Kabbalah, nor the doctrine of the Sephiroth, nor that of emanation; and accused him of setting forth a new and strange doctrine relating to letters and numbers with a view of leading him to a prophetic spirit. We do not have the letter of Solomon ben Adreth ; rather the indirect replica which Abulafia made when sending it to a certain R. Jehuda Salmon.
First of all Abulafia distinguished four sources of knowledge: 1st the five senses; 2nd ideas or the 10 abstract numbers; 3rd universal consent; 4th tradition. Without developing the first two which are known, nor the third which does not in itself have a very great power of truth, he passed on to the fourth : tradition (Kabbalah). Yet it was not the general tradition that he wanted to study, but only the Kabbalah specific to Kabbalists, ignored by the common rabbis, who spent all their time on the Talmud. Now, this Kabbalah consisted of two areas: one concerned itself with the knowledge of God by means of the ten Sephiroth, and the other concerned itself with the knowledge of God by means of the twenty-two letters which comprise the names and signs, and which lead to prophetic inspiration.
Abulafia assiduously practiced the teachings of Ibn Ezra, and claimed the authority of Eleazar of Worms and Nachmanides. The point in common between these mystics was that they all agreed upon giving strong focus to the mysticism of letters, numbers 1 In fact, Ziruf is combination of letters and Temurah is the permuttion of letters – PV. 24 and divine names. Abulafia is thus, above all, an adept of this mystical form. It is this that he takes as his point of departure. On the other hand, we have seen that he engaged in the study of more than a dozen commentaries on the Sefer Yezirah, which confirms us in our idea concerning his main leanings. For whereas the Sefer Yezirah places letters and numbers in the service of the cosmogony, and whereas the masters named above subordinated them to the Kabbalah of the Sephiroth where they made a frame for mystical speculation, Abulafia claimed to surpass this speculation and worked, on the union of the rational soul with God, using arithmetical combinations as a basis, a union which Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides made the fruit and the recompense for philosophical study.
Abulafia entertained a theory from the Christian mysticism of St Bonaventure, relating to the seven levels of contemplation (this citation implies that he studied and had a knowledge of Christian mysticism!). On the other hand, we find in these writings a call to Christian dogma. When speaking on the three divine names Yhvh, Yh, Elohim, he said: “These are the three sacred names which mark the mystery of the Trinity and the Trinity of Unity. Just as Wisdom, Intelligence and Knowledge are three, yet one single and same thing, so the expressions, he was, is and shall be, are but varieties of the same essence, and the three Persons make but one Person, at the same time both single and triple.
“If this is so, then God has the name one, indicating his substance as one, and which is still triple, but this trinity is one. This should not seem strange, for already these names should explain the idea to you… these names which are three and which all three designate a unique substance, identical to itself, as does the triple invocation of “Holy, Holy, Holy”… and, on the other hand, the concept of, the Trinity of Wisdom, Intelligence and Knowledge”.
With his Messianism, we believe that Abulafia was not aiming at Jews alone, but all humanity. So this concession to the Trinity was an appeal to Christianity. It was on this very basis of Christian dogma that he claimed to convert Pope Martin IV to his prophetic mysticism of letters and numbers and won him over to his Messianic vocation. According to him, he was assuredly the new Christ; yet the Ancient One had not deceived man by presenting to them a God in three persons, and to explain this, as often as he spoke on the Sephiroth, Abulafia insisted on their Trinitarian division, their wholeness and their partial grouping.