The basic texts of the mystical tradition of Kabbalah

Silver Torah pointer lying on a jewish prayer book

Silver Torah pointer lying on a jewish prayer book

Note: The following article has been taken and translated by F.v.F. from the book “Kabbala: Teorie si Practica” by Raul Petrisor with the author’s permission.


 

The great majority of kabbalistic literature was part of the oral tradition which, in time, began to be written and later translated. Even if it was said to us by Ben Sirach[1], over 2000 years ago: “You shall have no business with secret things.[2], there have been realized many mystical studies, the oral tradition became to be written and then translated especially into Latin or Greek, and in actual times in other languages.

The first texts that appeared were the apocalyptic, in the first and second century of prechristianity. It is said that these writings were kept with strictness by the Essenes.[3]

Elements of Jewish mysticism can be found in the non-biblical texts from the Dead Sea and those from Nag Hammadi; an more precise example would be The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. Some parts of the Talmud and Midrash offer esoteric or mystical information in a particular way[4]. Many of the texts, like Hekalot Rabbati, Sefer haBahir, Tora Hakana, Sefer P’liyah, Midrash Otiyot d’Rabbi Akiva, Bahir and Zohar,. Claim to be from the Talmudic era, even if some of these writings are identified by modern scholars as clear works of the Middle Ages, ascribed to the ancient past.

The texts that constitute the source of ideas, concepts, practices and mystical meditations can be divided in two categories. The first is formed by primary texts coming from the Messiah, prophets of great masters. From the second category are the great multitude of books existing at this moment about the mysticism, esoterism, meditation and practice of the kabbala.

In this section, we will be dealing however with the primary texts that refer to the tree of life.

  • Sefer-ha-Torah Books of the Law, the first five books of the old testament.
  • Etz-ha-ChayyimTree of Life, dictated by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and published in 1901.
  • Sefer Yetzirah Book of Formation, manual of Hebrew letters written by Abraham and published at Mantua, in 1562.
  • Heikhalot Heavenly Palaces
  • Sefer-ha-Bahir Book of the Brightness, published in Provence, France, in 1176[5].
  • Peshitta The Gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas.
  • Sefer-ha-Zohar Book of Splendor, published between 1558 and 1560.
  • Sifra-Detzniyutha [6]The Book of Concealed Mystery.
  • Idra Rabba Qadusha [7]The Greater Holy Assembly.
  • Idra Zuta Qadusha The Lesser Holy Assembly.
  • Sefer Raziel HaMalach Book of Raziel the Angel.

Sefer-ha-Torah – Scrolls of the Law

 

The five books which compose Torah are part of the Old Testament [8]. The Hebrew name of the books comes from the first word that each of the books begin.

  1. Bereshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית “In the beginning of”)
  2. Shemot (שְׁמוֹת “Names” )
  3. Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא “And He called” )
  4. Bamidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר “In the wilderness”)
  5. Devarim (דְּבָרִים “Words” )

The anglicization of the names derives from greek and reflects the topic of each book:

  1. Genesis – begins with the process of Creation of the Universe and of humanity. Then it is presented the history of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the life of Joseph.
  2. Exodus – presents the story of Moses who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, the receiving of the 10 Laws and in the end the instructions to build the tabernacle.
  3. Leviticus – At first it offers instructions for the usage of the tabernacle and continues with the rules that people must apply during their presence in the tent.
  4. Numbers – describes the census of the Israelites on mount Sinai and the lands of Moab.
  5. Deuteronomy – is formed especially by the speeches of Moses that have the role to make the Jewish people more obedient as well as the transmission of new laws and the designation of Joshua as successor.

The historical descriptions in the Torah are not always in chronological order. Sometimes, the histories are ordered by concepts, in conformity with the rule that “there is no earlier or later in Torah[9].

The most religious of the Jews think that the present version of the Torah is the perfect copy of the version written by Moses. But the majority accepted the idea that the present version is, in fact, a compilation written by many Jewish authors, writings from different time periods beginning with 1000 B.C.; the final work seems to have been compiled in the V century B.C., although there have not been found any manuscripts from that period.

No matter the provenience form, the final writing is attributed to Ezra the Scribe. But there is less probable that the writings we have today are exact copies of the same compiled by Ezra. Religious conservators want to believe that the holy books and the alphabet have remained unchanged in the course of thousands of years, although there are sufficient proofs that show that there was a Hebrew alphabet older then the actual, called gezer or proto-sinaitic, that was the base of the actual one. In fact, it is supposed that the proto-sinaitic alphabet is the basis of most alphabets on Earth, including the latin, Hebrew, Arabic, runic etc. [10] [11]

protosinaitic

When Torah was written, the Jewish sinaitic alphabet disappeared long ago because of the thousands of years of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Roman cultural and religious domination. As such, Ezra written it in the new language. Although, the most ordinary printings we have today of the Torah date from IV century A.D., called masoretic [12]

The Tanakh [13] or Old Testament was compiled by the Great Assembly Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, in translation The Men of the Great Assembly, the book being formed of 120 writings and prophecies. The translation in Greek is called Septuaginta and became a text associated with Christianity. It is said that this designation, Septuaginta, comes from the fact that the translation work was done by 72 translators that have worked simultaneously in Alexandria, where existed the biggest community of Jews outside Palestine.

Sefer Yetzirah – Book Of Formation

Sefer Yetzirah, in translation Book of Formation or of Creation. It is said that this work had the greatest influence in the development of the Jewish mind. All the creations of golems and miracles attributed to the rabbis have taken place because of the usage offered in this work.

Historians did not succeed in determining the origin of the text. Some say the work was composed in VI century ; the linguistic construction used can be even from the II century. References to the Book of Abraham from the Quran, that send to this book or a variation of it, would place it much earlier from the Middle Ages. No matter if the one who wrote this work is or isn’t Abraham, it is considered that it was transmitted from Adam to Noah and then to Abraham [14].

It is the first mystical manual and, very possible, the source of Hebrew alphabet origin. It presents and organizes the creation in 32 paths of wisdom, formed of:

  • 10 Sephiroth:
    • 3 elements: air, water, fire; [15]
    • 6 directions: front, back, left, right, up and down;
    • center
  • 22 letters:
    • 3 mother or primary letters: representing the three primordial elements from which everything was created: air, water and fire;
    • 7 doubles: representing the classic planetary forces: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn;
    • 12 simple or elemental letters: representing the twelve signs of the zodiac over the year.

To these there are added other emotional, intellectual and esoteric associations; in other words it is an index of correspondences. [16]

starofdavid(Star of David)

merkaba2(Merkabah)

The first chapter of this book represents the earliest mentioning of the six pointed star, known under the name Star of David. Generally it is presented in a bidimensional plane, as intersection of two triangular pyramids. Sefer Yetzirah however presents the Star of David in a three-dimensional plane, representing the Tree of Life in space, as a combination of two triangular pyramids. This structure is used in Merkabah work of ascension to the superior planes of existence, like Ezekiel who raised to the heavens.

revelac3a7c3a3o-da-merkabah2(Source)

Sefer-ha-Zohar – Book of Splendor

Zorah (zoharwriting“Splendor”) is the most important kabbalistic text, an exegesis written in rashi aramaic[17] of the five books of Torah.

As in the case of Sefer Yetzirah, the origin of the text has not been classified. Many kabbalists believe it was written between 1280 and 1286 by Moses b. Shem Tov of Leon in Guadalajara, north-east of Madrid, Spain, where it was carried a lot of kabbalistic activity at that time [18].

The Zorah is organized in commentaries on the articles from Torah, but the elaborations utilized are based on Talmud, Midrash Rabba, Yetzirah, Bahir and many other rabbinic texts. In this context we can affirm that Zohar is, in a way, Kabbala.

Most of the orthodox[19] Jews[20] believe that the teachings of kabbala have been permanently transmitted from teacher to disciple and that the teachings offered are of divine essence.

The Zohar exemplifies the fundamental difference between the Jewish rational-philosophical branch and the mystical-theosophical branch, that represents the mystical belief according to which divinity is a dynamic aspect which implies both the masculine and feminine gender.[21] These aspects must be united for the keeping of harmony in the Universe.

The Zorah starts from the presumption that there are four aspects of the biblical text:[22]

  • Peshat – Simple, literary;
  • Remez – Allusive or Suggestive;
  • Derash – metaphorical, through comparisons or illustrations;
  • Sod – containing mysteries or secrets hidden in the text. The procedure of exegesis in the Zohar used for the undertaking of the knowledge is called Perdes (paradise), word that comes from the first letter in the name of the four methods of undertaking of the texts described earlier (P, R, D, S). This procedure is similar to the one applied by commentators in the time of the first period of Christianity in the Middle Ages.
  • Literary – the way of undertaking is historical, dealing with past events.
  • Typological – connects the events from the Old Testament with the ones in the New Testament, dealing with past and present events.
  • Moral or tropological – the moral part of the story is taken into consideration, dealing with present events.
  • Analogical – refers to the spiritual and mystical part and the Christian prophecies, dealing with future events.

The mystical part in Zohar is based on the principle that all visible things include phenomena that are both exoteric and esoteric, and which offer instructions for spiritual development.

The Zohar is opposed to religious formalism, stimulating imagination and emotion and refreshes the experience of the prayer process at the same time. In many religious communities, prayer has become more of an exterior process rather than what it is supposed to be, a process of transcendence of wordly problems and crisis and of offering to the divinity, through a process of union and acceptance of divine grace.

In the XVII century it was proposed that only those over 40 years can have the right to study kabbala, and in extension to read the Zohar, because it was considered too powerful for those less experienced and emotionally mature.

The enthusiasm provoked by the Zohar was also shared by Christians like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Aegidius of Viterbo[23] etc.; all of them were convinced that this book contains Christian truths. They reasoned this belief with the existing analogies between the teachings of the Zohar and the Christian teachings, some of these being the fall from heaven and the principle of Trinity.  The arguments and explanations brought to the concept of God as Trinity in catholic or orthodox Christianity are rather lacking because they are found in kabbala and manuscripts like the Zohar, that Christianity didn’t take from the Jews.

 

Peshitta – The Bible

Peshitta [24] means simple version (or common) of the Syriac Bible. This name has been given in the IX century to both Testaments, old and new, although they have been translated separately. The greek version, Septuagint, was translated from masoretic texts, but Peshitta was translated from Aramaic,  independently from the first [25].

From both versions it can be observed that Yeshua (Jesus) was born, raised and educated as a Jew. His life was the messianic message itself that he was preaching and can be understood though the culture and society in which he lived. He was and is a good example for both the Hebrews of his time, and after 2000 years, for the man of modern society. Although interrogated by the rabbi, they could not find him defect because, besides the adequate life he was having, he had advanced knowledge of what is Hebrew mysticism and kabbala.

When Jesus was tempted by the Pharisee for them to see if he respects the law, his response was odd. He did not refer neither to the 613 laws[26] from Torah nor to the 10 laws brought by Moses, but he recited Shema or the affirmation of union with divinity from Torah Doverim/Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

 

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.”

Matthew 22:36-38

 

Actually, it is one of the laws from Torah, Doverim 6:5:

         “Love thy God with all your heart, with all thy soul and with all thy strength.”

Deute. 6:5

 

Keeping the divine names from the Aramaic version Shema, this paragraph would sound like this:

         “Hear Israel, YHVH Elohim is your only YHVH. Love thy YHVH our Elohim, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.

Then said: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Matthew 22:38-40

 

This is also one of the laws from Torah, Vayiqra 19:18

“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as theyself. I am the Lord.”

Leviticus 19:18

 

 

After almost four years from the moment of the rise to the heavens of Yeshua started to appear all sorts of stories about his life and teachings. Four of them were canonized, the rest however did not fit with the gentiles or Christians ideas. Yeshua had an exemplary life as a jew, but, in the New Testament, this was described by the gentiles with modifications, the way to view some aspects of his life no longer being seen from the Hebrew law point of view, but from that of the new Christians, that have deviated from the Jewish laws or did not even know of them[27].

Or can we affirm that only the life and teachings covered in the four Gospels are true ? If we could accept this, we should ignore the existence of the other gospels, a thing that most Christian groups are doing today.

In this case, the way of viewing the teachings would be limited and, we could say, unreal or certainly incomplete.

The most important Christian source before the apparition of the Gospels is the greek translation of the Tanakh[28], called Septuagint. The long Jewish tradition of interpreting the biblical verses has been remade sometimes forced, so it could be correlated with Jeshua’s life as achiever of the prophecies from Torah. It was considered that the writings of the prophets, especially those of David, Isaiah, Miheia, Osea and of the kings of Israel, were containing mistakes that were not corresponding to the new ways of though, being finally corrected and adjusted to support the histories from the New Testament. The earliest gospels are dated around the 4th and 5th century. It is interesting how the tradition of thousands of years, as well as the texts that it is based on, have been perceived as false by the new Christians.

In these conditions, we must remember that Jesus himself said he did not come to spread a new message or a new religion, but to fulfill and revive the old one. He did not come to correct, eliminate or change Torah, but to demonstrate it by the example of life. These affirmations appear quite clear in the Gospel of John and in the Gospel of Thomas[29] [30].

 

Etz-ha-Chayyim – The Tree Of Life

 

The Tree of Lifetreeoflifename ) is the mystical symbol used in kabbala and Jewish esoteric knowledge to represent the way in which God created the Universe. At the same time, the tree of life is supposed to be a representation, a cosmological model of the reality we live in.

The Tree of Life also tells us of the place of man in the created Universe, this being seen as a fruit of the physical world that condensed and solidified in matter.

plactonic3

Kabbalists use the Tree Of Life as a map to be able to return to divinity and to unite with nature.  This is done by a journey through each sephiroth of the sephirotic tree to the Holy Trinity (Kether, Hokhmah, Binah).

The most known form of the sephirotic tree comes from Rabbi Yitza’zq Luria (1534 – 1572), who dictated Etz-ha-Chayyim, one of the most complex works about practical kabbala; from the beginning until our days, this attracted the interest of many people involved in the process of spiritual evolution.

Hekhalot – Heavenly Palaces

 

Hekhalot is not a single text but rather a type of writing with the same characteristic. These texts concentrate on the modalities to get to the palaces of Heaven; they tell us what to expect once arrived there, how to call the angels and the angelic forces to interact with them and to give help.

gate

(Gate of Heavenly Palace)

The work contains several documents that are part of this category, like: Hekhalot Rabbati, in which are described six of the seven palaces of God, Hekhalot Zutarti, Shiur Komah, as well as many other smaller documents[31] or fragments on the same subject.[32]

Sefer Raziel HaMalakh – Book of Raziel the Angel

 

Raziel is translated as secret of god. In Kabbala it is said that he is the keeper of secrets[33] and that he offered the wisdom in Torah and the first five books of the Old Testament [34] , being associated with the sephiroth Hokhmah and with the Briyah World[35].

It is said about the Book of Raziel that it would contain all the answers of the secret knowledge, in this context being considered the book of magicians. He offered the book to Adam and Eve after the fall from Heaven, so that mankind can find its way back to divinity and paradise.

The book has been transmitted from generation to generation over to Enoch, whom is supposed to have become Metatron. From Enoch it was offered to Noah to build the ark and to keep the flora and fauna of the earth.[36]

Sefer-ha-Bahir – Book of the Brightness

 

It is a book of special interest for kabbalists because it is a questionnaire with questions and answers about concepts and ideas from Kabbalistic literature. A sort of guide of the beginner in kabbalistic subjects, that does not exceed the size of a magazine, but it is very hard to understand. The book was published, for the first time, in Provence, France, in 1176[37]

[1] Jesus ben Sirach, Ben Sira, is the author of the book Deuteronomy in the Old Testament ; Guillaume, Phillipe, New Light on the Nebiim from Alexandria: A Chronography to Replace the Deuteronomistic History, sections 3 – 5: full notes and bibliography.

[2] Sirach III. 22; Talmud, Hagigah, 13a; Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, VIII.

[3] Philo, De Vita Contemplativa, III., Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, IX. 27.

[4] Hagigah 12b-14b.

[5] The most recent edition was edited by Reuve Margaliot and was published at Jerusalem in 1951.

[6] Also written as Siphra Dtzenioutha.

[7] Also written as Idra Rabba Qadisha.

[8] Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts, Hebrew Publishing Company, Philip Birnbaum, 1964.

[9] Talmud Pesachim 7a.

[10] Details can be found at http://www.llewellyn.com/journal/article/2108

[11] Other info at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Semitic_language

[12] The oldest manuscript that survived is Codex Petropolitanus, from 910 A.D.

[13] More commonly known as Masoretic Text, from the alphabet that it was written in.

[14] The Kabbalah, Christian D. Ginsburg, 1920.

[15] The “earth” element is formed through the combination of the three elements.

[16] The Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation: in Theory and Practice, trans. Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1997.

[17] Rashi script is a semicursive form of writing in Hebrew, in which Rashi wrote commentaries for Talmud and Tanakh (Old Testament).

[18] Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, Keter Publishing, Jerusalem, 1974.

[19] From the latin orthodoxus or the greek orthodoxos; orthos = righteous, doxis = opinion. Orthodox = righteous opinion or dogma.

[20] Orthodox Jews are a community strict in the application of the law and of the canonized ethics in the Talmudic texts. They are characterized by the belief that the law is divine and transmitted directly by God to Moses, and that it must not be altered in any way.

[21] Eros and Kabbalah, Moshe Idel.

[22] The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnalls, 1901-1906.

[23] Egidio da Viterbo

[24] http://www.peshitta.org/

[25] http://www.aramaicpeshitta.com/

[26] There are 365 negative laws corresponding to the days of the year and 248 positive laws corresponding, attributed to every bone in the skeletal system and primary organs in the human body; The Concise Book of Mitzvoth: The Commandments which can be Observed Today, HaCohen, Yisrael Meir., Trans., Charles Wengrov. Feldheim, 1990.

[27] Here it is referred to the other Christianized people, the romans, greeks etc.

[28] Tanakh is the biblical name used by Hebrew jews; it is also known as Masoretic text.

[29] It is an apocryphal text kept almost entirely on a papyrus found in1945, at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

[30] The Nag Hammadi Library – http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhlalpha.hmtl

[31] Other texts that are part of the Hekhalot literature are Maaseh Merkabah, Merkavah Rabba, Sepher Hekhalot, Re’uyyot Yehezqel, Massekhet Hekhalot, Sepher Ha-Razim, Harba de Moshe.

[32] Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and the Talmudic Tradition, Gershom Scholem, 1965.

[33] A Dictionary of Angels, Including The Fallen Angels, Gustav Davidson, (1967), Entry: Raziel, pp. 242, 243.

[34] Hebrew Visions of Hell and Paradise (1894), Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society, London, The Royal Asiatic Society; can be read here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/journals/jras/1893-15.htm

[35] Angels A to Z, Lewis, James R., Oliver, Evelyn Dorothy, Sisung Kelle S. (Editor) (1996), Entry: Raziel, pp. 346, 347.

[36] The Legends of the Jews, Ginzberg, Louis (1909), Volume 1, Chapter IV.

[37] The Bahir, trans. Aryeh Kaplan, Aronson, 1995.

 

 

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