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The Kabbalah

By Adolphe Franck

The Kabbalistic Books. Authenticity of the Sefer Yetzirah

We come now to the original books in which, according to the most wide-spread opinion, the Kabbalistic system took form since its birth. Judging from the titles 1 which have come down to us, the books were very numerous. But we shall consider only those which time has conserved for us, and which commend themselves to our attention by their importance as well as by their antiquity. There are two of the latter kind which fully correspond with the conception which we can form of the "History of Genesis" and of the "Holy Merkaba" according to the Talmud. One, entitled the "Book of Formation," ‏??? ?????‎, contains, I do not say a system of physics, but such a system of cosmology as could have been conceived in an epoch and in a country where the habit of explaining all phenomena by an immediate action of the first cause must have stifled the spirit of observation, and where, consequently, certain general and superficial relations perceived in the external world, must have passed for the science of nature. The other is called the Zohar, ‏???‎, or Brightness, according to the words of Daniel: "And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament." 2

The Zohar treats more particularly of God, of spirits and of the human soul, in a word, of the spiritual world. We are far from according the same importance and the same value to these two works. The second, much richer and much more extensive, but also more difficult, must, no doubt, hold the most prominent place; but we shall begin with the first, which seems to us to be the most ancient of the two.

Talmudic texts, of which neither the sense nor the age have been well established, were invoked in favor of the antiquity of the Sefer Yetzirah. We shall pass in silence these as well as the legends and the controversies to which they give rise. Our observations will bear only upon the foundation of the book which we aim to make known. They will suffice to make the character appreciable and to demonstrate the lofty origin.

1st. The system contained in it responds in every respect to the idea conveyed by the title of the book. We are assured of the fact by the words of the first proposition: "With the thirty-two marvelous paths of wisdom the world was created by the Eternal, the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, the Living, the Almighty, the Supreme God Who dwells in Eternity, Whose name is sublime and holy."

2nd. The means employed there to explain the work of the creation and the importance given to numbers and to letters, make us understand how ignorance and superstition abused later this principle; how the fables mentioned by us spread; and, finally, how the so-called practical Kabbalah was formed, which gives to numbers and to letters the power to change the course of nature.

The form is simple and grave; nothing that resembles, even faintly, demonstration or argument; there are nothing but aphorisms distributed in fairly regulated order, but as concise as the ancient oracles. One striking fact is that the term which was later on used exclusively for the designation of the soul, is still used here as in the Pentateuch to designate the living human body. 3

True, there are several words of foreign origin in the book: The names of the seven planets and the name of the Celestial Dragon, mentioned several times in the book, belong, evidently, to the language as well as to the science of the Chaldeans, who exercised an all-powerful influence over the Hebrews during the Babylonian captivity. 4 But the purely Greek, Latin and Arabic expressions, seen in large numbers in the Talmud and in the more modern writings where the Hebrew language serves philosophy and science, are not found there.

Now, it may be admitted as a general, and I may almost dare say, as an infallible principle, that all works of this nature wherein the civilization of the Greeks and the Arabs take no part, may be regarded as prior to the birth of Christianity. We surely admit that it would not be difficult to find vestiges of the language and philosophy of Aristotle in the work now under consideration, and to which we attribute, without fear, this character. When, for instance, after the above quoted proposition of the thirty-two marvelous paths of Wisdom which served for the creation of the universe, it adds that there are also three terms: that which counts, that which is counted, and the very action of counting, translated by the oldest commentators as: the subject, the object, and the act of the reflection or the thought, 5 it is impossible not to recall this celebrated phrase of the twelfth book of Metaphysics; the intelligence comprehends itself by grasping the intelligible, and it becomes the intelligible by the very act of comprehension and cognition; so that the intelligence and the intelligible are identical. 6

But it is evident that these words were added to the text, for they are connected neither with the proposition which precedes them, nor with the one following them; they do not recur under any form in any other place of the book; whereas the use of the ten numbers and the twenty-two letters which form the thirty-two means applied to the creation by divine wisdom, is explained at great length. Finally, we can not understand how these words could find place in a treatise which deals with nothing but the relations that exist between the different parts of the material world. As to the difference in the two manuscripts reproduced in the Mantua edition, one at the end of the volume, the other amidst the diverse commentaries, they are far from being as great as certain modern critics would have us believe. 7

After an impartial and detailed comparison, it is found to be based entirely upon some unimportant variants such as may be met with in all works of great antiquity, which suffered, by this very fact, during several centuries from the inattention or from the temerity of commentators. In fact, in both are found not only the same foundation and the same system considered from a general point of view, but also the same division and the same number of chapters, placed in the same order and devoted to the same subject matter; what is more, the same ideas are expressed in the same terms. But we do not find any more that perfect similarity in the numbers and places of the diverse propositions which, under the name of Mishnah, so clearly distinguish one from another. Here repetitions, there abbreviations; here united what is separated elsewhere. Finally, one appears also more explicit than the other, not alone in the words, but in the meanings as well.

We do not know, and consequently can not cite, more than one passage where the last difference is visible: At the end of the first chapter where it is the question of enumerating the principles of the universe which correspond to the ten numbers, one manuscript very simply says that first of all comes the spirit of the Living God; the other adds that this spirit of the Living God is the Holy Spirit which is, at the same time, Spirit, Voice and Word. 8 Doubtless this idea is of the greatest importance; but it is not lacking in the manuscript where it is not so clearly formulated. It constitutes, as we shall soon prove, the basis and the result of the entire system. Moreover, the Book of Formation was translated and explained in Arabic at the commencement of the tenth century, by Rabbi Saadia, a high methodical and wise mind, who considered it one of the most ancient and one of the first monuments of the human mind. 9 Without according any exaggerated value to this testimony, we shall add that all the commentators who succeeded him during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, expressed the same conviction.

Like all works of a very remote epoch, the one under consideration also lacks the title as well as the name of the author; but it closes with these strange words: "And when our father Abraham had considered, examined, fathomed and grasped the meaning of all these things, the Master of the Universe manifested Himself to him, called him His friend, and entered into an eternal covenant with him and his posterity. Abraham then believed in God, and that was counted unto him as a work of justice; and the glory of God was called upon him; for it is to him that these words apply: I have known thee before I formed thee in the womb of thy mother." This passage can not be considered as a modern invention. With only a few alterations it exists in the two texts of the Mantua edition, and it is found in the oldest commentaries. It is our opinion that in order to give more interest to the Book of Formation, it was supposed, or it was desired to have others suppose, that the things contained in the book were precisely those observed by the first patriarch of the Hebrews, and which gave him the idea of a God, One and All-Powerful.

There exists, besides, a tradition among the Jews, according to which Abraham had great astronomical knowledge, and that he raised himself to the idea of the true God solely by observing the spectacle of nature. The words quoted above, nevertheless, have been interpreted in a most gross material way. Abraham himself was taken as the author of the book wherein his name is mentioned with religious respect. Moses Betril's commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah begins thus: "It was Abraham, our father (peace be upon him!) who wrote this against the wise men of his time who were incredulous concerning the principles of Monotheism. This is, at least, what R. Saadia (the memory of the just be blessed!) believes in the first chapter of his book entitled "The Philosopher's Stone." I give his own words: The wise men of Chaldea attacked Abraham, our father, in his belief.

Now, the sages of Chaldea were divided into three sects. The first sect pretended that the Universe was subject to two primal causes which were entirely contrary in their way of action; one was busy destroying what the other produced. This opinion is that of the dualists who rest their theory on the principle that there can be nothing in common between the author of good and the author of evil. The second sect admitted three primal causes. As the two contrary principles, of which we have spoken, reciprocally paralyze each other, and as nothing can be accomplished in this manner, they recognized a third, deciding, principle. The third sect, finally, confessed no other God but the sun in which it recognized the sole principle of life and death." (See Sefer Yetzirah, Mantua edition, p. 20, 21.)

Notwithstanding such an imposing and universally respected authority, the opinion just noted has not even one adherent nowadays. The name of the patriarch has long since been replaced by that of Akkiba, one of the most fanatical champions of the tradition, one of the numerous martyrs of his country's liberty, and one who would have been counted by posterity among the heroes most worthy of admiration had he played a part in the ancient republics of Athens and Rome.

This other opinion is, no doubt, less improbable than the first one; yet, we surely do not believe it better based. Although, whenever mentioning him, the Talmud represents Akkiba as an almost divine being, and although it ranks him even above Moses, 10 yet he is not presented in any place as one of the luminaries of the Merkaba or of the science of Genesis; nowhere are we led to surmise that he wrote the Book of Formation, or any other book of that nature. On the contrary, he was positively reproached for not having entertained very lofty ideas of the nature of God. "Until when, Rabbi Akkiba," said Rabbi Jose the Galilean to him, "until when will you continue to profane the Divine Majesty?" 11 The enthusiasm he inspired was caused by the importance he accorded to the tradition, by the patience with which he knew how to draw from the traditions rules for all actions of life, 12 by the zeal with which he taught during a period of forty years, and, perhaps, also by the heroism of his death. The twenty-four thousand disciples attributed to him do not bear out the fact that the Mishnah forbade to divulge even the least important secrets of the Kabbalah to more than one person.

Several modern critics have fancied that two different works were known under the same title "Sefer Yetzirah;" one attributed to the patriarch Abraham, has long since disappeared; the other, much more modern, is the one conserved for us. This opinion is founded upon gross ignorance. Morin, author of "Biblical Exercises," 13 borrowed it from a chronicler of the sixteenth century, who, speaking of Akkiba, said: "Akkiba is he who drew up the Book of Formation in honor of the Kabbalah; but there is another Book of Formation composed by Abraham, to which Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (abbreviated, Ramban), wrote a great and marvelous commentary. 14

This commentary, written at the close of the thirteenth century, but printed in the Mantua edition several years after the chronicle just cited, 15 evidently relates to the book now in our hands. Most of the expressions of the text are faithfully preserved therein, and it is evident that it was not read by the historian whose words we have cited. Besides, the first who wrote the name of Akkiba instead of the name of Abraham was a Kabbalist of the fourteenth century, Isaac de Lattes, who in his preface to the Zohar asked: "Who permitted Rabbi Akkiba to write the book which has been orally transmitted since Abraham?" 16 These words, which we have tried to preserve faithfully, are evidently contrary to the distinction which we wish to destroy; and, yet, this distinction rests, in the last instance, on that authority only. So the author of the Book of Formation is as yet not discovered; nor is it we who are to rend the veil which hides his name. We even doubt whether this is possible with the feeble elements at our disposal. But the uncertainty on this point to which we are condemned, does not always reach the propositions which we think to have demonstrated and which, if need be, may suffice to satisfy the purely philosophical interest which we must look for in these matters.

78:1 The Sefer Ha-Bahir, ‏??? ?????‎, attributed to Nehunya Ben Hakanah, a contemporary of Hillel the Aged and of Herod the Great, is frequently cited: and to this day different fragments, evidently spurious, are quoted as from that work. Such are also the fragments collected under the title of "The Faithful Shepherd," ‏???? ??????‎, ordinarily printed with the Zohar as a commentary. Otherwise, nothing has remained to us but names and a few rare citations from the following authors frequently mentioned with the greatest respect by the Zohar: Rabbi Jose the Elder, ‏?? ???? ???.‎; Rabbi Hamnuna the Elder, ‏?? ?????? ???.‎; and Rabbi Jebi the Elder, ‏?? ???? ???.‎. *

78:* According to Peter Beer, part 2, p. 28, also R. Kruspedai, ‏?? ????????‎--Jellinek.

79:2 Daniel, XII, ‏????????? ?????? ???? ?????.‎.

80:3 We refer here to the word Nefesh, ‏???‎. It is evident that it can not be applied to the soul in any of the following passages: 1, When it is said of those who, according to the literal meaning of the word, "came out of the loins of Jacob," ‏?? ???? ???? ????? ?????? ???? ?????‎, Genesis XLVI, 26; 2, When it is permitted to prepare on the first day of Passover only that which every man must eat,‏?? ??? ???? ??? ??? ??? ???? ???? ???‎ Exodus, XII, 16; 3, When every one is ordered to inflict sufferings upon himself on the tenth day of the seventh month, in expiation of his sins, ‏?? ???? ??? ?? ???? ???? ???? ??? ?????? ?????‎, Levit. XXIII, 29. If it be true that, in designating the soul, the word Neshamah, ‏????‎, is used in preference to Nefesh, yet the latter, at least, is never used by the Talmudists or by more modern writers to designate the body. All, without exception, make use of the word Guf, ‏???‎), which is not met with even once in the Sefer Yetzirah.

80:4 These names, excepting those which designate the sun and the moon, do not belong to the Chaldaic language; they are a translation of Chaldean names. They are: ‏????‎, supposed to be Venus; ‏???‎, Mercury; ‏?????‎, Saturn; ‏???‎, Jupiter; ‏?????‎, Mars; ‏???‎, which designates the Dragon, is Arabic.

81:5 ‏??? ????? ???? ???? ??????‎, according to the author of the Cuzari, Rabbi Judah ha-Levi, the three terms designate the Thought, the Word, and the Scriptures, which in Divinity are identical, although in man they are separate. (Cuzari, 4th part.) According to Abraham ben Dior, they relate to the subject, the object, and to the very act of knowledge, ‏??? ???? ??????‎, or also ‏??? ?????? ??????‎. See Abraham ben Dior's commentary to the Sefer Yetzirah, p. 27a.

81:6 Α?τ?ν δ? νοε? ? νο?ς κατ? μετ?ληψιν το? νοητο?; νοητ?ς γ?ρ γ?γνεται θιγγ?νων κα? νο?ν ?στε ταυτ?ν νο?ς κα? νοητ?ν.--Metaphysics, Book 12.

81:7 See Wolf, Bibliotheca Hebraica, vol. I. Bayle, Dictionn. erit., article Abraham. Moreri, same article, etc.

82:8 Mantua edition, fol. 49a, ‏??? ???? ????? ??? ??? ?????‎.

82:9 Saadia begins his Arabic preface with the following words: ‏??? ???? ???? ???? ??????? ????? ??? ????? ????? ???? ??????‎. "This book is called: Book of the Beginnings; it is attributed to our father Abraham (peace be with him)." Munk, l.c.

84:10 Babyl. Talmud, Tract, Menahoth, 29b.

85:11 Babyl. Talmud, Tract. Haggiga, 14a. ‏??? ?? ?? ???? ?????? ?? ??? ??? ???? ????? ???.‎

85:12 Babyl. Talmud, Tract. Haggiga, 14a. It is said he knew how to deduct "heaps" of principles from the smallest particulars of the Biblical words. ‏???? ????? ?? ?????.‎

85:13 Morimus, Exercitationes biblicae, p. 374.

85:14 ‏???? ??? ??? ??????? ???? ?????? ?? ????? ??? ??? ????? ???? ????? ??? ?????? ??? ????? ???? ????? ????‎ Shal-sheleth ha-kabbalah, fol. 20b.

85:15 The first edition of the Sefer Yetzirah is the Mantua edition published in 1565; while the Chronicle, just mentioned, Shalsheleth hakabbalah (The Chain of Tradition) was printed already in Imola in 1549.

86:16 Isaac De Lattes really combined both statements by saying:‏?? ???? ??? ????? ????? ??? ????? ?????? ???? ????? ???? ????? ????? ?????? ????? ??? ??? ?????? ????? ?????? ????? ???? ???? ??? ????.‎ "Who permitted R. Akkiba to write the book 'Sefer Yetzirah' which he called Mishnah and which they received by way of tradition from Abraham our father (peace be upon him!)? Why, again, came R. Moses ben Nahman, whose fame is so wide-spread, and made an exhaustive commentary to it?"--Jellinek.



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