Medieval Qabalism

The Sepher Yetzirah set the stage for much later Jewish mysticism by amalgamating various mystical currents into a Jewish context. Called the "earliest extant Hebrew text of systematic, speculative thought,"29 its ideas were built upon by later scholars. For example, where the very word Sephiroth was originally used to mean simply numbers or numerical stages in creation, in the middle ages that word came to mean a specific system of Divine emanation.30

One of the most important ideas to be added by late medieval scholars was that numerological links could be found between words (and thus between concepts) using Gematria. The introduction of Gematria served two purposes. First, it helped to assure that scribes would spell names precisely as received; second, it tended to serve as an incentive for serious meditation on the Names.

Sometime between 1150 and 1200, in Southern France, another very important Qabalist work appeared. This was the Sepher-ha-Bahir, supposedly an ancient work, but more likely edited from several works of either German or eastern origin.31 The Bahir contains the first reference to a "secret Tree," and is the first to describe the Sephiroth as the vessels of Divine Light. An English translation of the work, by Aryeh Kaplan, has recently been published.32

The thirteenth century was especially pivotal for the Jewish Qabalah. It was during this time that Isaac the Blind, a scholar from Narbonne, wrote his comments on the Sepher Yetzirah, first describing it as involving a systematic development of Sephiroth. He also built upon some of the ideas expressed in the Bahir,33 as did others in his day. The result of study of the Sepher Yetzirah in terms of the Bahir was that scholars began to discuss the Ten Sephiroth and the Thirty-two Paths together.

Another major idea, appearing at this time in France and Spain, was that there were evil Sephiroth existing as exact counterparts to the Good.34 This concept was extensively developed by some of the adepts of the Golden Dawn Fraternity.

It was in this climate of mystical-intellectual fruition that the greatest of all Qabalist treatises appeared. The Zohar was the work of Moses de Leon, between 1280 and 1286.35 It is a series of commentaries on the Bible and on mystical cosmology.

For generations The Zohar was believed to be an ancient work. The text itself purports to have been written by a second century rabbi, Simeon ben Yohai. Moreover, The Zohar is written primarily in ancient Aramaic, a language which is the root of both Hebrew and Arabic. Presumably, Moses de Leon felt that his work would be taken more seriously if attributed to an ancient author. He was probably correct, for The Zohar quickly assumed major proportions as the document of Jewish mysticism. It should be added that between approximately 1500 and 1800 the Qabalah was widely considered to be the true essence of Jewish theology,36 rather than the curiosity that it is today among Jews.

Unfortunately, The Zohar has never been translated completely into a European language. The five volume English set by Maurice Simon and Harry Sperling37 is competent, but represents only about 35% of the work. The translators chose to eliminate those parts which they believed to be later additions, or unduly obscure. Three of those omitted texts are, however, to be found in The Kabbalah Unveiled38 translated from Knorr von Rosenroth's latin Kabbalah Denudata of 1677, and which includes a brilliant introduction by

MacGregor Mathers. The texts in question are among the most difficult of The Zohar. They are: The Book of Concealed Mystery, The Greater Holy Assembly and The Lesser Holy Assembly.

There is only one complete translation into a modern language and that is Hebrew. The twenty-one volume translation and commentary, by the late Yehuda Ashlag is described by Scholem as "an extremely literal translation (but not without many textual misunderstandings)."39

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