The Path – July 1886

NOTES ON THE CABBALAH OF THE OLD TESTAMENT — J. Ralston Skinner

I said in my article on Hebrew Metrology, (1) that the system embracing it was a language, veiled under the Hebrew text of Scripture, and that "To the extent to which the language was known among the Jews, the learning and teaching thereof was called 'CABBALAH.'"

It is a fact that so little is known of Cabbalah that its existence has been denied. It has seemed to possess a like property with that of Prester John, namely, the more and further he was searched for the less he could be found and the more fabulous he became. After the same fashion, as very much was related of wonders connected with Prester John, so the most marvelous things are claimed for Cabbalah. The Cabbalistic field is that in which astrologers, necromancers, black and white magicians, fortune tellers, chiromancers, and all the like, revel and make claims to supernaturalism ad nauseam. Claim is also made that it conceals a sublime divine philosophy, which has been attempted to be set forth in a most confused and not understandable way. The Christian quarrying into its mass of mysticism, claims for it support and authority for that most perplexing of all problems the Holy Trinity, and the betrayed character of Christ. The good, pious, ignorant man picks up Cabbalah at will as a cheap, easy and veritable production, and at once, with the poorest smattering of starved ideas, gives forth to the world, as by authority, a devout jumble of stuff and nonsense. With equal insurance, but more effrontery the knave, in the name of Cabbalah, will sell amulets and charms, tell fortunes, draw horoscopes, and just as readily give specific rules, as in the case of that worthy, Dr. Dee, for raising the dead, and actually — the devil.

No wonder then that the whole affair has been discredited and condemned by the rational and the wise.

Discovery has yet to be made of what Cabbalah really consists before any weight or authority can be given to the name. On that discovery will rest the question whether the name should be received as related to matters worthy of rational acknowledgment.

The writer claims that such a discovery has been made, and that the same embraces rational science of sober and great worth. He claims that it will serve to clear up and take away very much of the mysticism which up to this time has been an unexplainable part of religious systems, — especially the Hebrew or Jewish, and the Christian, so much so that the supernatural in those systems will have to give place to the rational, to a very great extent. He claims that that sublime science upon which Masonry is based, is in fact, the substance of Cabbalah, — which last is the rational basis of the Hebrew text of Holy writ.

Cabbalah is inseparably connected with the text of the Scriptures, and an exposition of the inner sense of the same is as John Reuchlin claimed necessary to a right and full understanding of the Sacred Text. But he saw vaguely, being taught only in a mystic phraseology which was really a blind, and he did not come into possession of the solid, rational grounds of it which he could formulate and impart. For this reason, though he was right in his general assertion, his scheme failed, and his works in this regard, passed away from the common sense world, and have ever since lived only among the mystics and dreamers.

Like all other human productions of the kind, the Hebrew text of the Bible was in characters which could serve as sound signs for syllabic utterance, or for this purpose what are called letters. Now in the first place, these original character signs were also pictures, each one of them; and these pictures of themselves stood for ideas which could be communicated, — much like the original Chinese letters. Gustav Seyffarth shows that the Egyptian hieroglyphics numbered over six hundred picture characters, which embraced the modified use, syllabically, of the original number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The characters of the Hebrew text of the Sacred Scroll were divided into classes, in which the characters of each class were interchangeable; whereby one form might be exchanged for another to carry a modified signification, both by letter, and picture and number. Seyffarth shows the modified form of the very ancient Hebrew alphabet in the old Coptic by this law of interchange of characters. This law of permitted interchange of letters is to be found quite fully set forth in the Hebrew dictionaries, such as Fuerst's and others. Though recognized and largely set forth it is very perplexing and hard to understand, because we have lost the specific use and power of such interchange. In the second place, these characters stood for numbers — to be used for numbers as we use specific number signs, — though, also, there is very much to prove that the old Hebrews were in possession of the so-called Arabic numerals, as we have them, from the straight line 1 to the zero character, together making 1+9=10. The order of these number letters run from 1 to 9, then 10 to 90, then 100 upward. In the third place it is said, and it seems to be proven, that these characters stood for musical notes; so that for instance, the arrangement of the letters in the first chapter of Genesis, can be rendered musically, or by song. Another law of the Hebrew characters was that only the consonantal signs were characterized, — the vowels were not characterized, but were supplied. If one will try he will find that a consonant of itself cannot be made vocal without the help of a vowel; therefore it was said that the consonants made the frame work of a word, but to give it life or utterance into the air, so as to impart the thought of the mind, and the feeling of the heart, the vowels had to be supplied. Thus the dead word of consonants became quickened into life by the Holy Spirit, or the vowels.

This being said then: —

First: The Holy or Sacred Text was given in consonants only, without any voweling, or signs of vowels.

Second: The letters were written one after the other at equal distances, without any separation whatever of distinct words, and without any punctuations whatever, such as commas, semi-colons, colons or periods.

It will be seen at once that a various reading of the text might be had in many places, both by differing arrangements of letters, and by a differing supplying of vowels. A very important difference of reading may be instanced in the first line of Genesis. It is made to be read "B'rashith bara Elohim," etc., "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"; wherein Elohim is a plural nominative to a verb in the third person singular. Nachminedes called attention to the fact that the text might suffer the reading, "B'rash ithbara Elohim," etc. "In the head (source or beginning) created itself (or developed) Gods, the heavens and the earth," — really a more grammatical rendering.

What the originally and intended right reading was who can tell? It may be surmised, however, that it was made to subserve a coordinating, symmetrical and harmonious working of the characters to unfold and develop their various uses; — as sound signs to frame a narrative, — as numbers to develop geometrical shapes and the numerical enunciations of their elements, comparisons and applications, — as pictures to show forth ideas in some accordance with the story told, and finally, — as musical sounds to give an appropriate song to embrace the whole. The whole compass was to embrace rational proof, through operations in nature, of the existence of that Divine Contriving Willing Cause which we call God. But be this as it may there was no end of effort for thousands of years, by the best trained and most learned men of the Hebrews and Jews, to give and preserve what had to be decided upon by them as the right reading of the Sacred Text. This reading was certainly perfected as we have it, as early as the time of Ezra; and as to the various readings which offered, the present was perfected as the orthodox one, — or that one to be received by the profound vulgar.

It must be known that it is claimed for the Sacred Scroll by the Hebrew, that no letter in it has ever been changed, and that even the marginal readings were part of the original text for a varied use thereof, in perfect accord with the object of its writing. Unlike the Christian Gospels, with the Hebrews and Jews, alike, the original text was sacredly precious as to its every and very letter, and had to be thus preserved. To the contrary of this, the Gospels can be changed in their reading to suit the currently changing ideas of what the same should be. The marks to indicate "right reading" were after the time of Ezra gradually made public, were called Massorah, and finally, edited by Ben Chajim, were published by Bomberg, in Venice, in the fifteenth century.

After this fashion and mode the books of the Old Testament were prepared and read by the Jews long before the time of the Christian Era. They were thus accepted at that time; and afterwards by the Christian World: — so that, to day, we accept the record, as thus prepared by the ancient orthodox Jewish and Hebrew Church.

Whatever may have been the Jewish mode of complete interpretation of these books, the Christian Church had taken them for what they show on their first face, — and that only. As they may be read orally, so is their fullest meaning to be gathered from the oral reading; and by means of what the sound of the words may convey to the ear the full and complete intendment of meaning is to be had. The Christian Church has never attributed to these books any property beyond this; and herein has existed its great error.

Now, as said, the substance of the Cabbalah is a rendering of the secret doctrine of the Old Testament, and this is not only asserted, but an argument is raised about the matter in the following set terms: "If the Law simply consisted of ordinary expressions and narratives, ex. gr. the words of Esau, Hagar, Laban, the ass of Balaam, or of Balaam himself, why should it be called the Law of Truth, the perfect law, the true witness of God? Each word contains a sublime source, each narrative points not only to the single instance in question, but also to generals." (Sohar iii, 149 b). "Woe be to the son of man who says that the Tora (Pentateuch) contains common sayings and ordinary narratives. * * There is the garment that every one can see, but those who have more understanding do not look at the garment but at the body beneath it; while the wisest, the servants of the Heavenly King, those who dwell at Mount Sinai, look at nothing else but the soul (i.e., the secret doctrine), which is the root of all the real Law." (Sohar, iii, 152 a).

Now it is a strange thing, that in the quotations made by Dr. Ginsburg in his Essay, (2) can be gleaned a series of data wherewith to arrange a philosophy of Cabbalistic teaching, covered by the names and remarks on the Ten Sephiroth. The "trick of the thing" lays plainly before the eyes in its development, and yet is perfectly concealed from unintelligent observation. In other words, the very text is laughing at the worthy doctor, while he is criticizing it with an apparent aspect of superiority and authority. The same thing is to be found in the text of Plutarch's Morals, by C. W. King, and in many other texts where the like phenomenal mode is practiced. It in fact is said that the Cabbalah is evolved by "hints scarcely perceptible," and the cunning of the concealment is something to admire and laugh at. The description in Sohar of the mode of communication tends to explain what has been said:

"The opinion that the mysteries of the Cabbalah are to be found in the garment of the Pentateuch is still more systematically propounded in the following parable: 'Like a beautiful woman, concealed in the interior of her palace, who when her friend and beloved passes by, opens for a moment a secret window and is seen by him alone, and then withdraws herself immediately and disappears for a long time, so the doctrine only shows herself to the chosen (i.e., to him who is devoted to her with body and soul); and even to him not always in the same manner. At first she simply beckons at the passer by with her hand, and it generally depends upon his understanding this gentle hint. This is the interpretation known by the name of ramaz. Afterwards she approaches him a little closer, lisps him a few words but her form is still covered with a thick veil, which his looks cannot penetrate. This is the so-called darausch. She then converses with him with her face covered by a thin veil; this is the enigmatic language of the hagadah. After having thus become accustomed to her society, she at last shows herself face to face and entrusts him with the innermost secrets of her heart. This is the secret of the Law, sod. He who is thus far initiated in the mysteries of the Tora will understand that all these profound secrets are based upon the simple literal sense, and are in harmony with it, and from this literal sense not a single iota is to be taken and nothing is to be added to it." (Sohar, ii, 99.)

FOOTNOTES:

1. Masonic Review, July, 1885. (return to text)

2. The Cabbalah, its Doctrine, Development and Literature. (return to text)


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