The Path – August 1886

NOTES ON THE CABBALAH OF THE OLD TESTAMENT — Ralston Skinner

Ginsburg and others tell us that Raymond Lully and John Picus de Mirandola had acquired knowledge of the Hebrew and the Cabbalah. Mirandola studied Hebrew and Cabbalistic theology under Jochanan Aleman, who came to Italy from Constantinople, and — "found that there is more Christianity in the Cabbalah than Judaism; he discovered in it proof for the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Divinity of Christ, the heavenly Jerusalem, the fall of the angels, the order of the angels" and so on, and so on. "In 1486, when only 24 years old, he published 900 theses, which were placarded in Rome, and which he undertook to defend in the presence of all European scholars, whom he invited to the Eternal City, promising to defray their traveling expenses. Among the theses was the following: 'No science yields greater proof of the Divinity of Christ than magic and the Cabbalah.'"

Through Picus de Mirandola, Reuchlin became aware of this phase of Hebrew philosophy or theosophy, as, by a school of the rabbins, a recognized appurtenant to the Hebrew Scriptures. He not only examined into the Cabbalah to satisfy his thirst for facts of literature, but, on investigation, became a convert to the system, — "within two years of beginning to learn the language, published (1494) his De Verbo Miritico, and afterwards (1516) with more matured learning, his De Arle Cabbalistica." And thus the joint efforts of Mirandola and Reuchlin established a field of literature, of the Cabbalah, which has always flourished, and will continue to flourish so long as our civilization shall last.

It is interesting and useful to place this great fact, but it is a matter of especially great weight and value that the knowledge of the Cabbalah was sprung upon the world of letters, with, and as an essential part of the Reformation itself. Not that the philosophy of the Cabbalah became engrafted into the study and development of Hebrew (and consequently Christian) theosophy; — for, because of lack of knowledge of what the Cabbalah really was, such could not be the case, — but it was entitled so to be, and the assertion of its existence as a real element of Scripture was, even then, so strongly and enduringly made, that, though an unknown quantity except by name, it has ever since stood firmly, and ready to have such claim made good: — with a vitality that has outworn four hundred years of patient waiting.

Of course there was a field of Jewish Cabbalistic literature, — not open, but confined, for the most part, as a kind of sacred mystery, within narrow and restricted limits, even among the Jews themselves. It was of the same nature with what is called, today, The Speculative Philosophy of Free Masonry, an ever seemingly substantive embodiment out of surrounding shadowy mists and mental logs, wherein a doubt always exists whether after all there is in the nebulous matter of the mist itself anything from whence substance may congeal: or, it may, for illustration, be compared to the city of King Arthur, before whose gate Gareth, standing, says: "But these my men — (your city moves so wierdly in the mist), — doubt if the King be King at all, or come from Fairy land: and whether this be built by magic, and by fury kings and queens, or whether there be any city at all, or all a vision." It is necessary to make a brief mention of this literature with its sources: both that these may be known, and that a foundation may be laid for what is stated as to the reality of Cabbalah, and its significance.

There is almost no teaching of the Cabbalah in the English language except the Essay by Christian D. Ginsburg, LL. D., to which we have referred. Dr. Ginsburg says: "It is a system of religious philosophy, or more properly, of theosophy, which has not only exercised for hundreds of years are extraordinary influence on the mental development of so shrewd a people as the Jews, but has captivated the minds of some of the greatest thinkers of Christendom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which claims the greatest attention of both the philosopher and theologian."

It is faintly claimed that some statements applying to Cabbalah are to be found in the Talmud; but apart from this we have: — (1) The Commentary on the Ten Sephiroth, by R. Azariel ben Manachem (1160 - 1238), who was a pupil of Isaac the Blind, and master of the celebrated R. Moses Nachmanides, (2) The Book Sohar (Light), or Midrash, Let there be Light, claimed to have been a revelation from God, communicated through R. Simon ben Jochai, A.D). 70-110, to his select disciples. This book has been pronounced by the ablest critics to have been a pseudograph of the thirteenth century, — the composition of Moses de Leon, who lived in Spain; who, by the admission of his wife and daughter after his death, first published and sold it as the production of R. Simon ben Jochai, and (3) The Book Jetzirah or Book of Creation, — of unknown age and authorship, bin mentioned as early as the eleventh century in the Book Chazari, by R. Jehudah Ha Levi, — as the literary sources for the entire system and scope thereof, so far as disclosed, it is from these sources that the entire volume of Cabbalistic literature has had rise and development.

From these sources, and the numberless treatises and expositions thereon, the history of the subject matter and containment of Cabbalah is laid down as follows: It was first taught by God himself to a select company of angels. After the fall the angels taught it to Adam. From Adam it passed to Noah, thence to Abram, the friend of God who carried it to Egypt. Moses, who was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, was initiated into it from the land of his birth. He covertly laid down the principles of its doctrines in the first four books of the Pentateuch, but withheld them from Deuteronomy ("this constitutes the former the 'man' and the latter the 'woman'"). Moses initiated the seventy elders, and they again passed the sacred and secret doctrine down to the heads (continually imparting the same) of the Church of Israel. David and Solomon were adepts in it. No one dared to write it down till the supposititious Simon ben Jochai, who really lived and taught, as one of the most celebrated doctors, at the time of the destruction of the second temple: and his teachings are claimed to constitute the Book of Sohar, published, as already said, by Moses de Leon of Valladolid, in Spain. But Ben Jochai, or whoever worked under his name, though he wrote and published, as said, covered the true doctrine by veils, so that no one but an initiate, or, as the saying runs, "by the gift of God" could penetrate behind them; — though the veils of the words still plainly held the secret doctrine, to those who could see. The Cabbalah, as an exposition to the Sacred Text of Holy Writ, was claimed to contain the Wisdom of God in every branch and department of His working, — and all terms and descriptions were exhausted to express the ineffable reward to him who might be permitted to penetrate behind the veil, either by initiation or "by the gift of God;" satiating every function of enjoyment, and affording an indescribable bliss, in the ultimate possessions of the Divine conceptions.

More definitely: — The exposition of the system treats of the impersonal First Cause manifesting within the limits of the finite. "Before he gave any shape to this world, before he produced any form, he was alone, without a form and resemblance to anything else. (1) who, then, can comprehend him, how he was before the creation, since he was formless? Hence, it is forbidden to represent him by any form, similitude, or even by his sacred name, by a single letter or a single point; and to this, the words, 'Ye saw no manner of similitude on the day the Lord spake unto you' (Deut. iv. 15) — i.e., ye have nor seen anything which you could represent by any form or likeness, — refer" (Sohar 42 b, 43 a, Sec. AB): — And this shows clearly enough that the supposed sacred names of Scripture do not have reference to the Impersonal First Cause, as its essential designations, but rather to its creations. * * Then — "The creation, or the universe, is simply the garment of God woven from the Deity's own substance (The Impersonal manifesting in the cosmos, in modes to be expressed by the sacred names and otherwise). For although, to reveal himself to us, the Concealed of all the Concealed, sent forth the Ten Emanations (the Ten Sephiroth) called the Form of God, Form of the Heavenly-Man, yet since even this luminous form was too dazzling for our vision, it had to assume another form, or had to put on another garment which consists of the universe. The universe, therefore, or the visible world, is a further expansion of the Divine Substance, and is called in the Cabbalah, 'the Garment of God.'" (Sohar i, 2 a) — "The whole universe, however, was incomplete, and did not receive its finishing stroke till man was formed, who is the acme of the creation, and the macroscosm uniting in himself the totality of beings, — 'the heavenly Adam,' i.e., the Ten Sephiroth, who emanated from the highest primordial obscurity (The Impersonal First Cause), created the earthly Adam" (Sohar ii, 70 b). This is more definitely expressed in another place, where it says: — "Jehovah (for which stands the letter jod, or j or i) descended on Sinai in fire" the word for which is a-sh fire. Let the j, or i, the signature for Jehovah, descend in the midst of this word, and one will have a i sh, which is the Hebrew word for man man; thus man became out of the Divine fire — "Man is both the import and the highest degree of creation, for which reason he was formed on the sixth day. As soon as man was created every thing was complete, including the upper and nether world, for every thing is comprised in man. He unites in himself all forms." (Sohar iii, 48 a) — "But after he created the form of the Heavenly Man, he used it as a chariot (Mercabah) (wheels, circles) wherein to descend, and wishes to be called by this form, which is the sacred name Jehovah." (Sohar i, 42 b, 43 a, section A B.)

It is to be observed especially, as to the ground work of the Cabbalah, that the first manifestation was in the "Ten Sephiroth" or Emanations, so called, out of which came the "Heavenly Man"; and the human or earth man represented these Ten Sephiroth in himself. "The lower world is made after the pattern of the upper world; everything which exists in the upper world is to be found as it were in a copy on earth; still the whole is one." (Sohar i, 20 a.)

Thus it is that the compass of the Cabbalah, by Sohar, is idealized in the form of a man. This man represented the combination of the Ten Sephiroth, or, as systematically called, Emanations, in which as a unity the whole cosmos existed in its segregated detail; and through which all knowledge thereof, physically, psychically and spiritually, was to be had, in passiveness and in activities; — and through which these activities, as of all potencies — as of angels and powers, — had their special existences. These Emanations had names of qualities, as Beauty, Strength, Wisdom, etc., etc., each name being located upon one of nine parts marked out on the form of the man; each of which was called a Sephira. The totality of the man being taken as one, this added to the nine made ten; and as a number this was the letter jod, already spoken of. The locations of these Sephiroth (shown as circles) are united one with another, so that one Emanation may flow into another; one into all, and all into one; — and the 22 letters of the alphabet with the 10 vowel sounds, are found therein, or thereby; and these are called the "thirty-two ways or canals of Wisdom"; and as these letters stood also for numbers, there is in this containment every possible mode of expression by word and number. The exposition of the Old Testament, especially the Tora, in the secret or esoteric way, is claimed under this statement; — that is, by numbering the letters of words, and by their permutations and changes of positions; so that this is one of the functions of the Emanations or Sephiroth; and a mighty one for disclosing the Wisdom of God.

The Book Jetzirah deals especially with these letters and numbers: "By thirty-two paths of secret wisdom, the Eternal, the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, the living God, the King of the Universe, the Merciful and Gracious, the High and Exalted God, He who inhabiteth eternity, Glorious and Holy is His name, hath created the worldly means of numbers, phonetic language and writing."

The Commentary on the Ten Sephiroth, by R. Azariel Ben Menachem, as its name implies, is directly in consonance with the Sohar.

As to the Book Jetzirah, Dr. Ginsburg says: "The Book Jetzirah, which the Cabbalists claim is their oldest document, has really nothing in common with the cardinal doctrines of the Cabbalah. There is not a word in it bearing on the En Soph (Impersonal First Cause), the Archetypal Man,'' and so on, and so on. But here the doctor is at fault for this reason: — The word "Sephiroth" means "Numbers" and the Ten Sephiroth means the Ten Numbers; and in the Cabbalistic way these are composed out of a geometrical shape. The circle is the first naught, but out of this naught develops a straight vertical line, viz: the diameter of this circle. This is the first One; and having a first one, from it comes 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9, — the circle or naught and its diameter one, the embracement of all together, forming the comprehensive Ten, or Ten Numbers, Ten Sephiroth, Ten Emanations, the Heavenly Wan, the great Jah, of the ineffable name. Hence the contents of the book Jetzirah are of the very essence of the other two, and all are one.

FOOTNOTE:

1. It in interesting to compare the Brihadaranyaka-Upamshad, 4th Brah., with this: "In the beginning this was Self alone, in the shape of a spirit. He looking round, saw nothing but his Self." — [Ed.] (return to text)


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