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Introduction to Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism

Sefer Yezirahby Prof. Elliot R. Wolfson

There is still no consensus regarding the best way to delineate the major characteristics of Jewish mysticism, let alone a single definition. The basic historical framework for this academic discipline, however, remains the one established by Gershom Scholem on the basis of his careful philological studies, which built on the foundation laid by some scholars who preceded him. Rather than follow a strictly chronological approach, the account that I will provide here is organized thematically. Before turning specifically to the mystical dimensions of Judaism, I will provide a brief philosophical sketch of the phenomenon of mysticism in general.

Taxonomy of the term ‘mysticism’

All religions, East and West, are considered to have a history of mysticism associated with them. Like all key terms used to study human culture, there is no universal agreement with respect to the precise meaning of the term “mysticism,” and a good deal of effort on the part of scholars has been to come up with a taxonomy that is both comprehensive and flexible. Indeed, there is even debate regarding the legitimacy of seeking a definition of mysticism that is broad enough to include all the experiences from diverse religious cultures that are referred to as mystical. The two major schools of thought to have emerged, so to speak, are the essentialist and contextualist. Proponents of an essentialist orientation presume the sameness of the experiences that are deemed mystical in nature. The further assumption is that human nature itself does not change from culture to culture or from one historical period to another. The contextualist orientation, by contrast, denies the notion of a perennial philosophy that expresses an unchanging essence of mysticism, and focuses instead on the specific cultural context that gave way to the particular experiences that are tagged with the label “mystical.” The strongest claim proffered by the contextualist argument is that the very notion of an unmediated experience is put into question, as it is presumed that all human experience, and not only the interpretation thereof, is conditioned by criteria predetermined by the specific framework within which the experiences occurs.

The resolution of this philosophical debate would benefit from a median position according to which the opposing views are no longer seen as oppositional. That is, if essentialism and contextualism are posed as antinomical, one is left with an intellectual impasse. If, however, one positions oneself in the midpoint that affirms the sameness of the opposites in their difference, then it is possible to adopt a view that does not neglect either perspective, so that we can speak of a contextual essentialism that is essentially contextual. Irrespective of one’s epistemological perspective regarding the status of a pure, unmediated experience, the mystical element as it is studied academically is still very much linked to extreme and intense forms of the consciousness of ultimate reality, the quest to have a direct encounter of the one true source of all being, identified theistically as God or nontheistically as the Absolute. The unique state of mindfulness, which in some accounts is depicted as mindlessness, that is, the dissolution of an egological sense of self distinct from the other, brings the mystic into immediate contact with a domain of experience that is inaccessible to the human mind in its ordinary waking awareness. What is experienced by the enlightened is neither something perceptible (an object of sense experience) nor a logically deduced principle (a rational truth). Some scholars use the word “transcendence” to capture this quality of formlessness that lies beyond human comprehension, and yet it is believed to be the experience of the absolute ground that facilitates the manifestation of reality in its multiple appearances.

Open System and Generalizing from the Particular

A word is in order concerning the methodological assumption that it is possible, indeed preferable, to classify aspects of Jewish mysticism in generic terms. My tendency to generalize should not be misconstrued as viewing the variegated history of Jewish mystical doctrines and practices monolithically. The assumption that it is legitimate to speak in general terms does not come at the expense of ignoring specific details and historical changes. On the contrary, the generic claims are rooted in and must be tested against textual particularities. I do think, however, that it is plausible to speak of structures of thought that persist through the phases of temporal evolution. The assumption regarding repetition of structure does not presuppose an ontological condition of presence that imposes sameness and precludes difference. On the contrary, in my mind, the history of kabbalism as a religious phenomenon illustrates that the presumed immutability of system occasions novel interpretation. In the wisdom of the tradition, if a teaching is old, it is because it is new, but it is new because it is old.

I offer here one textual example from Abraham Abulafia to illustrate the larger hermeneutical point. In Sitrei Torah, one of his commentaries on the Guide of the Perplexed of Maimonides, Abulafia attempts to uphold the veracity of both the traditional belief that the world was created anew (ḥadash) and the philosophically sanctioned view that it is eternally old (qadmon), the former conveyed by the literal sense of Scripture and the latter by the allegorical, blatantly acknowledging that this possibility, affirmed by the prophetic tradition, is a challenge to the law of contradiction. “Know concerning the image (ṣiyyur) of the world either being created alone or eternal and created together, even though it appears that the two matters are opposites and they would not be found in the same subject at the same time, that is to say, one thing being eternal and created together, this is a matter that the human intellect is prevented from comprehending. Even so, we know that the prophet comprehends his truth by way of the narrative (haggadah) and story (sippur) that the Lord, blessed be he, dictates to him in the prophetic kabbalah that he transmits to him.” The theological debate of creation versus eternity can be taken as paradigmatic for the dialectical confluence of innovation and conservation in the exegetical imagination that has informed the approach of the kabbalists. Just as creation and eternity are both to be affirmed as veritable options, so the simultaneity of truth as novel and erstwhile is to be maintained, a fundamental axiom of interpretation—linked to an underlying conception of time as the instant of novel reiteration, the repetition of the same as different in the renewal of the different as same—legitimated not by reason but by prophetic experience whence disseminated the oral tradition in a presumed unbroken chain (qabbalah mi-peh el peh). System, therefore, is precisely what accounts for interruption of order by chaos, the intervention of the moment that renders time continuously discontinuous and discontinuously continuous.

The notion of system that I am affirming is indebted to the thinking of Franz Rosenzweig expressed especially in a letter to Rudolf Ehrenburg (dated 12 December 1917). According to Rosenzweig, system does not denote an architectural structure that is formed by assembling individual stones whose meaning is determined only by the sense of the whole, but rather it bespeaks a striving on the part of all individual entities qua individual for relationship and interconnectivity; the viability of system is related to affirming a unity perpetually in the making, a sense of the whole that is not order but chaos, a totality that must always lie “beyond a conscious horizon.” Rosenzweig notes that, in the Hegelian system, each individual position is anchored only in the whole and is thus related exclusively to two others, the one that immediately precedes it and the one that immediately succeeds it. In the system affirmed by Rosenzweig, the genuine novelty of each temporal moment is not determined by its occupying a median position in a linear sequence between what came before and what comes after. On the contrary, to the extent that the moment is authentically novel, it is experienced as the constant resumption of what is always yet to be, the return of what has never been, the vertical intervention that opens the horizontal time-line to the spherical fullness of eternity.

That I assume structures of thought may be recovered philologically, structures influenced but not causally determined by historical factors, does not subject kabbalistic texts to a standard of rigid uniformity as some of my critics have alleged; on the contrary, in my way of thinking, structure accounts for heterogeneity, system for unpredictability. A genuinely “variegated phenomenology” of kabbalah, which is based on attending to the “spiritual polymorphism in Jewish mysticism,” should not be set in polar opposition to a “monochromatic phenomenology,” for it is precisely by seeing the recurring pattern that the changes become most visible. In the hermeneutical praxis of scholar and practitioner alike, innovation and repetition are not mutually exclusive, but well forth from the spot where the novel is recurringly ancient and the ancient interminably novel.

Secrets of Torah- Esotericism and the Contours of Jewish Mysticism

The word “mystic” apparently has its origin in the Greek mystery cults into which an individual was initiated and thereby gained knowledge of the secrets of divine things. The one initiated into these mystery cults was reborn into eternity and thereby redeemed from historical contingency and temporal finitude. “Mystery,” whence the term “mystic” is derived, is from the root muo, which means to close, or, more specifically, to shut the eyes, since the initiate into the mysteries gained knowledge of the invisible realities, truths that could not be seen by ordinary modes of sense perception. Early Christianity, in part, took over this idea of mystery, although it is also true that in Judaism of the late Second-Temple period the notion of a mystery as secret doctrine evolved. These secrets were thought to have been communicated by God or an angel to the individuals who had extraordinary visual experiences, sometimes ascents to heavens—in the view of a number of scholars, part of the matrix of formative Christianity was Jewish apocalyptic, and Jesus is sometimes described as a prophet infused with a concern for eschatological matters. Paul, too, was a kind of visionary who reports his mystical experience of being caught up to third heaven (2 Cor. 12-14) and he also speaks of “God’s wisdom in a mystery” (1 Cor. 2-6-7).

The enduring legacy of the origin of the term mysticism in the mystery cults is linked to the emphasis on the esoteric characteristic of the knowledge that is attained by the mystic as a result of his or her experience of the divine. This knowledge is mysterious in least two senses- first, it is not to be readily disclosed to the others, and, second, reason cannot grasp the mysterious character of this knowledge. The historical manifestations of Jewish mysticism betray both connotations of the term. Whatever the mystical components of the various trends of speculation that scholars refer to by the generic title Jewish mysticism, a more appropriate term to characterize this body of lore is esotericism, ḥokhmat ha-nistar, a set of doctrines that are deemed secretive and that must therefore be transmitted only to a small circle of initiates. In an essay published in 1936, Alexander Altmann already noted that the “esoteric nature of mystical teachings in Judaism is expressed by the terms sod (‘secret’), sithrey Torah (‘mysteries of the Law’), and their equivalents. Obscure though the historical origins of Jewish mysticism are, and especially its connections with the various schools of prophecy, apocalyptic literature, and Gnosis, a definite esoteric posture, setting down a precise form of transmission, had evolved as early as the tannaitic period.” Altmann went so far as to suggest that the exclusive transmission of mystical knowledge from master to disciple attested in rabbinic sources may be due to the influence of Hellenistic mystery religions. Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that Altmann discerned that in Jewish mysticism, beginning in its early stages, the notion of secret is essential. Indeed, Altmann’s remarks suggest that, in his opinion, the mystical phenomenon must be circumscribed within the framework of esotericism.

Gershom Scholem, for his part, distinguished sharply between mysticism and esotericism. Thus, in one context, he noted that the former “means a kind of knowledge which is by its very nature incommunicable,” whereas the latter involves “a kind of knowledge that may be communicable and might be communicated, but whose communication is forbidden.” There seems to me little doubt that the issue of esotericism in the way delineated by Scholem is much more critical in assessing the nature of what we call Jewish mystical speculation in its different varieties or trends. Indeed, in my judgment, the experiential aspects of Jewish mysticism are contextualized within a hermeneutical framework predicated on some form of esotericism. This point has also been expressed by Moshe Idel- “Kabbalah is by definition an esoteric body of speculation; whether in its theosophical-theurgical explanation of the rationales for the commandments, or in the ecstatic trend dealing with techniques of using divine names, esotericism is deeply built into this lore.” Nothing is more important for understanding the mentality of the Jewish mystic than the emphasis on esotericism. The possession of secret gnosis, which relates to both doctrine and ritual, empowers the individual, as he or she alone has the keys to unlock the hidden mysteries of the tradition.

Esotericism has informed Jewish spirituality from ancient times. One thinks of the apocalyptic notion of raz, which referred to a secret transmitted to select individuals of extraordinary caliber or pedigree. The secret could relate to history, cosmology, or eschatology. The influence of the apocalyptic notion of secret is evident in Qumran texts and the New Testament, as I noted above. Jewish esotericism of the late Second Temple period also provides the context to apprehend the significant emphasis on mysteries in Gnosticism and Jewish Christianity as well as in the ancient Jewish mystical-magical speculation preserved in Heikhalot literature. On occasion these secrets are portrayed as being recorded in books of limited circulation (sometimes the secrets are said to be inscribed on the heavenly tablets) that can be revealed again to the particular visionary. The topos of celestial or hidden books, whose primary aim is to establish a credible chain of tradition as a source of esoteric knowledge, continued to influence Jewish mysticism and magic through the generations. Thus, we find, for example, various references to such works in the Zohar. The Spanish halakhic authority and kabbalist, Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret, refers in one of his responsa, presumably directed against Abraham Abulafia, to one who is a prophet or one with whom an angel communicates and for whom he writes a book. Another striking example of this phenomenon is found in the following line of succession generated by the Iyyun circle and incorporated by the fourteenth-century kabbalist, Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi, in his commentary on Sefer Yeṣirah, a composition that is better described as an aggregate of disparate parts that were assembled over a lengthy period of time and eventually redacted into a text, but still one whose boundaries remained porous- “The teacher of the first Adam was Raziel, and that of Shem Yofiel, and that of Moses Metatron, and that of Elijah Maltiel. Each and every one of these angels would transmit the tradition (qabbalah) to his student by means of a book or orally.” The receiving of esoteric knowledge from a text is combined here with the emphasis on oral reception. The notion of angelic disclosure of secret knowledge underlies the phenomenon of maggidism that became prevalent in sixteenth-century kabbalistic circles, but which has an earlier source in Jewish mysticism.

Equally important, however, is the fact that in the formative period of classical Judaism, the rabbis viewed select issues as arcane and therefore improper for public discussion or exposition. There is the well-known mishnah in Ḥagigah 2-1 in which three subjects, illicit sexual relations, the account of creation, and the account of the chariot, are signaled out as sections of Scripture that cannot be studied openly. In addition, in several places in rabbinic literature mention is made of sitrei torah, the “mysteries of Torah.” The oral nature of the transmission of the mysteries of Torah and the high level accorded the individual who is worthy to receive them is affirmed in the following anonymous interpretation of the verse, al ken alamot aheivukha, “Therefore do maidens love you” (Song of Songs 1-3)-

If a man reads [Written Torah] but he does not study [Oral Torah], he is still standing outside. If he studies [Oral Torah] but he does not read [Written Torah], he is still standing outside. If he reads [Written Torah] and studies [Oral Torah] but he does not serve the scholars (shimmesh talmidei ḥakhamim), he is like one from whom the mysteries of Torah are hidden, as it says, “Now that I have turned back, I am filled with remorse; [Now that I am made aware, I strike my thigh. I am ashamed and humiliated, for I bear the disgrace of my youth]” (Jer. 31-19). However, if the man reads the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and he studies Mishnah, the exegetical works on halakhah and aggadah (midrash halakhot we-aggadot), and he serves the scholars, even if he dies or is murdered for his sake, he is eternally happy. Thus it says, “Therefore do maidens love you” (Song of Songs 1-3).

Implicit in the exegesis of the verse from Song of Songs is the play on words of alamot , “maidens,” and ha‘alamah, “concealment.” The anonymous rabbinic sage discerns a reference in this verse to the sitrei torah, the mysteries that are concealed from most people. In order to receive these mysteries, which are transmitted orally from master to disciple, one must not only read the Written Torah and study the Oral Torah, but one must also minister to the scholars in a personal way. The point here seems to be that only one who has immediate access to the sage will be in a position to receive the secrets through a direct transmission, from mouth to mouth, so to speak. The one to whom secrets are revealed truly loves God and merits eternal felicity, for he is prepared to sacrifice his life on behalf of the divine. The disciples who receive mysteries from the master are feminized through the hermeneutical lens of the rabbinic exegete, and hence the biblical idiom “maidens” is ascribed to them.

An interesting comment regarding the need to conceal secrets, thought to be derived exegetically from Scripture, from those who are not ready to receive them occurs in Song of Songs Rabbah 1-2- “R. Simeon ben Ḥalafta and R. Ḥaggai said in the name of R. Samuel ben Naḥman- ‘The lambs (kevasim) will provide you with clothing’ (Prov. 27-26). It is written kevasim, for when your students are small you should conceal (mekhabesh) from them words of Torah, but when they grow, you should reveal to them secrets of Torah (sitrei torah).” A similar passage that relates more specifically to the secrets of the chariot is found in Babylonian Talmud, Ḥagigah 13a- “[R. Joseph] said to them- It has been taught, ‘Honey and milk are under your tongue’ (Song of Songs 4-11)—matters that are sweeter than honey and milk should be under your tongue. R. Abbahu said [it] is derived from here- ‘The lambs will provide you with clothing’ [kevasim li-levushekha] (Prov. 27-26)—matters that are the mysteries of the world [kivshono shel olam] should be under your garment.” Implicit here is the hermeneutical technique “do not read X but Y,” which is employed in this context to articulate the rabbinic idea that certain issues must remain secret and thus hidden under one’s garments. Indeed, this interpretation is supported by a variant manuscript reading of the text as well as by a citation preserved in the commentary on Sefer Yeṣirah by Judah ben Barzillai and in Jacob ibn Ḥabib’s Ein Ya‘aqov- “R. Abbahu said [this] is derived from here- ‘The lambs will provide you with clothing.’ Do not read kevasim but rather kevushim, that is, matters that are the mysteries of the world should be under your garment.”

Mention should also be made of the expression sodah shel torah, the “secret of Torah,” employed in Song of Songs Rabbah 1-8, where it refers to the figurative or non-literal sense of Scripture derived through an apparently non-mystical, exoteric method of exegesis. On the other hand, the term sitrei torah, referring in a technical sense to esoteric secrets, is employed by the anonymous redactor(s) in Babylonian Talmud, Pesaḥim 119a in interpreting the words we-limekhaseh atiq in Isaiah 23-18- “this refers to the one who conceals the matters that the Ancient of Days (atiq yomin) concealed. And what are they? The secrets of Torah.” A related exegetical turn is taken in a passage in Genesis Rabbah 1-5 interpreting the verse, “that speak haughtingly (ataq) against the righteous (ṣaddiq)” (Ps. 31-19)- [this refers to] the Righteous One, Life of the Worlds who hid [literally, removed, he‘etiq] things from his creatures.” The sense of an esoteric meaning of Torah is also implied in the following interpretation in Babylonian Talmud, Ḥagigah 14a of the words, “were shriveled” (asher qummeṭu) in the verse, “How they were shriveled up before their time and their foundation poured out like a river” (Job 22-16)- “These are the scholars who bend (meqammeṭin) themselves over words of Torah in this world; the holy One, blessed be he, reveals to them the secret (sod) in the world-to-come, as it says, ‘their foundation (yesodam) poured out like a river’.” Although not stated explicitly, I assume that the secret here has an exegetical reference, i.e., God discloses the secret of Torah in the world-to-come to the scholars who have dedicated their lives to study in this world. In a statement attributed to R. Meir in Mishnah Avot 6-1, the one who studies Torah for its own sake merits various things, including the disclosure of secrets enfolded in Scripture (megallin lo razei torah).


The demand to be utterly silent, as opposed to speaking silently, with respect to esoteric wisdom is not unknown in Jewish mysticism, not to mention mystical literature produced in other contexts wherein the apophatic ascent leads the mind to what can be neither known nor spoken. If the most serious matters are, as Plato intimated, to remain unspoken (and this includes both verbal and written communication), then it is precisely by not speaking that these matters may be delivered. The unspeakable, in a word, is transmitted without being spoken, for if spoken, it is not the unspeakable that has been transmitted. Although Plato seemed to be especially anxious about the written dissemination of secrets, for, as commonsense dictates, what has been committed to writing cannot be unconditionally controlled, a concern later expressed by Maimonides as well, his philosophical esotericism runs deeper, as he apparently felt that certain topics should not be communicated by either oral or written means.

Here, it is beneficial to recall the words attributed to Aqiva, “silence is a fence for wisdom.” Aqiva’s dictum, which may have been inspired textually by Proverbs 17-28, is not connected to esotericism, even though he is portrayed in other contexts as adroit in mystical secrets, the most well-known in the rabbinic tale of the four sages who entered Pardes. I do not think, however, that it is implausible to suggest that the requirement to be silent with respect to secrets promulgated by other rabbinic sages can be seen as a specific application of a more general pietistic sensibility regarding the nexus between wisdom and silence. Thus, for example, we find the following interpretation of “The glory of God is to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings is to search out a matter,” kevod elohim haster davar u-khevod melakhim ḥaqor davar (Prov. 25-2) transmitted in the name of R. Levi- “‘The glory of God is to conceal the matter’—before the world was created. ‘And the glory of kings is to search out the matter’—after the world was created.” From this exegetical gloss, we may glean evidence that it is appropriate to be silent with regard to the most profound mysteries, secrets that relate to the divine nature prior to creation. The admonition is reiterated in a second tradition preserved in the name of R. Levi, explaining why the world was created with beit, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but the first letter of bere’shit, the word with which the Torah begins- “Just as beit is closed on all its sides but open from one side, so you have no permission to seek out what is above, below, before, or after, but only from the day the word was created and forward.”

The reticence to divulge secrets about the account of creation (ma‘aseh bere’shit) is affirmed as well with respect to secrets about the account of the chariot (ma‘aseh merkavah), two central taxonomies employed by rabbinic scribes to circumscribe the contours of esoteric wisdom. For example, we find the following teaching attributed to R. Aḥa bar Jacob-

There is another firmament above the heads of the beasts, as it is written, “Above the heads of the creatures was a form- an expanse, with an awe-inspiring gleam as of crystal” (Ezek 1-22). Until here you have permission to talk, but from there and beyond you have no permission to speak, as it is written in the book of Ben Sira, “Do not seek out what is too enigmatic for you and do not investigate what is concealed from you.” Contemplate that for which you have permission, but you have no business being occupied with hidden matters.

A similar outlook is expressed in what appears to be a later scribal interpolation that serves as the opening of Heikhalot Zuṭarti, a textual unit from the corpus of ancient merkavah mysticism- “Do not investigate the words of your lips, contemplate what is in your heart, and be silent, so that you will merit the beauties of the chariot.” Bracketing the question of the provenance of this interpolation, the critical point is that attested therein is the avowal of silent contemplation as the appropriate means to occasion a vision of the divine throne.

The need for silence with respect to esoteric matters is reiterated in a passage from the first part of the ancient cosmological work Sefer Yeṣirah, where the word belimah in the expression eser sefirot belimah is rendered midrashically as belom pikha mi-ledabber belom libbekha mi-leharher, “close your mouth from speaking and stop your heart from thinking.” We may presume that encoded here is a code of esotericism—perhaps, as has been suggested, an oath of secrecy, alluded to as well in the continuation of the passage where reference is made to a covenant (berit) that is decreed in relation to this affair —which impels the initiate not to discourse about or to meditate on the sefirot excessively, a stance that was linked by kabbalists at a later period to the verse already crucial to the talmudic tradition mentioned above, kevod elohim haster davar, “The glory of God is to the conceal a matter” (Prov 25-2). To cite one of numerous examples, the thirteenth-century kabbalist, Azriel of Gerona, commenting on the aforementioned directive in Sefer Yeṣirah, remarks that “even with respect to what you have permission to contemplate, ‘Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin’ (Eccles 5-5), for it says ‘The glory of God is to the conceal the matter’.” It is possible to interpret this statement politically, that is, silence is necessary to prevent the transmission of secrets to those who are not fit to receive them, a form of esotericism at work, for instance, in the thought of Maimonides. However, it is equally feasible that the issue here is not political, but rather epistemological and ontological, that is, the need to be silent rests on the surmise that the secrets portend the inherently inscrutable dimensions of divine reality, even if permission has been granted to contemplate them; indeed, the contemplation thereof leads one to the discernment that these are matters beyond comprehension. The citation from Ecclesiastes is also significant, as it brings together indiscretion of the mouth and sin of the flesh. In the medieval kabbalistic imaginary, especially pronounced in zoharic kabbalah, the reserve to hide secrets is juxtaposed to the modesty of covering the genitals, for the inappropriate disclosure of esoteric wisdom is on a par with sexual improprieties. Thus, according to one zoharic passage, R. Isaac applied the scriptural idiom of the mouth causing the sin to flesh to the transgression of explicating matters of the Torah that one did not receive directly from his master, an indiscretion that is linked as well, both thematically and exegetically, to the prohibition against making idols and/or worshipping images.

The nexus between these two elements comes to the fore in the following interpretation of the aforecited verse from Proverbs attributed to R. Ḥiyya in a zoharic homily-

“The glory of God is to the conceal a matter,” for a man does not have permission to reveal hidden matters that were not transmitted to be revealed, matters that the Ancient of Days covers, as it says “that they may eat their fill and clothe themselves elegantly” (Isa 23-18).” “That they may eat their fill,” to the place for which there is permission, and not more. And “clothe themselves elegantly” (we-limekhasseh attiq), surely [these words must be applied] to what the Ancient One (attiq) covers (mekhasseh).

The zoharic interpretation of the key term we-limekhasseh attiq is based on the midrashic rendering attested in the talmudic dictum, “What is [the meaning of] we-limekhasseh attiq? The one who covers matters that the Ancient of Days (attiq yomin) covered. And what are they? Secrets of Torah.” In the zoharic context, the Ancient of Days is one of the technical designations of Keter, the first of the ten emanations. From the exegesis transmitted in the name of R. Ḥiyya, it would seem that these secrets must always be concealed in emulation of the aspect of the Godhead that covers them, the terminus beyond the place about which there is permission to investigate and to converse. This suggestion is supported by the continuation of the zoharic text in which another explanation is offered, an explanation that challenges the perspective implied in the words attributed to R. Ḥiyya.

Another explanation- “That they may eat their fill,” these are the comrades who know the ways and paths to go in the way of faith, as is appropriate, like the generation in which R. Simeon dwells. “And the Ancient One covers,” this refers to other generations, for they are not worthy to eat or to drink, or for words to be revealed in their midst. Rather, “and the Ancient One covers,” as it is said, “Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin” (Eccles 5-5). In the days of R. Simeon, a man would say to his neighbor, “Open your mouth and let your words shine.” After he departed, they would say, “Do not allow your mouth [to cause your flesh to sin].” In his days, “that the may eat their fill,” after he departed, “and the Ancient One covers.” For the comrades were stammering, and the words were not established.

According to this textual layer, a distinction must be made between the status of esoteric knowledge when Simeon ben Yoḥai is alive and its status after he has expired. In his presence, the code of secrecy could be disbanded, as the master elevates the stature of all those who live in his time, but with his absence, the mysteries that were revealed have to be hidden again. This aspect of the zoharic hermeneutic of secrecy has been duly noted in previous scholarship, with particular attention paid to the messianic implications implied thereby, but I wish to focus on the view preserved in the name of R. Ḥiyya. It seems to me that that this view is reiterated in the explication of the phrase from Isaiah 23-18 proffered at the end of the passage- “Another explanation- ‘That they may eat their fill,’ in those matters that were revealed; ‘and the Ancient One covers,’ in those matters that are covered.” Some matters may be revealed, other matters must be concealed, secrets that forever elude our grasp, even in the generation of the supreme master of esoteric lore.

The point is reiterated in another zoharic homily where the distinction is made (based, in part, on the language of Deut 29-28) between the revealed matters (niglot) that one has permission to know and to investigate and the concealed matters (nistarot) about which one has no permission to acquire knowledge. The admonition against seeking what lies beyond our capacity to seek is linked textually to Ecclesiastes 5-5, that is, the mouth that speaks what cannot be spoken brings about sin to the flesh. In that context, the apophatic orientation is immediately qualified by the statement that no one has permission to utter or to explicate hidden matters except for Simeon ben Yoḥai. I submit that we can identify in this instance as well two distinct approaches preserved in the zoharic text, one predicated on the assumption that some things are forever beyond human comprehension and another that maintains that R. Simeon is the exception to the rule since he was empowered to disclose mysteries that had been hidden prior to his time and that would not be revealed again until the era of the messiah.

As intriguing as is the portrait of Simeon ben Yoḥai that emerges from these passages and especially the implicit messianic significance attributed to his role as master of esoteric lore, the other opinion expressed in the Zohar is the one I wish to emphasize, as it sheds light on the erotic nature of secrecy and the secret nature of eros. The mysteries that the Ancient One conceals can be (un)seen only through a veil, simultaneously seen and not seen, seen precisely because not seen, and not seen precisely because seen. The pursuit of the most recondite truths, which can never be apprehended, lures the heart with the greatest enticement, just as in matters of sexual temptation, the object of the gaze becomes more exposed precisely when it is most hidden. Moses de León alludes to this paradox in his commentary on Ezekiel’s chariot vision when he notes that the verse “And Moses approached the thick cloud where God was” (Exod 20-18) indicates that one cannot draw near the sefirot without a garment, ein lavo lahem beli levush. A double connotation is implied here, though the two meanings can be understood as two sides of the selfsame coin. On the one hand, the statement conveys that one cannot approach the divine emanations without being properly attired, a gesture that has a decidedly erotic connotation in the zoharic symbolism, and, on the other hand, the statement also communicates that the emanations cannot be envisioned unless as they are garbed in a form by which they appear to be other than what they appear to be, a general tenet that is illustrated by the particular liturgical practice of vocalizing the ineffable name (YHWH) by way of its epithet (Adonai). Just as the ineffability of the name is preserved by the epithet by which it is (mis)pronounced, so the formlessness of the inner reality is preserved by the garment by which it (dis)appears. As de León puts it in Sefer ha-Rimmon, the “Book of the Pomegranate,” a lengthy kabbalistic exposition of the 613 commandments enumerated in rabbinic jurisprudence,

The matter of his existence is hidden, and the scrutiny of him is concealed, and there is no one who can understand his secret, but even so from the revealed one can comprehend in the contemplation of the hidden matter [ki mi-tokh ha-nigleh yukhal ha-adam lehavin be-hitbonenut be-inyan ha-nistar], as you find that the secret of the matter of the soul is concealed and not revealed or discerned, for it is concealed and hidden, but its rank is revealed and discerned from its many actions through the limbs of the body, the limbs that act by its power and on account of its agency. Analogously, the essence of God’s existence, blessed be he, is concealed and hidden, but through his being conjoined to the inner gradations, he displays his power and his actions, and through his actions his rank is discerned.

De León’s words reflect the distinction made by Maimonides between the unknowable essence of God’s being and the attributes by which his actions are known, but he subverts the distinction by identifying the attributes that disclose the providential power of the divine actions as the “inner gradations” (madregot ha-penimiyyot), that is, the sefirotic emanations, the potencies that reveal the inscrutable essence by concealing it. From an anthropocentric perspective, the task is similarly to emulate this pattern, primarily by exposing the secrets hidden in the Torah by way of the appropriate forms of dissimilitude.


A similar point of view is expressed in a different terminological register in the conclusion of the first part of the anonymous Sefer ha-Temunah, the “Book of the Image,” an important and influential kabbalistic text whose provenance is still a matter of dispute, though it is likely to have been composed sometime in the fourteenth century- “The twenty-two letters are forces from above in thousands and myriads. Know and understand everything well, and your mind should be very strong, conceal and seal the matters, for ‘The glory of God is to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings is to search out a matter.’” The little attention that this treatise has commanded has been mostly focused on the doctrine of cosmic cycles (shemiṭṭot) and their eschatological implication, especially as they relate to the antinomian (or what I would prefer to call the hypernomian ) status of the messianic Torah. There are, however, many other important ideas in this textual aggregate and here I offer a modest attempt to articulate briefly some features of the esotericism that may be elicited from a selection of the relevant passages, concentrating particularly on those aspects that touch on the nature of eroticism as well.

The first thing to note is that the mandate to place a seal around mysteries, to double the secrecy by secreting the secrets that one secretes, is followed dutifully by the anonymous author of Sefer ha-Temunah. As Scholem astutely noted, the kabbalist responsible for this text employed a “highly allusive style that conceals more than it reveals in matters of detail.” The need to hide mystical secrets connected to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which constitute the divine image that is configured in the Torah as it is beheld in the contemplative vision, is reiterated in the conclusion of the second part of this treatise, albeit in a somewhat more expansive and effusive tone-

These are the inner matters, concealed, wondrous, mysterious, pure, radiating in the eye of the intellect (ein ha-sekhel), and from them there is the light for the soul, for this is the light of the image (or ha-temunah) upon which those who contemplate gazed, and from them their faces were illumined, and from them they were darkened, and from them glory extended to glory. Concerning this [it is said] “Do not come at any moment” (Lev 16-2) into them but on a pure day and with a pure soul and a pure intellect, and a mind that is good, pure, clean, and subtle, to expand and to rise to the resplendent light, to ascend to the “mount of the Lord” and to the “holy place” (Ps 24-3), “one of clean hands and a pure heart” (ibid., 4), to contemplate and to comprehend great, wondrous matters. A person should not probe faith and knowledge (ma‘amiq dat we-da‘at) except by way of straight path (derekh yesharah) so that he does not expire as Elisha the heretic (aḥer) expired. And you must understand well that all is before you like a “set table” (Ezek 23-41), and you should eat and live eternally, for “this is the table that is before the Lord” (ibid., 41-22), and the angels of the living God derive pleasure from it. You must be careful as to how you draw near them or how you draw away from them. Conceal and secure the matters in a seal (ḥotam) and in an encasement (misgeret), “and make a gold molding for its rim round about” (Exod 25-25), and a seal upon a seal (ḥotam al ḥotam), for “The glory of God is to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

To highlight the point most critical to this summary account of kabbalistic esotericism, we reiterate the admonition near the conclusion- the one who contemplates mysteries must know how to approach them and how to withdraw from them. Engagement with secrecy demands a twofold movement, taking-hold and letting-go, “to distance that which is remote and to draw near that which is proximate,” according to a passage in Sod Illan ha-Aṣilut, “The Tree of Emanation,” an anonymous text that was composed in all likelihood by someone who belonged to the circle of kabbalists responsible for Sefer ha-Temunah. I would propose that here we have come to the point where the erotic and esoteric intersect- the former, as the latter, can be spoken of as exhibiting the duplicity of attraction and repulsion. The stipulation to secure the secrets in a seal suggests, moreover, that the interplay of coming-near and pulling-away must be thought from the point of their conjunction and not as oppositional. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the encasement of the mysteries is depicted as the “seal upon a seal.” One might have thought that a single seal would have been sufficient. What is the import of the rhetorical replication? That the seal must be sealed imparts the sense that the hiddenness must be hidden as the hiddenness exposed as what is hidden. The truth of the secret is disclosed through the guise of the disclosure that is secret. The twofold seal opens the door through which one can enter to behold the mystery of eros from within the eros of mystery.

The notion of double secrecy, the secret secreted and thereby uncovered as secret, is expanded in the introduction to the third part of the book where the author relates that the “twenty-two supernal and wondrous letters” (kaf-beit otiyyot elyonot we-nora’ot) and the “ten closed and hidden emanations” (eser sefirot segurot we-ne‘elamot) were “inscribed in the secret of the power of Ḥokhmah, subtle and greatly concealed, without image, form, or boundary on account of the abundance of its subtlety, and they emanated in Binah, and Binah brings them to light in subtle inscriptions and great merit, the thirty-two wondrous paths from which all beings and cycles derive, and the spirit of God is in their midst, and all of them were hidden, sealed, and concealed within Ḥokhmah.” The description of the thirty-two paths, the ontic source of all beings and of all the historical epochs in which they will be manifest, inscripted without image or form within the depths of the splendor of divine wisdom provides a model to understand the ideal of iteration proffered in the figure of the duplicate seal, the seal that is sealed within the seal, an enfolding that unfolds all that is enfolded in Ḥokhmah to the attribute of Binah, where the entities assume differentiated form, and from there to Tif’eret and Aṭarah, four of the ten attributes that correspond to the four letters of the name, which comprise all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the fullness of the divine pleroma.

The profundity of the erotic secrecy, which is always at the same time a secret eroticism, proffered in this text is underscored particularly by the notion of alphabetic ciphers that have neither ocular or acoustic images. In the precise language of the text itself- “And in this wondrous Torah that is acquired and that is comprised of the ten emanations … everything is written in a supernal language, concealed and very sublime, supernal letters, wondrous and hidden, not understood by an angel or a supernal archon but only by God, may he be blessed, glorious and awesome, blessed be he, who explained them to Moses our master, may peace be upon him, and he informed him of all of their secrets and their matters, and Moses wrote them in his language in the order of the supernal way that is alluded to in the Torah, in the crownlets, tittles, great and small letters, broken, crooked, folded, straight, vocal and graphic forms, opened and closed sections. All of these supernal, wondrous allusions were concealed, for he did not have the capacity to find a language to write them or any way to stipulate them.”

The matter is reiterated in slightly different terms in a passage in the aforementioned Sod Illan ha-Aṣilut where the ultimate unity in which the ten sefirot are incorporated is described as follows-

“Thus you must know that there is no form (temunah) or image (dimyon) there, no measure (middah) or computation (ḥeshbon), no face (panim) or back (aḥor), no upper (elyon) or lower (taḥton), but there is discrete unity (yiḥud meyuḥad), holy (qadosh) and sanctified (mequddash), awesome (nora) and majestic (adir), lofty (nisgav) and hidden (ne‘elam), concealed (nistar) and elevated (na‘aleh) above every other creature in this cycle.” From the perspective of the world of creation (olam ha-beri’ah), the unity of the realm of emanation (aṣilut) is fractured and hence it is perceived under the guise of binary opposites—left /right, up /down, front /back, mercy /judgment, inside /outside, pure /impure, distant /proximate—but from the perspective of the divine all divisions are integrated into the attribute (middah) that “is consumed in its being to the [point of] the unification of being for all of them (ha-mitballa‘at be-hawwayatah ad be-yiḥud hawwayah le-khullam), a wondrous, concealed, and hidden name, lofty and elevated in the Infinite (shem nora we-nistam we-ne‘elam nisgav we-na‘aleh be-ein sof), beginning [and] end for all of them (ro’sh [we-]sof le-khullam).” The consumption of all things in the Infinite is a topos well known from kabbalistic compositions as well as mystical literature in other religious cultures. The crucial point to underscore here is the depiction of the concealed name so sublime that it is devoured in the silent mystery of the Cause of Causes (illat ha-illot), the indifferent one that is the commencement and terminus of all that exists in the continuous chain of differentiated being. Needless to say, the image of consumption deployed in this citation suggests a loss of identity that has obvious erotic overtones.

To be even more precise, it is said of Keter, which is characterized as the “first” of the ten utterances of creation (ma’amar ri’shon) or as the “first” of the ten words of revelation (dibbur ri’shon), that it has no place (ein lo maqom) and consequently that it is not included in the enumeration (ḥeshbon) of the sefirot, but it is nonetheless depicted as beginning and end; indeed, in this ultimate state of ontological indifference, future and past meet in the compresence of the moment at hand, a point that is conveyed as well by the fact that this attribute, also called the “supernal supplement” (musaf elyon) for the increase (tosefet) of the divine efflux overflows from it to the other emanations, the “supernal appointed times” (mo‘adim elyonim), is designated by the appellation “Ehyeh” and identified as the “root of the river Khebar.” The former, the name of God revealed to Moses at the epiphany of the burning bush (Exod 3-14), denotes what shall be, and the latter, the place in Babylonia where Ezekiel had his vision of the heavenly chariot (Ezek 1-1), signifies by a play on words (kevar, which means “previous,” but it is also the proper name of the river) what has come to pass. The import of this wordplay is underscored by another title assigned in this text to Keter, the “light that has been” (or kevar), a turn of phrase based on the rabbinic idea that a portion of the primordial light was stored away for the righteous in the eschaton. It is likely, as Scholem already suggested, that the biblical and rabbinic idioms are meant to be joined together insofar as the Hebrew nahar can be linked philologically to the Aramaic nehora, which means “light.”

If we accept this suggestion, and I think it reasonable to do so, then nehar kevar, literally, the “river Khebar,” can be transposed into or kevar, the “light that has been beforehand.” The confluence of opposites in Keter yields the ideational structure that underlies the kabbalistic conception of time as a circular linearity—a present determined concurrently by the past of the future that is yet to come as what has already been and by the future of the past that has already been what is yet to come. Language here falters as the notion of temporality can be properly enunciated only through the withdrawal of speech that bespeaks the annihilation of thought at the point of its fullest realization.
As a final illustration of the role accorded silence in kabbalistic esotericism, I cite a passage from the commentary on the Torah by Baḥya ben Asher that forges a synthesis between the negative theology embraced by Maimonides and the code of secrecy attested in Jewish esotericism. The relevant comment appears as an elucidation of the scriptural decree “Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below, there is no other” (Deut 4-39)-

This is a positive commandment from the Torah regarding the knowledge of God, blessed be he, for we are commanded to know him, to investigate about his unity, and not to rely solely on tradition. This knowledge is from his actions and wondrous deeds, the lower and upper created beings. Thus this knowledge is [of] the contingent (ha-efsharit), but knowledge from the aspect of his substance (mahuto) and essence (aṣmuto) is inaccessible, and it is impossible to attain it, and concerning it is said “The glory of God is to the conceal the matter” (Prov 25-2). Since the matter of divinity (inyan ha-elohut) is not comprehended by man through his intellect in the beginning of his thought the expression “keep in mind” (wa-hashevota el levavekha) is mentioned in relation to it, like a man who contemplates something and he must go back and contemplate, as we find in the case of Elijah- “[And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord;] but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire—a soft murmuring sound” (1 Kings 19-11-12). The matter of what is written- when a man thinks about him, whether he is wind, or an earthquake, or fire, he goes back and closes the edifice of his mind with respect to everything he thinks about him, and after all of the thoughts he will find nothing but concealment (ha‘alamah) and ineffability (belimah), and this [the import of the words] “After the fire—a soft murmuring sound,” in accordance with the matter that was mentioned in Sefer Yeṣirah, “Close your mouth from speaking and your heart from thinking” (belom pikha mi-ledabber we-libbekha mi-leharher).

This passage is well demonstrates the genuine tension between the kataphatic orientation of scriptural faith, on one hand, and the apophatic orientation of the medieval theological perspective, on the other. The conflictual tug is resolved to some degree by appeal to the Maimonidean approach, that is, the injunction to know God is limited to apprehension of the contingent beings of the cosmos, whereas knowledge of the divine essence is not available to the human mind. The thirteenth-century kabbalist from Saragossa thus interprets the sequence of images from Elijah’s epiphany on Mount Carmel in a manner that accords with the negative theology of Maimonides. Apropos of the above discussion regarding the exegetical link of the gesture of the whisper to the scriptural elocution qol demamah daqah, it is important to emphasize that in Baḥya’s mind the “soft murmuring sound” denotes the cessation of thought, the “concealment” and “ineffability” that marks the culmination of the path, the silence that re/sounds after the wind, earthquake, and fire. The philosophical insight is supported by the mystical directive in Sefer Yeṣirah to close one’s mouth from speaking and one’s heart from thinking about the sefirot.


In contrast to the statements that implore the adept to be quiet, there was another strategy advocated by some kabbalists, a tactic connected to the rabbinic stipulation to transmit secrets in a whisper, a form of speaking silently. According to Genesis Rabbah 1-3, Simeon ben Yehoṣadaq asked Samuel ben Naḥman, identified as a ba‘al haggadah, “master of folklore,” whence the first light of creation was created. Samuel responded that God wrapped himself in light as in a garment and its splendor shone from one end of the world to the other. The reader is told, moreover, that Samuel revealed this information in a whisper, which led Simeon to ask him, since the point is made explicitly the verse, “wrapped in a robe of light You spread the heavens like a tent cloth” (Ps. 104-2), why did he transmit it in a whisper? To this query, Samuel responded- “Just as I heard it in a whisper so I said it to you in a whisper.”

Presented here is a code for the transmission of esoteric doctrine- even if the specific idea can be deduced from an explicit scriptural passage, still it must be revealed “in a whisper,” i.e., not in a public manner, if it has been so received. The oral nature of the transmission of this motif is underscored by variant readings of this text and parallel versions in other midrashic compilations where the expressions qibbalti, “I received,” qibbaltiha, “I received it,” or amruha li, “they it said to me,” are used in place of shama‘ti, “I heard” or shema‘tiha, “I heard it.” The general connotation of the word shama‘ti in rabbinic texts is a literal repetition or memorization of a teaching that is considered to be an authoritative tradition. With regard to the text from Genesis Rabbah, however, it seems that the hearing of the esoteric doctrine is actual. Nevertheless, it is still not clear if the secret that has been orally transmitted is from a verbal or a written source. There is an explicit acknowledgement in the passage that the secret could have been deduced from Scripture. Samuel’s response that he must transmit it in a whisper because he received it in such a way does not directly challenge the point that the secret is encoded in the biblical text and it is conceivable that what he received in a whisper was an oral exposition of this very verse. Another example that may be adduced as confirmation of the idea that esoteric matters are to be divulged through oral transmission is found in the interpretation of the word “enchanter” (laḥash) in Isaiah 3-3 given in the Babylonian Talmud, Ḥagigah 14a- “the one to whom it is worthy to transmit words of Torah that are given in a whisper (be-laḥash).” In this case, it seems fairly obvious that the issue is the elucidation of esoteric doctrines from the text of Scripture. We can well imagine that the explication is of an oral nature, but it is nonetheless exegesis of a written text.

The gesture of a whisper hovers between speech and speechlessness, as it is a verbal act, but one that, nonetheless, remains inaudible except to the person to whom it is directly communicated. It is worth noting, in passing, that a manner of silent oration—qol dimmat elohim, a locution likely based on the expression qol demamah daqqah in 1 Kings 19-12—is associated already in some Qumran fragments with angelic speech. Further evidence for the depiction of the liturgical utterance of angels as silent language may be educed from the Aramaic targum (traditionally ascribed to Jonathan ben Uziel) on the aforementioned phrase from 1 Kings 19-12, qal dimeshabbeḥin ba-ḥasha’i, the “voice of those who utter praise silently.” To utter praise silently is to execute a form of speech that is at the same time silence, to speak and not speak concomitantly, to speak by not speaking, not to speak by speaking. It is reasonable to surmise that at some point the characterization of the angelic mode of liturgical utterance was appropriated and utilized to depict the form of secret talk by which human beings should propagate esoteric wisdom. This surmise is enhanced by the further presumption that angels are privy to cosmological and theological mysteries known to God, and on rare occasions revealed to extraordinary human beings, the righteous souls who are transformed and attain an angelic status.

With respect to this type of speech, as opposed to unmitigated silence, we can grasp another component of the intimate nexus between the esoteric and erotic that has informed the path of the kabbalists. Here it is worth recalling the comment of Hai Gaon, a leading figure in the rabbinic academy of Pumbedita in the tenth and eleventh centuries, on the talmudic instruction that secret matters be transmitted in a whisper- “They whisper to him in whispers, give him the principles, he understands them, and from heaven they show him the mysteries of the heart.” Medieval masters of esoteric lore elaborated and embellished this notion of communicating secrets in a murmur. As an illustration, I will mention a passage in the first part of the compendium of mystical doctrines Sodei Razayya composed by Eleazar of Worms, the thirteenth-century Rhineland Jewish pietist. According to this text, the secret of the chariot (sod ha-merkavah), which is associated with three distinct literary compositions, Sefer ha-Merkavah, Sefer Yeṣirah, and Sefer ha-Qomah, can be revealed only in a murmur (be-laḥash or bi-leḥishah). Eleazar does not indicate either explicitly or implicitly that the esotericism surrounding the chariot entails an erotic dimension. This possibility cannot be ignored, however, given comments scattered about in the works of Eleazar as well as in other pietistic writings that overtly utilize sexual symbolism to discuss the nature and experience of the chariot.

The connection between esotericism and eroticism is made more openly by Spanish kabbalists who were active in the second half of the thirteenth century. Consider, for example, the following statement in Abraham Abulafia’s Ḥayyei ha-Nefesh, one of the three commentaries he wrote on The Guide of Perplexed by Maimonides-

In the beginning of creation were contained three types of transgression, idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder. These three are also found in the secret of circumcision, for from it is the beginning of the creation of the species and its perpetual existence. And this in order to overturn what was created corresponding to the final divine intention [ha-kawwanah ha-elohit ha-aḥronah], and this is the first natural intention [ha-kawwanah ha-ṭiv‘it ha-ri’shonah], for the natural intention, which is the account of creation [ma‘aseh bere’shit], is to preserve the species perpetually and to maintain its particulars, the attribute of a single time [middat zeman eḥad] through the intermediary of the uncovering of the genitals [gilluy arayot]. And the divine intention, which is the account of the chariot [ma‘aseh merkavah], is to sustain the unique individual [ha-ish ha-meyuḥad] perpetually by means of the disclosure of secrets [gilluy nistarot], which are like the uncovering of the genitals in the case of the multitude of the species [ha-hamon ha-miniyyim], lewd matters to speak about and concerning which it is not appropriate to listen like words pertaining to illicit sexual relations [ke-divrei arayot], and they are the essence and the rest is secondary. Therefore it is necessary for the select ones [yeḥidim] to believe their opposite, and this is to uncover the nakedness of the revealed to themselves [legallot erwat ha-nigleh le‘aṣmam] but to cover it in relation to others [lekhasoto mi-zulatam], and to take the hidden [nistar] as wheat and the revealed [nigleh] as chaff. Concerning something similar to this Solomon, peace be upon him, said “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten secretly is tasty” (Prov 9-17), that is, mysteries of Torah [sitrei torah] are the secrets said in a murmur [setarim ha-ne’emarim bi-leḥishah] and are known by the intellect with an abundance of thought [ha-sekhel be-rov maḥshavah], and they are stolen and hidden from the multitude, and all the hidden matters attest to the two inclinations. When one of the necessary and beneficial commandments of the commandments, which are for the sake of the welfare of the body [tiqqun ha-guf] or for the welfare of the soul [tiqqun ha-nefesh], is revealed, the revealed [ha-nigleh] is a key to open the gates of the hidden [sha‘arei ha-nistar] … for rectification of the body is preparation for rectification of the soul, and rectification of the soul is preparation for the final perfection, which is the goal of the final divine intention, and this is comprehension of the name [hassagat ha-shem].

The Abulafian text can be read as an interpretive gloss on a number of philosophical claims by Maimonides. To begin with there is the correspondence made between the account of creation and physics, on the one hand, and the account of the chariot and metaphysics, on the other. For Abulafia, the rabbinic classifications allude respectively to the natural and divine intentions, the former characterized as the impetus to maintain the existence of the species and of the particulars comprised within them, and the latter as the impulse to sustain the existence of unique individuals. The natural intention is identified, moreover, with gilluy arayot, the disclosure of secrets that are linked exegetically to the delineation of illicit sexual relations in the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus, which together with ma‘aseh bere’shit and ma‘aseh merkavah are the subjects designated by tannaitic authorities as too dangerous to be divulged publicly. It seems to me, however, that Abulafia employed the term in a way that was closer to an alternative connotation of “uncovering the genitals” attested in rabbinic literature, which is based, in turn, on the scriptural expression legallot erwah, “to uncover nakedness” (Lev. 18-2), the root eryah signifying that which is without garment. This is also the import of the comment that the “secret of circumcision” (sod ha-milah) is the “beginning of the creation of the species and its perpetual existence,” the word “circumcision” obviously denoting in this context the male organ upon which the ritual cut is performed.

Abulafia thus draws an analogy between two forms of denuding, uncovering the genitals and exposing secrets, the former associated with the account of creation, which is revealed to the masses, and the latter with the account of the chariot, which is set aside for unique individuals. The preservation of the species quite literally depends on the former and hence gilluy arayot fulfils the first natural intention. But this interpreta

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