Friday, January 16, 2009

Shemot (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to the blog at January 2006.

A Cryptic Sefirotic Picture

This week we shall see a totally different kind of passage—one far more typical of what people imagine when they think of “esoteric” or “hidden” teachings. This terse, enigmatic, almost delphic passage belongs to a section of the Zohar known as Tosefta (suggesting an analogy to the extra-canonical supplement to the Mishnah by that name), which serves as a kind of gloss or addition to the main text. This passage is quite literally cryptic, requiring word-by-word decoding of its dense images.

At this point I should mention, at least in passing, certain problems in Zohar studies. Old-fashioned Jews, whether they studied it or not, regarded everything between the covers of this book as Zohar ha-Kadosh—“the Holy Zohar”: the sacred text of Jewish mysticism, the authoritative repository of the secret teachings of Judaism. In his day, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), founder of modern Kabbalah research, presented compelling proofs that the Zohar was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, but rather was authored in thirteenth-century Castille by R. Moses de Leon. Two chapters of his laymen’s introduction, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (still a classic in its field after nearly seventy years), are devoted to the Zohar: Lecture V, “The Book and Its Author,” addresses this specific issue, while Lecture VI is a lucid introduction to “Its Theosophic Doctrine.” (See also his later and more scholarly Origins of the Kabbalah).

The scholars who followed in Scholem’s wake have refined and elaborated this basic thesis. Several years after Scholem’s death, Yehudah Liebes presented the idea that the Zohar was not the exclusive creation of De Leon, but that there was an entire circle that contributed to its creation. Other scholars have attempted to sort out the different strands and layers of the Zohar through meticulous comparison of manuscripts and literary analysis. For many scholars, not only are those sections marked in the Zohar as separate documents, such as Ra’ya Mehemna, Midrash ha-Ne’elam, Idrot, & Sabba de-Mishpatim, not to mention Tikkunei Zohar and the works printed in Zohar Hadash, seen as coming from other author, but even certain portions of the Zohar itself are judged not to be part of the original Zohar. Hence, for example, Matt’s translation omits certain passages (such as the last eight pages of this week’s parashah) which he and other scholars judge to be extra-Zoharic.

We now return to our subject; Zohar II: 12b–13a:

MATNITIN. Pursuers of truth, those who demand the mystery of faith, those who cling to the faithful cluster, those who know the ways of the Supreme King—draw near and listen! When two ascend and emerge toward one, they receive it between two arms. Two descend to three; they are two, one between them. Two sit upon the seat from which prophets suckle. One between them, junction of all, absorbing all.

The first paragraph is a kind of festive introduction, of a kind found in many Zohar passages, alerting the reader that he is about to be presented with profound secrets. The passage itself speaks about the sefirot, and is a kind of rudimentary or highly condensed “flow-chart”—to use somewhat vulgar contemporary language—of the interaction among the seven lower sefirot, much like that found in any Kabbalistic chart of the sefirot. The “two” that ascend and emerge towards one are Hesed and Gevurah, which “receive” Tiferet, the one that harmonizes and mediates between them, with their two arms. (In depictions of the sefirotic tree in human form, as Adam Kadmon, the “Primal Adam,” these two are the arms, while Tiferet is the torso or center). These two in turn flow into the lower triad of sefirot, Nezah, Hod and Yesod, which again take the form of opposites, corresponding to the legs, which “sit on the seat from which prophets suckle”—i.e., they serve as the source of prophecy. In between and mediating between them is Yesod, represented as the phallus, which serves as the “junction of all, and absorbing all.” It is the channel through which Divine energy flows into the lower world, Malkhut or Shekhinah, as seen in the next paragraph.

That holy well stands beneath Him—Field of Holy Apples. From this well were watered the flocks that Moses tended in the wilderness. From this well were watered the flocks that Jacob selected, when they were selected for his share—all those chariots, all those winged beings. Three pillars rest upon this well; from them, this well is filled.

Malkhut is the “Holy Apple Field”—an image derived from a Talmudic midrash stating that the fragrance Yitzhak smelled on Yaakov’s garments was that of an apple orchard (Ta’anit 29b, quoted by Rashi at Gen 27:27); hence, it signifies superlative fragrance or pleasure. The image is also used by R. Yitzhak Luria is his table hymn for the Friday night meal. Alternatively, it is the “well” from which one draws vivifying water. Shekhinah is paradoxical: it is simultaneously Divine and totally within the world; a times, indeed, it seems almost as if it is itself the world (or at least such earth-defined entities as the Congregation of Israel or the Shabbat). Shekhinah is the embodiment of God in His/Her total immanence or indwelling—close, familiar, intimate. That is why the imagery is feminine, that of a loving, nourishing mother; just as there is no “distance,” psychological or physical, between a child and its mother (at least in the early years), so too is the Shekhinah “with us” in our joys and sorrows.

It is called Adonai., My Lord; of this is written “Adonai Elohim, My Lord God, You Yourself have begun…” (Deut 3:24). And similarly: “Let your face shine upon Your desolate sanctuary, for the sake of Adonai” (Dan 9:17). Adon, Lord of, all the earth, as is written: “See, ark of the covenant, Lord of all the earth” (Josh 3:11). Within it is concealed one holy spring, flowing into it constantly, filling it. This is called YHVH Tzeva’ot, Lord of Hosts. Blessed is He forever and ever.

—translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 61-63

The final part of this passage deals with different Divine names, corresponding to various sefirot or clusters of sefirot, with suitable biblical proof texts.

Post-Hanukkah Riddle: Some Answers

Three readers answered the riddle I posed last week: to wit, when else in the Jewish calendar do we have four successive days of descending kedushah, similar to what we had this year at the end of Hanukkah? One or another correct answer to this question was provided by my daughter Tanya Chipman, Perry Zamek, and Bonnie Schiff.

There are in fact two possible answers. One. when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat (as it will do this coming year), we have a sequence of: Yom Tov and Shabbat; Yom Tov alone; Tzom Gedalyah, which is a Ta’anit tzibbur; and an ordinary weekday (in this case, one of the Ten Days of Repentance, which has a certain standing of its own). A fast day, even though it has no sanctity in terms of forbidden labor, nevertheless enjoys a distinct halakhic status, both liturgically and in terms of the special laws of the fast.

Second, when a festival immediately follows upon the end of Shabbat (an occasion known as YaKNeHaZ, for the mnemonic used for the order of Kiddush); this can happen either on the First Day of Pesah [next occurrence - 2021] or on Shavuot [2012]. In that case, we have: Shabbat; Yom Tov; Second Day of Yom Tov; and either a weekday or Hol Hamoed, as the case may be. This question is tricky, being based upon the idea that the formal halakhic character of Yom Tov sheni shel Galuyot differs from that of the first day, even though both its liturgy and its actual observance is the same: the first day derives its sanctity from Torah law, while the second is rooted in Rabbinic edict (for which reason it does not apply in the Land of Israel. In fact, Perry Zamek gave an Israel-oriented answer, which I also accept, with some reservation: Shabbat, Yom Tov, Issru Hag, and weekday.


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