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Origins of the Kabbalah

by Gershom Scholem

Bibliographic information

TitleOrigins of the Kabbalah
AuthorGershom Scholem
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


Gershom Scholem opened up a once esoteric world of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, to concerned students of religion: a tradition of repeated attempts to achieve and portray direct experiences of God. In 1973 Princeton University Press published R.J. Zwi Werbowsky’s translation of Scholem’s masterly Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (Bollinger Series XCIII). Later Princeton, in association with the Jewish Publication Society, presented the first English translation of Origins of the Kabbalah, a work that probes the twelfth- and thirteenth-century beginnings of the Kabbalah in southern France and Spain. A contribution not only to the history of Jewish medieval mysticism in general, the book will be of surpassing interest to historians and psychologists, as well as to students of the history of religion. The text and annotation have been edited and brought up to date by Professor Werbowsky. Professor Scholem shows how the Kabbalah began in twelfth-century Provence, in a land ripe with the Gnostic currents engendered by the Albigensian heresies, and how from Provence it spread over the Pyrenees to Catalonia and Aragon. A history of the Kabbalah before the Zohar (composed in Spain toward the end of the thirteenth century), this book analyzes the leading ideas of Jewish mysticism up to the period of its classical formulation.

About the Author 

Gershom Scholem ---

Gerschom Scholem received his doctorate at the University of Berlin and studied at the Universities of Jena, Berne, and Munich. In 1923 he joined the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as Librarian and from 1933 until his retirement in 1965 he served as Professor of Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah there.




Editor’s Preface

Author’s Preface to the First (German) Edition


T H E    P R O B L E M


T H E    B O O K    B A H I R


T H E    F I R S T    K A B B A L I S T S    I N    P R O V E N C E


T H E    K A B B A L I S T I C    C E N T E R    I N    G E R O N A


Together with his specific form of theosophy in the Epistle to Burgos, Azriel also developed his anthropology. His conception of the nature and destiny of man is closely bound up with his theosophy. The possibility offered to man was that of a perfect analogy between creature and Creator. Like the Creator, the creature was to be one in its organic unity. If the fall of Adam had not interfered, the higher will would have acted in Adam, Eve, and all their descendants as a single, collective will, although under three different aspects. Man is defined by the same formula as the deity; he is the one in whom the power of the many is enclosed. But this formula, applied to man, implies his freedom to choose between good and evil, between unity and multiplicity, which is the nature of sin. Adam’s fall was his abandonment of contact with the higher will. Without original sin, there would not have been any individuality, which comes into being only through separation and through multiplicity becoming independent. Likewise there would have been no dialectic of extreme opposites acting upon man, but only relative differences in the intensity with which the various middoth would have taken effect. The paradisiacal state therefore would have remained a nonindividual and undialectical condition. Life would have developed its rhythm not through contraries but in slight fluctuations. There existed a supreme state of conduct, hanhagah, by virtue of which man would have behaved in perfect conformity with the higher will. Adam violated this supreme state, which also would have represented a living unity of opposites, and as a result lost the possibility of such a truly mystical conduct.

Only an eschatological perspective allows us to contemplate again as a possibility the state that today the mystics alone anticipate in their kawwanah. This is the supreme aspect of God, by which he is called ’elohe ’amen, the God of faithfulness, namely, confirmation. By this aspect of divine action, God constantly renews the creation of nature. Only when He becomes visible again can there be a restoration of the connection of all things interrupted by the Fall, and especially of all opposites. Everything that was defective must draw from the possibility of perfection disposed in its contrary and be united with it. To this highest possibility in man, which is grounded beyond the intellectual in the most hidden sphere, corresponds the possibility of his participation in the unity and holiness of God and the plenitude of his benediction. The participation of man in the divine realm, at present attainable only in mystical prayer and kawwanah, will be fully represented and realized in the messianic kingdom.

The soul of man is created out of nothing only in an exoteric sense. In a mystical sense it comes from the ’asiluth and is of a divine nature. It does not derive its origin, like the souls of the animals, in the elements, nor in the separate, angelic intelligences alone. The latter idea, which doubtless was known to Nahmanides from a work by Isaac Israeli, was rejected by him as an “opinion of the Greeks.” The human soul is essentially different from the animal soul; Nahmanides adopts, along with other kabbalists of the earliest period, the Platonic view of the soul, according to which there exist different souls in man and not only different faculties of a unitary soul. According to Nahmanides, man’s anima rationalis unites the rational and the mystical-intuitive, and hence he sees no need for further distinctions. Nevertheless, the weight shifts imperceptibly to the second side: the highest soul, neshamah, which comes from binah and yesod, is the mediator of prophecy, and through it man, in the state of debhequth, attains communion with the deity as a result of the longing for its origin implanted in it. Enoch and the three Patriarchs, Moses, and Elijah had achieved this supreme state already on earth; however, it is not a full unio mystica with the deity but rather a communion, as we have argued at length in our discussion of the subject of kawwanah. In the prophetic vision, during which the soul is united with the objects of its contemplation, it is in this state of debhequth, that it obtains a “knowledge of God face to face.” In this longing for its origin, the highest soul of man becomes capable of penetrating all the intermediary spheres and rising up to God by means of its acts—which, strangely enough, are united here with contemplation.

The eclectic manner in which the kabbalists adopted philosophical doctrines concerning the soul is also apparent in the fact that Azriel, for example, accepts the Aristotelian definition of the soul as the form of the body, seemingly unaware of the contra- diction between this idea and important kabbalistic doctrines. The contradiction results from the adoption and further development of the doctrine of metempsychosis. While this doctrine is rather openly propounded in the Book Bahir, as we saw on p. 188ff., it is treated, strangely enough, as a great mystery in Provence and in Gerona. The authors without exception speak of it only in hints and in veiled allusions. They make no attempt to account for this idea but presuppose it as a truth handed down by esoteric tradition. The term gilgul, generally used at a later date for the transmigration of souls, seems to be as yet unknown among these early authors. Instead, they prefer to speak of sod ha-‘ibbur. This term, literally “secret of impregnation,” is used in the Talmud for the methods of computing the calendar, handed down only orally for a long time, the idea being that the leap years were impregnated, as it were, by the addition of an extra month. But ‘ibbur can, if necessary, also be understood as “transition,” and it is doubtless in this sense that the term was picked up by the kabbalists. The “secret of the ‘ibbur” is that of the passage of the soul from one body to another and not, as among the later kabbalists, a real phenomenon of impregnation through which, after birth an additional soul sometimes enters into the one originally born with a person.

We still do not know what led the kabbalists of the first generation to treat this doctrine in such a strictly esoteric manner and what danger they saw in exposing it to the public. It is most unlikely that fear of the Catholic Church, which had officially condemned this doctrine, was a factor. Where no christological elements were involved, Jewish theology generally had no inhibitions. The polemics directed by the philosophers against this doctrine should likewise have stimulated controversy rather than secrecy. Nahmanides had no lack of opportunity to denounce the philosophic criticism of this doctrine. Instead, he retreated into extremely prudent, and for the uninitiated, often impenetrable statements in his commentary on the book of Job, the key to which, according to the kabbalists of Gerona, lay precisely in the doctrine of metempsychosis. According to the kabbalistic view, Job had to suffer in order to make amends for sins committed in an earlier life. Undoubtedly basing himself on traditions passed down to him, Nahmanides discovered in the words of Elihu (Job 33) a clear indication and a great number of proof texts for this doctrine, in which all the problems of theodicy find their solution. Certain prescriptions of the Bible, above all the institution of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25), according to which the brother of a man who dies childless must marry his widow, are explained with reference to this doctrine. The son of such a marriage bears within him the soul of the deceased and can therefore fulfill in this life the commandment of procreation, the fulfilment of which had been denied to him in his previous life. Also the sterility of women is explained by substitution of souls: when a male soul inhabits a female body, the woman remains childless. The Gerona School still knew nothing about a migration through the bodies of animals. It should also be noted that although the doctrine of metempsychosis serves primarily to explain the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked and presupposes a very wide and inclusive nexus, it appears in Gerona as very limited in scope and as concerned mainly with the phenomenon of childlessness. Not all sins lead to a further migration of the soul, only those connected with procreation. These migrations are as much a punishment and an increase in suffering as a renewed chance for the reparation of previous wrongs. The transmigration of souls therefore constitutes an arrangement through which the divine Mercy and Stern Judgment are held in equilibrium. Azriel and other authors apparently also combine the mystery of ‘ibbur with other processes in the world of emanation that, however, are not clear. This mystery, it is repeatedly emphasized, has its root in the sefirah hokhmah and is somehow grounded in the “transition” of the powers united in the divine Sophia to the lower sefìroth. Occasionally even the mystical illumination produced by the effluence of the divine power from one sefirah to another is designated as sod ha-‘ibbur. In general, the kabbalists of Gerona restricted the transmigration of souls, on the basis of Job 33:29, to three rebirths following the first entry of the soul into the human body, though they admitted the existence of exceptional cases. An important detail has been transmitted from the school of Nahmanides. In the famous disputation with the ex-Jew Paulus Christiani, the monk invokes the wellknown aggadah according to which the Messiah was born at the hour of the destruction of the Temple. To this Nahmanides replied: “Either this aggadah is not true, or else it has another explanation according to the mysteries of the sages.” Although the wording of this reply clearly points to kabbalistic teaching, it has not been understood until now. Nahmanides does indeed give a plausible— literal and exoteric—explanation of the aggadah, to the effect that the Messiah was currently biding his time in the terrestrial paradise, but his true opinion can be gleaned from the questions of his disciple Shesheth des Mercadell concerning metempsychosis, where this aggadah figures as a proof text for this doctrine. What the aggadah means to say is, therefore, that since the destruction of the Temple the soul of the Messiah is in the process of ‘ibbur. On this point, Nahmanides and his school depart from the older idea of the Bahir section 126, according to which the soul of the Messiah does not inhabit a human body before.


He [Scholem] labors the wealth, even the scandal, of the past in order to multiply option of survival. No great textual scholar, no master of philology and historical criticism commands a technique at once more scrupulously attentive to its object and more instinct with the writer’s voice. That voice reaches out and grabs the layman.

– George Steiner, The New Yorker

[Scholem’s] work on Jewish mysticism, messianism, and sectarianism, spanning now half a century, constitutes, I should think, one of the major achievements of the historical imagination in our time. I would contend that it is of vital interest not only to anyone concerned with the history of religion but to anyone struggling to understand the underlying problematicsof the human predicament.

– Robert Alter, Commentary

This may well be Professor Scholem’s single greatest contribution to Kabbalistic research. For here he takes up and puts on a firm critical and scientific basis the vexing problem of the very origins and early development of Kabbalah.

– Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Columbia University

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