Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Sapphire Heaven

Sapphire, one of the most precious minerals on earth. Yet in Judaism, Sapphire is more metaphor than mineral.

First and foremost, it is the color of heaven, a signifier of divinity. Reference to celestial sapphire appears three times in the Tanakh:
[Photograph: a star sapphire]

Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire (Ezek. 1:26 – reiterated later in 10:1)

"Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose. They saw the Lord of Israel and beneath His feet, like a brickwork of sapphire ... And to the chieftains of the Children of Israel, He [God] did not strike His hand. They viewed the Lord, they ate and drank" (Exodus 24:9-11).
The word used in both places, sapir, "sapphire," is a Sanskrit loan word. Strikingly, there is a Semitic root that closely resembles its samech-payh-yud-resh spelling: Samech-Peyh-Resh is the Semitic root for "message" or "missive," and is the basis for all terms related to "book" (sefer), "story" (sipur), "recount" (safar), "number" (mispar) and "[primordial] number" (sefirah).

While the commonality of these two word forms is a linguistic coincidence, the possibility that they represent supernal color, book, number, and speech, things that all converge toward a unified spiritual reality, becomes compelling to Jewish mystics. Thus, for example, the medieval esoteric Bible commentator Bachya declares the blue signifies wisdom (comment on Ex. 28:18).

The classic starting point for this discussion of the supernal association between these terms is found in the terse, enigmatic treatise on word mysticism, the Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”). There the terms sefer-safar-sipur (book - number - telling) are the "three books" by which God creates the universe (Mishna 1:1). And while the spelling sapir never actually appears in this cluster, a few of Sefer Yetzirah’s commentators, such as Raavad (Rabbi Abraham ben David, of Posquieres1125-1198) conclude that S.Y. is indeed alluding to the blue stone of divine visions (comment on S.Y. 1:1).

Sefer Bahir also addresses this, but takes a different tack. In explaining Sefer Yetzirah’s novel term sefirot, (“numbers”), a word not seen before, the Bahir appeals back to the Tanakh, claiming the term is derived from Psalm 19:2, which “recounts” - m’sapprim - the “Glory of God.” In making this exegetical move, Bahir equates sefirot with kavod, the Biblical term of divine emanation (section 125, Margolius Edition, 1951).

Like S.Y., the Bahir makes no explicit link in 125 between the words m’sapprim and sapir, though in another passage it declares,

“What is the material [lit. eretz] that from it everything is engraved? And from it is engraved the heavens? It is the Throne of the Blessed Holy One. It is the precious stone and the sea of wisdom…Rabbi Meir said, Why is blue chosen from among all types colors [for the tzitzit]? Blue resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory. Thus it is written,…under His feet was like a pavement of sapphire…(Ex. 24:10), and, As the likeness of a sapphire stone was the semblance of a throne (Ezek. 1:26)” (96).
This homily places all these concepts - heaven, sapphire stone, throne, wisdom - within a shared semantic field.

Later readers elaborate on that link in the Bahir[1] by reading the Hebrew of 19:2, ha-shamayim m’sapprim kavod el, as “The heavens shine sapphirine [of] the Glory [of] God,” rather then the more conventional translation of “The heavens recount the Glory [of] God.” Zohar 1:8a elaborates on the same verse, declaring sapphire signifies the union of masculine and feminine principles of divinity and it is the “radiance” (zahir) that fills the universe:
m’sapprim signifies that they [the divine groom and bride] radiate a brilliance (zoharah) like that of a sapphire, sparkling and scintillating from one end of the world to the other.” (Simon translation, p. 33).

Thus the sapphire comes to exemplify heavenly structures (brickwork, the Throne of Glory, the Glory of God, the Sefirot), divine knowledge (numbers, books, telling), and supernal energy (the zoharah). This theme of sapphire as a visible signifier of divine entities extends to other sacred narratives, such as the Midrashic tradition that the tablets of the heavenly words, the Ten Commandments, were tablets of sapphire cut from the Throne of Glory (Midrash Lekakh Tov, Ex. 31.18). It also appears in the Hebrew magical tradition that the angelic book given by Raziel to Noah (and later identified with the text of Sefer ha-Razim) was in the form of an engraved sapphire stone (Sefer ha-Razim, intro.).[2]

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[1] Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 81
[2] A cognate tradition claims that the staff of Moses was an engraved rod of sapphire (Ex. Rabbah 8:3). Zohar links this idea with the "book" tradition by declaring Moses’ rod is an allegory for the sefirot.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Blessed Darkness: The Torah of Hoshekh

To Know the Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too,
blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
(Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, p. 107)
[Abraham considers the stars, postcard by Ephraim Moses Lilien]
Darkness. It gets a bad rap. In Western tradition it symbolizes chaos, ignorance, dread, danger, absence, evil, and spiritual emptiness. But this is hardly the whole story. After all, existence germinates and incubates in darkness. As Genesis reveals, darkness is where life begins (1:2). Darkness is more than mere absence, it too is one of God's positive creations:
The rabbis taught: “Three things were made before the creation of our world: Water, Wind, and Fire. Water birthed darkness, Fire birthed light, and Wind birthed wisdom” (Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 15:22).
Torah too, sometimes likes to use darkness as an antipode and as a contrast to life and good. It is the lurking place of evil spirits (Ps. 91:8; Pas. 111a-b). Darkness is one of the ten plagues, signifying divine judgement. Yet that same darkness is also the matrix of redemption:
"God brought you out of Egypt by night" (Deut 16:1). The night is indeed the time of redemption, as the people hold fast to the words of their new master and stage a tableau of release. The tension inherent in such a scene is palpable, particularly if one bears in mind the shrieks that rend Egypt and that are heard from the interiors of Israelite houses, set in among the houses of death. To leave by day, "with hands high": this is the stuff of epic. But the night is another country." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus [New York: Doubleday, 2002],p. 165)
This dual, even paradoxical, role it serves in the Exodus points to Judaism's more nuanced understanding of darkness. As often as it is the antithesis of light, it is as often seen as complementary, as evidenced in the evening prayer, Maariv Aravim.
Kabbalah goes even further, teaching that just as the body is a garment for the soul, darkness is a garment for light. And just as the body is an expression of the divine as much as the soul (Iggeret ha-Kodesh I), so too darkness is as much representative of God as is Light. In the words of the Zohar:
“And God said, ‘Let us make the human in our image, according to our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26). ‘In our image – this means Light; According to our likeness – this means Darkness,’ for Darkness is the garment of the Light no less than the body is the garment of the soul” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 22b).

Gershon Winkler, writing of the darkness that accompanies winter, teaches:
"The gift of darkness is its veiling of light. While light is good in that it brings us clarity, enables us to experience our environment and be inspired by color and shape, it can also at times detract from our inner selves....The balance that darkness then brings to light is to dim the distractions that light enables so that we are forced to return deeper and deeper into ourselves."
That is why every night when a Jew prays, he or she blesses the darkness:
Praised are You, Adonai, Who makes the evening fall.
See entries Darkness; Dreams; Midnight; Night; Sleep in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Exorcism III: Battling Dybbuks and the Dead

[Uncaptioned illustration by E.M. Lilien from the Book of Job, appearing in Die Bucher Der Bibel]

Today I'd like to devote an entry to that most Jewish of exorcism rites - combating spirit (Ruach Ra; Dybbuk) possession. Jews regard themselves to be spiritually 'permeable,' that ethereal-divine forces can and do penetrate and pass through the living on a regular basis. This has its roots in the Bible, where the "Spirit[s] of God/Prophecy/Wisdom" occasionally seized the living (Ex. 31:3; Numbers 27:18). But ghostly possession is another matter. The 1st Century CE Jewish historian Josephus give us (to my knowledge) the only report of spirit possession by the dead prior to the 13th Century:

....it [a special root] quickly drives away those called demons, which are no other than the spirits of the wicked, that enter into men that are alive and kill them, unless they can obtain some help against them (Wars 7:6,3).

After Josephus, the notion that ghostly spirits can possess the living all but vanishes from Jewish sources. Perhaps the belief simply became occult for twelve hundred years. Jews certainly continued to think about and report ghosts visiting asiyah, the material plane, either in a cemetery (close to their body), or as a dream vision.

Or, more likely, possession by unsettled spirits faded from Jewish culture and consciousness and only reappeared once the doctrine of gilgul (transmigration of the soul - see my earlier entry) became widely circulated. Once it was accepted that souls could move freely from their bodies, the notion that they could take up residence in someone else's was also regarded as plausible.

While the theoretical possibility of spirit possession is mentioned in the 13th Century Sefer Zohar, the return of spirit possession to recorded Jewish history had to wait until the 16th Century, when accounts of possessions and exorcisms suddenly proliferate. Quite a number of notable Jewish figures from this time forward fill the role of exorcist, including Yosef Karo, Isaac Luria, Chayyim Vital, Isaiah Horowitz and the Chofetz Chayyim.

Spirit exorcism in Judaism in most respects resembles demonic exorcism in other cultures. There are many of the same elements present - determining the name of the spirit, discerning its purpose in possessing the victim, then using both Biblical and liturgical adjurations to expel the dybbuk, often with the employment of ritual objects (shofar, tefillin, Torah scrolls, even amulets) and rites (candle-lighting, fumigation with noxious substances). Most distinctive of the Jewish approach is its philosophic underpinning: that the dead can possess, rather than just haunt, the living. Because of this, unlike Christian rites, the exorcism is seen as doubly therapeutic; ideally both the victim and the ghostly assailant should be healed. Since we are dealing with a "soul" here, the goal is effect a tikkun, a rectification for the malevolent dead. Here is an extract of an elaborate account of a less-then-successful exorcism effort from Divrei Yosef, pp. 319-24, as translated in Spirit Possession in Judaism:

...I was amidst the great gathering, for there were over one hundred people there, Torah scholars and heads of communities. Two men, who knew the adjurations and many matters, approached the [possessed] woman so that the spirit within the woman would speak, by means of the smoke of fire and sulfur that they would make enter her nostrils…by means of the adjurers the voice would begin to be heard…they would quarrel with him…and say to him, “Evil one, speak and say who you are in a clear tongue"...and they again spoke to him with a great voice…”What is your name, evil one?” He would respond “Samuel Zarfati.”…he had died in Tripoli [this is followed by considerable familial details of its past life extracted from the dybbuk]…they asked him, “For which matter do you reincarnate in the world in reincarnation such as these?” He responded, “For many sins I have committed in my life.” In turn they demanded, “Be explicit about them.”…And then the aforementioned two men began to entreat him and compel him by means of the ban to depart from within her…by means of the techniques mentioned above [techniques also mentioned elsewhere in the account include amulets, reading the Ten Commandments, and pronouncing “cherem,” a kind of legal ban or restraining order] . They also would petition for mercy upon him [the dybbuk], and pray for him, and blow the shofar…And then we said [the prayer] El Melekh and va-ya’avor [Ex. 34:6] thrice with the blast of the shofar…[the dybbuk goes on to describe his failed transmigrations, how he entered this home, and entered the possessed woman]....They pressed him with the aforementioned adjurations, and with the aforementioned smoke, and with the [Divine] Names, that the spirit should depart through the big nail of one of her feet…[the dybbuk resists by various machinations, and tries to avoid enacting the proof that he had left the body, demanded by the exorcists, by extinguishing a candle positioned ten ft. from the victim, but it finally agrees to leave]…so it was done, and it became known that the spirit went out through the place and drew blood as he went..[this conclusion proves premature; the spirit manifests itself again in a matter of days and the poor woman dies eight days later].

Dybbuk seizures continue to be recorded to this day - almost always in very traditional communities in Israel - though the number of incidents has radically declined from their peak in the 17th-18th Centuries.

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek (complete with release waivers and EMTs) modern rendition of a Jewish exorcism, can be seen in the 2009 movie The Unborn. OK, so the movie ignores much of dybbuk mythology, there's a handsome black priest at the rite (need reach those cross demographics - get it? cross demographics?), there is no minyan (I guess that's too many to kill without making the whole thing seem over-the-top), etc. But it gets a few things right - blowing a shofar (though its a mighty funky looking shofar), standing in a circle, and reciting Ps. 91 are all legit.

To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism : http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/ref=pd_rhf_p_1/104-9077615-8031133