Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hekhalot Literature / Merkavah Mysticism

[Sculpture entitled "Sefer Hechalot" by Anselm Kiefer, found at www.kainos.it/.../18-kiefer-seferhechaloth.jpg]
In a recent comment, Zeke asks -

Shalom Rabbi Dennis,Any book about Hekhalot literature would you recommend?

Well Zeke, for the beginner, I've always loved:

The Ancient Jewish Mysticism by Joseph Dan, which is a collection of his radio lectures on the topic. Unfortunately, it's out-of-print.

So unless you can find a copy, the next good starting place is Hidden and Manifest God by Peter Schafer.

Then of course, there is the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. The EJMMM is available at amazon.com. Click here - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

Follow those with Ithamar Greunwald's Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism. Greunwald offers his grand theories of this literature, which are disputed, but he is very thoughtful.

Once you've got that under your belt and understand the basic themes of the Hekhalot Literature, then there are some excellent more technical works:

Poetics of Ascent by Naomi Janowitz analyzes a single text using linguistic theory.

Rituals to Gain Power by Rachel Lesses takes an detailed look at adjurations/angel summoning rituals of the H.L. It's a reworked dissertation, so it can be a schlep in places, but it is packed with interesting insights.

Faces of the Chariot is David Halperin's tour-de-force reading of the literature. He has a very specific social-context theory to account for the H.L., which I don't ascribe to, but many of his readings are insightful and he assembles certain themes into comprehensive and compelling chapters.

Be aware that all these people write under the shadow of Gershom Scholem, who offered many opinions on this literature. Read the early chapters of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism to get a taste of his perspective.

There are also many, many informative academic articles, but make it through these books and you will be well-informed.

Throne of Glory; Mercy Seat of God

[Cherub among palm trees, similiar to the motif that decorated the interior of the Temple. Displayed at Bible Lands Museum, Israel. Image from www.mystae.com]

Among the furnishings in the Mishkan, none is more intriguing than the Ark of the Covenant and its Cherub figurines forming the "mercy seat" or throne from which God addressed Moses (Ex. 25). This earthly throne was really just a demut, a material form of the celestial seat of power, known as the Kisei Kavod, the Throne of Glory.

The Throne of Glory is the superstructure of the Cosmos[1]; it symbolizes the divine order and divine governance of creation. Along with the Torah, it embodies the divine plan:

Six things preceded the creation of the world. Some were actually created, and others came up only in God's thought as what was to be created:
Torah and the Throne of Glory were created.
The [eventual] creation of the [great] ancestors, Israel, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah came to God's mind. R. Ahavah son of R. Ze'era said: So, too, repentance. And some say: Also the Garden of Eden and Gehenna.
(Bereshit Rabbah 1)

The Throne is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Jer. 14:21, 17:12, Isa. 6:1; Ezek. 1:26, 10:1), but with little description. It (Ezek. 1:26) may be made of sapphire (making its co-equal with the heavens?), and/or it may be formed of living, numinous entities [probably Keruvim, Cherubs, but also possibly other numinous creatures - Hayyot, Serafim, and Ofanim] (ibid.), but little else is revealed in the Bible.

There are, however, many vivid descriptions of the Throne and its prominent features in post-Biblical literature. It is a celestial sky blue, the same blue that is part of the fringes an Israelite must wear. Another Midrash calls it chashmal, amber. Made of half fire, half hail, it hovers in the air, is 800,000 parsangs in length and 500,000 in width – and that is calculated in the parsang of heaven, which is 2000 cubits of the length of God’s arm
(PdRE 3, 4, 6; BhM 2:25, 41-46).

The angel Sandalfon stands over the Throne, weaving the prayers of Israel into God’s crown. Four Princes surround the Throne: Michael (right), Gabriel (left), Uriel (in front), and Raphael (behind). Other texts describe myriads of armies of angels arrayed around it. The earth is the footstool of God’s throne.

There is one tradition that there are actually two thrones, the Throne of Strict Justice and the Throne of Mercy. When Israel prays for forgiveness, it moves God to leave the first and sit in the second (Sanh. 38b).

When sitting upon the Throne in judgment, God is draped in a supernal robe of purple inscribed with the names of the martyrs of Israel (Mid. Teh. 4:12), inspiring God to be compassionate toward Israel for their sakes. The Throne is also inscribed with the image of the patriarch Jacob. Thus the Throne, like God’s tefillin, represents the metaphysical bond of the people Israel to the Godhead (Hekhalot Zutarti). This passage, also from Hekhalot Literature, describes God addressing the ascendant adept:

Give testimony to them of what you see by Me, of what I have done to the face of Jacob, your father, which I have engraved on the Throne of my Glory (Hekhalot Rabbati)

The idea that Jacob’s image is inscribed on God’s throne, that Israel is the centerpiece, the chief mechanism for the unfolding of God’s kingdom, appears several times in different genres of Jewish writing, not just esoteric texts:

And (Jacob) dreamed. And note, a ladder was fixed on the earth;and its head reached to the height of the heavens.And note, the angels who had come with him from his father's house ascended to bear good news to the angels on high, saying:--"Come and see a just man!" The one whom you desired to see,whose image is engraved on the Throne of Glory!" And, note, the angels from before the Eternal were ascending and descending and they looked at him.
(Targum Neofiti, Gen. 28:1)

Learn more. The EJMMM is available at amazon.com. Click here - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

[1] Hekhalot Rabbati, which offers a poetic meditation on the Throne, calls it a meon, a “dwelling,” and a keli chemdah, a “precious vessel.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sacred Tents, Divine Sanctuaries

Given that the Israelites began as a semi-nomadic people, it should come as no surprise that a ohel (“Tent”) is a significant object

[Araber Zelte, illustration of Ottoman Palestine by E.M. Lilien]

with metaphorical and even spiritual significance, symbolizing authority, shelter, salvation, sanctuary, and pilgrimage (Ps. 27:5, 61:4, 91:10, 104:2; Isa. 15:5, 54:2; Jer. 30:18; 35:7).

Pre-Israelite Canaanites believed that the gods assembled in the sacred tent of El, the supreme god (Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan, pp. 12; 95):

She [Anat] stamped her feet and left the earth;
then she headed toward El,
at the source of the two rivers [Mount Zaphon] in the midst of the two seas' pools;
she opened El's tent and entered the shrine of the King, Father of Time....

Pss. 15:1 and 61:5 describes God’s celestial tent sitting atop a sacred mountain, so we see a mythic motif in Israelite thought similar to the Canaanite one. Thus the idea that the God of Israel would command Moses to build a tent-sanctuary, the Mishkan, (Tabernacle), must not have seemed entirely alien to the Children of Israel. Still, it was novel in another regard - that God would transfer the dwelling place of His glory to the earth (Ex. 25-28) is a startling innovation. No longer would divinity be remote from humanity, but instead would dwell amidst people! This is a revolutionary notion of deity in relationship to humanity couched (pardon the pun) in mythic imagery (I will devote a separate entry to a more detailed consideration of the Ohel Moed/Mishkan).

In the World-to-Come, the righteous enjoy the comfort of dwelling in palatial tents; a messianic tent made from the skin of Leviathan, and/or under seven canopies in Eden (B.B. 75a; Seder Gan Eden).
This idea of the "canopy of the righteous" in the World-to-Come continues to resonate in more recent times, even as ordinary tents have ceased to occupy any significant role in Jewish life (my wife considers camping a violation of the commandment against self-abuse). Pious Jews will sometimes construct a canopy over the grave of a beloved rebbe, at times with furnishings, such as a ner tamid, or perpetual light, turning the grave into a tent-like sanctuary. This too is called an ohel and pilgrims will gather there to pray for the intercession of the righteous dead person and to leave a petitionary note, called a pitka or kvittle. The logic is analogous to the Mishkan, which brings the divine presence down from the celestial realms. The grave/ohel transfers the presence of the righteous dead from their supernal tabernacle to the more proximate space of the cemetery, which is, afterall, a nexus point between this world and the Next.

To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Havdalah of Rabbi Akiba, pg. 2: Angelic Names, Occult Powers

The second page of Havdalah de Rabbi Akiva continues the ritual begun on page 1. Having recited Ps. 29 and a brief adjuration against the forces of woe and evil (verbs of release, like patach, heiteir, and shalach, are staple theurgic language in these formulae), the text goes on to

[The power of oppression is broken with the power of the Word - Maxim Gorki's personal bookplate by E. M. Lilien]

give a complete recitation of Ps. 91 [See my earlier entry on exorcisms of evil spirits], only here the psalm is fortified by the insertion of a angelic or divine name of power at the end of each stich.

We have already discussed how divine names are seen as possessing creative/constructive potential. In Ps. 104:7, it appears God's word is also able to "rebuke" ungodly forces. Analogously, angelic names, especially of angels associated with protection and deliverance, have protective powers, in part because their names include a divine name (Ex. 23:20). In our texts, there are a lot of XXX-el names (the printed text breaks up the name with a diacritical mark). According to Hekhalot Rabbati (See Schafer, The Hidden and Manifest God, 49-53), Just knowing the names of angels - many of these names are unfamiliar and obscure, and therefore presumably more powerful - grants one access to their power (See also Janowitz, Poetics of Ascent, pp. 25-28; 51). So the translation continues:

[Then] ‘Untie the fetters of wickedness, loosen the binds of tyranny;
send away liberty crushers[1] and all oppression

(Page 2)

(15) be cut off. He is as a groom going out from his huppah, he rejoices as a hero runs [to greet] a guest;[2] a groom goes forth from his chamber and a bride from her huppah.[3]
And the delight of the Eternal our God is upon us. The work of our hands, it is established upon us; the work our hands, it is directed [to] Him.
O You[4] who dwells in the secret place of Elyon- Bea’v - who abides in the shadow of Shaddai, - Tzevao’t - I say to the Eternal, my refuge and stronghold, - Michae’l - my God in whom I trust, - Gavrie’l - that He will save you from the fowler’s trap, - Maltie’l - from the destructive plague - YHV’H -.
(20) He will cover you with his pinions; - Ameie’l - you will find shelter under His wings -Amnie’l-. God's faithfulness is a protecting shield - Amtie’l -. You shall not fear the terror of the night - Nitnae’l -[5] nor the arrow that flies by day - A’nae’l -.[6] Nor the pestilence that roams in darkness - Y’hie’l - , nor the plague that ravages at noon - Surie’l -.[7] Though a thousand fall at your side - ? -, ten thousand at your right hand -Tzurie’l-[8], but near you it shall not come -Samae’l-.[9] You will see with your eyes -Gadie’l-; the punishment of the wicked you will see -Azae’l-. You have the Eternal for
(25) my refuge -YHV’H Tzevao’t-; you have made Elyon your stronghold -Y’rav’a’ta’h-. No evil shall befall you -Tzadie’l-, no disease come near your tent - Azkie’l Chazkie’l-. For God commands His angels -Shomrie’l- to guard you in all your ways -Shalhie’l Sartie’l-. In their hands they shall bear you -Malach’ei ha-Shar’t-, lest you strike your foot against a stone -Adonie’l-.[10] You shall tread upon asp and viper -Adrie’l-, trample lion and dragon -Malkie’l-. Whoever clings to me I will deliver him (30)-Avaro’t-[11]; whoever knows my name I will set on high -Ch’ai Ach’t’rie’l-. He who calls upon me I will answer -Y’H Sat’y’va’h-; I will be with him in distress -Metatro’n-; I will deliver him and give him honor -Rachu’m Zeev’tae’l Z’vurie’l-. With length of days I will satisfy him - Chanu’n Rua’ch Piskoni’t-[12] and show him my saving power -B’rachami’m-.[13]

Continue on to pg. 3 - Habdalah of Rabbi Akiba, page 3

[1] Yeah, I know, that’s hardly a felicitous translation. I am open to any more elegant phrasing of v’sh’lach r’tzutzim chofshim.
[2] This is most likely an oblique reference to Abraham (Gen. 18), who rushes out to greet wayfarers who eventually reveal themselves to be angelic messengers. Since the purpose of the Havdalah appears, in part, to be the summoning of angels, this invocation of Abraham’s example serves to remind the heavenly powers that the children of Abraham may expect such visitations on the strength of his merit.
[3] The function of this elaboration on the earlier line is unclear. It may simply be meant as a poetic parallelism (incantations, like poetry, are forms of ‘heightened speech’ and often employ the same techniques). The wedding motif is an allusion to Sinai, where according to the Midrash, angelic forces also were drawn down among the people to help them.
[4] Here begins a recitation of Ps. 91, the classic anti-demonic psalm of Jewish tradition. The unmodified Biblical text already has a lively array of divine titles – Elyon, Shaddai, Elohai, and the Tetragrammaton – but is here further fortified with the frequent, patterned insertion of divine and angelic names.
[5] This name appears in an amulet (Naveh and Shaked, 1993, p. 93).
[6] This name appears in an amulet (Naveh and Shaked, 1998, p. 50)
[7] An ‘angel of the Countenance,’ (T.B. Ber. 51a) He also appears in amulets (Schiffman and Swartz, p. 153)
[8] This name appears in amulets (Ibid., p. 50 and Schiffman and Swartz, p. 123)
[9] T.B. Sukkah 10b
[10] This name appears in an amulet (Schiffman and Swartz, p. 93)
[11] This name appears in an amulet (Naveh and Shaked, 1993, p. 73)
[12]This appears to be a feminine version of ‘Piskon,’ an angelic spirit who defends Israel (See T.B. Sanh. 44b)
[13] Some of these angelic names are familiar to exoteric tradition (Michael, Gabriel, Metatron), others obscure (Y’rav’a’ta’h). A few are hypostatic entities (Chanun - ‘Graciousness, the spirit of Decision’), while others are regarded as ‘severe,’ ‘destructive’ angels or even as demons in other sources (Azael).

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Rod of Aaron, Staff of Moses: Jewish Wondrous Wands

A rod is a symbol of authority in many cultures. Jewish tradition tells of staves endowed with miraculous powers. In the Bible, the staff of Aaron was transformed into a serpent and was the instrument for summoning the first three plagues against Egypt (Ex. 7:17; 8:5; 8:16-17; 9:23; 10:13).

["Shulamit," from Die Bucher der Bibel, by E.M. Lilien]

Aaron’s rod, however, also delivered signs when not in his hands, as when it budded and blossomed overnight as part of a trial by ordeal (Num. 17:8-10). Moses also possessed a rod (Ex.4:20) he used in performing miraculous deeds (Ex. 14:16; 17:9, Num. 20:11).

Later tradition claims all Biblical references to staves (Ps. 89:32 and Is. 10:24, for example) actually allude to a single wondrous rod that was given to Adam, then traveled with the Patriarchs, Prophets, and Kings of Israel across history (Num. R. 18:23; PdRE 40; Sefer Zerubbabel):

the staff with which Jacob crossed the Jordan is identical with that which Judah gave to his daughter-in-law, Tamar (Gen. 32:10, 38:18). It is likewise the holy rod with which Moses worked (Exodus 4:20, 21), with which Aaron performed wonders before Pharaoh (Exodus 7:10), and with which, finally, David slew the giant Goliath (I Sam. 17:40). David left it to his descendants, and the Davidic kings used it as a scepter until the destruction of the Temple, when it miraculously disappeared. When the Messiah comes it will be given to him for a scepter in token of his authority over the heathen (Yalkhut on Ps. 110, as translated in the Jewish Encyclopedia)

This rod, created on the eve of the sixth day (Avot 5.6), was made of either sapphire or almond wood and bore an inscription of the Tetragrammaton as well as an acrostic phrase constructed from the initials for the Ten Plagues (Mid. Teh. 9:1; Pes. 54a). It radiated light from the divine name (Zohar I:9a). Like Excalibur, only the rightful owner could withdraw the rod once it was planted in the ground.

Created at twilight, before the Sabbath, it was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam gave it to Enoch, who gave it to Methuselah; he in turn passed it on to Noah. Noah bequeathed it to his son Shem, who transmitted it to Abraham. From Abraham to Isaac, and then to Jacob, who took it with him to Egypt. Jacob gave it to Joseph; upon Joseph's death all his possessions were removed to Pharaoh's place. Jethro one of Pharaoh's advisers desired it, whereupon he took it and stuck it in the ground in his garden in Midian. From then on no one could pull out the staff until Moses came. He read the Hebrew on the staff, and pulled it out readily. Knowing then that Moses was the redeemer of Israel, Jethro gave him his daughter Zepporah in marriage." (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 40).

Hidden away by either Elijah or King Josiah (MdRI 1; Tosefta Sotah 13a) in time the staff will reappear as a weapon in the hands of Hephzibah, the mother of the Messiah:

”The Lord will give Hephzibah, the mother of Menachem son of Amiel, a staff for acts of salvation,” he said, “A great star will shine before her. All the stars will swerve from their paths.” Hephzibah, the mother of Menachem son of Amiel, will go out and kill two kings whose hearts are set on doing evil: Nof, king of Yemen….Iszinan, king of Antioch….Now the staff that the Lord will give Hephzibah, the mother of the Menachem son of Amiel, is made of almond wood, and it is hidden away in Rakkath…This is the staff the Lord gave Adam and Moses, and Aaron and Joshua and King David…. Hephzibah, the mother of Menachem son of Amiel, will stand at the east gate [of Jerusalem during the eschatological crisis] so that wicked men will not come there….Then Hephzibah, the mother of the Messiah, will come and hand over to him the staff by which the signs were performed (Sefer Zerubbabel, as translated in Rabbinic Fantasies).

It then passes from her to the Messiah ben Joseph and then to the Messiah ben David, who will wield it in end-times struggles (Sefer Zerubbabel; PdRE 40; Yalkut Ps. 110 # 869; Buber Tan., Yaeira 8).

But even out of reach, this awesome rod has power to help Jews in distress. Several Hebrew and Aramaic amulets from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages invoke the authority of Aaron's rod in granting protection to the bearer (Naveh and Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae).

Christianity developed additional magical traditions about this legendary staff (Heb. 9:4), regarding it to be a relic from the Tree of Life and linking it closely to various Biblical figures and finally to Jesus, for whom the staff served as the cross beam of his crucifix (Origen; Book of the Bee).

Recently, s researcher in England claimed that the staff of Moses sits in a British museum. Judge for yourself:
Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050