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Kabbalah: The Secret Play of the Hebrew Letters

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Kabbalah is the secret meaning of the Torah and as such it employs a unique method of interpretation. A classic Kabbalah text, Sefer ha-Bahir, composes clarifications and reflections on different quotes from the Torah along with sayings by ancient sages. Gimatria, the numerical value of the Hebrew alphabet, is another famous method of extracting or investing meaning; the very nature of Hebrew calls for wordplay. Above all, according to Kabbalistic tradition, God created the world with the Hebrew letters that thus gained for them an ontological status.

Following this tradition, the Bahir interprets biblical verses to create new ideas and symbols that will eventually become part and parcel of the Kabbalistic lore.

Although seemingly unsystematic, the Bahir follows its own logic of association and improvisation.

For instance, a discussion of God’s attributes, “Holy Forms” of mercy and restraint (judgment), leads to the comparison of these traits with gold and silver and next to the reflection on gold:

“Why is [gold] called ZaHaB? Because it includes three attributes. “

The Bahir elaborates on the three letters Z, H and B (pronounced V.)

The letter Z in Hebrew is the first letter of the word male (Zachar), and the Bahir refers to the male attribute of the first six lower sefirot.
The letter Heh is the fifth letter, whose value is five. Here the Bahir brings up the five names of the soul:

Nefesh (Soul), Ruach (Wind-Spirit), Neshama (Breath), Chaya (Vitality), Yechida (Uniqueness).”

Finally, Bet is the sustenance of the entire creation. Bet, the second letter of the alphabet, is the first letter of the Torah. It represents the Sefira of Chokhma (Wisdom), that links God and his creation.

In the following passage, the Bahir takes those three elements and recombines them into a new constellation. As a result, the male is now God, the Bet stands for creation, and the soul is the window that allows us to glimpse our creator.

Another example is when the Bahir discusses the Divine Presence that is manifested through the seven lower Sefirot:

“I have already told you that the Blessed Holy One has seven Holy Forms. All of them have a counterpart in man, as it is written (Genesis 9:6), ‘for in the form of God He made Man.’ It is likewise written (Genesis 1:27), ‘In the form of God He made him, male and female He made them.”

The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (a devout practitioner of kabbalistic meditation from New York) explains that in this passage the human body is considered a counterpart of the structure of the lower Sefirot. Since this structure was originally androgynous, Adam was both male and female. (A quick comparison with traditional interpretations demonstrates the boldness of such interpretation).

The Bahir continues this passage with the parable of a garden, a favorite symbol. Gardening entails the wisdom of creation, and the talk about trees and beautiful fruits leads to the question of the nature of beauty. Beauty, notes the Bahir, resides in all things, but ultimately, it relates to “the Female.” The feminine is of course the seventh Sefira, Malkhut-Kingship, that is also identified as the Divine Presence (Shechinah). Next, however, we find a not exactly “politically correct” discussion of the feminine:

“And why is the female called Nekevah? Because her orifices (Nekev) are wide. Also because she has more orifices than the male. What are they? They are the orifices of the breasts, the womb, and the receptacle.”

Aryeh Kaplan’s explanation ameliorates the situation. Although the word “Nekev” (orifice) refers to a woman in the physical sense, it points to the spiritual orifice of Malkhut-Kingship. It is through this Sefira that we can ascend into the spiritual realm.

The Bahir and Kaplan’s explanations give an ample example to demonstrate the rather playful nature of Kabbalistic reasoning. So much so, that it is sometimes hard to decide whether the meaning preceded the word or perhaps the alphabetic logic dictated the story.

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About michal Schwartz

  • bedy

    Michal Shwartz
    It’s remarkable how you make it possible for the readers of yor articles to ascend the high and sinuous ladder of Kabbala’s mystical knowledge so as to arrive at some of the many Kabbala’s highlights.
    we are grateful