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Beginning in the 10th century, Jewish mystics and philosophers wrote commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah, a book about the secrets of creation probably written around the third century. At the same time, Jewish mystics compiled works of heikhalot literature, an early corpus of texts focused on mystical ascents to heaven. These endeavors formed the bridge between early Jewish mysticism and its medieval golden era.
Two new mystical movements emerged in the 12th century. The Hasidei Ashkenaz (“the pious ones of Germany”) collected previously written mystical texts and wrote treatises on the supernatural, including astrology and demonology. For the most part, the Hasidei Ashkenaz were associated with a single family, the Kalonymus family.
Meanwhile, kabbalah, the medieval mystical tradition whose practitioners attempted to understand, affect, and communicate with the divine, was being developed in Provence and Northern Spain. Sefer ha-Bahir, a book of unknown authorship,is the most important early kabbalistic work. This book, written in the form of traditional midrashim—rabbinic dialogues and commentaries on the biblical text—introduces a revised theory of the sefirot, the ten attributes of God first mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah. In kabbalah, God as God—the Ein Sof or “the Infinite”—cannot be comprehended by humans. God can only be understood as He reveals himself in the sefirot. The sefirot are dynamic; they interact with each other and can be affected by humans. Indeed, much of the Kabbalah is an attempt to influence and “fix” the sefirot.
The doctrine of the sefirot reached its fullest articulation in the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Torah. The Zohar interprets the Torah symbolically in an attempt to extract secrets about the divine realm. It is also structured like a midrash, is written in Aramaic, and was long attributed to the 2nd-century sage Shimon bar Yohai. The Zohar is now believed to be the work of the 13th-century Spanish Jewish mystic Moses de Leon, or as recent scholars have suggested, the work of a group of mystics including Moses de Leon.
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