Author Archives: Dr Joseph Dan

Dr Joseph Dan

About Dr Joseph Dan

Dr. Joseph Dan, a world-renowned authority on Jewish mysticism, is the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Shiur Komah: Imaging the Divine

The Jewish mystics of the first few centuries CE attempted to simulate the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the divine throne or chariot (merkavah). In the Shiur Komah, the author describes his vision, which is remarkable not for its description of God’s chariot, but God’s body. Traditionally, depicting God in physical terms has been considered heretical, so this description of the divine is both anomalous and puzzling. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Mysticism: Volume I, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.

The most important text‑-from a theological point of view–that has reached us from the mystical literature of the "descenders to the chariot" [as the mystics of this period were known] is the Shiur Komah, "The Measurement of Height," the earliest Hebrew work that deals with the secret of God Himself.

Textual Features

The textual problems involved in the understanding of this text are very serious, and recent work by Martin Cohen allows us to hope that at least some of them can be solved. It seems that the text we have is a combination of two earlier ones, one in which the speaker is [the second-century rabbinic sage] Rabbi Akiva, and one in which the speaker is [another rabbinic sage whose "school" differed from that of Rabbi Akiva in its approach to interpreting the biblical text,] Rabbi Ishmael. It is as if we have a merged version of Hechalot Zutarti and Hechalot Rabbati ["Lesser Palaces" and "Great Palaces," two other texts of merkavah mysticism].

Some liturgical, hymnological, and magical portions are included in our text, and it is not certain whether they belong to the early versions of the work. The importance of the text lies, however, in the detailed description of the Creator that is its central part.

The Limbs of God

The picture of God as presented in the Shiur Komah is a combination of three lists: a list of the limbs of the divine figure-head, crown, beard, eyes, hands, legs, neck, etc.; a list of the measurements of these limbs, given in the Persian unit used also in talmudic texts‑‑parasangs; and a list of the holy, esoteric names of each limb. These are combined into a description of the Creator, called here yotzer bereshit or yotzerenu ("The Creator of Genesis," "our Creator").

The unparalleled, unchecked anthropomorphism [description of God in human terms] that serves as a basis for this text made it one of the most problematic Jewish traditional sources the medieval Jewish rationalists had to explain away, often with great difficulties. The medieval kabbalists, however, found in this text an important source for their mythological symbolism. While the problems that the book raised for later generations are clear enough, it is more difficult to reconstruct its original intent and purpose.

It was Gershom Scholem who first suggested that the Shiur Komah relies on the anthropomorphic verses in the Song of Songs, a fact probably known to some medieval mystics. Saul Lieberman further strengthened this view with a detailed comparison to other sources. The text is, therefore, an elaboration of these verses, enlarging the list of limbs and adding to them their mystical names and their measurements.

The Indecipherable Names of God

The names in the Shiur Komah are almost completely esoteric, groups of letters obviously never intended to be pronounced, some of them including seventy letters and more. Some are groups of consonants, especially those not commonly combined in the Hebrew language. Others include only vowels, especially various combinations of the letters in which the Tetragrammaton [the four letter name of God, often represented as YHVH] is written. Only a few are recognizable as names.

Even taking into consideration the corruption brought about by the long period of transmission and copying of these lists, one has to conclude that these names were not intended to clarify and explain, but rather to mystify and to conceal. When reading the Song ofSongs’ verses, one may get the impression that the image of God is simple and clear; after reading the list of names, however, the reader is completely confused and mystified.

God’s Size

It is the same with the measurements, the most disturbing anthropomorphic element in the treatise. The author, however, explains the units he used. The elementary unit is ten million parasangs (eleph revavot). Each parasang included three miles; each mile, two thousand "feet" (amot). Each foot included three "fingers" (zeratot). Thus the basic unit is 180,000,000,000 "fingers."

Each finger, says the author, is not the human one, but the divine one, by which the heavens were built, and its length is from one end of the world to the other. As each limb is measured in thousands of these basic units, it is quite clear that the picture presented in this text is not a simple anthropomorphic one, one that can be gleaned from the verses of the Song ofSongs, but an attempt to mystify the reader and prove to him that the "measurements of the height" of God are far beyond the reach of human imagination, and that any comparison between a human hand and a divine one is completely impossible.

Paradoxically enough, we have here an attempt at anti-anthropomorphic writing, at least when compared to the simple understanding of the Song of Songs as a divine autoportrait. It is possible that this work includes a polemical refutation of earlier views of Jewish mystics whose concept of God was simpler and more anthropomorphic.


The Creator described in the Shiur Komah is the figure sitting on the throne of glory in the seventh palace to which the mystics ascend in the long process described in the other texts of this group of mystics.

The treatise even emphasizes that the knowledge of the secrets included in it carries a meaningful religious reward. Anyone who studies this text and knows it, declares Rabbi Ishmael, and relies on the support of Rabbi Akiva, will be happy in this world and live a long life, and will inherit the next world. Such a religious prize for esoteric knowledge is rare in ancient Jewish culture.

The Shiur Komah is a problematic book, and many questions need more study. It is clear, however, that the descenders to the chariot not only created a system of active mystical ascent, a via mystica, but also produced the earliest mystical theology and a description of God Himself, as viewed and understood by them. The Shiur Komah is the only remnant we have of the variegated creative activity of this circle in the field of theology.

Sefer ha-Bahir: The Book of Brilliance

In the following article, the author refers to the relationship between Kabbalah and Gnostic symbolism. Gnosticism was an ancient theology that included mythological speculations into the nature of God. It posited the existence of two primary forces, one good and one evil. Gershom Scholem believed that Gnosticism greatly influenced the emergence of Jewish mysticism. The following is reprinted with permission from The Early Kabbalah, edited by Joseph Dan and published by Paulist Press.

One of the earliest and most important discoveries of Gershom Scholem, the great and pioneering scholar of the field of Jewish mysticism, was the identification of the Sefer ha‑Bahir (Book of Brilliance) as the earliest disseminated text of Kabbalistic thought, the first to utilize the symbolism of the dynamic and emanated sefirot. Previous scholarship had given priority to a variety of other and much later Kabbalistic works, but thanks to Scholem we are now reasonably able to establish the sequence of the Kabbalistic texts of the thirteenth century and to systematically develop a history of Kabbalah.


But while the basic problem of sequence has been solved, a myriad of questions remains; and the Bahir despite its name, is far from being clear to us. No satisfactory explanation has yet to be proposed for the appearance or even the sources of the Gnostic symbols in the Bahir. Furthermore, the literary structure of the book is both a hodgepodge and a mystery: one scholar has even suggested that at some early point in the transmission of the text individual pages of the Bahir were scattered in the wind and reassembled in an incorrect order.

Still, some of the sources of the Bahir can be identified. The Sefer Yetzirah and the traditions of the heikhalot and merkavah literature were undoubtedly the main sources from which the unknown author lifted terminology, and imagery. But medieval sources also had some impact. The author’s use of the terms tohu and bohu (the “unformed” and “void” of Genesis 1:2) to denote Aristotelian matter and form is derived from a twelfth‑century philosophical treatise by Rabbi Abraham bar Hiyya (Sefer Hegyon ha-Nefesh, ed. G. Wigoder, Jerusalem, 1969). It is possible that the author of the Bahir knew of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra’s theory of the kavod as described in the latter’s commentary to Exodus 33 (Sections 128-129 of the Sefer ha-Bahir display awareness of Ibn Ezra’s terminology).

The Gerona Circle of Kabbalah

Reprinted with permission from The Early Kabbalah, edited by Joseph Dan and published by Paulist Press.

The largest body of Kabbalistic works from the pre‑Zoharic period derives from a circle of Kabbalists writing in Gerona,* a small town in Catalonia near Barcelona.

The center of the Kabbalah in Gerona was established by the disciples of Rabbi Isaac the Blind, especially two great writers: the elder Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon and his younger colleague Rabbi Azriel. In later generations these two pioneering Spanish mystics were often confused with each other (no doubt because of the similarity of their names) or with their compatriots, but thanks to the studies of [Gershom] Scholem and [Isaiah] Tishby we are now able to establish their unique tendencies and theological perspectives. For example, Ezra’s commentary to the Song of Songs has for years been attributed to the great Geronese Bible commentator and fellow Kabbalist Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides, 1195‑1270)—a recent edition of Nahmanides’ corpus still includes this commentary—but both stylistic and theological features bear the unmistakable mark of Azriel’s Kabbalah.

These two mystics and their later Geronese disciples laid the foundation for all future Kabbalistic speculation. Much of the terminology and basic ideas that prevailed in the Kabbalah during the next seven centuries was formulated in Gerona, and despite enormous metamorphoses in Kabbalistic thought, the legacy of Gerona survived intact. In their own way, the mystics of Gerona turned the heretofore cloistered and peripheral Kabbalah into an active spiritual and intellectual force within medieval Jewish culture.

That these Gerona mystics, particularly Rabbis Ezra and Azriel, wrote Kabbalistic books was not universally regarded as a positive development among other Kabbalistic esotericists. Rabbi Isaac the Blind sent an angry missive to Gerona, demanding that Kabbalistic theories be kept secret and protected from the public forum. He forbade the dissemination of exoteric compositions of Kabbalah because, as he wrote, “a book which is written cannot be hidden in a cupboard.” The dean of the Provencal Kabbalists declined an invitation to visit Gerona, sending instead his nephew, Rabbi Asher ben David, in order to instruct the circle in Gerona as to the proper modes of mystical speculation. (Rabbi Isaac the Blind’s epistle was published by Scholem in Sefer Bialik, Tel Aviv, 1934, pp. 141-162.)

This admonition concerning the nature of Kabbalistic creativity had important consequences for the younger generation of budding Geronese Kabbalists. It seems that after receiving Rabbi Isaac’s letter, the Spanish Kabbalists decided not to write Kabbalistic works any more and to hide—at least to some extent—the full meaning of their mystical worldview. Some of them, like Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, composed ethical works based on Talmudic and Midrashic homilies, totally lacking in Kabbalistic symbolism. Nahmanides inserted into his non‑Kabbalistic Bible commentary a number of esoteric passages, “according to the true path” (al pi derekh ha‑emet), which contained veiled and guarded Kabbalistic allusions that are not obvious in the least. Again, Rabbi Jacob ben Sheshet one of the important leaders of this circle, wrote an ethical treatise entitled Sefer ha‑Emunah ve‑ha‑Bittahon (Faith and Trust) and an anti‑Maimonidean critique entitled Meshiv Devarim Nekhohim (Reply of Correct Statements). In neither work does Kabbalah or Kabbalistic symbolism loom prominently.**

But the most important Kabbalistic works of this circle were written by Rabbi Azriel, probably before Rabbi Isaac’s letter ever reached Gerona. (In fact, it may well be that Rabbi Azriel’s prodigious literary output was the cause of Rabbi Isaac’s admonition.) Rabbi Azriel’s works represent an important step in the systematization of Kabbalistic symbolism and its application to various aspects of Jewish religious life. Rabbi Azriel, like other Gerona Kabbalists, was well educated in philosophy, and it is due to his mastery of that subject that many philosophical terms were incorporated into the Kabbalah. These often scholastic and unemotional terms became powerful and cherished symbols of an inner spiritual quest, laden with new layers of mystical significance. Some of the most profound and penetrating expressions of pre‑Zoharic Kabbalah are to be found in Rabbi Azriel’s harmonious blend of philosophy and mysticism as found in his commentary to Talmudic legends and his shorter thematic treatises. (Rabbi Azriel’s Perush ha-Aggadot was edited by I. Tishby and published in 1943 and reprinted in 1983.)

*On the Gerona circle, see G. Scholem, Ursprung und Anfänge, pp. 324-407; and his Kabbalah, pp. 48-52. Finally, see his Hebrew book on the subject, ha-Qabbalah be-Gerona, ed. J. Ben-Shlomo (Jerusalem, 1964).

**The relationship between mysticism and ethics in the work of the Gerona Kabbalists is presented in detail by J. Dan, Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics.