Author Archives: Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

About Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a widely published and eminent scholar of Judaism, and is currently Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

The Mystics of Safed

Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

A Mystic and Medium

Another major mystical figure of the early modern period was Joseph Caro who emigrated to Turkey after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In 1536 he left for Safed in Palestine where he served as the head of a large academy. The author of a major compendium of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, Caro joined a circle of Safed mystics.

Believing himself to be the recipient of a heavenly mentor (maggid), Caro identified this maggid with the soul of the Mishnah as well as the Shekhinah [the immanent presence of God]. According to Solomon Alkabetz [another Safed kabbalist and the author of the Lecha Dodi prayer], the revelations of the maggid took the form of utterances through Caro to the circle of mystics. In a letter Alkabetz wrote:

“No sooner had we studied two tractates of the Mishnah than our Creator smote us so that we heard a voice speaking out of the mouth of the saint (Caro), may his light shine. It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. All the companions heard the voice but were unable to understand what was said. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong. We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him because of our great dread and awe. The voice began to address us saying: ‘Friends, choicest of the choice, peace to you, beloved companions. Happy are you and happy those that bore you. Happy are you in this world and happy in the next that you resolve to adorn me on this night. For these many years had my head fallen with none to comfort me. I was cast down to the ground to embrace the dunghills but now you have restored the crown to its former place…Behold I am the Mishnah,the mother who chastises her children and I have come to converse with you.'”

Divine Emanations

Another important mystic of Safed was Moses Cordovero, who collected, organized and interpreted the teachings of early mystical authors. His work constitutes a systematic summary of the kabbalah up to his time, and in his most important treatise, Pardes, he outlined the Zoharic concepts of the Godhead [i.e. those from the Zohar, the masterful Spanish work of kabbalah], the sefirot [the ten divine, dynamic attributes], the celestial powers and the earthly processes. According to Cordovero, God is a transcendent being‑‑he is the First Cause with necessary being, different from the rest of creation.

Creation Mysticism: Fashioning the World From Letters

Sefer Yetsirah (The Book of Creation), is a short but enormously influential book of Jewish mysticism. It describes God’s creation of the world through the manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet and ten numbers or sefirot. The following article includes excerpts from Sefer Yetsirah. How are we to understand a text that describes a world emerging from an alphabet? There is no simple answer to this question, but at the very least, we can appreciate the power these mystics attributed to the Hebrew language and the interest they had in re-imaging the creation story of Genesis. The following is reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

Closely associated with speculation about the Merkavah [the divine throne] were mystical theories about creation (Ma’aseh Bereshit). Within aggadic sources [rabbinic narrative legend] the rabbis discussed the hidden meanings of the Genesis narrative. The most important early treatise, possibly from the second century AD, which describes the process of creation is The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetsirah). According to this cosmological text, God created the universe by 32 mysterious paths consisting of 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet together with ten sefirot [ten primordial numbers/powers, associated with the attributes of God]. Of these 22 letters we read:

creation mysticism“He drew them, hewed them, combined them, weighed them, interchanged them, and through them produced the whole creation and everything that is destined to come into being.”

The Sefer Yetsirah asserts that all of these letters play an important role in the creation of the cosmos:

“By means of the twenty two letters, by giving them a form and shape, by mixing them and combining them in different ways, God made the soul of all that which has been created and all of that which will be. It is upon these same letters that the Holy One (blessed be he) has founded his high and holy name.”

The letters are of three types: mothers, doubles and singles. The mothers (aleph, mem, shin) symbolize the three primordial elements of all existing things: water (the first letter of which is mem in Hebrew) is symbolized by mem; fire (of which shin is the most prominent sound) is represented by shin; air (the first letter of which is aleph) is designated by aleph. The year also consists of three parts related to these elements: summer is linked with the element fire; winter with water, and spring to air. Further these three mothers represent in the microcosm (the human form) the head, the belly and the chest–the head from fire, the belly from water, and the chest from the air that is in between.

Mystical Explanations for the Existence of Evil

In the following article, the authors discuss various mystical explanations for the existence of evil. All the explanations relate in some way to the sefirot, the ten attributes of God. The sefirot are essentially dynamic; thus the authors can discuss one sefirah separating from another. Indeed, the sefirot are constantly interacting with each other and with humanity. Human sin engenders fragmentation in the world of the sefirot, which can have a negative impact on the human world. Conversely, positive human activity encourages unity in the sefirot, which, in turn, positively affects the human world. The following is reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

For the kabbalists [the medieval mystics] the existence of evil was a central issue. According to one tradition evil has no objective reality—human beings are unable to receive all of the influx from the sefirot [the emanations/attributes of God], and it is this inability which is the origin of evil. Created beings are therefore estranged from the source of emanation and this results in the illusion that evil exists.

evil fireAnother view, as propounded in the Bahir [the earliest kabbalistic work], depicts the sefirah of power as an attribute “whose name is evil.” On the basis of such a teaching Isaac the Blind [13th century] concluded that there must be a positive root of evil and death [i.e. evil does not arise from the inability of humans to receive the emanations of the sefirot]. Following this view, most kabbalists believed that evil is “the other side” (Sitra Ahra) which is opposed to divine abundance and grace. According to some kabbalists, the Sitra Ahra should be conceived of as counter‑sefirot, a realm of dark, unclean powers opposed to holiness and goodness. Thus the Zohar [the most important kabbalistic text] states:

“At the beginning of the night, when darkness falls, all the evil spirits and powers scatter abroad and roam about the world, and the ‘other side’ sets forth and inquires the way to the King from all the holy sides. As soon as the ‘other side’ is roused to this activity here below, all human beings experience a foretaste of death in the midst of their sleep. As soon as the impure power separates itself from the realm above and descends to begin its rule here below, three groups of angels are formed who praise the Holy One in three night watches, one following another, as the companions have pointed out. But whilst these sing hymns of praise to the Holy One, the ‘other side,’ as we have said, roam about here below, even into the uttermost parts of the earth. Until the ‘other side’ has thus departed from the upper sphere, the angels of light cannot unite themselves with their Lord.”