The Shiur Komah: Imaging the Divine

A text's physical description of God might actually have been intended to emphasize God's indescribability.

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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.

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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.