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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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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.