The Shiur Komah: Imaging the Divine

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.