Sefer ha-Bahir: The Book of Brilliance

An analysis of the content and influences of the earliest work of Kabbalah.

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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).

If this latter supposition is correct, the Bahir must have received its final form only a short time before its appearance in the academies of Provence. There are some connections between the Bahir and the esoteric literature used by the Ashkenazi Hasidim. An ancient book entitled The Great Secret (Raza’ Rabbah) captured the imagination of some of the German Pietists as well as the author of the Bahir. (Scholem published the German Pietist text that includes the quotations from the Raza’ Rabbah in an appendix to his re’shit ha-qabbalah, pp. 195-238.) Both the Pietists and the Bahir were indebted to a collection of obscure commentaries to the Holy Divine Names.* These shared sources may help to clarify, the origins of the Bahir, but it should be noted that none of these sources contain anything even remotely similar to the sefirotic or Gnostic doctrines characteristic of the Bahir.

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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.