Sefer ha-Bahir: The Book of Brilliance

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

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The work was written in a form that mirrors that of ancient midrashic style. The book is comprised of brief homiletical para­graphs, each beginning with the name of a speaker or speakers, and each interpreting a biblical verse or pericope with the aid of other scattered verses, following the classical form of the Hebrew homily. The book is traditionally attributed to a master of the Heikhalot Rabbati, Rabbi Nehunia ben ha‑Qanah, because the opening homily of the work (and no other) is reported in his name. Other speakers in­clude some of the most famous Tannaim (such as Rabbi Aqiba), and many sections are attributed to apocryphal rabbis bearing fictional names (such as Rabbi Amora).

The language is mostly Hebrew with an occasional Aramaicism which underlies the conscious attempt by the author to create a tannaitic‑type text. One literary, element employed for this purpose is the frequent use of parables, especially parables centered on an earthly, king of flesh and blood and his royal family, his loyal and disloyal subjects, and his majestic palace (now, of course, lofty symbols for the teeming world of the sefirot).

This literary device is essential for correctly understanding one of the most important among the many new concepts introduced by the Bahir: the conception that the divine world includes both masculine and feminine elements. In many passages the Bahir describes the figure of the Queen, the Bride, the Sister, the Wife, the Daughter, and the Matron who stands at the side of the masculine divine power, usually the King. She is sometimes portrayed in terms very reminiscent of Gnostic terminology: “the daughter of light” who came “from a far away country.”

There is little doubt that this feminine power is usually identified with the shekhinah. This grammatically feminine term was used for nearly a thousand years before the advent of the Bahir, but only as a designation of God in His immanent facet and never as a hypostatized feminine power. The Bahir is the first Jewish mystical work to introduce the idea that sexual and familial symbolism is appropriate for the description of the essence of the divine realm. This sexual motif was to become one of the most central and distinctive themes of the Kabbalah.

Another basic symbol of the Bahir, employed frequently in parables but often independently of them, is the portrayal of the emanated powers [the sefirot] as a living tree. The divine world is portrayed as an enormous phalanx of intertwined limbs, roots, trunks, appendages, leaves, buds, and sprouts. Once again, it appears that this symbol reached the Bahir from a Gnostic source. It is even possible that the biblical term maleh (fullness), so prominently invoked in the Bahir in describing the divine powers, is nothing more than a translation of the Gnostic pleroma [the ideal world]into Hebrew.**

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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.