Sefer ha-Bahir: The Book of Brilliance

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

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Many sections of the Bahir are dedicated to an investigation of the evil element in the upper and lower worlds. This kind of emphasis is unusual when compared with the traditional stress given to such considerations in rabbinic literature, and the metaphors for portraying the workings of evil are often quite new. Philosophical notions can be detected in the Bahir’s linkage between matter and evil. In most passages it seems that the evil elements in the universe are no more than divine emissaries: obedient messengers of the divine command. In such a case evil is not an independent force; the messengers are not evil in essence, nor is there an independent divine source of evil in the pleroma. In other sections of the text such an interpretation would run into difficulty, for in these passages it is implied that there are indeed two separate realms, one wholly good and the other entirely evil. Though hints of such a Gnostic and dualist picture are indeed present, the early Kabbalists who studied and commented on the Bahir did not use it to develop a dualistic system. To be sure, Gnostic, dualist theologies do appear in thirteenth‑century Kabbalah, but the dualist theosophists do not follow the symbolism of the Bahir.

The most important new element in the Bahir is the system of ten divine powers [the sefirot], arranged in a specified sequence and studied in great detail. The main discussion of these powers begins in the latter half of the work with the question: “What are these ten utterances [with which the world was created]?” (see Genesis 1 and Mishnah Pirqey Avot 5:1).Then begins a list, some powers passed over quickly, others the object of intense speculation.

A wealth of new symbols are laid forth, to be used by Kabbalists in all subsequent generations. The system described through these symbols provides a glimpse into the divine dynamism, and rules every aspect of the earthly realm. There are important and puzzling differences in the order, symbolism, and function of the sefirot presented in the Bahir and among other thirteenth‑century Kabbalists, but there is not a single Kabbalist who does not reflect—at least to some extent—the basic symbolism of the Bahir.

*See J. Dan, The Esoteric Theology, pp. 74-76 et passim.

**See Scholem, Ursprung und Anfänge, pp. 59-62.


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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.