Sefer ha-Bahir: The Book of Brilliance

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

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.

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.**

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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