AS a preliminary to the translation of the great Kabbalistic work, “The Sepher Zohar, or Book of Light,” we purpose to sketch in brief outline the history of its origin, the nature and purpose of its doctrines and teachings, as also the great influence of its philosophy which is reflected in the writings of Albert the Great, Reuchlin, Raymond Lully, Boehmen, More the Platonist, Spinoza, Balzac, and many others whose names are famous in the annals of literature and learning. To the readers of the late Madame Blavatsky’s works, “Isis Unveiled” and “The Secret Doctrine,” this will doubtless prove acceptable and enable them to understand and comprehend those parts in which she has incorporated the philosophy respecting the Sephiroth and shown its close similarity in many of its aspects with Eastern teachings. There is scarcely a page in which some reference to it is not found, with Hebrew words, the explanation of which would have enhanced the value of the above works and added to the enjoyment and edification of theosophical students in general. To supply this desideratum it will be necessary to give details respecting Kabbalah of which the Zohar is justly considered to be the prolific fountain from which has flowed that stream of occult philosophy that has entered so largely as an element in the teachings of mystics of ancient and modern times.
The ancient Jews were not different from other nations in having occult schools and institutions in which secret doctrines were inculcated and imparted to neophytes, or the sons of the prophets, as they are termed in the Bible. These teachings were twofold in their nature and character, and denominated Beresith, or the science of the natural world; also Mercaba, which had relation to heavenly or spiritual science, and which was esteemed and regarded as most sacred and never to be revealed except to initiates, and then only orally, as amongst the ancient Druids. That which was received was termed “Kabbalah,” a Hebrew word, signifying reception, or, rather, what is received and handed on to others in short aphorisms and mnemonical words, the meaning of which could only be deciphered and comprehended by those who had successfully passed through a long course of esoteric studies. For instance, A D M, or Adam, taught that the soul of Adam the first was incarnated in David the King and will eventually appear in the form of the Messiah. It is said that Kabbalah first originated after the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden, and was communicated to him by the angel Raziel in order that he might be better able, through attending to its teachings, to regain his lost estate. The common tradition and most generally accepted is that Moses himself was the real author of Kabbalah, having received it during his residence of forty days and nights on Mount Sinai. After his descent therefrom he imparted it to Aaron, who in turn handed it on to his sons, through whom it was given to the seventy elders of the children of Israel and coadjutors of Moses in juridical government and polity. Through the judges, especially the prophet Samuel, it was delivered to David and Solomon, the latter becoming renowned throughout the East for his extensive and profound knowledge of Kabbalah, by which he was able to perform marvelous things and acquire control over all beings, demons, spirits of the air, fire and water, and make them his obedient and subservient ministers.
During the reigns of the various kings of Israel and Judah we gather that this Kabbalah was widely taught and studied in the schools or colleges of the prophets, presided over by hierophants, of whom Elijah and Elisha were remarkable examples, and distinguished not only by their loftiness of character, but also for their knowledge and manipulation of nature’s occult forces and powers, by which they stand out boldly and prominently in Jewish history. These occult societies were generally distinguished by the wearing of some special badge or emblem indicative of the peculiar occultism of which they were the professed followers and adherents, such as a raven or hawk, eagle or dove, a lion, a wolf, an ox or a Iamb. Their members, whenever sent out on any benevolent expedition or political mission, always went in couples, similar to the rule of custom in vogue at the present time with monks and nuns in the Roman Catholic community. From this fact we obtain a satisfactory and rational explanation of the extraordinary and miraculous feeding of Elijah by two ravens, who brought him in his place of retirement and concealment bread and meat for his daily sustenance. Instead of two birds noted for their thievish propensities, we see how two members of an occult school, who were perfectly acquainted with the whereabouts of Elijah, and so ministered to the bodily wants and necessities of their great hierophant. It is also related of Alexander the Great, on his entering into one of the chief cities of Egypt, that he was welcomed by twelve doves at the head of a large procession of the citizens, and who greeted his presence with some remarkable signs of congratulation, the strangeness of which vanishes and disappears when we recognize in these doves members of some occult institution held in veneration by the general populace, and thus qualified to be the exponents of their good wishes and feelings toward the conquering Alexander. The Babylonian captivity brought the Jews into immediate contact with Chaldean and Persian philosophy, which introduced a great change in their speculative ideas of the creation and divine government of the world, Chaldean magic and occult science became objects of deep interest and study, and ultimately resulted in the formation of new societies and sodalities, in which secret rites and ceremonies were performed and celebrated. All knowledge of their teachings was jealously guarded, and their members were bound by the most solemn oaths not to divulge or reveal them to the profane or common people. These esoteric schools abounded throughout the East, especially in parts of Arabia and adjacent countries.
And now we enter into the historic domain and gather from the pages of Philo Judaeus, a famed Jewish mystic and philosopher, who in his treatise on the advantages accruing from a contemplative life makes mention and reference to the Essenes and gives a somewhat full account of their methods and objects of study. They lived an ascetic life, and at stated intervals indulged in meditation after reading portions of sacred hooks or writings entrusted to them. At other times they assembled in solemn conclave for interchange of thoughts and ideas which had come to them in the seclusion and silence of their cells. “They spoke slowly and with deliberation,” says Philo, “regarding eloquence not so much as clearness in expression of ideas. They frequently repeated themselves in order that their sayings might become engraved on the minds of their auditors. In the interpretation of Scripture they indulged greatly in the use of allegories, as the law appeared to them like a living being. The physical body was the letters and words; the soul was the invisible spirit hidden within them, a spirit by which the student, guided and led by reason, begins searching after those things which are of importance to him; discovering most wondrous and beautiful thoughts under the form that envelops them; rejecting mere outward symbols in order to lead the mind to the light and for the use and advantage of those who, with a little aid, are able to perceive truths and things invisible by means of and through things visible.” They fully recognized that the spiritual world was no remote region in the universe, but was surrounding them and not very far away from them. For them there existed no broad deep gulf, no solid wall or partition between the natural and spiritual worlds, no insuperable and impenetrable barrier between them and the spirits of great and good men made perfect and who had once been teachers to nations. If differences there was between them, it was one of state and condition, and this they endeavored to mitigate and obviate by purity of life and thought, esteeming no self-denial too great, no sacrifice too transcendant or comparable to the enjoyment of spirit intercourse and instruction, resulting in the subjugation of their lower nature, and so clarifying their minds that they became luminous mirrors in which were reflected the secrets of the universe. This was their philosophy as expressed by an old Arabian sago. “When my soul,” said he, “shall become in harmony with the divine life, then will it be a reflection of nature’s great and secret truths.”
Such is the general description of these occult schools or lodges widely prevalent in the East, and which continued to exist to the time of Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, the great Kabbalist and reputed author of “The Zohar, or The Book of Light,” whose name is held in reverence and esteem by all true students of occult philosophy. His biography, though short, is not uninteresting in its character and details. He lived and taught in the reign of Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, when the Jewish nation was subject to much hardship and persecution and their Rabbis or recognized teachers labored under grievous disabilities, being prohibited from giving instructions to their students, a restriction which Rabbi Simeon had the singular boldness and courage to ignore and disregard, and thus incurred the anger and displeasure of the Roman rulers. He had to flee for his life and conceal himself in an unknown and solitary abode. He had been holding a discussion in one of the synagogues with Jehuda ben Illai and Jose ben Halefta, two famous Rabbis, on the comparative character of Jewish and Roman manners. Jehuda commenced his discourse with an eloquent eulogium on the Romans as the greatest promoters of the material convenience and civilization of the people they governed, instancing their public works, architecture, and the patronage they gave to the useful arts. When Rabbi Jose’s turn came to speak he exhibited the cautiousness which had given him the surname of “The Prudent,” and observed an impressive silence. The discretion of his colleagues was, however, lost upon Simeon, whose animosity to the Romans for the harshness and cruelty exhibited toward his brethren vented itself in a fiery invective against the oppressors, which, becoming the topic of public conversation, aroused and excited the displeasure of the civil authorities. He, along with the above Rabbis, was summoned to appear before the magistrates. The silence of Rabbi Jose was deemed a sufficient ground for banishment to Sepphoris; Rabbi Jehuda was allowed to exercise the office of a preacher in the synagogue; but Rabbi Simeon was condemned to death, a sentence which he evaded and escaped by immediate and timely flight, accompanied by his son Eliezar. For several years he remained in seclusion and lived as a hermit in a cavern, engaged in the development of Kabbalistic science as embodied in the Book of Zohar. After the death of the Emperor Antoninus he left his place of concealment and reappeared as the founder of a school in Tekoa, a town in Palestine. About three hundred of his sayings are recorded in the Talmud. The whole of his life was absorbed and spent in the study of Kabbalah, in which science he was and still is regarded as one of its most eminent masters. He lived in a world of his own, in a region beyond the bounds of ordinary nature. Students and learned Rabbis from all parts flocked to him and enrolled themselves as members of his school, in which subjects of the highest philosophy were discussed. Instructions by great teachers, such as Moses, who in the Zohar is styled The Faithful Shepherd, and the great prophet Elijah, who in luminous and resplendent forms appeared in their midst, were imparted on matters and subjects of the most abstruse and occult character, and which were recorded in secret writing by students deputed and chosen for that object. There is an affecting account of his death given by one of his students in the “Idra Seta, or “Lesser Assembly,” one of the appendices to the Zohar. As a teacher he had lived and as a teacher he died, surrounded by scholars who loved him dearly. “Mercy,” he was saying, “hath ascended unto the Holy of Holies, for there Adonai hath commanded his blessing forevermore, even life everlasting.” There was a sudden pause. His head fell slowly on his breast. Intently gazing upon him, they listened in deep silence for further words, but no words came from those lips that had been so eloquent in speech. They were his last words, and not inappropriate as a finale to a life like his. Suddenly a strange supernatural light surrounded the house. “At that moment,” says Rabbi the Scribe, “I heard a voice, which said: ‘Before thee are countless days of blessedness,’ and then another, saying: ‘He asked life of thee and thou gayest him the years of eternity.’ Throughout all that day the flame continued around the house, and no man entered or went forth. I lay weeping and sobbing on the ground. At length the fire departed, and I perceived that the soul of him who was the Light of Israel had departed also. His corpse was reclining on the right side, and a smile was on his face. Eliezar, his son, took his hands and kissed them. We could find no utterance for our grief till tears began to flow. Three times his son fell down in speechless sorrow. At length the power of utterance came to him, and he cried, ‘Father! Father!’ As the funeral procession moved toward the grave a light revealed itself in the air, and a voice was heard exclaiming: ‘Come! Gather yourselves together to the marriage feast of Simeon.’”
Ere entering upon the analysis of the Zohar and its con-tents, we would premise that the Kabbalists teach that the Divine Being has expressly committed his mysteries to certain chosen individuals, who in their turn handed down to others who proved themselves worthy recipients of them. These mysteries relating to man’s spiritual existence and guidance are concealed in parts of the Holy Scriptures, the interpretation of which is the province of Kabbalah. To understand these mysteries the student will find it necessary to acquaint himself with the metaphysical principles as laid down in the earliest writings and documents of this science, as in later times professors of Kabbalah have incorporated with it many of their own ideas and philosophic doctrines culled from Greek and Arabian sources.
Kabbalah as a constituted science or system of Theosophy is divided into two separate sections, The Theological and The practical; this dealing with the visible creation and termed Bernhik; that dealing with the spiritual world and the attributes and perfection of the Divine Being is denominated the Mercaba, or the chariot throne, with its attendant angels, as seen and described in the opening chapters of the Book of Ezekiel the Prophet.
The doctrines of Creation are succinctly outlined in the “Sepher Yitsira, or Book of Creation,” the imputed author of which is said to be no less a personage than Abraham the Patriarch himself. As this work, with a translation of its contents, will form a subject of future consideration, we shall confine our remarks to the no less important Kabbalistic work, The Zohar.
In order that our readers may obtain a clearer idea of the philosophy of this strange and remarkably interesting book, it will perhaps not be out of place to lay down or touch upon a few of the fundamental axioms which more or less form the basis of systems of philosophy, ancient or modern, Eastern or Western, and especially in Kabbalah; such as “From out of nothing, nothing can proceed; therefore no substance that now exists has been produced from nothing, and whatever exists is in one sense untreated. All existing substances are emanations from one eternal substance.” In the act of what is commonly termed creation the eternal Being drew from himself; consequently there is no such thing as matter in our sense of the word. Whatever we call matter is only another form or species under which the spirit comes into manifestation. Therefore the universe is a realization of the Infinite, an immanent effect of his ever-active power and presence. Though all existence flows front the divine, yet is the world different from the Godhead, as the effect is different from the cause. Nevertheless, as not separate, but abiding immanently in him, creation is evermore the manifestation of himself. The world is the mantle with which he clothes himself, or, rather, it is a revelation of the Godhead, not in his hidden essence, but in his visible glory. In giving existence to the universe the first act of the almighty was the production of a power and principle intimately and specially related to himself, to which are given the names of his holy spirit, his personal world, his first-begotten son and which the Kabbalists in general personify and term Adam Kadmon, or the archetypal Man, and who in turn caused to proceed from emanations from himself all the lower forms of actual existence in their several descending series and gradations.
According to Kabbalists, God is the author of the letters. Spirit is a revelation of thought and the form in which intellect or mind pronounces itself most distinctly. Letters are the organic elements of speech, and therefore he who taught man language or who made him, as one of the Targums expresses it, “ruach mamelella,” a speaking spirit, must have been the author of the letters of the primeval language. The first ten numbers and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, considered analogically as types of divine operation, are denominated the thirty-two paths of wisdom of which the almighty created the universe. “The works of God,” says the author of “Cosri,” another famous Kabbalistic work, “are the writing of Him whose writing is his Word, and whose word is his thought, so that the words, work and thought of God are one, though they seem to man to be three.” As in the universe harmony reigns in manifoldness, so the letters and numbers constitute a system which has its centre and hierarchy. The unit predominates over the three. The three rules over the seven; the seven over the twelve. The centre of the universe is the celestial dragon. The circuit of the zodiac is the basis of the year. The heart is the centre in man. The first is elevated in the world like a king upon his throne. In the seven organs of the body there is a kind of opposition which sets the one against the other as in battle array. Three promote love, three engender hatred. Three bestow life, three lead to dissolution, and one cannot be apprehended by the mind without the other. Over the whole of this triple system, over man, the world and time, over numbers, letters and sephiroth, the only true king, the one God rules forever and ever. Such are the chief fundamental ideas which permeate the whole texture of the Zohar, which, as we have observed, forms the standard and code of Kabbalistic philosophy. The body of the books takes the form of a commentary extending over the five books of Moses, viz.: the Book of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and is of a highly mystical and allegorical character, and which was the most general and favored method of teaching and imparting instruction in Eastern countries. In addition to these, there are eighteen supplementary portions, viz.:
1. Siphra Dzeniutha, The Book of Mysteries.
2. Idra Rabba, The Great Assembly, referring to the school or college of Rabbi Simeon’s students in their conferences for Kabbalistic discussion.
3. Idra Seta, The Lesser Assembly, of the few disciples that that remained for the same purpose toward the end of their master’s life or after his decease.
4. Sabba, The Aged Man.
5. Midrash Ruth, a mystical exposition of The Book of Ruth.
6. Seper Ha Bahia, The Book of Clear Light.