Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kabbalistic Curiosities: Wheel of Lights

The title of this post refers to a well-known image from Sefer Emek ha-Melech (The Book of the Valley of the King) by Naftali Bacharach (published in Amsterdam in 1648). The illustration depicts a “Wheel of Lights” comprised of the ten Sefirot. Before we analyse this remarkable illustration, we should look at the life of its equally remarkable originator, whose work comprises particularly detailed descriptions of Lurianic Kabbalah gleaned from the writings of Chaim Vital and Israel Sarug, perhaps the two greatest disciples of Isaac Luria.
Now, beyond the fact that our author was born in Frankfurt, we don’t have any details about his date of birth or of his death for that matter. We are informed that he studied Kabbalah in Poland for several years, after which — on his return to his home town — he wrote his Emek ha-Melech. This text, based as said on the writings of Chaim Vital and especially on Israel Sarug's Limmudei Atzilut, had an enormous impact on Kabbalists, but it also elicited outrage and widespread condemnation. Chayim ha-Kohen of Aleppo, a pupil of Chaim Vital, objected in the strongest terms to the claim that Bacharach’s work represents the true realisation of the teachings of Isaac Luria. Others complained that Bacharach plagiarised the writings of other authors, including virtually the entire mentioned text of Sarug in his own work, without any acknowledgment of the original authors. One complainant, Moses Chagiz, renamed Emek ha-Melech calling it Emek ha-Bacha (Valley of Tears).
It would seem Bacharach was constantly embroiled in controversy. His claims that he acquired his sources of Lurianic Kabbalah during the period in which he resided in Israel turned out to be false, since it is clear that he never went to Israel at all. He ended up in a rather heated dispute with Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, claiming that when the latter was his pupil (another questionable claim) Delmedigo had appropriated manuscripts belonging to Bacharach, and had then published them in his Ta’alumot Chochmah and Novelot Chochmah. Interestingly enough, the real facts of the matter would proof the opposite, and like in the case of the earlier mentioned authors, it was discovered that it was actually Bacharach who appropriated Delmedigo’s work.
Naphtali Bacharach focussed specifically on demonology and the concept of the “sitra achara” (the “other side” or realm of evil) in his writings, and whilst his exposition of the Lurianic doctrine of tzimtzum (primordial contraction) differs totally from the same expounded by Chaim Vital, his “Book of the Valley of the King” had a vast impact on post-Lurianic Kabbalah, influencing the Gaon Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna, the Kabbalistic teachings of Chabad Chasidism, and even Shabbatean literature. The famous Moses Chaim Luzzatto was himself influenced by Bacharach’s Emek ha-Melech, and one wonders what went through his mind when Isaiah Bassan complained that the translation into Latin and inclusion of large sections of Bacharach’s text in the Kabbalah Denudata of Knorr von Rosenroth “were among the important causes of prolonging the exile.” Finally Chaim Joseph David Azulai, the great 18th century Kabbalist, informs us “I have heard that no genuine writings got into his (Bacharach’s) hands..... therefore the initiated refrain from reading either it or the Novelot Chochmah.”
Gershom Scholem called Naftali Bacharach “a fanatical Kabbalist” whose enthusiastic interests pertained more to “Practical Kabbalah,” rather than the speculative and philosophical aspects of our great Tradition. Bacharach did not only draw from Lurianic sources, but also from the writings of the early Kabbalists, an important factor which we should keep in mind when it comes to scrutinising his “wheel of lights” illustration, to which we now turn our attention. A translation by Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz of the Hebrew inscriptions appeared some decades ago in “A Big Jewish Book.” As this translation is not in the least satisfactory and following the idiosyncratic style of the “artistic” 1970's, this translation can be misleading. I have thus decided to offer a somewhat different version here, simultaneously acknowledging the fact that any translation of the Hebrew text is difficult. Amongst the terms Naftali Bacharach used to describe the different aspects of Light are “Zohar,” “Bahir” and “Nogah.” All could be translated “brilliance” or “brightness,” yet we know very well that each term describes quite a different quality of light, and the term Nogah also refers to the “morning star,” “morning light” and the planet “Venus.”
English simply does not provide the vocabulary to allow for an exact translation of the different grades of light expressed in Hebrew. Hence we end up with the Sefer ha-Zohar and the Sefer ha-Bahir being respectively translated “Book of Splendour” and “Book of Brilliance,” knowing that the term “splendour” is more accurately rendered Hod in Hebrew. Attempting to deal with this problem in the best possible manner, I have selected to follow the model of Aryeh Kaplan who, in his "Meditation and Kabbalah" and taking his cue from the fourth part of Sha'arei Kedusha, translated the different grades of light as follows: Now, let us read, translate and investigate the “Wheel of Lights” illustration: Starting upper left on the outer circle and reading anticlockwise around the circle, it reads:
“And going around (circling) the ten Sefirot of the sphere, and circle the eternity (‘forever,’ also ‘universe’ or ‘world’) of primordial space.”
Commencing in turn with Keter (Crown) positioned upper left at the very end of the first word of the outer circle, the inner spokes, read:
1. Crown (Keter) “Light of (from) Light — Marvelous Light (could also be ‘wondrous,’ ‘miraculous’ and ‘incomprehensible’)
2. Wisdom (Chochmah) “Radiance of Radiance — Concealed Light (also ‘hidden’ and ‘mysterious’)”
3. Understanding (Binah) “Sparkle of Sparkle (also ‘glistening’) — Sparkling Light”
4. Greatness (Gedulah) “Radiance of Radiance — Clear Light”
5. Strength (Gevurah) (also “Might”) “Light of Radiance — of Glistening Light (also ‘flashing’)”
6. Beauty (Tiferet) “Sparkle of Light — Shining Light”
7. Victory (Netzach) “Light of Sparkle — Refined Light”
8. Glory (Hod) (also “Splendour” and “Majesty”) Radiance of Sparkle — Brilliant Light (also “Lucid”)
9. Foundation (Yesod) “Sparkle of Radiance — Clear Light and Glistening”
10. Kingdom (Malchut) “Precious of Precious Glowing Light this is”
In this illustration the primordial tehiru is the centre, whilst the circumference is all manifestation — the expression into existence of the ten Sefirot, the latter itself radiated, as it were, out of the Eternal Nothingness of the primordial centre. The editors of “A Big Jewish Book” comments
“the ‘wheel of light’ is not a fixed or static image (from which the ‘limitless’ could as well be excluded) but an image in motion and tied finally to the mystery of creation as worked through by the 16th-century kabbalist and poet Isaac Luria. Here the limitless that fills all space contracts itself to leave a point or vacuum behind in which the universe originates. The act of withdrawal is called tzimtzum (‘contraction’) and the point is called tehiru, the primordial space. A ray of light moving across this circular space fills it with the ten sefirot, which surround it like a wheel of light. Only a residue of Ein-Sof stays within it - like little drops of oil.”
One should of course remember that these very ideas did not really originate with Isaac Luria at all, but are plainly expressed in the Sefer ha-Zohar where we read
“At the outset the decision of the King made a tracing in the supernal effulgence, a lamp of scintillation, and there issued within the impenetrable recesses of the mysterious limitless a shapeless nucleus enclosed in a ring, neither white nor black nor red nor green nor any colour at all.....The most mysterious Power enshrouded in the limitless then split, without splitting its void, remaining wholly unknowable until from the force of the strokes there shone forth a supernal and mysterious point. Beyond that point there is no knowable, and therefore it is called Reshit (beginning), the creative utterance which is the starting-point of all.” [Zohar: Genesis 15a].
As mentioned earlier, Naftali Bacharach’s exposition of the Kabbalistic mysteries comprises many sources ranging from the early Kabbalah to the writings of Chaim Vital, those of the latter itself including material drawn from earlier sources. For example, the unpublished fourth section of Vital’s Sha’arei Kedusha (Gates of Holiness) incorporates a text titled Shaar ha-Kavvanah Le-Mekubalim ha-Rishonim (The Gate of Kavvanah of the First Kabbalists). Aryeh Kaplan tells us that it was probably written by Azriel ben Menachem of Gerona (13th century). This text provides a wonderful meditation technique in which the different grades of light are identified and visualised in a very specific manner. A related and equally important 13th century work called Shekel ha-Kodesh (The Holy Coin) was penned by Moses de Leon of Zohar fame, who appears to have been acquainted with the “Gate of Kavvanah.”
Knowing Naftali Bacharach's predilection for the works of early Kabbalists, and since he may very well had access to the Gate of Kavvanah in Chaim Vital's Sha'arei Kedusha, I personally found the study of Bacharach's "wheel of light" in conjunction with the two mentioned early kabbalistic texts to be most informative. Aryeh Kaplan included translations of the "Gate of Kavvanah" and a large portion of "The Holy Coin" in "Meditation and Kabbalah."

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