Skip to main content Accessibility help

Left Contained in the Right: A Study in Zoharic Hermeneutics

  • Elliot Wolfson (a1)


Although there has been much in modern scholarship written about the historical and theosophical background of the Zohar, scholars have paid little attention to the literary structure of the work and its relationship to the thematic content contained therein. There is, as far as I know, not one in-depth study of such a nature.



Hide All

1. See Scholem, G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3rd ed. (New York, 1961), pp. 156243; idem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1974), pp. 213–244. Tishby, Isaiah, Mishnal ha-Zohar, 2 vols. [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1971) [hereafter cited as MhZ]. See also Matt, Daniel, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Ramsey, N.J., 1983), esp. pp. 339.

2. See, however, Liebes, Yehuda, “The Messiah of the Zohar” [Hebrew], in The Messianic Idea in Jewish Thought: A Study Conference in Honour of the Eightieth Birthday of Gershom Scholem (Jerusalem, 1982), pp. 87236. This essay, which is rich in textual analyses and has indeed set the standard for all future research into the Zohar, contains many insights which may be useful to one interested in pursuing the issue of literary structure and its relation to thematic content in the Zohar.

3. I am limiting myself in this paper to an analysis of texts which form part of the main body of the Zohar. For a discussion of the various literary strata in the Zohar, see Scholem, Major Trends, pp. 159–163; idem, Kabbalah, pp. 214–220. All citations and references to the Zohar will be taken from Sefer ha-Zohar, ed. Margaliot, Reuven, 3 vols., 6th ed. (Jerusalem, 1984). References are to volume and page number. References to Zohar Ḥadash are from the Margaliot ed., 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1978) [hereafter cited as ZH].

4. See Scholem, , “Kabbalot R. Ya'akov ve-R. Yiẓḥak ha-Kohen,” Madda'ei ha-Yahadut 2 (1927): 193197; Liebes, “The Messiah,” pp. 124–128.

5. Scholem, “Kabbalot R. Ya'akov ve-R. Yiẓḥak”; Dan, J., “Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah,” AJS Review 5 (1980): 1741.

6. According to R. Isaac, the ten emanations of the left comprise “three worlds which were created and destroyed” (cf. Gen. R. 9:2, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 68) and seven archons which do battle against the seven lower holy emanations. See Scholem, “Kabbalot,” pp. 194, 248–251. The expression “emanations of the left” was not used by R. Isaac, but rather by his student, R. Moses of Burgos. See Scholem, , “R. Moshe, Talmid R. Yiẓḥak,” Le-Ḥeker Kabbalat R. Yiẓḥak b. Ya'akov ha-Kohen, in Tarbiz 4 (1933): 207225.

7. Scholem, “R. Moshe,” p. 209. See also Abulafia, Todros, Oẓar ha-Kavod (Warsaw, 1879; reprint, Jerusalem, 1970), 3a: “Where dogs bark there the Angel of Death is to be seen, for [he] is emanated from the left side, which is an emanation in itself.” This should not be understood in any absolute sense, but rather as meaning that the left comprises its own powers which parallel those of the divine. See Ibid., 23b, concerning the “worlds created and destroyed” (see n. 6 and below n. 22).

8. Scholem, “Kabbalot,” pp. 193–194. See also Shahar, Shulamit, “Catharism and the Beginnings of the Kabbalah in Languedoc: Elements Common to Catharic Scriptures and the Book Bahir” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 40 (1971), esp. p. 502, and p. viii of the English summary. Shahar concludes that despite the similarities between some of the doctrines of the Catharic iects in Languedoc in the twelfth century and the Kabbalah of the Baḥir, with respect to the question of evil one must make a clear distinction between the two: the former were “entirely lualistic,” “making an absolute distinction between the good God and the principle of evil,” whereas the latter remained “completely monistic, since God is portrayed as the Creator of Chaos, and Satan is one of His attributes.” See n. 9.

9. Cf. Tishby, MhZ, 1:292, 295–298. As Tishby noted, the kabbalists' concern with discovering the source for the demonic realm within the divine was an effort to mitigate the potential dualism of their doctrine concerning a left emanation. See below n. 12.

10. According to R. Isaac, the ten emanations of the left emerged from Binah, the third sefirah, whereas, according to R. Moses of Burgos, they emanated from Gevurah, the fifth sefirah, or the attribute of judgment. See Scholem, “Kabbalot,” p. 194; idem, “R. Moshe,” p. 210. Cf. also, Scholem, , “Sitra Aḥra: ha-Tov ve-ha-Ra ba-Kabbalah,” in Pirkei Yesod e-Havanat ha-Kabbalah u-Semaleha (Jerusalem, 1976), pp. 191193. As Scholem points out pp. 193 ff.), in the Kabbalah before the Zohar there was a third explanation for the origin of nil, viz., the last sefirah. This is reflected in the Zohar as well; see Tishby, MhZ, 1:298.

11. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:288–292.

12. Ibid. 1:288–289. It should be noted that Tishby (p. 292) distinguishes between morphosgical and ontological parallelism. In other words, while it is true that there is a parallelism of tructure between the two realms, they are not of the same ontological standing; the demonic ealm is of a secondary nature in comparison with the divine, or, according to one of the letaphors employed in the Zohar, the relation of the two is like that of an ape to a human eing (see II, 148b). According to Tishby, this distinction is one of the various attempts to litigate the potential dualism of the doctrine of two realms. See above n. 9.

13. Ill, 41b. See also II, 223b–224a; III, 70a. On occasion it is not the entire sefirotic realm ut only the seven lower sefirot which are said to have a parallel in the demonic realm; see I, 94a. (See above n. 6.) Although there are several names for the demonic forces in the Zohar, the most common are: “lower crowns” (see, e.g., I, 95b, 167a; II, 21b, 35b, 39b, 64b, 85b, 94b; III, 14b, 48b, 69a, 95b, 11 lb, 119b, 208b, 209b); “lower grades” (see, e.g., I, 133b, 177a [but see remark of Tishby, MhZ, 1:288, n. 4], 194a; II, 244b); “impure crowns of magic below” (see, e.g., I, 167a; II, 30b; III, 41b); and, collectively, Sitra Aḥra (see, e.g., I, 191b, 204b, 228a; II, 69a, and elsewhere).

14. I, 53a, 160a; II, 192b, 194b, 243a; III, 63a, 207a. Even though there is a right and left dimension in both realms, the demonic vis-à-vis the divine is known as the left, while the divine vis-à-vis the demonic is known as the right. See I, 195b; 211b; III, 259b. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:289, n. 2.

15. I, 148a (Sitrei Torah), 161b (Sitrei Torah). Cf. also I, 5a, 64a, 153a, 160b; II, 163b, 236b, 243a; see Tishby, MhZ, 1:298–300. The pairing of Samael and Lilith as husband and wife in the demonic realm, corresponding to Adam and Eve, was already made by R. Isaac ha-Kohen in his “Treatise on the Left Emanation”; see Scholem, “Kabbalot,” pp. 251–252, 260, 262. For a discussion of R. Isaac's historical and literary sources, see Dan, “Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah,” pp. 17–40. (The relevant passage is translated on pp. 18–19.) See below n. 44.

16. II, 38a. (Cf. also I, 166b; II, 40b.) By means of the merit of the “three knots of faith,” i.e., the three patriarchs and the sefirot which they represent, the Israelites were released from the “three knots of magic” by which the Egyptians had bound them; see below n. 41. Cf. Liebes, Yehuda, “Sections of the Zohar Lexicon” [Hebrew] (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1976), s.v. , n. 2, pp. 394–395, n. 20, p. 400. For an extended discussion of the possible Christian influence on the Zohar with respect to the notion of the trinity, see idem, “Christian Influences in the Zohar” [Hebrew], Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 2, no. 1 (1982/83): 43–74. Cf. also idem, “The Messiah,” pp. 130–131, n. 182.

17. I, 211b; II, 244a, 263a.

18. I, 99b. See Ibid., 125b, 161a; III, 112b, 145a. On this basis, e.g., the Zohar (Midrash ha-Ne'elam) reinterprets the midrashic comment on Deut. 34:10, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like Moses”: “In Israel none arose, but in the nations of the world there arose; and who was it? Balaam.” See Sifrei Devarim 34:10, ed. Finkelstein, p. 430; for other rabbinic references, see Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, 1968), 6:125, n. 727. The author of the Zohar writes: “Moses' works are above, Balaam's below. Moses made [theurgical] use of the holy crown of the supernal King above, and Balaam made [magical] use of the lower crowns below which are not holy” (II, 21b). Cf. Moses de León, Shekel ha-Kodesh, ed. Greenup (1911), pp. 16–18. Cf. ZH, 58b; III, 193b. The motif of Balaam as a chief magician and protagonist of the demonic is repeated often in the Zohar. See e.g., ZH, 66a; I, 125b, 126a, 166b; III, 112b, 194a, 207b, 212a. The association of Balaam with magic is found already in rabbinic Aggadah; see Ginzberg, Legends, index, s.v. “Balaam, the magical powers of.” Moreover, according to earlier sources, Balaam was considered to be the chief magician of Pharaoh; see Sotah lla; Ginzberg, Legends, 2:334–335. See II, 69a. See below, n. 41. The Aramaic , lit. “made use of,” was used technically in a theurgical context already in the Mishnah; see Avot 1:13. See Scholem, Major Trends, p. 358, n. 17, and idem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York, 1965), p. 54, n. 36. It is of interest to note that in this passage (I,99b) the mystic (R. Abba) learns his wisdom from a book brought to him by “the children of the East.” Now, according to the Midrash (see, e.g., Eccles. R. 8:23), the wisdom of the children of the East consisted of astrology and divination. See Lieberman, Saul, Greek in Jewish Palestine (New York, 1965), p. 98. Moreover, according to the Zohar itself, the land of the East was the place whence Laban, Be'or, and Balaam learned all their sorcery, for it was the place into which the angels Azza and Azael fell. See I, 126a, 133b, 223a. The children of the East, therefore, were masters of magical knowledge. Yet here they are portrayed as bearers of the correct mystical (theurgical) knowledge. Hence, in this context, the line between theurgical and magical knowledge is difficult to draw. See Tishby, MhZ, 2:11, who distinguishes between the two in terms of the ultimate purpose for which the given act was performed, i.e., whether to influence the upper powers or whether to gain benefit for oneself. But see Ibid., p. 435, where the distinction is somewhat blurred. Cf. Scholem, , Reshit ha-Kabbalah (Tel Aviv, 1948), pp. 143144; Liebes, “The Messiah,” p. 180, n. 319.

19. See II, 254b–255a; III, 292b (Idra Zuta). For a discussion of the cathartic view, see Tishby, MhZ, 1:150–151, 296; Gottlieb, Ephraim, Meḥkarim be-Sifrut ha-Kabbalah (Tel Aviv, 1976), pp. 178182; Liebes, “Sections of the Zohar Lexicon,” p. 147; Idel, Moshe, “Ha-Maḥshavah ha-Ra'ah shel ha-El,” Tarbiz 49 (1980): 356364.

20. See II, 176b (Sifra di-Zeni'uta); III, 128b {Idra Rabba), 135a, 142a, 292a (Idra Zuta). The biblical basis for this mythical conception is Gen. 36:31 ff. Cf. Tishby, MhZ, 1:138, 150. For a discussion of the possible source for this conception in the Castilian circle, and particularly Todros Abulafia, see Liebes, “The Messiah,” pp. 219–221. Moreover, as Liebes points out (p. 219), this conception was probably suggested to the kabbalists by the midrashic claim that God at first considered creating the world with judgment and only afterwards decided to combine judgment and mercy together. See, e.g., Gen. R. 12:15.

21. See II, 34b. The source for this mythical conception was R. Isaac ha-Kohen; see above n. 6. Cf. Scholem, “Kabbalot,” pp. 194–195.

22. See, e.g., I, 31a, 151a; II, 64a, 83a, 175b; III, 15b, 39b, 65a, 99a, 118b, 262b. Cf. Joseph Gikatilla, Sha'arei Orah, ed. Joseph Ben-Shlomo (Jerusalem, 1981), 1:235.

23. See Scholem, “Kabbalot,” p. 194; idem, “Sitra Aḥra,” p. 200; Tishby, MhZ, 1:296–298.

24. See I, 16a; II, 149b; III, 148a. See above n. 10.

25. See I, 17a–b. With regard to the question, What creates the imbalance in the sefirotic world? there are basically two approaches: it results either from an internal process or as a result of human sin. See Scholem, Pirkei Yesod, pp. 202–204.

26. Here I have made use of Tishby's terminology; see n. 12.

27. For references, see below n. 31. See Tishby, MhZ, 1: p. 81 of the Introduction. Tishby suggests that many of the passages in the Zohar which deride Egypt are in reality intended against Islam and the Arabs.

28. The power of the magicians is from the outset rendered impotent in comparison with the power of God. Hence, we are told that the rod which Aaron cast down, and which became a serpent, swallowed up the rods which the magicians cast down (Exod. 7:12). Moreover, the magicians' use of secret arts could match the divine power only for the first two plagues (Ibid. 8:18–19). Finally, the magicians themselves are affected by the plague of boils, causing them to disappear. For a succinct discussion of these issues, see Noth, M., Exodus: A Commentary. trans. Bowden, J. S. (Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 7172. The impotence of the Egyptian magicians vis-à-vis God was a favorite theme in rabbinic Aggadah. See, e.g., Sanhedrin 67b, Exod. R. 10:7, Tanḥuma, Va-Era 14. See also Ginzberg, Legends, 2:335, 352; 5:429, n. 185.

29. Kiddushin 49b. See also Menaḥot 85a, Exod. R. 9:6. For other references in aggadic literature to this theme, see Ginzberg, Legends, index, s.v. “Egyptians, masters of astrology and magic.”

30. See. e.g., I, 81b, 83a, 249a; II, 30b, 35b, 38a, 191a, 192b; III, 50b, 69a, 70a. See below nn. 35–45.

31. See, e.g., I, 167a; II, 30b; III, 41b, 70a, 192a. This is also the underlying meaning of a repeated claim in the Zohar concerning the special relation between the feminine and magic. That is, the demonic realm vis-à-vis the divine is considered to be feminine (although there is both a feminine and masculine dimension within the left side; see above n. 14); accordingly, all magic (i.e., the demonic) is related to the feminine. See ZH, 92b; I, 126a.

32. Ill, 41b. See also II, 223b–224a.

33. I, 125b. See also II, 215b. The “primordial serpent” in the Zohar frequently refers to the feminine counterpart to Samael in the realm of the Other Side (based on the aggadic image that Samael rode upon the serpent; cf. Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 13), but it can also refer to this whole realm or to the masculine potency alone. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:304–305.

34. I, 83a (trans, by D. Matt, Zohar, p. 63). Cf. Ibid., 133b, where the author of the Zohar elaborates upon the talmudic interpretation of Gen. 25:6, “And to the sons of the concubines, which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts,” i.e., Abraham transmitted to them a “name of impurity” by which to do magic (Sanhedrin 91a, and the commentary of Rashi, ad loc). According to the Zohar, Abraham gave the sons of his concubines the names of the impure forces which are the lower grades; that is to say, Abraham imparted to them knowledge of the demonic realm. See Ibid., 223a. This interpretation likewise presupposes that Abraham had significant knowledge of the demonic realm. See below n. 45.

35. See Matt, Zohar, p. 220. Matt goes on to say: “This dangerous psychic journey is the crucible of Abraham's spiritual transformation.” That is, as the passage from the Zohar itself (I, 83a) emphasizes, it was necessary for Abraham to descend into Egypt (the “Other Side”) before entering the land of Israel (the portion of the Holy One) so that he would be purified. That is also the mystical significance of Israel's enslavement in Egypt: spiritual purification by means of contact with the unholy. See also II, 184a: “The words of Torah reside only there [i.e., in the desert, which is the abode of the demonic force], for there is no light except that which emerges from darkness. When that [‘other’] side is subdued, the Holy One, blessed be He, ascends and is glorified. And there is no divine worship except amidst the darkness, and no good expect within evil. When a person enters an evil way and forsakes it, then the Holy One ascends in his glory. Thus the perfection of all is good and evil together, and afterwards to ascend to the good.… This is the complete worship.” See n. 45.

36. III, 207a.

37. Ibid., 70a.

38. II, 35b. Cf. Ibid., 38a; III, 50b.

39. Ibid. Cf. Ibid., 41a, 80b.

40. II, 25a, 38a, 52b, 69a; III, 212a (it was by means of the magic of Balaam that the Egyptians bound the Israelites; see Ginzberg, Legends, 6:27, n. 156). On the usage of the word “knot” () as a magical bond in the Zohar, see Liebes, “Sections of the Zohar Lexicon,” p. 397. This linguistic association is indeed quite old. For a survey of ancient Near Eastern materials, including relevant biblical texts, relating to magical bonds and knots, see Fishbane, Michael, “Studies in Biblical Magic: Origins, Uses and Transformations of Terminology and Literary Form” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1971), chaps. 1 and 2.

41. I, 195a; II, 28a, 37b, 52b, 67b. According to rabbinic sources, Pharaoh was a magician par excellence; see Moed Kalan 18a (cf. Shabbat 75a), Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Exod. 7:15. See also Ginzberg, Legends, 2:335, 352, 358; 3:13; 5:428, n. 175.

42. The attribution of the metaphor “the great crocodile” in Ezek. 19:3 to the Pharaoh in the time of the exodus can be found already in the Midrash. See Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, trans. Lauterbach, J. (Philadelphia, 1976), vol. 2, p. 175; Exod. R. 9:4. Cf. Ginzberg, Legends, 3:66, 6:27, n. 156.

43. II, 34a. In the continuation of this section, the Zohar makes use of the rabbinic myth concerning Leviathan and his mate, i.e., a male and a female sea-monster. See Bava Balra 74b based on Isaiah 27:1; Ginzberg, Legends, index, s.v. “Leviathan.” According to the author of the Zohar, Leviathan and his mate correspond to Samael and Lilith, who, in turn, correspond to the Holy One and the Shekhinah. The Zohar was here influenced by the writings of R. Isaac ha-Kohen; see Scholem, “Kabbalot,” pp. 262–263, and the translation of this passage in Dan, “Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil,” pp. 38–39. See above n. 15. According to this passage (II, 34a–b), there is the great crocodile, i.e., Samael, and ten streams, i.e., vessels which contain the demonic forces: “in each stream there wanders about one crocodile” (Ibid., 34b). The ten crocodiles, collectively, are the ten “lower crowns” which correspond to the ten sefirot. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:303. Cf. also I, 52a. On the historical influence of R. Isaac upon the author of the Zohar, see Scholem, “Kabbalot,” p. 195. According to Scholem, however, the “great crocodile” represents Samael, while the streams, in the midst of which he crouches, are the remaining nine lower crowns. The text, in my opinion, seems to bear out the interpretation of Tishby.

44. II, 34a.

45. Ibid. There is, according to the Zohar, an especially esoteric nature to this knowledge. With regard to this, the author of the Zohar was influenced by the Castilian kabbalists, who were reluctant to elaborate on this topic and who likewise spoke of the secret of the demonic as being known to only a select few. See Liebes, “The Messiah,” pp. 123–124. Thus, after the initial discourse on the “great crocodile” we read: “R. Shimeon said: The Accountof Creation —the comrades are busy studying it and they have knowledge of it, but few are they who know how to allude to the Account of Creation according to the mystery of the great crocodile. Thus we learned [cf. Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 9] that the entire world evolved only upon the scales of that [crocodile]” (II, 34b). For a discussion of the literary sources and theosophical significance of this passage, see Liebes, “The Messiah,” pp. 123–126. The statement concerning Moses' attainment of knowledge of the “great crocodile” succeeds a discussion about Job. The error of Job, according to the Zohar, was that he did not give any portion of his sacrifices (which were all burnt-offerings) to the “Other Side,” and thereby aroused its jealousy. The sin of Job is referred to in the Zohar as “not including evil and good together,” for had he given a portion to the demonic realm as well, then he would have comprised the two together. “Thus it is fitting for a person to know good and evil, and then return to the good. That is the secret of faith.” (See above n. 35 and below n. 111.) Job is described in Scripture as being “removed from evil” (Job 1:8), i.e., he had no portion in Sifra Aḥra. See II, 181b–182a; III, 101b; Tishby, MhZ, 1:291. By contrast, Moses, like Abraham (see above n. 34), had a portion in both realms; thus it says “Go to Pharaoh,” i.e., attain knowledge of the demonic realm, a knowledge which Job did not possess. See Liebes, “The Messiah,” p. 126. On Solomon's being taught from a book of magic by Asmodeus, see II, 128a; III, 19a, 77a. Cf. also III, 233a–b concerning the legend of Solomon riding an eagle to a place in the wilderness called “Tarmod” (see I Kings 9:18: “Tadmor”), where Azza and Aza'el were bound by chains of iron, and where none but Balaam was allowed to enter. From that place Solomon “learnt wisdom.”

46. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:224–225, 230–231. “The subservience of the Shekhinah to Sitra Aḥra,” concludes Tishby, “is the hidden mystery of the exile of the Shekhinah. The upper exile is a disturbance of the order of the divine reality, a closing of the channels of influence and an eclipse of the lights due to the removal of the Shekhinah from the realm of the sefirot and her joining with the Sitra Aḥra. The exile of Israel in the countries of the nations is a process which parallels an event that occurs above.” See n. 48.

47. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:225, 229–230; Liebes, “The Messiah,” p. 198.

48. This is expressed in several ways: (1) the submission of the Shekhinah to Sitra Aḥra (see n. 46); (2) the unification of Tif'eret with Lilith (see I, 122a–b; III, 69a): (3) the dominion of the other nations over Israel (see I, 84b–85a); (4) Israel's being nourished by the power of Sitra Aḥra in place of the power of holiness (see I, 95b; II, 152b).

49. On the analogy between the pair of opposites, male-female and right-left, see, e.g., I, 30a, 70a. See n. 81.

50. I, 211b. Cf. Ibid., 201a; II, 29a, 36a. See also Recanati, Menahem, Perush 'al ha-Torah (Jerusalem, 1961), Exod. 12:22, 41c–d. On the theme of the Shekhinah employing the forces of Sitra Aḥra in order to punish the wicked, see Tishby, MhZ, 1:224–225.

51. II, 36b.

52. I, 261a; II, 187a.

53. II, 231b. Cf. Shekel ha-Kodesh, pp. 80–83. See Tishby, , Perush Aggadol le-R. 'Azriel (Jerusalem, 1945), p. 56

54. II, 37b (based on rabbinic interpretation of'm as “the Lord and His Court,” see Gen. R. 51:3, Exod. R. 12:4). See also Ibid., 37a; III, 176a. See Moses de León, Shushan Edut, ed. Scholem, “Shenei Kuntrasim le-R. Moshe di-Li'on,” Koveẓ 'al Yad, n.s. 8 (1975): 344. It should be noted that, with respect to this very issue, Nahmanides was very careful to emphasize that the plagues in general, and particularly the plague of the killing of the firstborn, were carried out by the Shekhinah in conjunction with the Holy One, i.e., the attribute of judgment together with that of mercy. The motivation here was clearly to avoid the separation of the Shekhinah from the rest of the divine attributes, a sin which the kabbalists referred to as , i.e., “cutting the shoots,” an expression used in the classical Aggadah to refer to Adam (see Gen. R. 19:3) or to Elisha ben Abuya (Ḥagigah 14b). (On the kabbalistic meaning of “cutting the shoots,” see Scholem, , “Te'udah Ḥadashah, le-Toledot Reshit ha-Kabbalah,” in Sefer Bialik [Tel Aviv, 1934], p. 153, and Tishby, MhZ, 1:221.) Cf. Nahmanides, Commentary on the Torch, Exod. 12:12 (ed. Chavel, vol. 1, p. 329). Cf. also the supercommentaries on Naljmanides: Gaon, Shem Tov ibn, Keter Shem Tot, in Ma or ve-Shemesh (Livorno, 1839), 34a;Shuaib, Joshua ibn, Be'ur Sodot ha-Ramban, attributed to Meir ibn Sahula (Warsaw, 1875);Samuel, Isaac b. of Acre, Sefer Me'iral Einayim: A Critical Edition, ed. Goldreich, Amos (Jerusalem, 1981), p. 79.

55. On “Night” as a name for Shekhinah, see, e.g., I, 16b, 92b; II, 239b, and elsewhere. See Moses de León, Shushan Edut, p. 341.

56. II, 38a. See Recanati, Perush 'al ha-Torah, Exod. 11:4, 41a.

57. II, 38a. Cf. Moses de León, Sefer ha-Rimmon, MS Oxford 1607, 54b (a critical edition of the aforementioned work will appear as part of my dissertation).

58. On the dual character of the Shekhinah, see Tishby, MhZ, 1:223–228. Cf. also Nahmanides, Genesis 49:24 (ed. Chavel, vol. 1, p. 273), and Me'iral Einayim, p. 83. It should be noted that, according to the Zohar, not only Shekhinah but each of the sefirot has the capacity to act with mercy and judgment; see II, 36a; III, 15a, 36b, 146a, 262b. This latter idea can be traced back to the circle of kabbalists in Gerona; see, e.g., Sheshet, Jacob ben, Sefer ha-Emunah ve-ha-Bittahon, in Kitvei Ramban, ed. Chavel, (Jerusalem, 1964), vol. 2, p. 359. Cf. Sefer ha-Rimmon, 71a; Gikatilla, Sha'arei Orah, 1: 235.

59. See II, 36a, 37a. This is the esoteric meaning of the killing of the firstborn at midnight, i.e., at a time when the Shekhinah performs two functions reflecting her dual nature: mercy toward Israel and judgment toward Egypt. See II, 37b, 80b.

60. See I, 226b; II, 40a, 182a; III, 95b. Cf. Sefer ha-Rimmon, MS Oxford 1607, 54a–b. It should be noted that leaven was already used allegorically as a symbol for that which is evil or impure in Greco-Jewish, New Testament, and talmudic sources. See Philo, Questions on Exodus, 1:15, 11:14 (but see The Special Laws, 11:184); I Cor. 5:6–8; Matt. 16:11–12; Berakhot 17a; Gen. R. 34:10, p. 320; Tanḥuma, ed. Buber, Noaḥ 15b. And see now Bokser, B., The Origins of the Seder (Berkeley, Calif., 1984), p. 120, n. 13.

61. II, 38b.

62. See above n. 49.

63. II, 38. Cf. I, 260a; II, 131a; III, 22a.

64. For references, see above n. 54.

65. Naḥmanides, Exod. 13:21 (ed. Chavel, vol. 1, p. 348).

66. See Isaac of Acre, Me'irat Einayim, p. 81; Recanati, Exod. 13:21, 43a.

67. Nahmanides, loc. cit.

68. The notion of the fourfold unity between the Shekhinah and the patriarchs (i.e., the sefirot Ḥesed, Gevurah, and Raḥamim) is repeated often in the Zohar. It is related, alternatively, to the four components of the Chariot or to the four legs of the Throne. See I, 60b, 99a, 120b, 150a, 237a, 248b; III, 174a, 182a, 262b. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:516.

69. II, 46a–b. Cf. also III, 191b.

70. I, 46a. Cf. also, Ibid., 5b, 32a; III, 93b, 134b.

71. See I, 17a, 253a.

72. II, 52b.

73. See Naḥmanides, Exod. 14:31 (ed. Chavel, vol. 1, p. 353); Ibn Shuaib, Be'ur Sodot ha-Ramban, 13a; Me'irat Einayim, p. 82; Asher, Baljya ben, Perush 'al ha-Torah, ed. Chavel, 5th ed. (Jerusalem, 1981), vol. 2, p. 121. See also Recanati, 43b.

74. II, 53b. Cf. the commentaries of R. Moses Cordovero and R. Abraham Galante to the Zohar, ad loc, cited by Azulai, Abraham, Or ha-Ḥammah (Benei-Berak, 1973), vol. 2, 43b–44a.

75. The word is a common name for the attribute of ḥesed or the right hand; see, e.g., II, 59b, 286b; III, 277a, 302a.

76. The word by itself refers to the left hand; see III, 142b. See also Sefer ha-Baḥir, ed. Margaliot, R. (Jerusalem, 1978), § 163 (Scholem, Das Buck Bahir, § 109, p. 116), where the principle af evil is said to have the “form of a hand.”

77. On the correspondence of the ten fingers to the ten sefirot, see Sefer Yeẓirah 1:3; Sefer ha-Baḥir, § 124 (Scholem, § 87, p. 94), § 132 (Scholem, § 94, p. 101). See Naḥmanides, Exod. 17:12 (p. 372); II, 75b.

78. II, 56b.

79. Cf. I, 19b, 86a, 236b, 241a, 267b; II, 19b, 226a; III, 58a, 150b.

80. This description of the Shekhinah is to be found already in the Baḥir and in other early kabbalistic sources. See Scholem, “Ha-Shekhinah,” in Pirkei Yesod be-Havanat ha-Kabbalah u-Semakha, p. 276. Cf. also Tishby, MhZ, 1:219. A related idea, also found in the earlier sources, is that the whole sefirotic order is reflected in each of the sefirot. See Tishby, Perush ha-Aggadot le-Rabbi 'Azriel, p. 15, n. 2.

81. This clearly reflects the aggadic myth that Adam was created as androgynous and was then separated into man and woman. For references, see Ginzberg, Legends, 5:88–89, n. 42. Cf. I, 35a, 37b, 165a; II, 55a, 231a–b; III, 10b, 19a, 44b; ZH, 55c–d, 66c. According to the Zohar, not only Adam but the soul of each person was originally made androgynous, and only upon descent to the world is divided into male and female; at the time of marriage the original unity is restored (see Yevamot 63a). See I, 85a, 91b, 108a; II, 246a; III, 43a–b, 283b; Tishby, MhZ, 2:608. The one who remains single is called by the Zohar , i.e., “half-a-body.” See III, 7b, 57b, 296a, (Idra Zuta); Liebes, “Sections of the Zohar Lexicon,” pp. 277–278; Matt, Zohar, p. 217. The kabbalists applied the aggadic myth to the divine: as the complete human personality is to be found only in the unification of male and female, so too the divine being is only complete when male (Tif'eret) and female (Malkhut) are united. See Tishby, Perush ha-Aggadot le-Rabbi 'Azriel, p. 86; idem, MhZ, 1:139, 148–149. Cf. also Liebes, “Sections of the Zohar Lexicon,” p. 33, n. 26, and idem, “The Messiah,” p. 202.

82. II, 57b. See also III, 37a.

83. II, 57a. Cf. Shekel ha-Kodesh, p. 39. See Tishby, MhZ, 2:341. Cf. I, 230b; II, 162b, 223a, 263a; III, 17b, 80b, 118b, 176b. Cf. Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, p. 41.

84. II, 57a. The notion of the left hand over the right signifying misfortune is reflected in Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, p. 41: “When the Israelites do the will of God, they make His left hand to be like the right, as it is said, ‘Thy right hand, O Lord … Thy right hand, O Lord’—two times. And when the Israelites fail to do the will of God, they make His right hand to be like the left, as it is said, ‘He hath drawn back His right hand’ [Lam. 2:3].” See Goldin, Judah, The Song at the Sea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 149.

85. Cf. Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, vol. 2, p. 139; Berakhot 5b; Tanḥuma, Beshallaḥ 25; Pesikla de-Rav Kahana 13.

86. II, 65b. Such an interpretation is, of course, suggested by the juxtaposition of verse 7, “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, saying, Is the Lord among us or not?” with verse 8, “Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” See Rashi's commentary, Exod. 17:8.

87. Ibid. See I, 29a; II, 65a, 194b–195a; III, 175a, 281b.

88. II, 66a. The lifting of Moses' hands, i.e., the raising up of the right hand over the left, is here interpreted as an act of prayer. See Sefer ha-Bahir 138; II, 57a. Cf. Todros Abulafia, Oẓar ha-Kavod, 29b. Afulafia, like the author of the Zohar, interprets this passage as the joining together of the left hand with the right. This, notes Abulafia, is the supreme act of faith. See below n. 111. It is the ultimate task of “homo religiosus” to contain the left within the right. See II, 26b, 32a; III, 39b, 178a. See Menahem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, 14:121, n. 106. It especially characterizes the mystical import of prayer; see II, 57a. Cf. Moses de León's “Untitled Commentary on the Sefirol,” MS Munich 47, 340a–b. Concerning this work, see Scholem, , “Eine unbekannte mystische Schrift des Mose de Leon,” Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 71 (1927): 109123. In terms of prayer, this is alternatively expressed (based on Ps. 100.2) as the placing of Shekhinah between the right and left as a preparation for the ultimate unification between her and the Holy One; see I, 229b, III, 8a–b, and cf. to Moses de Leon, Sefer ha-Rimmon, MS Oxford 1607, 14b, 24b. See also the interpretation of Cant. 2:6 in I, 163b; II, 138b, 238b; III, 118b, 119b (cf. Menahem Recanati, Ta'amei ha-Miẓvot [Basel, 1581], 8a), 148b.

89. II, 66a. On the mystical significance of the war with Amalek as the wiping out of the left by the right, see II, 65b, 194b; III, 281b.

90. Ibid., 67a. See Sefer ha-Baḥir 124; II, 57a, 225a; III, 92b. Cf. MS Munich 47, 340b; Sefer ha-Rimmon, 111b.

91. Ibid., 67b. See Tishby, MhZ, 1:288–289.

92. Cf. II, 184a (cited above in n. 35).

93. II, 81a. So too, according to the Zohar, the third day of creation stands for mercy (Tif'eret), which is the balance between ḥesed (the right) and gevurah (the left). See I, 17a. See also I, 120a, with reference to the “third day” in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac; see below n. 111. The third day was the appropriate one for the event of giving the Torah, for the latter symbolically represents Tif'eret, which is the balance between right and left. See below n. 101.

94. Ibid.

95. See Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 6:1, Soldi 8:3; Cant. R. 5:11. Cf. Tanḥuma, introduction, where the reading is slightly different. See also Midrash Konen, in Jellinek, Adolph, Bet ha-Midrash, 4th ed. (Jerusalem reprint, 1982), 2:23, and Midrash Eser ha-Dibrot, in Jellinek, op. cit., 1:62, where the anthropomorphic element (i.e., the arm of God) is added. Cf. Scholem, “Shi'ur Komah—ha-Demut ha-Mistit shel ha-Elohut,” in Pirkei Yesod be-Havanat ha- Kabbalah u-Semaleha, p. 164, n. 18. According to Scholem, one must view these midrashic statements in the context of the anthropomorphism of the Shi'ur Komah tradition. Cf. also Idel, Moshe, “Tefisat ha-Torah bi-Sifrut ha-Heikhalot vi-Gilguleha ba-K.abbalah,” in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 1 (1981): 4345.

96. II, 84a. This midrashic theme was interpreted in various ways by kabbalists of the thirteenth century. In one passage, attributed by Scholem to R. Isaac the Blind, a Provencal kabbalist, the white fire refers symbolically to Tif'eret, the written Torah, and the black fire to Malkhut, the oral Torah. See Scholem, , On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Manheim, Ralph (New York, 1978), pp. 4849. For other references, see Tishby, Perush ha-Aggadot le-Rabbi Azriel, p. 77, n. 7. The midrash was used in an altogether different manner by Naḥmanides in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah; see p. 2 of the Chavel edition. Cf. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, p. 38, and Idel, “Tefisat ha-Torah,” p. 45.

97. II, 84a. See I, 48b.

98. II, 82a (based on Deut. 29:9–10). Cf. MS Munich 47, 341a, where de Leon refers to this passage as “our rabbis, may their memory be blessed, alluded to, etc.” The exact date of this work is still unclear, but from this passage it would appear to have been composed after the author had worked on the Zohar. See, however, Farber, A., “On the Sources of Rabbi Moses de Leon's Early Kabbalistic System” [Hebrew], Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 3 (1984): 8788.

99. II, 84b, 98. See II, 90a. Cf. Moses de León, Sefer ha-Rimmon, MS British Museum 759, 41a.

100. See I, 64a; II, 60a. Cf. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, p. 49.

101. See III, 153a, 257a.

102. See II, 161b; III, 264a. Cf. Tishby, MhZ, 2:366.

103. See I, 8a.

104. See II, 70b, 91a, 162a–b, 165b, 275a; III, 92b (Ra'aya Meheimnd), 264a; ZH 54b. Cf. Tishby, MhZ, 2:432.

105. The Zohar here reflects a statement made by the rabbis to the effect that the pollution () by means of which the serpent inseminated Eve ceased when Israel stood at Mount Sinai; see Shabbat 146a, Yevamot 103b, Avodah Zarah 22b. The Zohar connects this idea with another rabbinic notion, viz., the cessation of the evil inclination at the moment of revelation. Specifically, according to one tannaitic source (R. Nehemiah), there was a temporary uprooting of the evil inclination from the hearts of the Israelites when they heard the commandment “Thou shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3) at the event of revelation; see Cant. R. 1:2. According to the zoharic sources, the evil inclination returned on account of the sin of the golden calf. See I, 36b, 52b, 63b, 70b, 126b, 228a; II, 94a, 168a, 193b, 236b, 242b; III, 97b. The final and ultimate destruction of the evil inclination is to occur at the advent of the Messiah; see Sukkah 52a. For other references, see Schechter, Solomon, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York, 1961), p. 290, n. 3;Urbach, Ephraim, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 416417, n. 2.

106. II, 183a–b. See also III, 97a.

107. See II, 40a, 61b (see Matt, Zohar, pp. 113–116, 245–247), 183a. See Tishby, MhZ, 2:391. On the unleavened bread as a symbol for the Shekhinah, the beginning of faith, see above n. 60.

108. This too is based on a midrashic motif. For references, see Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, pp. 273–275.

109. See III, 63a (Pekudim), where it is stressed that evil should not be completely eliminated, for it is as necessary in the world as is the good. The ideal of spiritual perfection in the Zohar is one in which the person achieves holiness through contact with the unholy, and by means of such contact the unholy itself is transformed or contained within the holy. See above nn. 35, 45 and below n. 111. The notion that the evil inclination (i.e., the sexual desire) should not be eradicated, on account of its necessity for the begetting of life in the world, can be found in several rabbinic sources. See, e.g., Yoma 69b; Gen. R. 9:7, pp. 71–72. Cf. also Lev. R. 14:5.

110. See Berakhot 54b. Cf. I, 155b, 178b; III, 80b, 267a; and Sefer ha-Rimmon, 39b.

111. See II, 26b (with reference to Deut. 4:39), and Sefer ha-Rimmon, ad loc. Cf. II, 161b and III, 264a. The wicked, according to the Zohar, cause a blemish () above by causing a separation of right and left, i.e., by not containing the left (evil inclination) in the right (good inclination). See II, 26b. This too was the sin of Job: by not giving the realm of the “Other Side” its proper due, he did not contain the left within the right; see n. 45. On the nature of in the Zohar as the separation of male and female, see Tishby, MhZ, 2:607; Liebes, “The Messiah,” esp. p. 198. The notion of the containment of the left in the right is a pivotal idea upon which much of the theosophical hermeneutics in the Zohar turns. It would be impossible to give all the contexts in which such an idea occurs. Worthy of mention, however, are (1) the zoharic interpretation of the act of creation; see Tishby, MhZ, 1:133, 219–220, 269–270, 381–382; (2) the building of the Tabernacle; see Ibid., 2:188–189; (3) the Akedah; see I, 119b, 133b, 230b; II, 257a; cf. Sefer ha-Rimmon, 78b, and Gikatilla, Sha'arei Orah, 1:224–225; (4) the love of God, , which contains both sides, ḥesed and din; see I, 1 lb–12a; (5) faith itself, insofar as it is the union of male and female; see I, 49b, 55b, 160a, 172b; II, 89a, 92a, 161a.

Left Contained in the Right: A Study in Zoharic Hermeneutics

  • Elliot Wolfson (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.