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Faculty of History, University of Oxford. In collaboration with MHRC and the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies. Professor Moshe Idel was given a brief introduction by Professor Robert Evans, Regius Professor of History. Professor Evans mentioned that both Cantemir and Idel were from Romania. Professor Idel responded that the connection was that whilst both he and Dimitrie Cantemir were from Romania although Cantemir did not study the Ars Combinatoria, the man from whom Cantemir received membership to the Royal Academy of Berlin had studied it. The assumption is that the theory of combination of letters comes from an early time period, continued in to the Middle-ages, to Renaissance in Florence and recurs in the writings of Jewish mystics through the ages. The history of letter combinations is hard to trace historically. All monographs on Sefer Yetzirah do not answer the question of what the history of letter combination is. One can easily show how Jewish material was copied for the likes of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, however it not easy to understand the transition of letter combination. Question: why is letter combination important and why also Ars Combinatoria? This is answered with an introduction to language which consists of three forms: 1. Sonoric – how letters are pronounced 2. Combination of sounds in to words 3. Combination of words to references However, there are limitations. Language exploits only a small part of a possible reservoir. Question: why destroy language and combine it in new ways? Why has this practice been used by so many mystics? What is the logic? There are a variety of categories that inform the practice, done for specific purpose. The combinations in Sefer Yetzirah are about cosmology. G-d made creation by letter combination. The author of Sefer Yetzirah knew the bible but prefers letter combination to semantics. Sefer Yetzirah contradicts the bible and makes daring assumptions. The theory in Sefer Yetzirah is cosmological that is an alternative to the bible. Other interpretations include: 1. Cosmology 2. Noetics 3. Ecstatic – combine like a mantra as is found at the end of Sefer Yetzirah 4. Magical – imitate G-d's creativity, it contains formulas for building a world but the Kabbalists in their humility only made golems 5. Exegesis – a way to understand the bible, play with words to uncover new meaning Commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah have been going on in intellectual circles, in novels, etc to the present generation. The last monograph was published a month and half ago. The first time that you read it you think that you understand it. However, each time you read it you
understand it less and less. Its meaning becomes ever more evasive and eventually you don't understand it at all. Something that has escaped the scholars is that most of the book is concerned with letter combinations rather than metaphysics. The text has explicit instructions for letter combinations and this is how G-d made the world. He carved letters and combined them. Letter combination is generative. Letters are related to all levels of creation. Letters preside over the Universe and they are not just letters but also creative. At the end of Sefer Yetzirah it assumes that Abraham [the biblical patriarch] studied it. Abraham did what G-d did and was successful. G-d was [according to one commentary] pleased with what he did and made Abraham his son. This is something that the elite could imitate. Sefer Yetzirah was not just a book on cosmology but a means to achieve revelation noetically and ecstatically. In the 10th century it was a classic, this was the beginning of exegetical works on Sefer Yetzirah. There is a whole chapter on Sefer Yetzirah in the Kuzari and about 5-6 additional commentaries. This was time period of Renaissance for the book. We still do not know who all the authors of the commentaries are; hence there is not an accurate count of the number of commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah. In the first half of the 13th century there were 2-3 commentaries written in Germany by the Kalonymos family. 1230-1240 in Catalonia there were 3 commentaries written including those by Nachmanides and Azriel. Plus at the end of the 13th century 3 commentaries were written by Abraham Abulafia. Hence there were twice as many commentaries written in this time period as in the previous 250 years. The early Catalonia commentaries were focused on metaphysics whilst the later ones dealt less with cosmology and more with theogenics – how G-d’s powers evolved. Letter combination in this is a minor topic. In the Ashkenazi area [in Germany] there was very little about the Sefirot and much more about letter combinations. These two schools of independent study on Sefer Yetzirah did not initially meet each other. However from 1250 onwards there was movement from Germany to France and then Spain to France. Immigrants from the two schools mixed and so did the commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah. For example, Spanish metaphysics moved to letter combinations and one commentary written by a Spaniard dealt almost exclusively with letter combinations. There was a pronounced influence of Ashkenazi on Spanish and French Jews. One Spanish scholar toured France (and possibly met with German Kabbalists). Between 1260 and 1270 two commentaries were written on Sefer Yetzirah of which one survived and the other survived in part. They were written by two brothers from Suria, namely Yaakov ben Yaakov HaCohen and Yitzchak ben Yaakov HaCohen. Daniel Abrahams discovered and published the former author’s commentary recently. This commentary contains hardly any mention of the Sefirot. A document found in a library and ignored by most scholars was the commentary of Abraham Abulafia. In it he gives [some of] his life story of arriving in Barcelona and initially being against Sefer Yetzirah. However, he was given access to 12 commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah early in his career. He lists these in the order of importance to him.
This gives an insight in to what the thinking was in Barcelona in these circles and what the prominent ideas were. Abraham Abulafia writes much more on Yitzchak be Yaakov HaCohen than the other 11 commentaries and it can be seen from this that it formed the core of his writing. He even quotes Rabbi Yitzchak directly in his works. Abraham Abulafia selects focus on letter combinations as he in commentaries in Barcelona. He was given these by a school and it is assumed that this school was led by Rabbi Baruch Targomi (Baruch the Turk) who also wrote a commentary. The sources from Roman Lull are unknown. However, Professor Idel believes that he has identified some of the sources. Scholars have focused on metaphysics and the meaning of letter combination has been ignored. Sefer Yetzirah has a unified view of the Universe. At the end of Sefer Yetzirah it states that G-d revealed to Abraham all. “Adon HaKoll” means both Master of All and He knows All. Hence a Universal knowledge emerges from Sefer Yetzirah and its commentaries. The manipulation of language is an alternative to Greek noetic way of thinking.” All thought is naught but a footnote to Plato.” [George Santayana] The footnotes to Sefer Yetzirah are sometimes in conflict with Plato. This conflict exploded in Derrida (and although he may not have known Sefer Yetzirah, he copied it). There are 2 lines in history of Kabbalah: 1. Metaphysics 2. Letter combination By implication the letter combination is the more practical one as you must actually do letter combination, A lot of the literature is in manuscript form and has never been printed. Kabbalah can be better understood based on [knowledge of] letter combinations. This dimension of Kabbalah appears in more than one centre of Kabbalists in Ashkenaz, France, etc but it did not attract much scholarly attention. --During the question and answer section Professor mentioned that he has not tried letter combination and in academic circles this would be considered bizarre. He also stated that in the Hebrew autobiography of Professor Gershom Scholem [“From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth” by Gershom Scholem and Harry Zohn] he mentions trying Abulafia’s techniques for letter combination but that his interest waned and in today’s academic world he would be fired for making such a confession.