Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)
By

Dina Ripsman Eylon
Abstract
This paper examines the method of biblical exegesis the anonymous author of the Book Bahir (Sefer haBahir - the Book of Clarity/Illumination) utilizes to form his/her observations on conceptual and philosophical notions. One of the earliest and oldest Kabbalistic books, the Bahir, a 12th century work, was probably the most influential until the publication of the Zohar. Extensively quoted and frequently mentioned, the Bahir remains a seminal composition of the early Jewish Kabbalah. Yet despite the fact that the Bahir was readily available, it has been scantily researched and somewhat neglected. Academic research leading to full appreciation and comprehension of the Bahir is still in its initial stages. Regrettably, there is very little written about the Bahir, and the research accomplished to date is far from complete. Its introduction of the concept of reincarnation as a religious belief-system or a theological theory in Judaism is still regarded as innovative and daring. Divided into 141 small sections in the 1994 critical edition of Daniel Abrams1, the Bahir presents a complicated theosophy based on biblical verses. By seamlessly weaving his unique personal commentary, the author is capable of presenting original philosophical ideas following the traditional Jewish Midrash.

The pseudepigraphical Sefer ha-Bahir, one of the earliest and oldest kabbalistic works, was probably the most influential work of the early Jewish Kabbalah until the appearance of the Zohar (1280–1286, Spain). The book is written in an aggadic style, usually characteristic to the Talmudic literature. This specific literary technique employs various elements, such as parables (meshalim, in Hebrew) and close readings of biblical verses. The Bahir first appeared in manuscript form around the end of the twelfth century (1176) but circulated only in closed kabbalistic circles. After its first printing (Amsterdam 1651), it gained more popularity and acceptance. Yet even though the Bahir has been readily available, it has been scantily researched and somewhat neglected. Gershom Scholem had a special appreciation for the Bahir, but he never really went beyond his Ph.D. dissertation in its scholarly pursuit. In fact, he frequently changed his positions and views concerning the Bahir, and consequently, never attained his ultimate aim to write a comprehensive work on this original source.
1

Daniel Abrams, The Book Bahir: An Edition Based on the Earliest Manuscripts, with a Foreword by Moshe Idel, Sources and Studies in the Literature of Jewish Mysticism (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 1994)

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

Academic research leading to full appreciation and comprehension of the Bahir is still in its initial stages. Regrettably, there is very little written about it, and the research accomplished to date is far from complete. The Bahir is the first kabbalistic work to introduce the doctrine of reincarnation as a religious belief-system, or a theological theory in Judaism. Divided into 141 sections in Daniel Abrams’ critical edition, the Bahir presents a complicated theosophy in which only fourteen sections deal with the concept of reincarnation. The focus of this paper is to analyze several sections that deal with the theory and demonstrate the unique way in which its author manipulated biblical connotations and commentary. The Bahir’s treatment of the subject is not arranged chronologically or topically. True to the Bahir’s enigmatic character, the sections dealing with elements of the theory of reincarnation are scattered throughout the work. The creation of a new thematic arrangement is warranted in order to present the theory of reincarnation as a cohesive belief-system. *** In section eighty-six,2 the Bahir first reveals the belief in reincarnation. The entire theory of reincarnation is based on a short phrase of just two Hebrew words from Psalms 146:10: “le-dor va-dor,” from generation to generation. These two words are further connected to another phrase “a generation goes, and a generation comes” from Ecclesiastes 1:4. These short phrases, according to the Bahir, evoke the idea that the human soul reincarnates from one generation to the next:3
R. Meir said: What is the meaning of the verse “The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, from generation to generation?” What [does it mean] “from generation to generation”? R. Papias said: It is written, “A generation goes, and a generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4). And R. Akiba said: [The meaning of “A generation goes and a generation comes” is that] it has already come. To what is this similar? – To a fable about a king who owned slaves, and he dressed them with embroidered silk garments according to his best ability. They disarranged them. He expelled them and drove his presence from them, and stripped them of his garments, and they went away. The king then took the garments, washed them thoroughly until there was no soiled spot left on them and placed them to be readily used. Then the king bought other slaves and
2

All numbering of the Bahir s sections follow Abrams’ edition. References to the parallel sections in Margaliot’s edition are also provided at the end of each cited section. 3 See also Steven A. Moss, “Ecclesiastes 1:4: A Proof Text For Reincarnation,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 21 (1993): 28-30.

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

dressed them with these garments. But he did not know whether or not these slaves were good. And here is a case where they [the new slaves] benefited from garments that had been worn previously by others and were not even new. However, the verse continues (Ecclesiastes 1:4): “But the earth stands forever.” This is the same as the verse in Ecclesiastes 12:7: “The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Abrams ed., Section 86; Margaliot4 ed., Sections 121 and 122.) 5

In this section, the notion of reincarnation is just emerging and not fully explained. The Bahir uses the pre-eminence and popularity of R. Akiba6 to raise the novel theory of reincarnation. This pseudepigraphic technique of using the reputation of an important historical figure to assume authority and authenticity to a newly devised concept is common in anonymous works and pseudo-literature. In this passage that resembles a typical Talmudic argument, several Rabbis offer their explication of a biblical phrase and one of them, usually the latter, is regarded as the decisive authority. Thus, the imperative voice is that of R. Akiba, a well-known mystic as well as rabbinic authority. In his initial work on the Bahir, Das Buch Bahir,7 Gershom Scholem observes that the word order of the Bahir’s interpretation to the biblical phrase is peculiar; the Bahir uses a phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:4 to expand on the phrase from Psalms 146:10, stating that “a generation goes, and a generation comes.” In Scholem’s opinion, it should have been reversed, that is, first a generation comes, and then it goes. Scholem’s statement may bear truth, but if the process of reincarnation is understood as a cyclical event then it does not matter where the process starts or ends. Whenever the Bahir introduces a new concept, its meaning is elucidated by a parable. The parables are usually adapted from the midrashic literary genre and constructed in its form and style. The Bahir favors the popular genre of King-Mashal

4 5

Sefer ha-Bahir. [Hebrew] Edited by Reuben Margaliot. Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kuk, 1977. All translations from the original Hebrew or Aramaic are the author’s. 6 The entire mystical tradition of the Merkabah literature is based on the magical experiences of R. Akiba and his first century contemporary, R. Ishmael. 7 Gershom Scholem, Das Buch Bahir (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Burchgesellschart, 1970), 98. Scholem sees an intentional meaning here, which may feed on the use of the verb h-1-kh in both the biblical verse and the verb describing the servants leaving.

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

because it fits its exegesis perfectly. The King-Mashal8 is prevalent in the midrashic literature where the role of God is played by the human king, and the People of Israel play the role of the servants or His subordinates. In this instance, the king gives his servants expensive clothes made of silk and embroidery, but the servants abuse and ruin them. This story is an adaptation of the parable in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 152b, which explains the biblical verse from Ecclesiastes 12:7 – “and the spirit will return to God who has given [made] it”:
This is reminiscent of a parable about a king of flesh and blood who distributed royal clothing to his servants. The smart ones returned them ironed. The foolish ones returned them soiled. The king was rejoiced with the smart ones, but was angry with the foolish ones. About the smart ones, he said: Let them give the clothes [keli, literally, vessel, thing] to the treasury, and they will go to their homes in peace. About the foolish ones, he said: Let them give the clothes [again, the text uses the word keli] to the launderer, and they will be put in jail. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 23a)

As noted above, the Bahir’s comprehensive theory of reincarnation is founded on the close reading of two biblical verses: Psalms 146:10 and Ecclesiastes 1:4. The first verse describes the evolutionary process of souls from one generation to the next, and the second describes the process of reincarnation. At all times, the biblical text was regarded as sacred; changes to the text were prohibited under any circumstances. (More strictly, this convention only applied to liturgical texts.) Infrequently, vowel letters (Matres Lectionis) were added to facilitate reading of ambiguous words and phrases. Though variations in reading may have also been accidental due to scribal errors, in some cases, however, it is feasible to assume that they were intentional. If so, the Bahir’s choice of biblical verses coupled with its peculiar rendering of their spelling may be of utmost significance to the understanding of the Bahir’s doctrine of reincarnation. With this in mind, the initial examination of the first
8

David Stern, Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 19-21. Stern observes that the protagonist of the narrative conventionally became a king, and its other personae, members of the royal court the king s advisers, counselors, generals, the soldiers in his army, the subjects of his provinces, and so on... Typically, the character of the king symbolizes God. This symbolization derives from ancient Near Eastern traditions, and is already close to a cliché in the Bible. (p.19) Stern further notes that other scholars have suggested Hellenistic influence on the genre of the King-Mashal.

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

statement le-dor va-dor, from generation to generation (Psalms 146:10) reveals that there is a discrepancy between the plene and the defective spellings of this phrase.9 In the masoretic text, the defective spelling of the word dor, generation, renders it without the letter vav. The Bahir’s version of Psalms 146:10 uses the plene spelling, which includes the letter vav. It is impossible to ascertain the specific tradition of biblical texts held by the producer of the Munich manuscript that is consulted in this study.10 Traditions of biblical texts varied from one location to another, and scholars in the field of textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible are divided in the assessment of this particular problem.11 It is also impossible to ascertain if the Bahir added a vav to a deflective text or copied the verse from a plene text. Additionally, there is always the possibility that the scribe of the Munich manuscript could have written down the verse from memory. Nonetheless, the evidence from the masoretic text shows a split usage of plene and deflective spellings of the word dor, generation, which may further intensify this argument. In addition, two important issues should be brought forward into this premise: 1) The Bahir, like its predecessor Sefer Yetzirah, devotes a large part to specific mystical explications on the meaning and symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet and its vowel system. 2) A centuries-old tradition viewed the Hebrew Bible as a sacred text in which

9

More on the meaning and usage of plene and defective spelling see James Barr, The Variable Spellings of the Hebrew Bible (The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1986; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
10

See Jordan S. Penkower, The Dates of Composition of The Zohar and The Book Bahir: The History of Biblical Vocalization and Accentuation as a Tool for Dating Kabbalistic Works (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2010) and Daniel Abrams, Kabbalistic Manuscripts and Textual Theory: Methodologies of Textual Scholarship and Editorial Practice in the Study of Jewish Mysticism (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2010). 11 See Immanuel Tov, Bikoret nosah ha-mikra [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, [1989]), 18. Tov relates that when the masoretic reading became the main text accepted by the Jews, a tendency of not changing anything in it, even not the tiniest details such as, dots on top of letters or under them, signs inside the text and the uses of matres lectionis [became apparent]. Therefore, the masoretic text [or reading] commemorated the textual reading of the Hebrew Bible very precisely, according to its usage during a certain period among a certain circle [of people]. Moshe Henry Goshen-Gottstein, Hebrew Biblical Manuscripts Their History and Their Place in the HUBP Edition, Biblica 48 (1967): 243-90. See also note #4 in the introduction to The Leningrad Codex: A Facsimile Edition, ed. David Noel Freedman, with an introduction by E. John Revell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, Leiden: Brill, 1998).

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

every letter is considered holy. These two factors make it difficult to ignore the different spelling chosen by the Bahir.12 The importance and holiness of each letter in the Hebrew Scriptures is a frequently discussed theme throughout the Talmudic literature. In one instance, R. Ishmael warns R. Meir about the importance of scribal work, comparing it to divine creation and telling him that omitting or adding one letter to the original text of the Torah could be compared to the destruction of the world (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13a). Similarly, R. Yohanan prohibits adding even one letter to the original text of the Torah (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 18b). In another instance, the same R. Yohanan states ironically: “It is preferable to uproot a letter from the Torah than to profane the name of God in public” (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 79a). It is also reported that biblical figures such as Joseph, Sarah, Benjamin, and Judah had benefited from their righteous deeds by being awarded extra letters to their names (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 10b, 36b). The extra letters comprise three divine letters – yod, he, or vav, which make up the Tetragrammaton, the name of God (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, ‘amalek, 1; Mekhilta de Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai 18:1). Elsewhere the Talmud reveals that the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, viewed as sacred, composed the entire Torah (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 102b). While writing or receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, Moses asks God why He interpolates and attaches crowns to the letters of the alphabet, an act that could be described as a mystical practice. God replies that He is somewhat delayed because of the first century Talmudic scholar R. Akiba who is destined to excel in this mystical practice
12

See Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., vol. 8, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 14-6. Baron’s position merits repeating here: “Less obvious, but intrinsically very strong, was the nexus between the intellectual pursuits of the masoretic schools and the letter mysticism of the Book of Creation... the preoccupation with each letter of the Bible, its form and pronunciation, was never so intensive and passionate as among those schools of biblical experts who dedicated their lives to the ascertainment of every minutia of the biblical text. However dry and technical their actual work undoubtedly was, the underlying theory and emotional compensation could only stress the cosmic significance of each letter. A false step, a misreading of but a single letter, it was agreed, would not only be a serious scholarly error, might not only lead to grave legal and ritualistic dissensions, but might also have adverse repercussions in the upper worlds.”

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

of examining the meaning of the Hebrew alphabet (Babylonian Talmud Menahot 29b). In this mystical Midrash, Moses foresees the future as he watches R. Akiba, who succeeds him by a millennium. Furthermore, King Solomon is reported to have quarreled with the letter yod of the word yarbeh (Deuteronomy 17:15), “He will have more,” and replaced it with the letter alef [’arbeh], “I will have more.” The letter yod complained to God: “Could one revoke a letter from the Torah forever? Here is Solomon who dares to revoke me. Today he revokes one letter and tomorrow he will revoke the entire Torah!” God reassured the letter yod that this would never happen, and added an extra yod to the name of Joshua ben Nun, Moses’ successor, thus keeping the balance between the letters intact (Exodus Rabbah, Shenan ed., 6:1). Representing the traditional view that each letter in the Torah is sacred, these midrashic accounts are reiterated in “the opening declaration of the author of the Book of Creation [Sefer Yetzirah] that God had created the world with three principles (Sefarim): book, number, and word...”13 The most significant application of the plene spelling of the word dor, generation, is tied to the meaning of the letter vav in the Bahir and its closest source, Sefer Yetzirah. In section twenty-one, the vav, according to the Bahir, represents the six corners of the divine world. These six corners were identified by “’Or ha-Ganuz”14 and subsequently by Moshe Idel (Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 141) as the six lower Sefirot, emanations, which are responsible for the creation of the world. Sefer Yetzirah 4:8 describes the
13

See Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., vol. 8, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 14-6. Baron s position merits repeating here: Less obvious, but intrinsically very strong, was the nexus between the intellectual pursuits of the masoretic schools and the letter mysticism of the Book of Creation... the preoccupation with each letter of the Bible, its form and pronunciation, was never so intensive and passionate as among those schools of biblical experts who dedicated their lives to the ascertainment of every minutia of the biblical text. However dry and technical their actual work undoubtedly was, the underlying theory and emotional compensation could only stress the cosmic significance of each letter. A false step, a misreading of but a single letter, it was agreed, would not only be a serious scholarly error, might not only lead to grave legal and ritualistic dissensions, but might also have adverse repercussions in the upper worlds. 14 Or ha-Ganuz is the earliest known commentary (14th century) to the Bahir. It is included in Margaliot’s edition of the Bahir. All citations from Or ha-Ganuz follow Margaliot’s edition, and all English translations are the author’s.

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

divine function of the letter vav, which is consequently adopted by the Bahir in section twenty-one: “He chose three of the Simple Letters and set them up in His Great Name [the Tetragrammaton], and sealed with them the six corners [of the world].”15 In section thirty-seven of the Bahir, the letter vav also symbolizes the divine light, presumably referring to the light of the creation, which God reduced because of human immorality. (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 12b) In section forty-nine, the Bahir identifies the letter vav with the day, and in section fifty-five, all the preceding elements are connected to form one concept:
But we have stated: What does the letter vav resemble? It resembles the light [in the verse from Psalms 104:2] “He wraps himself in light like a garment” and this [is what we said] that the letter vav is the six corners [ends]. He said: The circumcision and the spouse of the man are considered as one. [Add to it] his two hands to make three, his head and body make five and his two legs make [it] seven. Corresponding to them are His powers in heaven, as it is written (Ecclesiastes 7:14): “The one no less than the other God has done [created].” Where is it written that “God created six days” (Exodus 31:17) and it is not written in six days? This is to teach [us] that [in] every day He has His [specific] power.

In this section, the Bahir again paraphrases a text previously introduced by Sefer Yetzirah16 4:8 and 4:3, discussing the various functions and symbolism of the twenty-two Hebrew characters. Given a mystical role and meaning, the Hebrew letters are divided in Sefer Yetzirah 4:3 into three main groups: 1) the main letters consist of ’alef, mem, and shin; 2) the seven double letters: bet, gimel, dalet, kaf, pe, resh, and tav; 3) the twelve simple [or common] letters: he, vav, zayin, het, tet, yod, lamed, nun, samekh, ‘ayin, ztadi, and kof. The letter vav belongs to the group of the twelve simple letters. Saadyah Gaon, (882/892–942), in his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah, explains that these letters represent twelve unique powers in the human being, including the five senses. According to Sefer
15

The singular form of ketzavot is, according to Jastrow, Dictionary, 1404-5, ketzat or katza. In Tanhuma va-yesheb 2 it means ends. In the Bahir, it refers cosmologically to the various corners, directions of the heavenly sphere or the emanations, Sefirot. See Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 141. See also Abraham Iben Ezra, Sefer ha-Shem [photocopy in Hebrew] (Fiorde: n.p., 1734), 8, where he mentions the six ends or corners of the world. 16 Ithamar Gruenwald, A Preliminary Critical Edition of Sefer Yetzirah [Hebrew] (Israel Oriental Studies 1, 1971): 132-77. Sefer Yetzirah [Kitav Almabadi]: Im perush ha-Gaon Saadyah ben Yosef Fayumi. [Hebrew] Edited and translated by Yosef David Kapah. (Jerusalem: Hava ad le-hoza at sifre Rasag, [1971?]).

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

Yetzirah, the letter vav represents the astrological sign of Taurus, the Hebrew month of ’iyyar and the gall bladder, (Sefer Yetzirah 6:5) and is attributed to hearing and deafness. (Sefer Yetzirah 8:2). The vowel used in the word dor, generation, is the holam with or without a vav, which represents respectively plene or defective spelling. The Bahir deals with the holam in section twenty-seven, where this vowel symbolizes the soul and the dream:
His [R. Amora] students asked him: What is a holam? He said to them: It is the soul. If you listen to it, your body will heal in the forthcoming future. But if you rebel against it, sickness and diseases will return to its head. Furthermore, he said: Every dream is in a holam and every white pearl is in [a] holam, as it is written: (Exodus 28:19) “ve-’ahlamah” [=A precious stone in the third row of the breastplate (hoshen) of the High Priest.] (Abrams, Section seventy-one; Margaliot, Section 102)

Accordingly, section twenty-seven depicts a word game on the root of the word holam, het-lamed-mem [h-l-m]. The Bahir proposes three meanings to this root: healing, dreaming, and the glamour of a white pearl. Only the third meaning is supported by a biblical verse. In addition to this innovative biblical commentary, the Bahir exhibits spiritual tendencies, suggesting to the readers to listen to the voice or intuition of the soul. The argument presented thus far suggests that according to both Sefer Yetzirah and the Bahir, every letter of the Hebrew alphabet and every vowel have a sacred mystical and divine meaning, transmitted traditionally from one generation to the other. Sefer Yetzirah is most likely the first manifestation of this tradition, while the Bahir, being a much later work, has integrated these teachings and further elaborated on them. It is interesting to speculate that the plene spelling of the word dor is intentional, allowing a brand new interpretation of the addition of the letter vav to represent the six lower emanations, as shown above. One may also argue that the Bahir claims pre-existence for the process of reincarnation by attaching it to the six emanations that were responsible for the creation of the world. Without the added vav, the word dor would remain oblivious and unimportant. The Bahir’s choice of the verse from Psalms 146:10 appears deliberate. The phrase dor le-dor occurs at least eighteen times in the Hebrew Bible, of which fourteen appear in Psalms. Though the phrase is commonly used, there is little midrashic tradition 9
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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

attached to this verse. In fact, the only sources preceding the Bahir that treated this verse are Pesiqta Rabbati 20 (ca. ninth century C.E.) and Midrash on the Psalms (Buber) (third century C.E.) on mizmor 146. Pesiqta Rabbati 20 relates this verse to a vision about the heavenly court, passionately occupied in frenzied adorations of God. The Midrash on Psalms situates this verse in a description of the righteous and the wicked ascending to the heavenly Jerusalem where the righteous are given preferential treatment. The lack of extensive midrashic tradition allows the Bahir the freedom to introduce its own groundbreaking exposition. If this verse had a long midrashic tradition, it would have been quite impossible for the Bahir to attach to it a new concept, such as reincarnation. On the other hand, the Bahir’s second component of the theory of reincarnation – dor holekh ve-dor ba’ – a generation goes and a generation comes (Ecclesiastes 1:4) – is replete with midrashic traditions. Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 5a belongs to this tradition and not surprisingly, tells about an esoteric conversation between R. Bibi and the Angel of Death. The former struggles with the issue of theodicy and realizes that the particular phrase contains a special esoteric meaning not to be disclosed to the reader. The Angel of Death alludes to R. Bibi’s exclamation and states that his role resembles that of a shepherd! He safeguards human souls and then delivers them to the hands of another angel. The identity of the other angel is not disclosed, and the entire tale is quite vague and unsettled. In order to better comprehend the Bahir’s enigmatic structure and follow its arguments for the validity of the doctrine of reincarnation, the implementation of an interpretive technique called “free association” should be considered as a viable tool. The interest in the psychological technique of free association (word association or Associationism) was equally shared by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Both researched and wrote on the subject extensively. According to Phebe Cramer, the interest in this method “is based on the belief that [word] associations per se reflect something basic about the nature of the mind and its thought process.”17
17

Phebe Cramer, Word Association (New York and London: Academic Press, 1968), 2.

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

Associationism entered the field of psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century but was utilized as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers and has continued to be studied up to the present. David Rapaport studied Associationism in the works of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant:
To this outline of the development of the concept of association, it should be added that – as already Descartes knew – the emergence of associations is determined by curiosity, by interest – in a word, by desires... We have repeatedly pointed out in our discussion that the latest investigations in modern psychology have forced us to resume the same thread. The exploration and exposition of that thread establishes the historical continuity between the concepts of association of psychology as part of philosophy and as an independent discipline.18

John Locke coined the term “association of ideas” in 1700 in his “Essay on Human Understanding” (Book II, chapter 33). For the purpose of this study, free association is defined as “a thought process in which ideas (words or images) suggest other ideas in a sequence.”19 Modern literary critics have infrequently used the method of free association. Edward A. Armstrong was one of the few scholars who applied this method to evaluate Shakespeare’s work in order to gain an insight into details of Shakespeare’s personality and private life.20 Returning to the second component of the Bahir’s theory of reincarnation, a very essential exposition on the phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:5 – “the sun rises and the sun sets” – also depicts the theory of reincarnation:
“And the sun rises”, R. Berakhyah in the name of R. Abba bar Khahana said: Is it really so that we do not know [the meaning of] “the sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes. 1:5)? Is not [the meaning as follows]: Until a righteous person’s sun has set, another righteous’ sun cannot rise! [For instance,] on the day that R. Akiba died, Rabbi [Judah ha-nasi] was born, and they decreed: “The sun rises and the sun sets.” On the day that R. Ada bar Ahava died, R. Himnuna, his son, was born, and they decreed: “The sun rises and the sun sets.” On the day that R. Himnuna died, R. Abin, his son, was born, and they decreed: “The sun rises and the sun sets.” On the day that R. Abin died, Abba Hosheya Ish Triya was born, and they decreed: “The sun rises and the sun sets.” Until Sarah’s sun had set, Rebekah’s sun did not rise, as it is written (Genesis 22:23): “And Bethuel fathered Rebekah.” And then, [it was written,] “Sarah died in Kiriath-arba’” (Genesis 24:2) and it is [also] written [in the same chapter] “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah.” (Genesis 24:67) Until Moses’ sun has set, Joshua’s sun did not rise, and until Joshua’s sun had set,
18

David Rapaport, The History of the Concept of Association of Ideas (New York: International Universities Press, 1974), 122ff. 19 See also, "Free Association." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Available from http://www.merriamwebster.com/medical/free%20association. Internet; accessed 24 April 2011. 20 Edward A. Armstrong, Shakespeare s Imagination: A Study of the Psychology of Association and Inspiration (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1963).

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

Othniel’s sun did not rise, and he is Jabez, and so is everyone from one generation to another, namely “the sun rises, and the sun sets.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah [Eighth century C.E.], 1)

The “sun” in this midrashic instance symbolizes the life of a human being, and the life of one person is described as leaving the body and entering the body of another one. The Midrash assigns specific souls [or life forces] to depart and enter a physical body. Even though the expression used here is “the sun rises, and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1:5), the resemblance to the phrase “one generation goes and another comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) is striking, and both refer to a cyclical turn of events. The author of the Bahir must have been familiar with this exegesis of Ecclesiastes 1:5, which also mentions the phrase, “from one generation to another,” from Ecclesiastes 1:4. Therefore, it could be concluded that the second component of the Bahir’s theory of reincarnation relies heavily on previous traditional commentaries. Moreover, the Bahir’s skillful method of free association uses variant spellings of the word dor, generation, and demonstrates exquisite ingenuity in Midrashic interpolation. The section ends with another phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:4 – “But the earth [ground] stands forever” – and with a phrase from Ecclesiastes 12:7 – “The dust returns to the earth as it was [to its origin], but the spirit returns to God who gave [created] it.” These two biblical verses are connected to each other by free association: Dust, ’afar, is associated with earth, ha-’aretz, and both dust and earth [ground] play a major role in explaining the nature of the Bahir’s concept of reincarnation. The physical component, the body, disintegrates organically, while the spiritual component, the soul, joins the divine sphere, that is, “the dust returns to the earth, as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) Quite subliminally, though, the combination of these two verses indicates that the Bahir’s theory of reincarnation is spiritual and not physical in nature. The old soul reincarnates in a new body, while the old body and its organic parts disintegrate into the soil. Very few Midrashic commentaries are devoted to the above phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:4; these usually attach this phrase to the familiar phrase from the same verse – a generation goes and a generation comes. Sifre to Deuteronomy 47:21 (third 12
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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

century C.E.) illustrates the connection between the two phrases: “R. Yehoshua ben Karhah says: Isn’t it written [in Ecclesiastes 1:4] “a generation goes and a generation comes”? Read here only as follows: earth goes, earth comes, and a generation is sustained forever. However, as [humans] changed their actions, God changed the order of the world.” This Midrash implies that God initially intended human beings to live for eternity and the material world was supposed to be rejuvenated and renewed constantly. But human sins have changed the whole prospect and a reverse process was implemented. It is not clear though if this passage refers to the sin of Adam and Eve or to sins committed before the Flood. In any case, the order of the world was changed and the evolving elements turned out to be the generations. The Bahir expands on this commentary by introducing an additional evolving process – the reincarnation of these generations. From a stylistic point of view, section eighty-six of the Bahir reverses the order of the passage in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 152b in which the verse from Ecclesiastes 12:7 is mentioned in the text just before the parable about the king who distributed royal clothes to his servants. The Babylonian Talmud explicates the verse from Ecclesiastes 12:7 to mean that the spirit endowed in human beings was given to them in a pure state and should be returned in that same state. The Bahir omitted this explication and placed the above verse at the end of the tale to validate and reinforce the parable. In the Talmudic text, the fable is recounted as an illustration of the Talmudic argument. Moreover, this text displays a shorter version of the fable; it does not describe the second distribution of the clothes. Apparently, the Bahir added the second distribution in order to substantiate the theory of reincarnation. Interestingly, the Bahir also introduces a new element to the Talmudic tale – the clothes being washed and then reused by new servants. This seemingly tiny variation changes the meaning of the fable and introduces the concept of “used/old souls,” namely reincarnation. The characters, setting, and costumes depicted by the Bahir are identical to the ones presented in the Talmudic Midrash. However, the Bahir chooses to change several elements of the midrashic version. According to the Bahir, God is the one who washes 13
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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

the damaged clothes (that is, the souls), contrary to the rabbinic tale in which the wise people wash their own clothes. Alternatively, the Bahir transfers the role of washing the soiled clothes to the heavenly sphere, stressing that the divine power actually bears the responsibility for the fate of the human soul and its conduct in this world. Another significant departure from the rabbinic text is manifested in the Bahir’s new notion that the garments were worn before; they are not altogether new. By changing a few details, the Bahir introduces a new concept: the “used” garments are a symbol for the reincarnated souls, which are not necessarily new souls; they may be old ones ready to reenter this world. Scholem mentions this change in the section but also notes that the symbolism here is “quite peculiar;” the garment is the symbol for the soul, yet in other instances the body is considered as the garment for the soul. Scholem’s view is barely reconciled here because both sources, the Talmud and the Bahir, use the same symbol, garment, for the soul. Furthermore, in a fierce argument about the immortality of the soul and about the possibility of reincarnation, Cebes, one of Socrates’ disciples, uses the analogy of the tailor and his garments to demonstrate the relationship of the soul to the body:
The tailor makes and wears out any number of cloaks, but although he outlives all the others, presumably, he perishes before the last one; and this does not mean that a man is lowlier and more frail than a cloak. I believe that this analogy could apply to the relation of soul to body; and I think that it would be reasonable to say of them in the same way that the soul is a long-lived thing, whereas the body is relatively feeble and short-lived... (Phaedo 87c-d) 30

Hellenistic influences are detected not only in the content of the rabbinic parables but also in their form. David Stern emphasizes the Hellenistic origin of the rabbinic KingMashal. Moreover, in his discussion on the use of parables in the Bahir, he observes another important departure of the Bahir from the rabbinic genre: [As an esoteric document,] Sefer Habahir hesitates to divulge its meaning explicitly. It simply leaves the nimshal21 out, dropping it from the mashal’s form. As a result of this omission, the meshalim in Sefer HaBahir are not necessarily entirely mysterious or incoherent. On many occasions, the mashal is preceded by a homily or a statement that helps to create some kind of context for the mashal; in other cases, clues to the mashal’s meaning are supplied by its context. But Sefer HaBahir’s reader is always left partly

21

Moral, lesson of the parable.

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Biblical Connotations and Commentary in the Book Bahir (Sefer HaBahir)

in the dark, and intentionally so. The absence of a nimshal spreads a kind of occluding patina over the mashal’s ulterior meaning, further darkening what is already hidden. (Ibid., 217)

In sum, the Bahir bases its presentation of the concept of reincarnation on ancient sources, which are artfully adapted and implemented, so that this new, possibly revolutionary idea is offered as a logical development from earlier scriptures.

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