The Book of the Pomegranate: Moses de Leon's Sefer Ha-Rimmon by Elliot R. Wolfson (Brown Judaic Studies) The critical edition of Moses de León's Sefer ha-Rimmon was Wolfson’s Ph.D. dissertation in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in 1984-86. This study is an edited edition of the Hebrew text with introduction only in English.
The author of Sefer ha-Rimmon, Moses ben Shem Tob de León, is best known from the controversy which surrounds him concerning his assumed involvement with either the authorship or editing of the crowning work of medieval Spanish kabbalah, the Zohar. As with many classical and medieval personalities, more is known about de León's literary career than about his personal life. It is assumed that he was born circa 1240 in León and died in 1305 in Arevalo. The first dated piece of biographical information that we know of with certainty, however, is the Hebrew copy of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed which was made for him in 1264.
The suspicion that de León may have had something to do with the writing of the Zohar did not originate, as some mistakenly assume, with the philological and historical researches of Scholem. Indeed, this charge, as is attested by the diary account of Isaac of Acre, a kabbalist more or less contemporary with de León, was made already at the time of the distribution of the work in the end of the thirteenth century. The history of this question as treated in both traditional and scholarly documents has been catalogued by Isaiah Tishby, and there is no need to review it here in detail. Suffice it to say that scholars today generally accept Scholem's conclusions that all of the Zohar, with the exception of the Ra'aya Meheimna section and the Tiqqunim, was authored by de León, sometime in the last two decades of the thirteenth century. From the point of view of Sefer ha-Rimmon, the question of the authorship and chronology of the Zohar is crucial.
Sefer ha-Rimmon is extant in four manuscripts,) only one of which is complete. Wolfson offers a brief description of each of these manuscripts.
Sefer ha-Rimmon, written in 1287, comes at the very heart of de León's campaign to disseminate the theosophic doctrines which inform the Zohar.
The title of Sefer ha-Rimmon alludes to the mystical concept, first expressed in the Sefer ha-Bahir, concerning the containment or inclusion of all the precepts in the Shekhinah. While the exoteric significance of the title is based on the talmudic-midrashic explanation that all of Israel, even the ignorant, are filled with mitzwot as a pomegranate is filled with seeds, the esoteric meaning is based on the identification of this pomegranate with the divine Presence which similarly is said to be filled with mitzwot.
The Sefer ha-Rimmon is a voluminous treatise marked by verbosity and repetition. Time and again, de León draws the reader's attention to a previous discussion with the words: "as we have already noted," "according to that which we have already said." It is thus not difficult to lose sight of the inherent structure of the text and the ground covered by its author. Wolfson discusses three topics related to the issue of literary structure and form: literary genre, division of the text, and classification of the mitzwot.
The Sefer ha-Rimmon technically belongs to the literary genre known as ta'amei ha-mitzwot, the exposition of the reasons for the commandments. In terms of kabbalistic sources, the central concern and impetus which generated this literature was the reinterpretation of traditional normative Judaism in light of mystical doctrine, specifically the theosophical system whose literary expression flourished in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. It should be emphasized, however, that a good portion of the first part of Sefer ha-Rimmon incorporates commentaries on the daily and Sabbath liturgy as well as that of the High Holy Days. In a sense, therefore, de León has combined two separate literary genres, rationalization of the commandments and commentary on the prayers, known to us from a host of thirteenth-century kabbalistic writings. Although these two genres are closely related, they are nevertheless distinct.
In addition there is a third kabbalistic literary genre embedded in Sefer ha-Rimmon, that is a perush ma'aseh bereshit, commentary on the act of creation. De León inserts a rather lengthy exposition on this matter in his treatment of the commandment to sanctify the new moon. The commentary consists of a comparative analysis of the first chapter
in Genesis and Psalm 104.49 It is based on R. Ezra of Gerona's "Secrets of Creation," Sodot Ma'aseh Bereshit, which forms part of his Commentary on Shir ha-Shirim.
The basic division of Sefer ha-Rimmon reflects the traditional rabbinic categorization of biblical law into injunctions and prohibitions, positive and negative commandments. Yet, each part is itself divided into seven sections or, as the author refers to them, "gates". It is possible, although it is nowhere stated explicitly, that this division reflects the kabbalistic notion of the seven extremities which constitute the seven lower sefirot from Hesed to Malkhut. This possibility is suggested by two texts.
Now, inasmuch as in the writings of de León, as well as in other thirteenth‑century kabbalistic authors, the seven heavens symbolically correspond to the seven lower sefirot, it would be safe to assume that the seven gates of Sefer ha-Rimmon similarly correspond to the seven sefirot.
The Sefer ha-Rimmon is a composite work drawing together a host of classical and medieval sources, perhaps most significantly passages from the Zohar. In the author's mind all stages of rabbinic literary tradition are blurred, together. He thus cites talmudic, midrashic, and kabbalistic sources (including the Zohar) in the name of the rabbis. The intricate weaving together of the various strands of rabbinic tradition, coupled with the author's penchant for paraphrase rather than accurate citation, make the task of a critical reader a difficult one. It would appear, moreover, that the author, following the norm of his day, cited biblical and rabbinic sources by rote. At times, therefore, it is difficult to ascertain with certainty which literary document serves as his source. It is indeed more likely that several sources were combined in his mind, producing thereby an inaccurate rendering of the base text. In the body of the critical edition Wolfson has fully annotated the text, giving all the sources he could identify which the author may have used.
It is highly uncharacteristic of de León to mention his sources by name. In Sefer ha-Rimmon there are only two such occurrences: once he mentions R. Jonah of Gerondi and once, as we have seen, Nahmanides. Yet, despite his reluctance to note his sources, it is clear that he drew upon a wide range of kabbalistic materials. Wolfson discusses these sources with the exception of the Zohar which is discussed independently. It is important to stress that de León had other contemporary mystical texts, as for example those of the German pietists, particularly Eleazar of Worms. The influence of the latter can be discerned in several places in Sefer ha-Rimmon.
Although he never mentions it by name, it is clear from several contexts that de León made use of the Sefer ha-Bahir. Indeed, in one passage he refers to a text from the Bahir with the words, "as the ancients (gadmonim) taught," the very expression he uses elsewhere to introduce passages from the Zohar. There are also a few indications that he had before him texts deriving from the Provençal school of R. Isaac the Blind and his nephew, R. Asher ben David. In at least two places a possible influence of R. Judah bar Yaqar's Commentary on the Prayers and Blessings may be detected. It can be safely assumed, moreover, that he had some of the pseudepigraphic treatises which derived from the so-called Hug ha-'Iyyun, the "Circle of Contemplation," a thirteenth-century
school of mystics who were considerably influenced by Neoplatonic writings and who show a close affinity to the works of R. Azriel of Gerona.
The use of the Geronese kabbalists is also readily apparent to the acute reader. Thus, for example, de León uses the term "commentators" to refer on separate occasions to R. Ezra, Nahmanides, and Jacob ben Sheshet. As we have seen in a preceding section, in his account of creation de León includes a lengthy segment from Ezra of Gerona's Commentary on Shir ha-Shirim. De León does not simply copy from Ezra's text, but rather intersperses his own views which vary from Ezra's and often reflect the Zoharic viewpoint.
It is no exaggeration to say that Sefer ha-Rimmon is replete with dozens and dozens of parallels to the Zohar. This parallelism was first noted by Jellinek who properly characterized Sefer ha-Rimmon as a treatise "comprising ta'amei ha-mitzwot according to the kabbalah of the Zohar." This characterization was reaffirmed and expanded by Scholem who thus remarked with respect to the first two Hebrew theosophic works of de León, Shushan 'Edut and Sefer ha-Rimmon:
Both, but in particular the latter, are replete with allusions to mystical sources. Although the Zohar is never directly mentioned, a detailed analysis shows that he is already making systematic use of all its parts, from the Midrash Ha-Neelam to the commentaries of the main part of Leviticus and Numbers.
The kabbalistic categorization of the mitzwot reflects the particular theosophic posture of the given mystical writer. Wolfson discusses the main ontological and theological divisions of the commandments adopted by de León which inform his mystical transposition of normative halakhic practice. Here Wolfson confines himself to an elucidation of several motifs not otherwise discussed.
In Sefer ha-Rimmon there are various modes of categorization of the commandments, each imparting to the reader a specific dynamic within the divine pleroma. Thus de León at times speaks of the containment of all the commandments in the Decalogue which, in turn, corresponds to the ten divine gradations, the sefirot. The significance of this characterization can only be understood if the reader bears in mind the critical assumption made by de León with respect to the ontic nature of the commandments. The view either explicitly stated or implied in any number of contexts in Sefer ha-Rimmon is the idea, which may be traced to some of the earliest historical documents of the kabbalah, that the commandments are identical with the attributes of God. Such a notion was openly affirmed by the Geronese kabbalists, though it is already implicit in both the Sefer ha-Bahir and other Provençal mystics. The spiritual grounding of the commandments in the realm of the divine is enhanced by the mythological conception of the Torah as the divine body and the mystical identification of the Torah qua body with the divine name, the Tetragrammaton The mitzwot, accordingly, were viewed as the limbs of the Torah, the divine organism. This is the underlying conception of de León's use of the older midrashic motif concerning the containment of all the commandments in the Decalogue: the Ten Commandments correspond to the ten sefirot which, in turn, constitute the name of God, which itself is identical with the divine anthropos or the Torah in its mystical essence. As such, it follows that all the commandments will be comprised within the root ten. One of the more potent ideas to develop in medieval kabbalah was doubtless this explicit identification of God and Torah, reminiscent of Logos theories known to us from patristic literature. Whether or not there were earlier Jewish sources for this conception, the forthrightness with which the thirteenth-century kabbalists expressed these ideas is especially noteworthy. By means of this identification the mystical, mythological, and ethical dimensions all converged: to fulfill the commandments, as the kabbalist understood it, meant, first, to participate in the drama of divine life by cleaving to God and, secondly, to maintain and strengthen the divine structure Further, by identifying the Torah with the Tetragrammaton and the divine corpus, the kabbalists were able to infuse the traditional modes of practice with added significance. The divinization of Torah, in short, resulted in a concomitant sacrilization of orthodoxy. This factor seems to be one of the key elements in explaining the relatively easy acceptance of kabbalistic doctrine into mainstream Judaism.
Alternatively, de León expresses the view of the inclusion of all the commandments, positive and negative, within the last divine emanation, Shekhinah. Indeed, the Shekhinah, the feminine potency par excellence, is the divine gradation which most properly corresponds to mitzwah, i.e. Oral Torah, complementing the
masculine potency which corresponds to the Written Torah. The identification of Shekhinah with the Oral Torah, which represents both the theoretical exposition and practical implication of the Written Torah, places the focus of religious life in this gradation. Shekhinah is the portal through which one gains access to the realm of divine emanations. It is thus that de León identifies this gradation as the locus of faith. "Shekhinah," writes de León, "is the 'peak of Amanah' and "she is the faith .... And all people must enter into the mystery of faith...for whoever does not have faith has no portion in the God of Israel," "for one is not without the other, as you find that there is no day without night." In theosophic terms, through the feminine Shekhinah one comes into relation with the masculine God of Israel and thereby unites the aspect of day with that of the night. That the ultimate expression of this faith is through the performance of the commandments may be gathered from another passage: "whoever is not occupied with the commandments is 'devoid of sense' (Prov. 9:16) for he has no portion in the God of Israel, for all the commandments are linked to the mystery of the great name." The use of the same terminology in these two passages is not coincidental. Neither the one who has no faith nor the one who is not occupied with the commandments has a portion in the God of Israel. Indeed, the essence of faith is to be so occcupied. Insofar as Shekhinah symbolically corresponds to the mystery of faith, sod ha-'emunah, it follows that she will be the locus of all the commandments as well, the very means to express that faith in action. To employ the imagery of the Bahir, as the passageway to enter the divine palace, Shekhinah contains within herself all the pearls, treasures, jewels, and precious stones found in the interior chambers.
The centralization of the commandments in Shekhinah is additionally expressed by de León by the fact that this gradation is symbolized by the particular commandment of the fear of God. The Shekhinah, as a feminine potency, is situated on the left side of the divine pleroma and, consequently, is sustained by the attribute of judgment. It is thus appropriately symbolized by the commandment of fear as the latter involves the quality of judgment. "Worship through fear is the beginning [through which] to enter into the cleaving of the Creator. It is the opening to enter upward so that the upper attributes will rest upon him and he will be complete...for if fear does not rest upon his head...he is not worthy to cleave to the Torah and the commandments." The commandment to fear God can be said to comprise all the commandments, for without fear one cannot begin to cleave to God or the Torah. That is to say, the fear of God is the one commandment that holds the key to all the other commandments and, as such, contains the others within itself. It was the unique achievement of Moses that he established all the commandments in this one commandment, as it says, "Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but fear" (Deut. 10:12).265 This is the import of the talmudic dictum, based on this biblical verse, that for Moses fear of God was but a small matter i.e. the one matter which, like a Leibnizian monad, reflects the totality of the divine potencies from its own point of view. Inasmuch as all the commandments are contained in this one commandment, it follows that fear of God constitutes the proper expression of faith. Indeed, de León puts it quite simply, "if there is no fear there is no faith, for all is one matter and one secret." From the perspective of the divine axis, fear and faith have the same symbolic reference; from the perspective of the human axis, one without faith has no fear and, conversely, one without fear has no faith. Faith in God, therefore, translates into the fear of God, the one commandment that contains all the commandments. Just as one without faith has no portion in the God of Israel, so too one without fear.
Devotional life is thus centered about this one commandment and the divine emanation which it symbolizes. The overriding purpose of the commandments, for de León, is to cleave to the Shekhinah in order to facilitate both the possibility of the individual's ascending upward on the sefirotic ladder and of creating a downward flow of energy from the uppermost source to the other divine gradations and the cosmos. In emulation of Moses, the one who truly fears God is united to the level of the fear of God and, consequently, merits the whole range of commandments contained therein. By cleaving to Shekhinah, therefore, one has attained the level of proper faith.
De León develops the talmudic interpretation of Micah 6:8: all the mitzwot can be reduced to, or are contained within, three, viz. to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
These three things are a great principle and they contain all the commandments.... "Do justice," that is the attribute of Tzedaqah, the containment of everything. . . . "And love mercy," that is the right side which is the attribute of the right.... And these two attributes are the principle of all positive commandments. "Walk humbly," this is the root of the negative commandments. . . . Thus in these three you find the principle of all the commandments.
Hence, all the mitzwot, according to this passage, are contained in three of the ten divine emanations: Tif eret (called here Tzedaqah), Hesed, and Malkhut. The former two constitute the root of the positive commandments and the latter the root of the negative ones.
Of all the divisions of the commandments in Sefer ha-Rimmon which Wolfson examines the division of zakhor and shamor is beyond question the most significant for de León. His seemingly unassuming remark, "Behold I have established [all the commandments] upon two which are zakhor and shamor," encapsulates in a microcosmic form the essential teaching of de León's kabbalistic system. By the term "essential teaching" Wolfson has in mind a particular usage of Martin Heidegger. In his masterful work on Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger wrote that the great nineteenth century German philosopher belonged to the class of "essential thinkers" by which he meant "those exceptional human beings who are destined to think one single thought, a thought that is always about beings as a whole. Each thinker thinks only one single thought...around which...all beings turn." If we were to apply Heidegger's characterization to de León, it seems to Wolfson that a fitting choice for his "single thought" would be the idea of the unity of masculine and feminine in the divine realm, for it is this one thought to which he constantly returns in all his writings and which shapes his conception of being as a whole. While it is certainly not the case that de León was the first kabbalist to affirm the syzygy of the masculine and feminine within God, indeed one might well argue that this idea stands at the very core of kabbalistic thinking from the outset and it is that which places kabbalah within the framework of ancient gnostic speculation, it is true that no kabbalist before de León emphasized the matter to such an extent, especially stressing the sexual and mythological nuances implied thereby. It is the doctrine of the unity of sexual polarity which underlies de León's statement that he has established all the commandments upon two, zakhor and shamor. For de León, the two aspects of Sabbath adequately characterize the nature of the entire Torah. "The Sabbath is the Torah in its entirety...and the one who observes the Sabbath observes the entire Torah." "With respect to the matter of Sabbath one finds at one time the expression zakhor and another time shamor in the manner of the mystery of the entire Torah and all the commandments, for some of them are contained in zakhor and the others in shamor. All the Torah and the commandments are contained in the zakhor and shamor."
Hence, the Torah, which is for the kabbalist nothing but the form or shape of the divine being, may be reduced to two principles, the active-masculine and the passive-feminine, represented in the positive and negative commandments. Yet, although there are two roots for the commandments, in truth they are one. "Positive commandments and negative commandments are two gradations which are one. In the preface to the second part of the text, which deals extensively with the negative commandments, the aspect of shamor, de León is careful to emphasize the ontological unity of the two poles:
Although we have written the first book on the mystery of positive commandments, and it appears from our grouping them in one separate book and the negative commandments in another book, God forbid that they should be separated.... The intention is that knowledge should attain (literally, return to) the cause of their existence so that they should be united. . . . And their cause is such that they should interact one with the other, for the mystery is that the negative commandments are contained in the positive commandments, and from the positive one always comprehends the negative. Therefore one is joined to the other to act as one.
In contrast to Moses who established all the commandments within the one commandment that symbolically corresponds to Shekhinah, de León establishes all the commandments upon two roots which symbolically correspond to Yesod and Shekhinah. Notwithstanding the distinctiveness of these two roots, in their source they are in fact one. In the Zohar this unity is referred to as the "mystery of faith," raza di-meheimanuta. Above we have seen that de León uses an exact Hebrew equivalent of this expression, sod ha-' emunah, to specifically characterize the gradation of Shekhinah and the act of cleaving thereto. In another context in Sefer ha-Rimmon, however, de León warns the reader against cleaving exclusively to Shekhinah:
The [gradation of] fear is not found alone but in union [with another]. And the one who cleaves to it alone without [its] being united [to the other] is, as it were, separated from life, for in all events it is never alone without being in union. And thus the foundation of fear is to be in union with all and then fear is in its completeness.
The perfection of Shekhinah is only realized when She is united with the "all," ha-kol, i.e. Yesod, so-called because it receives the totality of divine energy from the upper spheres. In striking contrast, therefore, to the passage where Abraham was extolled for his exclusive cleaving to Shekhinah, de León here stresses that one who cleaves exclusively to Shekhinah is separated from the flow of life because Shekhinah Herself is only complete when She is united to the masculine grade above Her. He who attaches himself to Shekhinah alone causes a separation above between masculine and feminine, a sin which the kabbalists referred to by the rabbinic expression "cutting the shoots." The
ultimate task is to unite the masculine and feminine potencies, zakhor and shamor, and thereby be united to both The purpose of the commandments, which by their very nature participate in both the masculine and feminine poles, is precisely to achieve this union. It is thus that the very verse, Ps. 15:2, "He who walks without blame," interpreted in the passage discussed above as a reference to cleaving to the feminine Shekhinah is interpreted elsewhere as a reference to the perfection of the phallus, i.e. the covenant of circumcision, which symbolically corresponds to the masculine Yesod. That is the covenant which is called "day and night" for it is united in both who walks without blame" is that every person must be perfect in his ways to serve his Creator.
In the one verse, then, de León finds a reference both to man's relationship with the feminine Shekhinah and the masculine Yesod. That is, to be complete or blameless, tamim, means concomitantly to perfect the phallus (zakhor) and to cleave to Shekhinah (shamor). In this there is no contradiction, however, for only the one whose phallus is so perfected can cleave to the Shekhinah. Moreover, the perfection of the phallus itself, the ritual of circumcision, as determined by rabbinic law comprises two procedures, milah and peri'ah, corresponding respectively to the masculine and feminine potencies 3 9 The ideal of perfection, then, expressed biblically by the term tamim, involves the union of masculine and feminine aspects. It is through the commandments, positive and negative, that this perfection is fully realized. As the commandments of Sabbath and circumcision in particular, so the whole of Torah, the entire corpus of the commandments, is structured by the male-female polarity. The union of these poles characterizes the fundamental nature of the covenant given by God to Israel on Sinai, the abiding testimony of religious faith.
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