THE Old Testament is the fountain-head of Judaism. Hence if it is true, as is contended in a previous page, that the Old Testament contains mystical elements, then the starting-point in any treatment of Jewish mysticism on historical, or even semi-historical, lines must be the Old Testament. But this course will not be adopted here. The Old Testament will be omitted. And for a reason which has already been hinted. The mysticism of the Old Testament is of an elementary, naïve, and unconscious kind, whereas what this book is intended to show is the consciously-elaborated, professional mysticism of the Jews. What we get in the Old Testament are the ground-work and the scaffolding, the indispensable beginnings of the edifice; but not the edifice itself.
Thus it has much to say about the Fatherhood of God. Here we have a basic conception of all mysticism; for the latter in all its phases and stages assumes the possibility of communion with some one who, while
greater and more powerful than ourselves, is at the same time loving, and benevolent, and personally interested in us. You can only pray to one who hears; you can only feel love towards one who, you know, has loved you first. The Old Testament scintillates with sublime examples of men whose communion with God was a thing of intensest reality to them, and whose conviction of the 'nearness' of the Divine was beyond the slightest cavil. The sudden and unexpected inrushes of Divine inspiration which seized the Old Testament prophets; Isaiah's vision of a God 'whose train filled the Temple'--an emblem of the All-inclusiveness of Deity, of the presence and the working of an all-embracing Spirit of Life; the ecstasy of an Ezekiel lifted from off his feet by the Spirit and removed from one place to another; the fact of prophecy itself--the possession of a spiritual endowment not vouchsafed to ordinary men, the endowment of a higher insight into the will of God;--all these represent a stage of first-hand, living religion to which the name of mysticism is rightly and properly applied. But they are no more than the preamble to the explicit, conscious, and pronouncedly personal type of Jewish mysticism which is the subject of the present book.
The earliest beginnings of this mysticism are usually accredited, by modern Jewish
scholars, to the Essenes. To say this, is to put back Jewish mysticism to a very early date, for according to the theory of Wellhausen (Israëlitische and jüdische Geschichte, 1894, p. 261), the Essenes as well as the Pharisees were offshoots of the Ḥasidim (חסידים = 'pious ones') of the pre-Maccabean age. But it is only a theory, and not an established historical fact, seeing that the religious tenets of the Jews during the three centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christianity are veiled in considerable obscurity, and seeing also that the real meaning of the name 'Essenes' as well as their exact relations with the Pharisees are points upon which there is anything but certainty. 'What is certain, however, is that three out-standing literary sources belonging to the first two or three Christian centuries--viz. (a) Philo, (b) Josephus, (c) some older portions of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds--all have stray allusions, couched in varying phraseology, to certain sects or parties who differed in their mode of life from the general body of the Jews, and who were in possession of certain esoteric teachings of which those outside their ranks were un-informed.
Thus Philo (Quod omnis probes liber, 12) writes of them that they were "eminently worshippers of God (θεραπευταὶ θεοῦ), not in the sense that they sacrifice living
animals (like the priests in the Temple), but that they are anxious to keep their minds in a priestly state of holiness. They prefer to live in villages, and avoid cities on account of the habitual wickedness of those who in-habit them, knowing, as they do, that just as foul air breeds disease, so there is danger of contracting an incurable disease of the soul from such bad associations."
Again, in another of his works (De Vita contemplativa, ed. Conybeare, pp. 53, 206), Philo says: "Of natural philosophy . . they study only that which pertains to the existence of God and the beginning of all things, otherwise they devote all their attention to ethics, using as instructors the laws of their fathers, which, without the outpouring of the Divine Spirit, the human mind could not have devised . . . for, following their ancient traditions, they obtain their philosophy by means of allegorical interpretations. . . . Of the love of God they exhibit myriads of examples, inasmuch as they strive for a continued uninterrupted life of purity and holiness; they avoid swearing and falsehood, and they declare that God causes only good and no evil whatsoever. . . No one possesses a house absolutely as his own, one which does not at the same time belong to all; for, in addition to living together in companies, their houses are open also to their adherents coming from other
quarters. They have one storehouse for all, and the same diet; their garments belong to all in common, and their meals are taken in common."
Josephus speaks of the Essenes in similar terms (see Antiquities, XVIII. i. 2-6; also De Bello Judaico, II. viii. 2-13).
The points to be noted in both the fore-mentioned authors are: (a) the great stress laid on fellowship, amounting to a kind of communism; (b) their removal from the general people by reason of their higher sanctity; (c) their devotion to the knowledge of the existence of God and the beginning of all things; (d) their love of allegorical interpretation.
Although it is exceedingly difficult to know what the Rabbinic term equivalent to 'Essene' is, it is not hard to deduce, from names and phrases scattered throughout the Rabbinic records, a theory that there existed as early as the first Christian centuries either a distinct sect of Jews, or individual Jews here and there, who combined mystical speculation with an ascetic mode of life.
A similar phenomenon is observable in the history of the early Christian Church. There was a life of primitive and austere fellowship. A group here, a group there, gathered together with no other motive than that of gaining a greater hold on the spiritual life than was prevalent in the ordinary circles
of the people: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. . . . For neither were there among them any that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them . . . and distribution was made unto each according as any one had need" (Acts, iv. 32--35).
They seem to have lived on the borderland of an unusual ecstasy, experiencing extraordinary invasions of the Divine, hearing mystic sounds and seeing mystic visions which, to them, were the direct and immediate revelations of the deepest and most sacred truths.
Illustrations of similar experiences in the bosom of the early synagogue, as presented in the Rabbinic records, are the following:
There are several heterogeneous passages which speak of the existence within the ancient Temple at Jerusalem of a special apartment, called the lishkât ḥashāīm ('chamber of the silent [or secret] ones'). According to the statement of Tosefta Shekalim, ii. 16, there were to be found in some cities of Palestine and Babylon men known as Ḥashāīm, who reserved a special room in their house for depositing in it a charity-box into which money for the poor could be put and withdrawn with the utmost
silence. It was collected and distributed by men appointed for the purpose by the Ḥashāīm, and, as it was all done with the strictest secrecy, it looks as though there was a kind of communism among the members of the order. The special chamber in the Temple, as mentioned above, was also a place where gifts for the poor were deposited in secret and withdrawn for distribution in secret.
Two facts seem to demonstrate that these Ḥashāīm were a small mystical sect.
Firstly, they are given the special appellation of yirē-ḥēt, i.e. 'fearers of sin.' They were thus marked off by an extra sanctity from the body of the people--and the student of the Rabbinic literature knows that whenever a special title is accorded to a group or sect on the grounds of special holiness, this holiness is always of an exceptionally high order. It is the holiness of men in touch with the Divine. And, as has just been remarked, their enthusiasm for doing good seems to have been grounded on a kind of austere fellowship that reigned among them, impelling them to do their work unseen by the madding crowd.
Secondly, the idea of silence or secrecy was frequently employed by the early Rabbis in their mystical exegesis of Scripture. A typical illustration is the following passage from the Midrash Rabba on Genesis iii.:
[paragraph continues] "R. Simeon son of Jehozedek asked R. Samuel son of Naḥman (two Palestinian teachers of the beginning of the 3rd century A.D.) and said unto him, Seeing that I have heard concerning thee that thou art an adept in the Haggadah 1, tell me whence the light was created. He replied, It [i.e. the Haggadah] tells us that the Holy One (blessed be He) enwrapped Himself in a garment, and the brightness of His splendour lit up the universe from end to end. He [i.e. the sage who just replied] said this in a whisper, upon which the other sage retorted, Why dost thou tell this in a whisper, seeing that it is taught clearly in a scriptural verse--'who coverest thyself with light as with a garment'? (Psalm, civ. 2). Just as I have myself had it whispered unto me, replied he, even so have I whispered it unto thee."
Another instance of what looks like a sect of esoteric teachers among the Jews of the first centuries is the Vatīkīn, i.e. 'men of firm principles.' Their mysticism seems to have clustered mostly round the sentiments and outward conduct governing prayer. Indeed, throughout Rabbinical literature the true suppliant before God is in many cases a mystic. Only the mystic mood is the true prayerful mood. There is a discussion in the Mishna of Berachoth, i. 2, as to what is the
earliest moment in the dawn at which the Shema’ (the technical name for Deuteronomy, vi. 4-9) may be read. Upon this the comment is made, in T.B. Berachoth, 9b, that "the Vatīkīn arranged the time for prayer in such a way as to enable them to finish the reading of the Shema’ at the exact moment of sunrise." According to the great Rabbinic commentator R. Solomon b. Isaac (11th century), the Vatīkīn were "men who were meek and carried out the commandment from pure love." It must be borne in mind that throughout Jewish theology, 'meekness' (’anavah) stands for something immensely higher than the moral connotation which we customarily attribute to the virtue. It signifies a level of religious devoutness which it is not given to every one to reach. To carry out a commandment from pure love, means, in Jewish theology of all ages, to attain a high stage of mystic elation which can only be arrived at as the result of a long preliminary series of arduous efforts in the upward path. To recite the Shema’ is, as the Rabbis frequently say, "to take upon one's self the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven," and the phrase 'Kingdom of Heaven' has decidedly mystical associations, as we shall see later. Hence one may plausibly conclude that the Vatīkīn were a brotherhood whose dominant feature was a simplicity of living combined with a degree
of earnest scrupulousness in prayer amounting to an adoration, a love, of the Divine such as is experienced by the mystics of all nations and all times.
And a similar description might be applied to the members of what apparently was another esoteric order of those days--the Zenūim, i.e. 'lowly, chaste ones.' As a matter of fact the Rabbinic records are too vague and disconnected to enable scholars to say with any certainty whether these Zenūim were an independent sect or whether the word is merely another term denoting either or both of the other fellowships already alluded to. They bear the hall-mark of all ancient and mediæval Jewish mysticism in respect of the emphasis laid by them on the importance of the letters comprising the Divine Name in Hebrew as well as upon certain manipulations of the Hebrew alphabet generally. The following passage occurs in T.B. Ḳiddushin, 71a:
"R. Judah said in the name of Rab [i.e. R. Abba Arika, a Babylonian teacher of the 3rd century A.D.] the Name of forty-two letters can only be entrusted by us to him who is modest [i.e. zenūa’] and meek, in the midway of life, not easily provoked to anger, temperate, and free from vengeful feelings. He who understands it, is cautious with it and keeps it in purity, is loved above and is liked here below. He is revered by his
fellow-men; he is heir to two worlds--this world and the world to come."
It is interesting to quote here the comment on this Rabbinic passage made by the Spanish-Hebrew philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) in his great work The Guide of the Perplexed. He says (part i. ch. lxii. Eng. Trans. by M. Friedlander, Routledge, 1906):
"There was also a name of forty-two letters known among them. Every intelligent person knows that one word of forty-two letters is impossible. But it was a phrase of several words which had together forty-two letters. There is no doubt that the words had such a meaning as to convey a correct notion of the essence of God, in the way we have stated. . . . Many believe that the forty-two letters are merely to be pronounced mechanically; that by the knowledge of these, without any further interpretation, they can attain to those exalted ends. . . . On the contrary it is evident that all this exalted preparation aims at a knowledge of metaphysics and includes ideas which constitute 'the secrets of the Law' as we have explained."
Maimonides, it should be remembered, was a rationalist and anti-mystic; and much of the old Rabbinic cosmological mysticism which was looked upon as serious mystical speculation by many of his literary contemporaries, was dubbed by him as metaphysics or physics.
But, to return to our subject, the best insight into the origin and implication of these forty-two letters is afforded us by the Talmudic passage last' quoted (T.B. Ḳiddushin, 71a), where we are told that in the last days of the Temple the decadent priests were deemed unworthy to pronounce the Divine Name in their official benedictions, and a name consisting of twelve letters was substituted. What this name was is nowhere given in the Rabbinic records. As time went on, it was deemed inadvisable to entrust even this twelve-lettered name to every priest. It was taught only to an elect set among them, who, when chanting the benedictions in the general company of all the priests, used to 'swallow' its pronunciation (i.e. make it inaudible) in order not to divulge it. The forty-two-lettered name probably arose in similar circumstances, but whether the secrets of it were confided to a greater or a smaller circle than that in which the twelve-lettered name was known, is by no means apparent. Let it only be said here--as it is a subject to which we shall return later on that in the elaborated systems of the mediæval Kabbalists these many-lettered names of God (not only forty-two, but also forty-five and seventy-two letters) are the pivots on which huge masses of most curious mystical lore turn. The Ten Sefirot have close connections with these doctrines of letters--
secret doctrines about the Divine nature, about creation, about the relations subsisting between God and the universe.
Reference must here be made to what appears to be another order of Jewish mystics in the opening centuries of the Christian era. The Mishna (Tractate Sukkah, v. 2) speaks of 'the Ḥasidim and Anshé Ma’aseh' (i.e. saints and miracle-workers) who, at the joyous feast of the water-drawing at the Temple during Tabernacles, used to dance and perform certain acrobatic feats with lighted torches. The allusions are very vaguely worded, and it is hazardous to deduce any hard-and-fast theories. But so much may be said, viz. that being mentioned together in the same Mishna passage just quoted, and being mentioned in close succession in another old passage of the Mishna (Tractate Soṭah, ix. 15), it is more than probable that they belonged to one and the same sect. Again the phrase 'Anshé Ma’aseh' (as well as the singular form of the first word) is frequently used in Rabbinic to mean 'miracle-worker,' although in the Biblical Hebrew it would signify 'man of action.' There is a passage in T.B. Berachoth, 18b, which gives a weird description of the experience of a 'Ḥasid' who heard 'from behind the curtain' certain secrets hidden from ordinary men. And the student of Rabbinics knows
how many a Rabbi of these early centuries, gifted with the mystic temperament, wielded a semi-miraculous power of foretelling the future or of creating something out of nothing (see on this, Volz's Der Geist Gottes, Tübingen, 1910, pp. 115-118). The vast literature of Rabbinic angelology and demonology shows the same features--upon which Conybeare (in The Jewish Quarterly Review, xi. 1-45) has thrown considerable light in his translation of The Testament of Solomon.
It is a moot point as to whether these Ḥasidim are the lineal descendants of the saintly party known by that name in the Maccabean epoch. The point, however, which clearly emerges is, that a certain esoteric wisdom and capacity for doing things, unknown to the multitudes, was vouchsafed to certain bodies of men, who by the superior purity of their living, by their unabated devotion to the things of the spirit, and by their cultivation of a kind of brotherhood in which simplicity, single-mindedness, and charity were the reigning virtues, were enabled to enjoy a living in the world of the unseen.
One further matter, in conclusion. The interests of historical accuracy demand that, as has been already pointed out, the student should be in no hurry to say that these esoteric sects whose beliefs are so vaguely
and fragmentarily described in the Rabbinic literature, are to be identified with the Essenes described in the writings of Philo and Josephus. Resemblances there certainly are, but there are differences too; and the Rabbinic allusions are too disjointed to enable one to form an impression--even an inexact impression, leave alone an exact one--of the lives and thoughts of these mystic gatherings. Philo and Josephus paint a complete picture. The Talmud and Midrashim give but stray and elusive hints. For one thing, the Essenes practised celibacy; marriage must necessarily dissolve the fellowship characterising the order. The Rabbinic records give no hint of the duty of celibacy. On the contrary, marriage was held to promote a far higher sanctity than celibacy. But the Rabbis tolerated some exceptional cases of celibacy; so that it is difficult to speak categorically. Again, the centre of gravity of Essenic religion seems to have been the cultivation of the highest ethics. They stressed inward religion as demanded by the Mosaic code, but, with the exception of a reverence for the holiness of the Sabbath, they were comparatively unconcerned with the outward religious duties incumbent upon the Jews of that time. Thus, they made little or nothing of the sacrifices--doubtless a corollary of their emphasis on the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. But it
was otherwise with the early mystics of the Rabbinic literature. Although living in an atmosphere of mystery and looking to the Divine secret to unroll itself at any moment, they yet never overlooked the claims of institutional religion; they never flouted the ceremonial side of Judaism; they were inflexible upholders of the Law and its associated traditions. The same phenomenon is, of course, seen in the history of Christian mysticism where the first-hand, inward, individualised experiences of the ground-truths of religion are conformed to the prevailing and accredited dogmas of Christianity.
There were mystics among the Pharisees as well as among the Essenes, and yet we are told that the most spiritually-gifted among the former (who constituted a habūrah, i.e. 'fellowship') were they who were most scrupulous about the giving of the priestly dues--a purely external religious duty based on the legalism of the Pentateuch. Indeed this blending of legalism with spirituality, this consistent (and successful) interweaving of the formalism of tradition with the mysticism of the individual, is an arresting feature of Jewish theology in all ages.
In fine, as must be apparent from the general trend and contents of this book, the whole of Jewish mysticism is really
nothing but a commentary on the Jewish Bible, an attempt to pierce through to its most intimate and truest meaning; and what is the Bible to the Jew but the admonisher to be loyal to the traditions of his fathers? Only then will he find God when he is convinced that He was found of those of his race who sought Him in an earlier day.
23:1 Haggadah is the general name for the narrative or fabular or philosophical sections of the Rabbinic literature.