A Dynamic Linguistic Picture: The Name YHWH in Sefer ha-Bahir and in Early Provencal and Geronese Kabbalah

  • Hillel Ben-Sasson
Part of the Jewish Thought and Philosophy book series (JTP)


This chapter offers a detailed discussion of the Name in the early Kabbalah of Provence and Gerona. It follows the writings of R. Isaac the Blind, R. Ezra and R. Azriel of Gerona, R. Abraham Ben David, R. Jacob Ben Sheshet, and Nahmanides. Four principal interpretive trends emerge out of this elaborate survey. The first views the Name as a powerful theurgical instrument utilized to direct the mystical intention (kavanah) in its ascendance to heaven in order to mend fractures within the divine worlds. The second trend identifies the name YHWH with a central sefirah or emanation, usually tif’eret, rendering the Name a theosophical cornerstone of the Godhead. The third trend locates a distinct reference in each of the four letters comprising the Name, creating when combined a concise yet full map of the divine world of Sefirot. The fourth trend equates YHWH with the entire Torah, thus promoting a horizon of hermeneutical meanings to the Name. For the cabalists as well then, understanding YHWH involved an intricate combination of descriptive and indicative moves. In contrast to Scholem’s symbolic position, the chapter contends that when combined all four trends understand the relationship between the Name and its divine bearer as a special pictorial relation.


Primary Sources

  1. Ben David, A 1995, R. Asher Ben David: his complete works and studies in his kabbalistic thought: including the commentaries to the account of creation by the kabbalists of Provence and Gerona, ed. D Abrams. Los Angeles, CA: Cherub Press.Google Scholar
  2. Abrams, D 1994a, Sefer ha-Bahir: ʻAl pi kitve ha-yad ha-qedumim, Los Angeles: Cherub. English translations taken from Aryeh Kaplan’s rendition, viewed 30 April 2019,
  3. R. Azriel of Gerona 1849, ‘Be’ur eser ha-sefirot’, in Sefer derekh emunah, le-va’er sod eser sefirot al-pi kabalat ha-emet, Lemberg.Google Scholar
  4. R. Azriel of Gerona 1945, Perush ha-agadot le-rabi ʻAzri’el: me-rishone ha-mekubalim be-Gerona, ed. Isodore Tishby, Jerusalem: Mekitse Nirdamim.Google Scholar
  5. Ben Sheshet, J 1863, ‘Sha’ar ha-shamayim’, in Otzar nehmad, ed. I Blumenfeld, Vienna.Google Scholar
  6. Ben Sheshet, J 1964, ‘Sefer ha-Emunah ve-ha-Bitachon’, in Kitve ha-Ramban: A Collection of Nahmanides’ Speculative Treatises, ed. H Chavel, Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook.Google Scholar
  7. Ben Sheshet, J 1968, Sefer meshiv devarim nekhohim, eds. G Vajda & E Gottlieb, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.Google Scholar
  8. Ezra Ben Shlomo 1979, ‘Perush ha-agadot’, in Liḳuṭe shikhehah u-fe’ah. New York: Publisher not identified.Google Scholar
  9. Ezra Ben Shlomo 1964, ‘Perush shir ha-shirim’, in Kitve ha-Ramban: A Collection of Nahmanides’ Speculative Treatises, ed. H Chavel, Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook.Google Scholar
  10. Ibn Gaon, S 1839, ‘Keter shem-tov’, in J Coriat (ed.), Sefer ma’or va-shemesh, Livorna.Google Scholar
  11. Nahmanides 1998, ‘Perush le-sefer yetzirah’, in G Scholem (ed.), Studies in Kabbalah I, ed. J Ben Shlomo & M Idel, Tel Aviv: Am Oved.Google Scholar
  12. Nahmanides 1959, Perush ha-RaMBaN al ha-Torah, ed. H Chavel, Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook.Google Scholar
  13. R. Isaac the Blind, Perush sefer yetzirah, in: Hartza’otav shel Prof. G. Scholem 1963, ed. Rivka Shatz, Jerusalem: Mif’al ha-Shikhpul.Google Scholar
  14. Wittgenstein, L 1967, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical investigations), Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

  1. Abrams, D 2001, ‘Chapters from an emotional and sexual biography of God: Reflections on God’s attributes in the Bible, Midrash and Kabbalah’, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Literature, vol. 6, pp. 263–286 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  2. Abrams, D 1994b, ‘The boundaries of divine ontology: The inclusion and exclusion of Metatron in the Godhead’, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 87, pp. 291–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Abrams, D 2011, ‘“Text” in a Zoharic parable: A chapter in the history of kabbalistic textuality, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Literature, vol. 25, pp. 7–54.Google Scholar
  4. Afterman, A 2011, Devekut: Mystical intimacy in medieval Jewish thought, Los Angeles: Cherub Press (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  5. Afterman, A 2016, “And They Shall Be One Flesh”: On the language of mystical union in Judaism. Leiden; Boston: Brill.Google Scholar
  6. Brody, SL 1991, ‘Human hands dwell in heavenly heights: Worship and mystical experience in thirteenth century Kabbalah’, Ph.D. diss., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  7. Caputo, N 1999, ‘“In the Beginning…”: Typology, history, and the unfolding meaning of creation in Nahmanides’ exegesis’, Jewish Social Studies, pp. 54–82.Google Scholar
  8. Dan, J 1987, ‘A re-evaluation of the “Ashkenazi Kabbalah”’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, vol. 6, pp. 125–39 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  9. Dan, J 1968, A history of the Hebrew Kabbalah, Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  10. Fishbane, EP 2008, ‘The speech of being, the voice of God: Phonetic mysticism in the Kabbalah of Asher Ben David and his contemporaries’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 98, no. 4, pp. 485–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Garb, J 2004, Manifestations of powers in Jewish mysticism: From rabbinic literature to the Kabbalah of Safed, Jerusalem: Magnes Press (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  12. Garb, J 2011, Shamanic trance in modern Kabbalah, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Goetschel, R 1986, ‘Exode 3, 14 dans la pensée juive allemande de la première partie du XXe siècle’, Cerf, pp. 287–298.Google Scholar
  14. Goldreich, A 1987, ‘More on the possible sources of “ha-achdut ha-mashvah”, Possible Arabic sources for the distinction between “duties of the heart” and “duties of the limbs”’, International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism II: Early Jewish mysticism in Europe, pp. 141–156 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  15. Goldreich, A 1988, ‘Possible Arabic sources for the distinction between “duties of the heart” and “duties of the limbs”’, Te’uda VI (Studies in Hebrew and Arabic), pp. 179–208 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  16. Goodman, N 1976, Languages of art: An approach to a theory of symbols, Cambridge, Mass: Hackett Publishing.Google Scholar
  17. Grözinger, KE 1987, ‘The higher powers of “amen” and their transformations in the thought of R. Azriel of Gerona’, International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism II: Early Jewish mysticism in Europe, pp. 229–308.Google Scholar
  18. Guttmann, J 1966, Philosophies of Judaism : The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig, trans. DW Silverman, Doubleday & Co.Google Scholar
  19. Halbertal, M 2006. By way of truth: Nahmanides and the creation of tradition, Jerusalem: Hartman Institute (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  20. Husik, I 1948, A history of mediaeval Jewish philosophy, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.Google Scholar
  21. Idel, M & Bloom, H 2002, Absorbing perfections: Kabbalah and interpretation, New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Idel, M 1994, ‘On the intention of silent prayer in R Isaac the Blind’, in Masu’ot: Studies in Kabbalistic Literature and Jewish Philosophy in Memory of Prof. Ephraim Gottlieb, eds. M. Oron & A. Goldreich, Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, pp. 25–52 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  23. Idel, M 1982a, ‘Between the perception of substance and the perception of instruments in Renaissance Kabbalah’, Italy, vol. 3, pp. 83–111 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  24. Idel, M 1993a, ‘Defining Kabbalah: The Kabbalah of the divine names’, in Mystics of the Book: Themes, topics, and typologies, ed. RA Herrera, New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  25. Idel, M 1980, ‘The image of man above the sefirot’, Da’at, vol. 4, pp. 41–55 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  26. Idel, M 1991, ‘On the Land of Israel in Jewish mystical thought’, in The Land of Israel in Jewish medieval thought, eds. M Halamish & Y. Ravitzky, Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, pp. 193–214 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  27. Idel, M 1982b, ‘The sefirot above the sefirot’, Tarbiz, vol. 51, pp. 239–280 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  28. Idel, M 1992, ‘On the concept of tzimtzum in Kabbalah and its research’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, vol. 10, pp. 59–112 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  29. Idel, M 1993b, ‘In the light of life: On kabbalist eschataology’, in The sanctity of life and self-sacrifice: Collected essays in memory of Amir Yekuti’el, Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, pp. 191–211 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  30. Idel, M 1993c, ‘Kabbalistic prayer in Provence’, Tarbiz, vol. 62, pp. 265–286.Google Scholar
  31. Idel, M 1989, Language, Torah, and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia, trans. Menahem Kallus, Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  32. Idel M 2002, ‘Between the magic of sacred names and the Kabbalah of names: The critique of R. Abraham Abulafia’, Mahanayim, vol. 14, pp. 79–96 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  33. Idel, M 2012, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  34. Idel, M 1995, ‘Nahmanides: Kabbalah, Halakha and spiritual leadership’, Tarbiz, vol. 64, pp. 535–580 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  35. Idel, M 1988, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Idel, M 2004, ‘Nishmat Eloha: On the divinity of the soul in Nahmanides and his school’, in Life as a Midrash: Perspectives in Jewish Psychology, Tel Aviv: Miskal, pp. 338–80 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  37. Idel, M 1983, ‘We have no kabbalistic tradition on this’, in Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in his religious and literary virtuosity, ed. I Twersky, Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, pp. 51–73.Google Scholar
  38. Idel, M 1986, ‘On the problem of studying the origins of Sefer ha-Bahir’, in International Conference on the History of Jewish Mysticism II: Early Jewish mysticism in Europe, pp. 56–63 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  39. Idel, M 1993d, ‘Some remarks on ritual and mysticism in Geronese Kabbalah’, Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 3, pp. 111–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Idel, M 1981, ‘The conception of Torah in Hekhalot literature and its extensions in Kabbalah’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, vol. 1, pp. 23–84 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  41. Idel, M 2003, ‘On the doctrine of divinity in early Kabbalah’, in Shefa Tal: Studies of Jewish philosophy and culture, Beer Sheva: Ben Gurion University Press, pp. 131–148 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  42. Keyt, D 1964, ‘Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language’, The Philosophical Review, vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 493–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Liebes, Y 2001, ‘God and His qualities’, Tarbiz, vol. 70, pp. 51–74 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  44. Lorberbaum, M 2011, Dazzled by beauty: Theology as poetics in Hispanic Jewish culture, Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  45. Mopsik, C 1993, Les grands textes de la Cabale: les rites qui font Dieu: pratiques religieuses et efficacite theurgique dans la Cabale, des origines au milieu du XVIIIe siecle, Paris: Verdier.Google Scholar
  46. Pedaya, H 1990, “The Provencal editorial stratum in Sefer ha-Bahir’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 9, pp. 150–153 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  47. Pedaya, H 1997, ‘Land of spirit and land of reality: R. Ezra, R. Azriel and Nahmanides’, in eds. M Halamish & A Ravitzky, The Land of Israel in Medieval Jewish Thought, Jerusalem, pp. 233–289 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  48. Pedaya, H 1987, ‘Flaw and correction in the concept of the Godhead in the teachings of R. Isaac the Blind’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 6, vol. 161, pp. 157–285 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  49. Pedaya, H 2003, Nahmanides: Elevation, cyclical time and sacred text, Tel Aviv (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  50. Pedaya, H 2001, The Name and the Temple in R. Isaac the Blind: A comparative study of early Kabbalists, Jerusalem (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  51. Pedaya, H 2002, Vision and speech: Models of prophecy in Jewish mysticism, Los Angeles.Google Scholar
  52. Pines, S 1987, ‘God, the divine glory and the angels according to a 2nd-century theology’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, pp. 1–14.Google Scholar
  53. Safran, B 1983, ‘Rabbi Azriel and Nahmanides: Two views of the fall of man’, in Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in his religious and literary virtuosity, ed. I Twersky, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, Center for Jewish Studies, pp. 75–106.Google Scholar
  54. Scholem, G 1934a, The Kabbalah of R. Isaac Ben Jacob Hacohen, Jerusalem (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  55. Scholem, G 1927, Kabbalot R. Ya’akov ve-R. Yitzhak ha-Kohen, Jerusalem (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  56. Scholem, G 1991, Origins of the Kabbalah, trans. A Arkush, Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Scholem, G 1948, Reshit ha-Kabbalah ve-Sefer ha-Bahir, Jerusalem (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  58. Scholem, G 1942, ‘New remnants from the writings of R. Azriel of Gerona’, Memorial to A. Gulak and S. Klein, Jerusalem, pp. 201–222 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  59. Scholem, G 1934b, ‘A new document on the history of early Kabbalah’, in Sefer Bialik, pp. 141–1962 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  60. Scholem, G 1972, ‘The Name of God and the linguistic theory of the Kabbalah’, trans. Simon Pleasance, Diogenes 79, pp. 59–80; Diogenes 80 pp. 164–194.Google Scholar
  61. Sendor, MB 1994, ‘The emergence of Provencal Kabbalah – Rabbi Isaac the Blind’s Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah’, PhD diss, Harvard University.Google Scholar
  62. Stroumsa, G 1983, ‘Form(s) of God: Some notes on Metatron and Christ’, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 76, no. 3, pp. 269–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Tishby, I 1944, ‘The Kabbalists R. Ezra and R. Azriel and their role in the Gerona circle’, Zion, vol. 9, pp. 178–185 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  64. Tishby, I 1983, Studies of Kabbalah and its extensions, Jerusalem: Magnes Press (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  65. Verman, M 1984, ‘Sifrei ha-‘lyyun: The circle of contemplation’, PhD diss., Harvard University.Google Scholar
  66. Weiss, T 2014, The letters in which heaven and earth were created: The origins and meanings of engagement with the letters of the alphabet as independent units in Jewish literature of late antiquity, Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  67. Wittgenstein, L 1965, The Blue and Brown Books, New York: Harper Torch Books.Google Scholar
  68. Wittgenstein, L 1922, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden, London.Google Scholar
  69. Wolfson, ER 2004, ‘Beneath the wings of the great eagle: Maimonides and thirteenth-century Kabbalah’, in: Moses Maimonides (1138–1204): His religious, scientific, and philosophical “Wirkungsgeschichte” in different cultural contexts, eds. GK Hasselhoff & O Fraisse, Wurzburg: Ergon, pp. 209–237.Google Scholar
  70. Wolfson, ER 1989, ‘By way of truth: Aspects of Nahmanides’ kabbalistic hermeneutic’, AJS Review, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 103–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wolfson, ER, n.d. ‘Circumcision and the Divine Name: A study in the transmission of esoteric doctrine’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 78, no. ½, pp. 77–112.Google Scholar
  72. Wolfson, ER 1994, ‘The tree that is all: Jewish-Christian roots of a kabbalistic symbol in Sefer ha-Bahir’, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 31–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wolfson, ER 1997, Through a speculum that shines: Vision and imagination in medieval Jewish mysticism, Princeton University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hillel Ben-Sasson
    • 1
  1. 1.Jewish Theological SeminaryNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations