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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Sapphire Heaven


Sapphire, one of the most precious minerals on earth. Yet in Judaism, Sapphire is more metaphor than mineral.

First and foremost, it is the color of heaven, a signifier of divinity. Reference to celestial sapphire appears three times in the Tanakh:
[Photograph: a star sapphire]

Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire (Ezek. 1:26 – reiterated later in 10:1)

"Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders arose. They saw the Lord of Israel and beneath His feet, like a brickwork of sapphire ... And to the chieftains of the Children of Israel, He [God] did not strike His hand. They viewed the Lord, they ate and drank" (Exodus 24:9-11).
The word used in both places, sapir, "sapphire," is a Sanskrit loan word. Strikingly, there is a Semitic root that closely resembles its samech-payh-yud-resh spelling: Samech-Peyh-Resh is the Semitic root for "message" or "missive," and is the basis for all terms related to "book" (sefer), "story" (sipur), "recount" (safar), "number" (mispar) and "[primordial] number" (sefirah).

While the commonality of these two word forms is a linguistic coincidence, the possibility that they represent supernal color, book, number, and speech, things that all converge toward a unified spiritual reality, becomes compelling to Jewish mystics. Thus, for example, the medieval esoteric Bible commentator Bachya declares the blue signifies wisdom (comment on Ex. 28:18).

The classic starting point for this discussion of the supernal association between these terms is found in the terse, enigmatic treatise on word mysticism, the Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”). There the terms sefer-safar-sipur (book - number - telling) are the "three books" by which God creates the universe (Mishna 1:1). And while the spelling sapir never actually appears in this cluster, a few of Sefer Yetzirah’s commentators, such as Raavad (Rabbi Abraham ben David, of Posquieres1125-1198) conclude that S.Y. is indeed alluding to the blue stone of divine visions (comment on S.Y. 1:1).

Sefer Bahir also addresses this, but takes a different tack. In explaining Sefer Yetzirah’s novel term sefirot, (“numbers”), a word not seen before, the Bahir appeals back to the Tanakh, claiming the term is derived from Psalm 19:2, which “recounts” - m’sapprim - the “Glory of God.” In making this exegetical move, Bahir equates sefirot with kavod, the Biblical term of divine emanation (section 125, Margolius Edition, 1951).

Like S.Y., the Bahir makes no explicit link in 125 between the words m’sapprim and sapir, though in another passage it declares,


“What is the material [lit. eretz] that from it everything is engraved? And from it is engraved the heavens? It is the Throne of the Blessed Holy One. It is the precious stone and the sea of wisdom…Rabbi Meir said, Why is blue chosen from among all types colors [for the tzitzit]? Blue resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles the Throne of Glory. Thus it is written,…under His feet was like a pavement of sapphire…(Ex. 24:10), and, As the likeness of a sapphire stone was the semblance of a throne (Ezek. 1:26)” (96).
This homily places all these concepts - heaven, sapphire stone, throne, wisdom - within a shared semantic field.

Later readers elaborate on that link in the Bahir[1] by reading the Hebrew of 19:2, ha-shamayim m’sapprim kavod el, as “The heavens shine sapphirine [of] the Glory [of] God,” rather then the more conventional translation of “The heavens recount the Glory [of] God.” Zohar 1:8a elaborates on the same verse, declaring sapphire signifies the union of masculine and feminine principles of divinity and it is the “radiance” (zahir) that fills the universe:
m’sapprim signifies that they [the divine groom and bride] radiate a brilliance (zoharah) like that of a sapphire, sparkling and scintillating from one end of the world to the other.” (Simon translation, p. 33).

Thus the sapphire comes to exemplify heavenly structures (brickwork, the Throne of Glory, the Glory of God, the Sefirot), divine knowledge (numbers, books, telling), and supernal energy (the zoharah). This theme of sapphire as a visible signifier of divine entities extends to other sacred narratives, such as the Midrashic tradition that the tablets of the heavenly words, the Ten Commandments, were tablets of sapphire cut from the Throne of Glory (Midrash Lekakh Tov, Ex. 31.18). It also appears in the Hebrew magical tradition that the angelic book given by Raziel to Noah (and later identified with the text of Sefer ha-Razim) was in the form of an engraved sapphire stone (Sefer ha-Razim, intro.).[2]

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[1] Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 81
[2] A cognate tradition claims that the staff of Moses was an engraved rod of sapphire (Ex. Rabbah 8:3). Zohar links this idea with the "book" tradition by declaring Moses’ rod is an allegory for the sefirot.

2 Comments:

Anonymous daniel r said...

In Bob Dylan's Oscar winning song "Thing Have Changed," he sings "...I'm looking up into the sapphire tinted skies..."

I was listening to that earlier today, and then I read your post...Coincidence?

10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was wondering what the word in Hebrew(Ivrit) was for Sapphire, (because I already knew the translation for the other precious stones and gold and silver and pearl)... So looked it up and found many other answers too.... having a sapphire is like having a piece of heaven.... So I have prayed for one, to hold a piece of heaven, laga'át Shama'ím #

5:16 AM  

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