Friday, February 27, 2009

Joshua ben Levi: Esoteric Master, Cosmic Jester

[Elijah by Michael D. O'Brien]

I thought I'd start a thread on my favorite Talmudic figures. First among equals is Joshua ben Levi (3rd Cent. Amora).

He is the source of one of my favorite Talmudic aphorisms: "A word is worth a sela, silence is worth two" (Lev. R. 16:5). No slouch in the area of Jewish Law (Ber. 4b; Shab. 46a; Tosefta to Meg. 27a and Chul. 97a), he was also an adept of esoteric knowledge. A frequent visitor to heavenly realms, he was tight with such unlikely figures as Elijah, the Messiah, and the Angel of Death.

He [Joshua ben Levi] once asked Elijah: "When will the Messiah come?"
Elijah replied: "'Go and ask him himself." "And by what sign may I recognize him?"
"He is sitting among the poor, who are afflicted with disease; all of them untie and retie [the bandages of their wounds] all at once, whereas he unties and re-bandages each wound separately, thinking, perhaps I shall be wanted [to appear as the Messiah] and I must not be delayed." Joshua thereupon went to the Messiah and greeted him: "Peace unto you, master and teacher!" He replied, "'Peace unto you, son of Levi." "When will you come, master?" "Today." He returned to Elijah … and said: "He spoke falsely to me. For he said he would come today and he has not come." Elijah responded: "This is what he said! Today – if you would but hearken to His voice
(Ps. 95:7) " (Sanh. 98a paraphrased)

He was also bit of a cosmic prankster:

When he (ben Levi) was about to die, the Angel of Death was instructed, "Go carry out his wish." [the origins of the Make a Wish Foundation?] When he (the Angel) showed himself to him, [ben Levi] said, "Show me my place [in paradise]." "Very well" He replied. [ben Levi] Said "And give me your sword, or you may frighten me on the way." He gave it to him. On arrival, he lifted him up [over the wall] and showed him [paradise]. [ben Levi] Jumped and dropped on the other side. The Angel grabbed him by the cloak, but he exclaimed "I swear I will not go back!"..."Return my sword!" He [the Angel] said, but he would not. A Bat Kol [a heavenly echo] finally went forth and said to him, "Return the thing to him, for it is required for mortals" [and he returned it] (Ketubot 77b)

Both these maasot reveal Joshua's ben Levi's not only his spiritual chutzpah, but also his passionate impulse to resolve the injustices of the world. Got to love a guy like that.
Other Talmudic shamans to learn about:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Raziel: Angel of Secrets, Agent of Magic

In my previous entry, I raised questions concerning a story about a cherub who commands Adam and Eve to master the esoteric arts of astrology (or magic) and alchemy in order to regain access to paradise. I commented that this legend didn't resemble any in Jewish lore, but Nelly wrote to remind me of something:

Sefer Raziel HaMalakh was supposedly taught by the angel Raziel to Adam HaRishon. At least that's what I remember from reading its introduction. Kol tuv

[Angel with a fiery sword - or is it Herzl? - detail from Die Bucher Der Bibel, illustrated by E. M. Lilien]

This is a great thought. While Raziel is not generally portrayed as a cherub or as the guardian to Eden, this incident of an angel arming humanity with a book of power to help them cope after the expulsion would be a logical inspiration for the orphaned legend we've been discussing.

As I explained in my earlier entry on the tzohar, Tzohar: Gem of Noah, Light of Heaven, Raziel ("Secret of God") provided a book, some say inscribed on sapphire, to the primodial couple (Zohar I:55a). The magical manual Sefer Raziel ha-Malach claims this as its origins.

In other sources more securely within Jewish tradition, Raziel bears the words of mortals to heaven and, hearing what is said from behind the celestial curtain, brings decrees back to earth (Targum Kohelet 10:20). In other sources, Raziel stands between other angels, shielding them from the fiery breath of the Hayyot who uphold God's throne (Beit ha-Midrash 1:58-61). He is at times identified with the angel Galitzur (Malachei Elyon, p. 180). In the Zoharic literature, Raziel seems to personify the sefirot of Tiferet (Zohar Hadash 99:3).

To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Man, a Woman, and a Cherub: A Legend of the Fall

[Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies, by E.M. Lilien]
I just received this e-mail:

I saw your name on the internet and I hope you may be able to answer my question. The following quote is from the internet. Do you happen to know the source for this quote?

An old Rabbinical legend, in describing the banishment of Adam from Eden, states that the angel at the gate instructed Adam in Qabalah and Alchemy before he departed, and told him that when mankind had perfected these arts, he would be allowed to return to the Garden. Thank you for your help!

My initial response was:

Dear XXXX,

I've read a lot of legendary and folkloric material and this one is completely new to me. I can't even recall any story where Adam and Eve actually converse with the cherubim guarding Eden. Terms like "Kabbalah" and "alchemy" don't enter Jewish discourse earlier than the Middle Ages, and rabbinic writers were not likely to treat the two as equally "enlightening."

While I have little to go on at this point, I suspect that at best this story originated, not in rabbinic circles, but in magical ones, probably in the Renaissance, when both Kabbalah and alchemy were at the apex of their influence. There are hundreds of obscure magical and alchemical tracts written between the 14th and 19th Centuries that could be the source of this legend. A cynic would wonder whether this is even more modern than that. Sorry I can't be of more help, but now that you have called this to my attention, I will be on the lookout for the source of this story.
I've looked around the great summas of Jewish folklore - books like Legends of the Jews, Sefer ha-Agaddah, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, and the lovely recent Book of Souls and found nothing that really resembles this. On the other hand, on the Internet I've seen several versions of this legend in which it is the mastery of astrology and alchemy that are the keys to Eden, so I suspect this is not even a Jewish legend -- but I've been wrong before.
If any reader has a lead I overlooked ont he source of this legend, I would love to hear about.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Labyrinths and Mazes in Jewish Tradition: The Summary

[A labyrinth composed of the first letters of each of the ten sefirot. Based on a published edition of Pardes Rimmonim by Moses Cordovero]

Well, as of this week, I think I can fairly claim to be the world's leading expert on labyrinths in Jewish tradition. My article, "Finding the Center, Entering the Land: The Labyrinths of Jewish Imagination" was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Parabola: Tradition, Myth, and the Search for Meaning.

This 3000 word article summarizes the ways Jews have used the labyrinth as a literary, graphic and symbolic (sorry, no known Jewish labyrinth structures before the 20th Century) motif.

The Parabola article comes with one addendum from me. The graphic layout staff and editorial staff did not coordinate as well as they could and the two illustrations of labyrinths in the article's layout are reversed from their order of citation in the article. The sefirotic labyrinth (above) that appears at the start of the article is meant to be illustration 2, while the Jericho labyinth that appears in the middle of the article is cited in the article text as illustration 1. So is the way of the earth.

You can also learn more about this and all aspects of Jewish esoteric, folkloric, and mystical traditions by reading the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Nimrod: Mighty Hunter, King of Evil

Identified in Genesis as a “mighty hunter,” the Sages describe Nimrod as the archetypal wicked king. As a young man, Nimrod made his reputation as a hunter by supernatural means: he possessed the garments of Adam, which gave him the power to subdue any animal (PdRE 24). Apparently, the garments gave him the ability to sway people also:

Rabbi Eleazar said: "Nimrod used to entice people into idolatrous worship by means of those garments, which enabled him to conquer the world and proclaim himself its ruler, so that people offered him worship. He was called 'Nimrod,' for the reason that he rebelled [himrid] against the most high King above, against the higher angels and against the lower angels." (Zohar, Bereishit, Page 74a)

He later claimed the throne of Cush by feat of arms. In other versions, Nimrod is the king of Shinar who initiated the Tower of Babel project (Chul. 89a; Pes. 94a-b) and had himself worshipped as a god (AZ 53b).

When his court diviners told him of the pending birth of Abraham, he sought to kill the child. In the end Nimrod killed 70,000 infant boys in his quest to slay the newborn Abraham (Ma’asei Avraham Aveinu). Abraham’s father Terach hid his son with the help of the angel Gabriel. Nimrod continued to persecute Abraham as an adult:

Nimrod called Abraham and commanded him to worship Fire. Abraham said to him, "So let's worship water since water has the power to extinguish fire." "Right," said Nimrod, "We should worship water." "In that case, we should worship the clouds, since they carry water." "Yes, we should worship the clouds." "Then we should worship the wind, since it drives the clouds across the sky." "Yes, we should worship the wind [the word ruach also means spirit, a key to the next point of the argument]" "But," said Abraham, "humans have the power to rule over the spirit. Should we worship human beings?" "You're playing with words," cried Nimrod. "I worship only fire, and I am going to throw you into a huge furnace. Let the God you worship come along and save you from it!"
(Midrash Bereishit 38.13)

When the patriarch refused to renounce the one God, Nimrod had him thrown into a furnace (Gen R. 38:13, 42:5) but Abraham walked away from the inferno unharmed. Nimrod was finally slain by Esau (another mighty hunter) in a struggle to possess the awesome garments of Adam (Gen. R. 63:13, 65:16; PdRE 24):

…Nimrod was seeking to slay him [Esau] on account of the garment which had belonged to Adam, for whenever he put it on and went out into the field, all the beasts and birds in the world would come and flock around him. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 65:16).

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050