This study explores ritual embodiment and the semioticization of the somatic in thirteenth-century kabbalah and its later repercussions in the nexus between ascesis and the hypernomian limits of the law in the Sabbatian theology of Nathan of Gaza. The connection between nomos and ethos in the worldview promulgated by kabbalists has been duly recognized in scholarly literature, examined most often under the taxonomy of ṭaʿame ha-miṣvot. The rationale of the commandments was greatly enhanced by the widespread assumption concerning the homology between the microanthropos—idealized in the body politic of Israel—and the macroanthropos, a correspondence that does not simply suggest a reciprocal reflection of the upper in the lower and of the lower in the upper, but rather the ontic assumption that the events of the supernal realm are instantiated and brought to fruition in the terrestrial realm. The locus of the ritual gestures is assuredly the carnal being, but the ontological isomorphism between the human and the divine bodies, and the possibility of mutual influence that ensues therefrom, are predicated on the transmutation of the physical into the imaginal. The latter term does not denote a disembodied state or a noetic abstraction; it attests rather to an alternate form of body that is intermediate between the corporeal and the spiritual, a form that is immaterial in its materiality and material in its immateriality.
This study compares the rationales of the incest prohibitions in the Zohar’s homilies on the Torah and Moses de León’s Book of the Pomegranate (Sefer ha-Rimmon) with accounts of the same laws in Joseph of Hamadan’s Rationales of the Negative Commandments (Sefer Ṭaʿame ha-miṣvot lo taʿaseh), a set of texts composed in the same region during the roughly the same period. Reading these texts together reveals a heretofore unnoticed dispute between the attitudes of de León and the Zohar, on the one hand, and Hamadan, on the other, concerning the erotic parameters of theurgy. These texts show how Castilian kabbalists engaged in an intensive process of negotiation with respect to the novel theurgical framework they offered for the commandments.
This chapter provides a general overview of approaches to the commandments in medieval Judaism, particularly among Jews who embraced the authority of the ancient rabbis. It focuses on the intertwined development of two discourses: commandment enumeration and commandment rationalization. And it highlights the decisive roles played by Saadia Gaon and Maimonides in framing these two subjects, charting these topics from the intellectually fertile period of the tenth century, at the height of Judaeo-Islamic acculturation, to the wave of kabbalistic creativity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This chapter proposes that the commandments—whether enumerated, contemplated, rendered symbolic, or embodied—functioned as vessels into which medieval Jewish thinkers of all stripes poured a variety of competing and contradictory ideas. However ramified, multiple, and internally debated, the chapter theorizes medieval treatments of the commandments as a single generative matrix of Jewish thought and life in the posttalmudic period.
Deuteronomy 15:8 dictates “Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for his lack that he is lacking (dê maḥsoro asher yeḥsar lo). The second- and third-century CE rabbis interpret this command rather narrowly, and it appears marginal to late antique Jewish notions of almsgiving. Maimonides (1138–1204) is the first jurist to interpret this scriptural language in a way that casts it as the underlying principle of the Jewish law and practice of almsgiving. Maimonides’s interpretive innovation is almost entirely neglected by thirteenth-century Ashkenazic scholars. The thirteenth-century Spanish scholars Naḥmanides, Shlomo Ibn Adret, and the unknown author of Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh refer to Maimonides’s understanding of dê maḥsoro, but their mentions of it demonstrate its marginality to Jewish legal and ethical discourse of the period. By contrast, the Spanish jurist Jacob ben Asher (fourteenth century) makes dê maḥsoro central to his understanding of Jewish charity in his systematic law code Arbaʿah ṭurim, and Israel Ibn al-Naqāwa does the same in his contemporaneous work of religious edification Menorat ha-maʾor. The growing popularity of the Arbaʿah ṭurim in the fifteenth century and its blending of Ashkenazic and Sefardic legal cultures account for the heightened importance of dê maḥsoro in Ashkenazic legal writing beginning in the fifteenth century and continuing into the sixteenth century.
Early kabbalistic exegetical literature, dedicated to revealing theosophical knowledge, largely avoided connecting the ten divine elements (sefirot) with the traditional division of God’s words during the revelation on Mount Sinai into ten commandments. This article focuses on two kabbalistic homilies on the Decalogue that were preserved in Aramaic among the pages of the printed Zohar and in early Hebrew versions recently discovered in manuscript. These texts emphasize an essential trend in kabbalistic biblical exegesis that opposed formulistic and static patterns in favor of a dynamic mode of interpretation. This preference for dynamism undermined the one-to-one correspondence of the ten commandments and the ten sefirot. This approach resulted from theological concerns that are indicative of a specific phase in the evolution of kabbalistic discourse, a phase characterized by the development of theosophic-theurgic instructions for effecting the divine sefirot. The turn to dynamism is part and parcel of a new type of kabbalistic exegesis, one which characterizes large homiletic passages from the Zohar’s commentary on the Torah and, more specifically, the rationales of the commandments in various texts in the zoharic corpus.
The adoption and adaptation of Maimonidean ideas by a staggering array of Jewish thinkers, especially those who opposed his philosophical and legal positions, testifies to Maimonides’s success in reframing Jewish thought. This essay focuses on an exchange between Daniel ben Saadia ha-Bavli (fl. early thirteenth century) and Abraham Maimonides (1186–1237), which occurred in the shadow of twelfth-century institutional opposition to Maimonides (1138–1204), a period in which Maimonides’s reputation began to take shape. Despite the staunch opposition of Daniel’s teacher, Samuel ben ʿElī Ibn al-Dastūr (d. 1194/1197), to Maimonides, as well as Daniel’s own disagreements with Maimonidean theology, Daniel assimilated many Maimonidean legal doctrines, integrating them into his jurisprudential thought. Their exchange shows that both Abraham and Daniel, to different degrees, evaluated Maimonides’s writings with a certain degree of distance, absent much of the rancor of earlier and later Maimonidean controversies. Daniel’s critical engagement with Maimonides underscores that even those educated in the heart of the opposition to the Great Eagle derived much from his writings. Much like those who rejected Maimonidean philosophy, later talmudists who spurned aspects of Maimonides’s halakhah benefited profoundly from his efforts at categorization, organization, and systematization.
In this study I analyze three recensions of an early kabbalistic explanation of temple sacrifice. Two of these recensions have already been published, and I publish the third here for the first time, on the basis of a number of manuscripts. I discuss both the relationship between the recensions and the authorship of the text. While in one of the recensions the text is attributed to Isaac the Blind (ca. 1160–1235), I argue that it was more likely composed by a member of his circle. Some of the differences between the recensions may be the result of one kabbalist in Isaac’s circle reworking the work of another, or one kabbalist producing multiple versions of the same text, both common practices in Isaac’s circle. I also discuss the significance and ramifications of the view espoused by all of the recensions that one who offers a sacrifice undergoes a mystical ascent, which takes the form of a simulated death. I conclude that the very fact that sacrifice was a rite no longer practiced by Jews in the thirteenth century made it a perfect site for kabbalists in Isaac’s circle to project their deepest mystical ideal most openly.
There is a strong consensus that Maimonidean ethics were heavily influenced by Aristotle’s doctrine of the middle way. And yet, sharp differences have emerged over the role played by Aristotelianism in the views of the Cordoba-born talmudist and philosopher. This study argues that while Maimonides embraced the Aristotelian paradigm in his youth, he eventually came to abandon it entirely and moved to adopt a distinctly rabbinic approach to ethics. This evolution went largely unnoticed due to the failure of commentators to detect a diachrony in the development Maimonides’s ethical writings. The evolution in his thinking was necessitated by a rereading of the rabbinic sources and by the ineluctable logic of the imitatio dei imperative. Of great importance to the history of religious thought and to the fundamental tenets of Judaism, I note that Maimonides crafted, on this foundation, an ethical commandment that was novel and original, and which functioned, substantively, as a kind of meta-commandment.
This essay examines the influence of Moses Maimonides’s (1138–1204) theory of law and the supererogatory ideal on the pietist vision championed by his son, Abraham (1186–1237). It focuses on the place of pietism within the framework of the overarching aims of the law and on Abraham’s construction of a pietist discipline modeled on his father’s legal thinking. It identifies several ways in which Abraham hewed closely to his father’s legal and ethical rubric even as he created an innovative system of pietism in the process. Here, as elsewhere, Abraham’s thought ought to be understood, in part, as a conscious development of Maimonides’s theoretical foundation into a practical vision for pietism.
The Gate of Heaven (Shaʿar ha-shamayim), composed in 1238 by the Castilian Jewish author Isaac Ibn Laṭīf (ca. 1210–1280), offers a lengthy discussion of the reasons for the commandments that is strongly influenced by Maimonides. Two elements stand out in Ibn Laṭīf’s treatment of the commandments: (1) an emphasis on their social and political relevance, an approach that resonates with al-Fārābī’s political philosophy; and (2) the absence of properly kabbalistic interpretations of the commandments. These factors support the idea that Ibn Laṭīf, at least at the stage of his thought reflected in this first major work, is not acquainted with the kabbalistic doctrines of the reasons for the commandments and operates within the constraints of an esoterically inclined, post-Maimonidean philosophy.