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Shi'ur Komah

SHI'UR KOMAH (lit. "the measure of the body," namely the body of God), Hebrew term for an esoteric doctrine concerning the appearance of God in a quasi-bodily form. This doctrine developed in the tannaitic period as the most secret part of *Merkabah mysticism. When the mystic attained the vision of the supernal world and found himself standing before the throne, he was vouchsafed a vision of the Shi'ur Komah as the "figure in the form of man" which Ezekiel had seen on the throne in his first vision of the Merkabah (Ezek. 1:26). Not only was this doctrine consistent with the obviously anthropomorphic descriptions of God in many biblical passages, it was also reinforced by the interpretation of the Song of Songs as relating to God and Israel. The figure of the beloved as described there (Songs 5:11–16) served to legitimize the Shi'ur Komah doctrine, which was further embellished by the details given about the ḥaluk, the robe of glory with which this mystical body of God is clothed. Fragments of this doctrine have been preserved in several texts bearing the title Shi'ur Komah and in many allusions to it in midrashic literature. The fragments consist of a detailed description of the limbs of God in the figure of a man and this apparently deliberate and excessive indulgence in anthropomorphism proved shocking to later and more rationalistic Jewish thought. On the other hand, the kabbalists hailed it as a profound, symbolic expression of their own purely spiritual world. The fragments also contain an enumeration of the secret names of these limbs, but in the manuscripts preserved these names are already largely corrupted beyond recognition. The measures given for the several limbs may have contained some sort of numerical symbolism which can no longer be reconstructed. The height of the Creator is given as 236,000 parasangs, based on a numerological interpretation of Psalm 147:5 as "the height of our Lord is 236." The details, however, transcend any possibility of visualization and cannot really have been intended to indicate any concrete measurements. In the fragments preserved these obviously over-drawn anthropomorphisms are explicitly defined as describing not the substance of God but His "hidden glory," or the "body of the Shekhinah," guf ha-Shekhinah.

In the second half of the second century a Hellenized version of this speculation is to be found in the Gnostic Markos' description of the"body of truth." There also exist a number of Gnostic gems which, like the Hebrew fragments of Shi'ur Komah, bear the figure of a man whose limbs are inscribed with magical combinations of letters, obviously corresponding to their secret names (cf. C. Bonner, Hesperia, 23 (1954), 151). A clear reference to this doctrine is found as early as the Slavonic Book of Enoch (13:8): "I have seen the measure of the height of the Lord, without dimension and without shape, which has no end." At least two versions of this doctrine were current in later talmudic and post-talmudic times, one in the name of R. *Akiva and one in the name of R. *Ishmael (both published in the collection Merkavah Shelemah (Jerusalem, 1922), fol. 32–43). Two manuscripts from the 10th or 11th centuries (Oxford Hebr. C. 65, and Sasson 522) contain the oldest available texts, but even these are in different stages of corruption. According to the testimony of Origen (third century), it was not permitted to study Song of Songs in Jewish circles before the age of full maturity, obviously because of esoteric teachings like the Shi'ur Komah doctrine which were connected with it. The Midrashim on the Song of Songs reflect such esoteric understanding in many passages. The fragments of Shi'ur Komah were known in the sixth century, if not earlier, to the poet Eleazar ha-*Kallir. When the *Karaites attacked the anthropomorphic leanings of the rabbinic aggadah, Shi'ur Komah was among their main targets. *Maimonides considered it an invention of Byzantine aggadists and clearly inauthentic, but scholars like *Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon, *Judah Halevi, Abraham *Ibn Ezra, and Simeon b. Ẓemah *Duran tried to defend it as an allegory for sublime teachings. Duran explained it as pointing to pantheism (Magen Avot (Leghorn, 1784), fol. 21b). *Moses b. Joshua of Narbonne devoted a long "Epistle on Shi'ur Komah" to its philosophical interpretation on the lines of *Averroes' notion of "one single order and act in which all beings participate in common." Interpretations of Shi'ur Komah according to the traditions of the *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz in the 13th century are to be found in the Sefer ha-Navon published by Joseph Dan. The Spanish kabbalists did not try to comment on its details, but the author of the *Zohar imitated its general tenor in his descriptions of the divine configurations (parẓufim) in the Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta, which he evidently considered as the summit of his kabbalistical revelations, ascribed to R. *Simeon bar Yoḥai. Many kabbalists (*Jacob b. Jacob ha-Kohen, *Isaac b. Samuel of Acre, Judah *Ḥayyat) saw it as a description of *Metatron, or of the primeval Adam (*Adam Kadmon).


A. Schmiedl, Studien ueber juedische… Religions-philosophie (1869), 237–58; Salmon ben Yeruḥim, Milḥamot ha-Shem, ed. by I. Davidson (1934), 114–24; M. Gaster, in: MGWJ, 37 (1893), 179–85, 213–30; reprinted in his: Studies and Texts, 2 (1925–28), 1330–52; L. Nemoy, in: HUCA, 7 (1930), 364; G. Scholem, Mysticism, 63–67; idem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit (1962), 7–47; idem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1965), 36–42, 56–64, 129–31, and an appendix by S. Liebermann, ibid., 118–26; A. Barb, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27 (1964), 5–6; J. Dan (ed.), Sefer ha-Navon, in: Koveẓ al Yad, 6, pt. 1 (1966), 199–223; A. Altmann (ed.), Moses Narboni's Epistle on Shi'ur Komah. in: Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. by Altmann (1967), 225–88.