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Sefer Ha-Bahir

BAHIR, SEFER HA– (Heb. סֵפֶר הַבָּהִיר; "Book of Brightness"), kabbalistic, pseudoepigraphic and midrashic anthology which enigmatically depicts a sexualized, divine theosophy considered by scholarship to mark the literary emergence of Kabbalah at the beginning of the 13th century.

The Work and Its Titles

The Sefer ha-Bahir should not properly be considered a book as it has no known author and certainly no single author. It is comprised of numerous tradition-complexes, divided by Gershom *Scholem into 140 numbered passages. Many medieval Jewish esotericists contributed and revised the passages contained in this anthology, from its early and all but lost Ashkenazi version which lacked theosophic symbolism and on through its canonical status amongst kabbalists in Spain. The earliest manuscripts lack any title, although it was widely referred to in the 13th century as Sefer ha-Bahir, or Midrash R. Nehunya ben ha-Kanah, based upon the opening passages wherein this tannaitic figure interprets a verse from Job (37:21) which mentions the bright light (Or Bahir).

Historical Setting and Earliest Use by the Kabbalists

Scholem placed the Bahir historically after the German Pietists and before the emergence of the Provençal kabbalists, so that the Bahir stood out as the earliest kabbalistic text. However, it is now understood that the first known kabbalist who composed a kabbalistic work in Provence, R. *Isaac the Blind , did not know the Sefer ha-Bahir. Accordingly, traditions quoted in the name of R. Isaac the Blind conclude with citations of passages from the Sefer ha-Bahir, but these citations are additions. No evidence exists that the Provençal kabbalists of his circle used or even knew of the work, although if they did, they certainly ignored it, preferring their own traditions and esoteric sources. R. Isaac's nephew, R. *Asher ben David , possibly cites the Bahir once in his Sefer ha-Yiḥud by the name aggadah, but here too, even if so, the lengthy book draws on other sources. R. Isaac's students in Gerona incorporated the Sefer ha-Bahir into their canon and writings, but only into their later works, suggesting the independent sources and development of these literary and esoteric circles. The anti-kabbalistic polemicist, R. *Meir ben Simeon of Narbonne, distinguished between what he heard from or about the Provençal kabbalists from what he read in the Sefer ha-Bahir, once again separating the Provençal kabbalistic phenomenon from this work.

Composition and Redaction: Between Germany and Spain

Accretions or revisions to certain passages display the mark of Provençal Kabbalah, although it cannot be determined when and by whom these passages were altered. One view places the main redactional activity as late as the kabbalists of Gerona. The 13th-century kabbalist, R. Isaac ha-Kohen, reports that the Sefer ha-Bahir "came from the Land of Israel to the early pietists, the sages of Ashkenaz, the kabbalists of Germany and from there to the early wise men in Provence who chase after all sorts of written [records of] wisdom, those who know the divine, supernal knowledge. But they saw only part of the book and not all of it because they did not see it in its entirety, in its complete form." R. Isaac's testimony points to the Ashkenazi origin of some literary sources of the Sefer ha-Bahir as he denies that the Provencal kabbalists edited the work. Citations from the pre-theosophic version of the Sefer ha-Bahir by R. Ephraim bar Samson and other passages from Sod ha-Gaddol by R. Moses ben Eleazar ha-Darshan, both 13th-century German Pietists, point to the Ashkenazi origin of the textual sources to what later became the commonly accepted, theosophic version of the Sefer ha-Bahir. Scholem built an argument on the latter's quotations, suggesting that the work, Sod ha-Gadol can be traced back to the "Orient," based on the mention of the title Raza Rabba in a ninth-century Karaite polemic against some rabbinic, magical works. This claim has since been dismissed as no citations can be offered to compare the works, amongst a host of early and medieval works known by the title "Book of Secrets." Recent scholarship has suggested that some passages in the Bahir are based on the Babylonian vocalization, pointing to ancient sources in the East. These claims aside, the literary production and kabbalistic recension are the products of unidentified circles of medieval, European esotericists which did not feed into, nor cause, the apparent "eruption" of kabbalistic thinking and literature at the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries.

Literary Character of the Bahir

The Sefer ha-Bahir was not intended and should not be seen as a primer for kabbalistic study nor should it be understood through the lenses of the highly structured sefirotic symbolism which crystallized in the decades following its final stages of its composition and editing. The Bahir is rudimentary in its literary style, as it offers very complex mythic images, defying simple and structuralist interpretations based on the term sefirot. Many of its passages are based on parables of a king and his son or sons and a daughter, pointing to the sefirotic understanding, but effectively elucidating only some of the relationships within the supernal world, more than explicating any one, set doctrine.

Influences and External Sources

Scholem argued that the Bahir is the product of a merging of rabbinic and Gnostic traditions, at one point claiming that the work contains a literal translation of the Greek term male, pleroma (or: fullness), in describing the godhead. These phenomenological or hermeneutical parallels aside, no evidence can be shown to suggest the literary influence of Gnostic works on these early Jewish esotericists and the emerging Kabbalah. More recent attempts to explain the appearance of the Sefer ha-Bahir, have sought to explain the work as the first text to feminize the *Shekhinah and focus on Her as the grade of the divinity closest to the kabbalist adept. Accordingly, the 12th-century Christian rites which focus on Mary in Provence are seen to be the impetus and influence which informed the kabbalistic invention of the feminized theosophy. Here again, only impressionistic parallels can be suggested between the two corpora and religious traditions, which in any event are anachronistic as the literary sources of the Seer ha-Bahir predate this Christian phenomenon and the work emerges from a different geographical location, Ashkenaz. The Sefer ha-Bahir does offer many sexualized interpretations of the drama within the divine structure although it rarely mentions the Shekhinah. Locutions from Sefer Yeẓirah are central to a number of passages although no systematic attempt is made to transform the ancient esoteric work into a kabbalistic interpretation. The term "sefirah," taken from Sefer Yeẓirah, rarely appears and there is no systematic use of the sefirotic names more commonly found in the later works to depict the ten divine grades of the divine theosophy. The term "kabbalah" is also not mentioned as the proper name for the esoteric lore, although there are two important uses of the root in other forms.

The Text and its Editions

The earliest dated manuscript from 1298 formed the basis for Scholem's annotated German translation which comprised his doctoral dissertation in 1923. Scholem "corrected" or rather amended his Hebrew transcription, which formed the basis of his translation, with "better" readings from 13th-century kabbalists, changing the earliest textual witness in key places. The discrepancies between the earliest manuscript and the many citations which appear in later kabbalistic works, demonstrate that even the kabbalistic editing of the Sefer ha-Bahir was still in flux after the literary and social emergence of the Kabbalah. This process continued through the early modern period and on through the 20th century, when Reuven Margolioth edited a very popular edition of the Hebrew text by integrating all the readings from three late manuscripts, including words and phrases not found in the early manuscript witnesses. A number of passages cited as coming from the Sefer ha-Bahir but not found in the main manuscripts are quoted in other kabbalistic works. Numerous commentaries and translations were prepared from the 14th century to the present. In 1994 an edition based on the earliest manuscripts was published including a facsimile of the first printed edition (Amsterdam 1651), the celebrated Munich manuscript copied in 1298, listings of the Bahiric passages not found in the Sefer ha-Bahir, variant readings from citations found in manuscript works, listings of all translations and commentaries and a bibliography of references to the Sefer ha-Bahir in printed works and modern scholarship.


D. Abrams, The Book Bahir: An Edition Based on the Earliest Manuscripts (with intro. by M. Idel (Heb., 1994); J. Dan, "Midrash and the Dawn of Kabbalah," in: G. Hartman and S. Budick (eds.), Midrash and Literature (1986), 127–39; A. Green, "Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its Historical Context," in: AJS Review, 26 (2002), 1–52; R. Meroz, "A Citation Attributed to the Book Bahir," in: Kabbalah, 7 (2002) 319–26; idem, "On the Time and Place of Some of Sefer ha-Bahir," in: Da'at, 49 (2002), 137–80 (Heb.); H. Pedaya, "The Provençal Stratum in the Redaction of Sefer ha-Bahir," in: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 9 (1990), 139–64 (Heb.); P. Schaefer, Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah (2002); G. Scholem, Das Buch Bahir (1923); idem, Origins of the Kabbalah, trans. A. Arkush, ed. R.J.Z. Werblowsky (1987); M. Verman, The Books of Contemplation: Medieval Jewish Mystical Sources (1992), 166–73; E. Wolfson, "Hebraic and Hellenistic Conceptions of Wisdom in Sefer ha-Bahir," in: Poetics Today, 19 (1998), 147–76; idem, Language, Eros, Being (2005), 46–166; idem, "The Tree That Is All: Jewish-Christian Roots of a Kabbalistic Symbol in Sefer ha-Bahir," in: Along the Path: Studies in Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism and Hermeneutics (1995), 63–88.

[Daniel Abrams (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.