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S’firot, Middot, and Stars: The Zohar’s Biblical Mandate

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 63, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 77-91 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0036

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

While many passages from the Torah became cornerstones of the daily and festival liturgy, none, with the exception of the first verse of the Sh’ma (“Hear, O Israel,” Deuteronomy 6:4), have punctuated the Jewish year—and even the Jewish day—more than the formula of divine forgiveness given to Moses after the incident of the Golden Calf, the verses known as the “thirteen attributes (middot) of divine forgiveness” (Exodus 34:6–7). The talmudic sages taught that when Israel recites these words in sincere repentance before God, they will be forgiven. These words are central to all five services of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), serving as the refrain of the s’liḥot (penitential) prayers found in each service, and are called the b’rit sh’losh esreih, the “covenant of the thirteen.”1

In the traditional liturgy, the thirteen attributes are read from the Torah on fast days. They also highlight the liturgy of the Torah Service for each of the major festivals, reminding Jews of the biblical listing of the holidays after the account of Israel’s first idol and the orgy with which it was celebrated, as if to make the point that the festivals one chooses to celebrate are the indication of one’s values and covenantal loyalties (Exodus 34:17ff.). The thirteen attributes are also invoked every day, three times a day, in the Ashrei psalm (Psalm 145:8).

With the thirteen attributes so firmly ingrained in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people and continually reinforced by the liturgy, how could the Jewish mystics have embraced a concept of divine emanation through ten divine powers, or s’firot? What is the relationship of these emanations to the thirteen attributes? This question can only shed light on the treatment of biblical motifs in the kabbalistic tradition.

The groundbreaking mystical tract, Sefer Y’tzirah, “The Book of Creation,” written between the third and fourth centuries C.E., says of the s’firot (divine emanations) that they are tenand not nine or eleven.2 Traditional commentators warned of the dangers of reducing the s’firot to nine by identifying the first s’firah, Keter (understood as “Will”), with God, or of upgrading them to eleven by adding God to them instead of regarding them as divinely-directed emanations, “like flame in a burning coal” as the Sefer Y’tzirah calls them.3 The later work, Sefer Ha-bahir, “The Book of Brightness” (end of twelfth century) regards the ten emanations as evident in the midrashic reference to God’s creating the world by ten sayings, and in the ten fingers basic to each human being.4 The Bahir refers to a satanic middah (attribute) of evil that also emanates from God,5 a prototype of G’vurah or Stern Judgment in the later kabbalistic naming of the s’firot.

Not surprisingly, the terms s’firot and middot were, at times, used interchangeably6 as kabbalistic doctrines unfolded. Also not surprisingly, there were efforts to fuse these terms. With typical thoroughness and intuitive appreciation of the kabbalistic texts, Gershom Scholem spoke of the need of early kabbalists (thirteenth century) to posit a “kabbalistic trinity” of three “infinitely hidden” lights in order to bring the ten s’firot in line with the thirteen attributes.7 In an earlier work, Scholem traces the efforts of kabbalistic pathmakers in Provence to fit the thirteen attributes into the s’firot paradigm by suggesting that all divine middot, understood as “modes of action” (Scholem’s term), are “enclosed in the first s’firah and erupt from it.”8 Scholem cites a commentary on Sefer Y’tzirah which speaks of divinely created and named “first potency” called “Ḥokhmah,” “from which came the twelve other potencies [corresponding to the thirteen middot]. This potency [Ḥokhmah] corresponds to the ten [s’firot] in the undifferentiated unity. . . .”9

Scholem’s research suggests that the process of numbering s’firot, or spheres of divine emanation, posed an immense challenge to the kabbalistic schools to respect biblical sensibilities regarding numbers. Scholem even pointed out that to the early Kabbalists, at least, s’firot were understood as “numbers.”10 All the more reason, therefore, to...


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