Many years ago, before most of y’all were born, I visited Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I was looking for an obscure manuscript, and it was rumored to be available on microfilm. Miraculously, I found it. It was an eight hundred year old letter from R. Meir haMe’ili, a member of the rabbinical court in Narbonne, Provence. The letter was included in a book called Milhemeth Mitzvah.
Straining my eyes, and hunched over the microfilm machine, I painstakingly transcribed the relevant sections of that letter, leaving out large sections of religious fluff.
The letter is unlikely to be of much interest to non-Jews, or non-practicing Jews. But it’s extremely important. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one to have published it, especially in English. I could have sworn that I’d already published it on this blog, but I couldn’t find it. It must have been one of those items I’d thought about publishing so often that my mind fooled me into thinking I’d already done so. Or maybe I did, and I mis-categorized it. If you find it in an earlier post, feel free to embarrass me by pointing it out; I’m not so young anymore!
Though it hasn’t been published (as far as I know), it has been referred to, and I’ll quote Encyclopedia.com:
Meir also appears in this work as a vehement opponent of a certain circle of kabbalists, to whom he attributes heretical views. Questioning the authenticity of Sefer ha-Bahir, he sharply criticizes its contents, together with other kabbalistic works. These criticisms were included in an “epistle” sent to “our rabbis in every town.” His work was also directed against the ideas of some kabbalists based on works which, according to Meir, were forgeries attributed to well-known scholars. At the end of this epistle he gives Meshullam’s commendation to his activity.
As you’ll see, “questioning the authenticity of Sefer ha-Bahir” is putting it mildly. Also, his objections to the Kabbalah apply to mainstream Kabbalah, and not just to “some Kabbalists.” The heretical concepts that he attacks are clearly spelled out in such works as Zohar Hadash (“New Zohar,” which is one of the Zohars mentioned below).
Here’s some context to help you appreciate this letter. If you ask Orthodox rabbis about the Kabbalah (so-called “Jewish mysticism”), 99.9% of them will tell you it’s an integral part of Judaism, that to reject the Kabbalah is pretty much the same as rejecting the Torah itself. Hasidic Judaism, in particular, is largely based on the Kabbalah. Much of modern Jewish liturgy is influenced by the Kabbalah. Sephardic, and Mizrahi, Jews also give special deference to the Kabbalah. If you publicly reject the Kabbalah in religious circles, you’ll be ridiculed, persecuted and ostracized. You might even be attacked.
The main book of the Kabbalah is called The Zohar. It was attributed to a prominent Mishnaic sage, whose name was R. Shim’on ben Yohai. In Aramaic, it would be R. Shim’on bar Yohai. In Israel, there are special celebrations honoring R. Shim’on bar Yohai and the Zohar.
In reality, the Zohar was a collection of books, written in medieval Spain by various authors. At the end of his letter, R. Meir haMe’ili clearly alludes to the Zohar – without actually naming it, though he does hint at it (apparently).
According to Wikipedia, the main Kabbalistic works include:
- Sefer Yetzirah.
- Sefer Raziel HaMalakh.
Heichalot (English: Chambers) is somewhat ancient; the Kabbalists co-opted it. The same applies to Sefer Yetzirah; it is ancient, but was re-interpreted by the Kabbalists. Bahir (English: Shining) is the book that is mentioned by name in this letter.
Raziel HaMalakh is a collection of short works written in medieval times. It is largely based upon the earlier Sefer haRazim, which is brazenly and openly polytheistic. Sefer haRazim includes a prayer to the Sun god Helios, to be recited at sunrise. It has many references to other Greek gods, such as Aphrodite, Pluto and Zeus. It also includes many magical formulae and offerings to various angels. All of these books were written in Hebrew. Raziel HaMalakh is still used as a charm, among some Jews, as protection for babies and against fires. It’s sold in tiny format, and (aside from myself) I’m not aware of anybody who has actually read it.
At some point, probably due to criticism from Maimonides, Sefer haRazim fell into disfavor, and was forced underground. Sefer Raziel HaMalakh replaced it, and includes many of the same references and magical formulae. Raziel HaMalakh also includes the prayer to the Sun god, but does not explicitly mention Helios. It is polytheistic, but far less blatantly so.
The Zohar mentions Sefer Raziel HaMalakh (favorably) three times.
Anybody who is familiar with the Kabbalah will have no doubt that this letter refers to it. for my other readers, I’ll list some of the Kabbalistic terms that come up in the letter, and some other terms/personalities you might not be familiar with:
Haggadah (or Aggadah): The allegorical, or folkloric, sections of the Talmud that do not specifically pertain to Jewish law.
Rabina and Rav Ashi: 4th-5th century sages who compiled, and completed, the Babylonian Talmud.
External Haggadoth: Haggadoth that are not part of the Talmud, but comprise separate volumes. There are several of these, and they provide insights and commentary, but are not considered valid sources of Jewish law. Examples of these are Tanhuma, Heichaloth, Midrash Rabbah, Tana de Be Eliyahu and Pesiqeta. There are many others, mostly from medieval times.
Sephiroth: The 10 emanations of the Kabbalah. They play a central role in Kabbalistic thought. Note: The Book of Yetzirah, mentioned above, does refer to the “sephiroth,” but that Hebrew word is derived from the word that means “to count,” and it simply means “numerals.” The Book of Yetzirah speaks of the nascent sciences of mathematics and Hebrew grammar. In those days, this type of knowledge was considered a “secret,” to be revealed only to the worthy. The Kabbalists borrowed from the Latin word “sphaera” (sphere) and attached it to the Hebrew “sephiroth,” coming up with something like 10 concentric circles – symbolizing various spiritual emanations and realms.
Ein Sof (אין סוף): Literally “no end” or “eternal.” This is a well-known Kabbalistic term for God in his highest form, without any attributes, and above all of the sephiroth. Old-school Kabbalists considered it impossible, and inappropriate, to direct worship to such a being – instead directing their devotions to the emanations (sephiroth) that emanate from him.
meqatsets banneti’oth (מקצץ בּנטיעות): One who “cuts the seedlings.” In other words, one who commits an abomination by destroying something beautiful.
One last thing. It’s very difficult to transcribe from a microfilm of a centuries-old manuscript. It’s just as difficult to translate such a document into English. I’m certain that my translation isn’t perfect – and neither was the original transcription from so many years ago. I do apologize for this. I hope that some day the original Hebrew will see the light of day. In the meantime, I’ll include my Hebrew transcription, as an image, at the end. Perhaps somebody will be able to improve upon my translation.
To counter the words of those who speak evil of the Lord, and of the sages who walk in the ways of the perfect Torah, and of those who fear God. They are those who are consider themselves wise, and who invent things out of thin air while straying toward heresy. They imagine that there is evidence for their opinions from ancient Jewish folklore (hagadah), which they interpret according to their errors. Heaven forfend, and God forbid, for the intentions of the sages who related them were not as those people think. May God enable us to do good, and to teach them a valuable lesson… Amen, amen, selah.
Many days have passed where Israel has not had a God in truth, nor Torah or a teaching priest. The truth was lacking, and a poisonous root and wormwood sprouted from the proliferation of those who bless themselves in their own heart. For prophets have not found (?…). And verily from the kindness of the Lord upon us, He gave us the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, and prophets and righteous men have risen from our midst. Pillars of the world, when they saw that the Torah was being forgotten from Israel due to many woes, and the weight of exile and persecutions, wrote the Oral Torah and the secrets of God as their great wisdom saw fit. Some of them through hints and secrets, and some of them in plain language. Nothing great or small was hidden from them, including the foundations of the Torah in the faith of God. Those who find it acquire the ways of life for a world that’s entirely life. They explained our perfect Torah in a revealing light, and they also followed up on it to explain its fundamentals, which a man should grasp and live by. For they are life to those who find them. (Here I skipped a long extraneous segment).
Several days have passed, and fools have suddenly gone out, and revealed concepts that are not according to Jewish law, regarding the belief in the Lord, blessed be He. They are concerning prayer and the reciting of blessings which were instituted by the sages of the Great Assembly. Concepts that have no root or branch, not in the Torah of Moses, and not in the Prophets or Writings. Not from the Talmud, which was arranged by Rabina and Rav Ashi, and is in our possession. In other words, (these concepts have no basis) neither from tradition, nor logic. Not even from the External Hagadoth, not that there are… (?). That they are corrupting and incorrect, and one cannot cite evidence from them, nor pose questions from them. We cannot reconcile from them, nor prove a point from them in the study halls.
And those fools have said we should not direct our study, prayers or benedictions to the ancient and first God, who has no beginning or end. Woe to their souls! What has happened to them, and what have they seen that made them spurn the Holy One of Israel? They have reverted backward in level, and alienated themselves from He who Preceded the World, (?) the God of antiquity, first without a beginning, and last without an end, and aside from Him there is no other god. Just as many verses have attested to, and it is said, “I am first and I am last, and aside from Me, there is no god,” and it is said, “You are the one whose years will never end.” There are many similar verses. He is God in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is none other, nor does He change. A true One, in a complete oneness. Without any partnership or combination of sephiroth. Our God, blessed be He, is the cause of all causes, and the occasion of all occasions. He creates great things, and extracted something from nothing by His will alone. He said, and they were. He created them and made them, and when they stood, they called out to Him that it’s good to thank and bless and elevate and pray, and beseech from Him and to adore Him. It is right to thank, to bless, to elevate, to pray, to call to Him with thanks and benedictions. The master of all, and the creator of all.
Not to his creations, which have a beginning and an end. He watches over, and manages, everything, generally and specifically – as the Torah testifies. For all of his ways are just, and nothing is hidden from Him at all. As Scripture says, regarding both the nation and the individual together, and there are many verses. It’s not necessary to quote them.
The “wheels,” “spheres,” holy angels, and everything that they might be called are tools for God’s handiwork. The God without beginning or end, as they explained the verse, “I shall take him under my wing etc.” He is the one who does it all. As for His other works, the Ancient God without a beginning manages them according to the laws that he instituted from the beginning, so that they don’t change their functions – except when He chooses to do so. At that point, He will change nature, and replace the times and moments in order to renew His wonders and their signs for the purpose of validating the words of His prophets, and to rescue his worshipers, and to inform them that He alone is the one who creates them and establishes them. That He has the ability to change them or destroy them – and that we should not combine anything with Him. For it is not appropriate to combine the created with its creator. The raw material is with the creator, and that which delegated is with the delegator.
That is to say that there is no complete oneness except with them, it’s all one for everything exists, and is found, outside of Him, and He created them and formed everything in the world, from the smallest to the greatest, out of a state of absolute nothingness – this is the correct belief for all of the faithful of Israel. Anyone who combines our Heavenly Father with something else is uprooted from the world.
This is the correct belief for all the faithful of Israel. Anybody who strays from it is a heretic and a blasphemer. How shall we expound upon the words of fools, that all of their prayers and benedictions are directed toward false gods, whom they say were created and emanated, that they have a beginning and an end? For they say, according to their foolish reasoning, that anybody who is called “first and last” has a beginning and an end. And it is written, “I am first and I am last, and before me there are no gods.”
Thus we found in one of their erroneous books, whose name they called “Bahir,” and so we heard from a few of our scholars who quoted them – that they say we should pray to one created god during the day, and at night to another god, who is above the first one, but he is also created. During the high holidays, after the ten days of penitence, there are many days of confusion and backsliding to pray to another created being, and to others who are below him during the rest of the year. They made many distinctions in prayer, according to the mood of their defective minds. They’re a disgrace to all flesh The worms of their stupidity will never die, and the fire of their folly will never be extinguished. For they have craved many gods. In their lack of wisdom, they have said all of these are attached one to the other, and that they are all one. These fools do not let their ears hear what their mouths are saying. For in truth, the God who we are supposed to believe in exclusively, to Him is it proper to direct our prayers, to worship, to bless and to thank – for He is one. If they say that He is more than one, then they have already denied the Torah, which says, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And it said there is none besides Him. If they say that He is one, then why do they divide their prayers to one during the day, and another during the night? Why do they distinguish between the holidays and regular days? Why do they divide between the days of penitence and the other days of the year? How are all these distinctions appropriate? Also, verily, they should know that the Holy One blessed be He is one, and his unity is primordial, without a beginning and without an end, without change. As it is written, “I am the Lord, and I have not changed etc.” If so, He was one before the sephiroth, which have a beginning and an end, were created and emanated. To them do they direct their hearts in their benedictions and prayers. Is this not evidence that their words are incorrect?
But their eyes are plastered so that they are blinded, and their hearts cannot comprehend. In the end, all of their words are like chaff before the wind, and like straw. Words of chaos that have no substance. They are destruction, and contradiction, to the Torah. Words of apostasy and heresy. If their words are accurate, then how would any reasoning person consider that it’s inappropriate to bless and pray to the First God, who has no beginning or end, the cause of all causes, who they refer to, in their jargon, as “Ein Sof” (without end). He who does so is, in their eyes, “meqatsets banneti’oth” (cutters of the seedlings) who does not merit to witness the pleasure of salvation, which is known to those who know the Lord, those who fear Him and know Him. How could this not have been explained in the perfect Torah, which was given to us by the Lord for everlasting life? For therein it is written, “You have shown us to know that the Lord is God, and there is no other.” How then could we possibly know this thing that the Lord never spoke? How could we possibly know all of this? How could our Holy Teacher (Yehudah haNassi), who edited the Mishnah, and Rabina and Rav Ashi, who sealed and wrote all of the Talmud, which we have today, that they are the basics of the Oral Torah? How could they have neglected all of Israel to be mistaken and excluded from the world to come – as “meqatsetsim banneti’oth” (cutters of seedlings)?
Woe to the eyes that thus see! Woe to the ears that thus hear! Woe to the generation that experiences this in its days! How could our learned scholars, and God-fearing men, have failed to gird their loins? How could (?) his sages?… the troubles have increased for us, and the yoke of exile and persecution. Is there, in our time, amongst all the non-Jewish religions that deny the oneness of God more than these people?
And if they say that he who blesses and prays to the Holy One blessed be He, the cause of all causes and the creator of everything, is excluded from the world, but does merit a place in the world to come, and is not considered a “meqatsets baNeti’oth” (cutter of seedlings) – but that they are considered, in their folly, among the the ignorant masses, while they themselves are of the elite who know the secrets of God and those who fear Him, that in their wisdom they rise to a higher level than the others in this belief. Then they are fools who abandon certainty, even according to their words, and cling to a mere possibility. Certainly this ruinous for them, and their souls are destroyed and desolate, as they descend to the lowest level – the opposite of their hopes and intentions, which are incorrect.
In the end, every knowledgeable man is obligated to distance himself from their foolish words.
Behold, we have written all this before you, our rabbis in every city, to reveal all of these things to you. For we were fearful because of the signatures that were found upon them when we received them. Also that it was told to us that they forged many signatures of the great scholars of this land, who did not actually sign them. Thus many of the masses, from other lands, could be led astray – as they boast in these lies, saying, “We have found strength and support among the Torah scholars.” Lest they say, “Our hand prevails.”
Heaven forfend, and God forbid, that we would stray after such heresies. Let there not be the like of this in Israel.
I have heard that they’ve already composed a book, which they named “Bahir,” which I have mentioned above, and they did not see light in it. We have already acquired this book, and we found that they attributed it to R. Nehuniyah ben haQaneh. God Forbid! That holy man would never have stumbled so, and he was not counted among criminals. The language of that book, and all of its ideas, prove… that it was from a man who is not literate or eloquent. It contains words of heresy and apostasy in many places.
We have also heard they they have compiled additional commentaries on the Song of Songs, the Book of Creation and The Book of Chambers, in which they wrote things according to their heresies. They also wrote a commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes and other books. Seek well and investigate, and if you find them in your midst, destroy them from the Earth, so that they don’t lead people astray. Dig for them, for we have already destroyed the ones that were found among us. Let the Lord, in His mercy, send us a redeemer to gather the dispersed people of Israel and Judah, and remove from among His people their doubts and confusion. Let Him restore the heart of fathers to their sons, and the hearts of sons to their fathers.
We have written all of this with the approbation of our lord, the great rabbi, the candle of Israel, our teacher, R. Meshulam the son of the great rabbi Moshe… and the other scholars of Israel, some of them who have privately known about this matter we have written about. Let the wise shine like the shining of the heavens, and those who bring merit to the public like the stars forever. Amen, amen, selah.