What’s an Ilan? – Dr. J. H. Chajes

An Ilan, a Hebrew word for “tree,” is an arboreal diagram. Kabbalistic Ilanot (plural) were often arboreal, but could also take other forms and deploy a wide range of schemata.

Kabbalistic diagrams resembling Porphyrian trees have been known at least since the thirtheenth century as “Ilanot.” By the sixteenth century, Ilanot were perceived as a genre of Hebraica in their own right, as may be seen in the writings of R. Moses Cordovero and the Christian Hebraist Guillaume Postel. (Postel listed “Ilanoth” as a genre of rabbinic literature alongside the familiar genres.) Ilanot visualize kabbalistic cosmologies from the relatively simpler forms of the thirteenth century to the far more complex and ramified systems of the Lurianic Kabbalah from the sixteenth century onward. The increasing complexity of cosmic trees between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries directly reflects the exponential ramification of kabbalistic theosophy that took place over those centuries. IIanot were maps of divine, in keeping with the visio-spatial‎ conceptions of the divine in its evolutionary “becoming” in these traditions. This divine cartography aspired to capture the syncronic interrelations between the various facets of the godhead and creation as well as their diachronic, evolving emergence.

The deployed schemata ranged from the arboreal to the boldly anthropomorphic. Lurianic Ilanot, in their lengthy and complex presentations, often featured both, as well as spreadsheet-like tables. The iconic decadal tree is an Ilan, as is the intricately Baroque Hammerschlag Ilan. Diagrams expressing particular concepts within a larger framework, such as the illustrations that frequently accompany certain cosmogonic discussions in the Lurianic corpus, would doubtfully have been called Ilanot by anyone. However simple or complex the pictorial-diagrammatic features of an Ilan, extensive textual material is frequently embedded in and around the geometrical forms. The texts may be paraphrastic chapter headings, original compositions, or the study notes of a student. Their connection to the pictorial features alongside which they appear is usually clear, with the text providing a verbal key to the quality or process depicted graphically. That said, in complex Ilanot, simple keying gives way to more complex and even inscrutable connections. Indeed, these manuscripts demand to be treated as “integrated systems of communication” that raise “questions about how verbal and visual patterns of meaning were constructed, combined, and modified.”

R’ Isaiah Moscat of Prague’s description of the published Poppers Ilan is an instructive summary of its intentions and applications: This Poppers Ilan, he writes, contains “holy words are more precious than gold and pearls, in which are included all the writings of the ARI. One who is expert in its holy words can easily engage in the wisdom of the Kabbalah.” This printed version then prefaces its reproduction with the following assertion of its authoritative origins and ostensible intentions:

This is the Great Tree composed by the Rabbi the Kabbalist, the Holy Lamp, our teacher the rabbi R. Meir Katz Poppers, may the memory of righteous & holy be a blessing…, one of the cubs of the ARI zlh”h, in signs (simanim) to become acquainted with wisdom and to be a memorial and to enable one to ascent the ladder whose head reaches the sky, including all the writings of the ARI Z”L and the enlightened will understand.

I do not take this passage as authoritative nor exhaustive in its suggestions of form and function, but it reveals at the very least the way the Ilan was perceived by the rabbis who published it in the late nineteenth century; their understanding was likely in keeping with earlier perceptions of this material as well.

To highlight and elaborate slightly their key points one by one;

1. The Poppers Ilan “includes all the writings of the ARI. One who is expert in its holy words can easily engage in the wisdom of the Kabbalah.” Allowing for some exaggeration on the part of R’ Moscat, this assertion indicates that the Ilan functioned as a précis of the entire Lurianic system. As a synoptic ilan (comprised in fact of multiple synoptic ilanot expressing different perspectives), the Poppers tree represented through its condensed integration of geometrical figures, tables, and texts the whole of the corpus. I think it fascinating and telling that R’ Moscat refers repeatedly to the “words” of the Ilan, rather than to its pictures. This likely stems from some combination of habituation to verbal primacy and ambivalence about the pictures. (About which more in a moment.)

2.The Poppers Ilan was composed by…Poppers, represented as an authentic student of the ARI. Poppers was, in fact, a student of R’ Yakov Zemah, who was a student of R’ Samuel Vital, who was a student of his father R’ Hayyim Vital, who was the actual student of the ARI. But lets not be fussy about details. What counts is that the Ilan can be considered an authentic, authoritative expression of Lurianic kabbalah. This is a fair enough claim given that Poppers was also responsible for the canonical redaction of Vital’s Lurianic writings, Etz Hayyim (Tree of Hayyim/Life). The source of this Ilan is no small matter: Poppers’ reputation makes it conceivable that this relatively brief series of glyphs could responsibly encapsulate an enormous corpus while quieting the anxieties produced by its figurative representation.

3.The Ilan is presented in a series of “small signs” (simanim ketanim). The 1893 edition of Poppers indeed presents the images as a series of 14 engravings, each headed as a numbered siman or sign, much as Christian Knorr von Rosenroth had presented his version in 16 “figures” in Kabbalah denudata. Yet the 1864 printing and its manuscript prototype contain no such headings, which leads me to think that “small signs” is actually something of a euphemism for metonymic pictograms.

4.These “small signs” enable one “to become acquainted with wisdom.” Indeed, the genesis of the Poppers ilan in a pedagogical context is clear from the testimony of Poppers himself, who wrote that he crafted it for his students in Cracow. Poppers was deeply troubled by the difficulty of learning Lurianic kabbalah—something that troubles me as well—and his editorial efforts that culminated in Etz Hayyim were also intended to help students whom, he writes, were inclined to suicide upon confronting the chaotic literature he sought to organize and re-present in text and pictures.

5.The Ilan was “le-zikaron”, which it is tempting to translate simply as “for mnemonic purposes.” Here the early modern cultural historian awakens; do we have here the Jewish equivalent of the occult memory arts so brilliantly explored in Francis Yates’s pioneering work and more recently by Lina Bolzoni and Mary Carruthers? Although many Ilanot are so heavily embedded with textual material that I find it difficult to imagine them functioning in a manner analogous to the relatively cryptically coded memory theatres or arboreal diagrams deployed by rhetoricians and occultists to recall large bodies of knowledge. Yet the 1864 Poppers and its prototype are indeed quite modest in their textual content and embed textual markers in distinctive geometrical forms; this imagery could not but be crucial to cognition and memory.  Medieval scholars including Albertus Magnus and Aquinas assigned to visual images “the ability to fix general concepts in the mind by attaching them to specific details and paces located within…[a] structure.” Magnus might have objected to overly complex ilanot, however, given his concern over the confusion engendered when too many images “break up in the soul and do not remain, just as a great number of waves break up in water.” Recognizing the Poppers Ilan as a series of occult mnemonic diagrams points, as does its pedagogic function, to its deployment in a specific kabbalistic Sitz im Leben.

6.The Ilan enables one “to ascend the ladder whose head reaches the sky.” The Ilan is clearly more than an instructional diagram or mnemonic device: it is a mandala. And a mandala is not simply a map; as in some sense a mandala is what it shows: a representation and instantiation of the godhead and/or enlightened mind of the practitioner. The Ilan incorporated into ritual and meditative practice is not difficult to imagine: scanning the glyphs as he rolls the scroll the kabbalist sets off on a guided meditation, identifying godhead and consciousness. (Parenthetically, I believe that optical theories of extramission made the possibility of such visually assisted identification eminently plausible.)

7.The short preface concludes by reiterating the claim made in the approbation that the Ilan includes “all the writings of the ARI, and the enlightened will understand.” The closing words represent a subtle play on the famous verse, “the enlightened will shine” and recalls the ancient rabbinic strictures on the transmission of esoteric lore: such matters may only be taught to one who is wise and understands on his own. It is fascinating to note that the same artifact can be conceived simultaneously as a pedagogical primer for the beginning student of Lurianism and as an esoteric précis comprehensible as such only to the enlightened, or advanced kabbalist. Perhaps here we find something of the powerful multivalence of pictures.

Finally, the reception history of many ilanot may be glimpsed in what might be regarded as the small marketing blurb that appears just after the date of publication on the first frame of the printed scroll: “Protection from any pain or damage & charm to raise children.” If the Poppers Ilan was made by and for kabbalists, it was printed as an amulet, for the material gain of its publisher. In this respect it is one of a kind with books like Sefer Raziel ha-malakh, first published in Amsterdam in 1701, that routinely advertised their apotropaic power while suggesting that potential buyers dare not inspect their content. With their potent mix of divine names and cryptic glyphs, it should not surprise us to find that Ilanot should find a successful afterlife as amulets.

Précis, primer, pictogram, mnemonic metonym, meditation mandala, amulet: the Poppers ilan, and many others in this overlooked corpus, is all of these.

~ J. H. Chajes