In this lecture, delivered on ZOOM on 21 October 2020, Prof. Chajes introduces the genre of Ilanot and showcases the important kabbalistic tree rotuli in the collection of the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
The medieval expression of Jewish esotericism known as Kabbalah is distinguished by its imaging of the divine as ten hypostatic sefirot that structure the Godhead and generate the cosmos. Since Gershom Scholem, the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Kabbalah, declared the term sefirah (sg.) as deriving from “sapphire”—pointedly rejecting its connection to the Greek σφαῖρα—scholars have paid scant attention to the profound indebtedness of the visual and verbal lexicon of the kabbalists to the Greco-Arabic scientific tradition. The present paper seeks to redress this neglect through an examination of the appropriation of the diagrammatic-iconographical and rhetorical languages of astronomy and natural philosophy in medieval and early modern kabbalistic discourse. This study will place particular emphasis on the adoption-adaptation and ontologization of the dominant schemata of these most prestigious fields of medieval science by classical kabbalists, what it reveals about their self-understanding, and how it contributed to the perception of Kabbalah as a “divine science” well into the early modern period.
At the heart of a concise review of the cosmogonic theory of R. Isaac Luria (1534–72), his preeminent disciple, R. Hayyim Vital (1543–1620), drew a captionless diagram. Rather than suggest that this diagram would clarify the complex text surrounding it, Vital introduced it with the rather surprising, “and now I will draw you a circle, and from it you will understand what you have to understand.” What kind of understanding did Vital believe could be attained through an engagement with his “circle”? What did he believe the diagram offered that was lacking in the text? How did he expect the text and the diagram to be correlated? A close reading of this material invites broad reflection on the place of diagrams in Kabbalah: from their intended functions and epistemological status to the ways in which they were to be used, performed, or “thought with.”
article deals with the book of Rabbi Isaac Wanne “Rechev Elohim” (The
chariot of G-d). Rabbi Isaac Wanne was a Kabbalist
who lived in Yemen in the seventeenth century. The center of the book is a
series of Kabbalistic diagrams, which create a map of the upper worlds, and
serve as an orientation for the Kabbalists.
The book is based entirely on Kabbalistic knowledge that came to Yemen from Europe during this period. The article deals with the question of the influence of European knowledge on the kabbalistic culture in Yemen in general and on the visual kabbalistic culture specifically. I would like to show how Wanne sees himself as part of the European culture by interpreting the printed books that came to Yemen in his own way.
במאמר החדש, שנכתב על ידי יוסי אורי ואליעזר יחדיו, מוצג אילן קבלי גדול ממדים מכורדיסטן, שנכתב על ידי ר’ יהושע – תלמידו של ר’ שמואל ברזאני, במאה ה17. האילן מלמד אותנו על תפיסותיהם הקבליות של חכמי הקבלה בכורדיסטן במאה ה17, ועל הקשר בינם ובין מקובלים בארץ ישראל ובאירופה.
Gross Festschrift Contribution – J. H. Chajes & Eliezer Baumgarten
In a volume of essays presented as a beautiful bouquet to its distinguished and deserving recipient, there will no doubt be no few declarations of the signal importance of a given subcollection. Some, like the collection of magical artifacts, are certainly to be counted among—if not atop—the world’s greatest. Thanks to the legendary-yet-true generosity of William Gross, whole fields of scholarship are nourished by these collections. It is likely nevertheless that with regard to only one can it be said that a whole field of scholarship was created by the collection, and, no less truly, by the collector: the Gross Ilanot Collection.
If, dear reader, you are now asking yourself, “Ilanot?”—without a clue regarding the meaning of this odd italicized term, you are not alone. You are, however, less alone than you might have been just over a decade ago. Ilanot is the plural form of the Hebrew ilan, or “tree,” but in this context refers to an entire genre of Judaica. His keen eye having chanced upon them, William Gross began collecting ilanot decades ago for their undeniable aesthetic interest. His best academic sources could not, however, tell him anything about them; they had never been studied by scholars of Kabbalah. Undeterred, our hero contracted an erudite scholar—Dr. Menachem Kallus—to provide him with initial descriptions of just what these ilanot depicted. A longstanding friendship with Dr. Kallus brought them to Prof. Chajes’s attention soon thereafter, and, with the realization that an entire of genre of Judaica was terra incognita in the twenty-first century, the Ilanot Project was founded with the support of the Israel Science Foundation. But we get ahead of ourselves.
The genre was defined by the name “Ilanot” some five hundred years ago as the wedding of schema and medium: a diagram (originally arboreal) inscribed on a parchment sheet. The tree of sefirot—the ten divine qualities at the core of kabbalistic theosophy—is, of course, well known, even iconic.
Yet as early as the fourteenth century, kabbalists did more than simply diagram these sefirot on the pages of their treatises: they enlarged them to fill dedicated parchments. In and around them, they inscribed in loco texts relating sefirotic names and associations. These poster-sized creations were regarded as a genre in their own right for good reason: in form and function(s), they were literally like nothing else. As images, they represented the topography of the Godhead as kabbalists believed it to be “in reality”—this in an age during which depictions were presumed bound to the depicted through the occult networks established by similarity itself. These maps of God thus made the divine territory present for their users. As parchments, ilanot were one of a small number of (sc)rolls in use among Jews: the rest—sifrei torah, mezuzot, etc.— were all used in ritual contexts rather than for quotidian study. Ilanot, then, should not be understood simply as kabbalist texts presented by means of an eccentric format, but as performative artifacts.
If we put these two dimensions together, the nature of ilanot becomes clear: they establish a kind of virtual divine reality that invites the participation of their user. Early ilanot, such as the rare fifteenth-century parchment here pictured, could be contemplatively studied and committed to the mind’s eye—or simply gazed upon—in the/as an act of prayer. Especially after the revival of the genre in the mid-seventeenth century, at which point multiple-parchment ilanot rotuli (vertical rather than horizonal scrolls) of unprecedent length were created, the very act of scrolling became central to their performance. As these early modern ilanot mapped the Godhead in its developmental dynamism, from the highest to the lowest of its emanations, to scroll through an ilan in a state of contemplative, imaginative identification with virtual divine reality brought the kabbalist an intimate and immediate form of the knowledge it represented. The ilan had other functions as well: pedagogic (introducing complex cosmology diagrammatically), hermeneutic (settling questions of how the divine topography described in texts was to be pictured), mnemonic (placing texts in specific locations for subsequent recollection and creative redeployment), and even apotropaic (warding off evil as amulets). This, in short, is the genre that William Gross is responsible for rescuing from undeserved obscurity.
As kabbalists fashioned ilanot wherever they were over the past seven centuries, from London to Mabar (a village south of Sana’a, Yemen), the cultural and ideational variegation of the genre is staggering, and the process of writing its history arduous and interdisciplinary. Of the innumerable potential chapters in such a history, a small but fascinating one will be written on the following pages—one that especially honors the aesthetic eye that first spotted an ilan so many years ago. For if it is true that an ilan is, as its name suggests, first and foremost a tree, peering out from that odd parchment roll on the auctioneer’s block was a face—and not just any face, but a face of God. What are these faces of God doing in kabbalistic, let alone Jewish works? If the myth of the artless Jew (and Jewish aniconism more generally) is long shattered, how could we not be astonished upon seeing a face of God depicted representationally on a kabbalistic artifact? The Second Commandment is one thing, but the words of Exodus 33:20 ring memorably in our ears: “You cannot see my face: for no man shall see me and live.” Yet there they are, these faces, in ilan after ilan.
Before even seeing examples of these faces, however, it is important to make two points: one regarding specific content, and the other regarding esotericism generally. First: the faces of God that we see on ilanot appear for the first time in the second half of the seventeenth century. They are not part of the ilan in its classic form, which, as we noted, was dominated by the arboreal schema. The sixteenth-century emergence of Lurianic Kabbalah—named after R. Isaac Luria (1534-1572)—made all the difference. Luria did not invent a new system from scratch, but his readings of the central corpus of the medieval tradition, the Zohar, so thoroughly de- and reconstructed its most recondite compositions—the so-called Idrot (lit. “threshing floors”)—that to many it has often seemed that he did. Before Luria, most kabbalists occupied themselves with the ten sefirot. As archetypical qualities or categories, they provided the keys to understanding (and acting upon) the underlying structure of creation and its Creator. They were the cyphers to the secrets of the Book of Nature and the Book of God, understood as encoded sefirotic sequences. Not coincidentally, like the categories of Aristotle famously diagrammed by Porphyry in his eponymic diagram, the sefirot were best represented diagrammatically as a tree. Luria had paid particular attention, however, to the images of the Godhead in the Idrot. These were of an altogether different character. In them, Luria discovered the elements that would form the heart of his own teachings. Rather than the undifferentiated infinite and unknowable deity Ein Sof (No End) simply emanating the sefirot as in classical Kabbalah, here emerges Adam Kadmon (Primordial Adam)—a cosmic figure of human form, the human form in whose likeness and image we were created. The great variety of creation was, in this account, rooted ultimately in the unique qualities of the lights that streamed from each of the orifices of Adam Kadmon’s face, which included not only nostrils and mouth, but ears and eyes. Even the beard of this macanthropos was instrumental to creation. The face of Adam Kadmon was not alone, however.
It was still true that “no man sees my face and lives” (to use Bob Dylan’s “I and I” paraphrase). The face of Adam Kadmon could not simply emanate creation as we know it in our material world. It was, rather, only the first link in a great chain of being, or, more precisely, the first face. Lurianism describes the progressive diminution of the unimaginable supernal lights of Adam Kadmon; not unlike the electrical voltage powering our homes, these great lights had to be stepped down incrementally simply to allow for the very existence of a reality differentiated from the divine. The initial transformers of the primordial lights of Adam Kadmon are the divine faces known as partzufim (lit. faces). Prominent among these are Arikh Anpin (lit., “longface”) and Ze’er Anpin (lit., “short-face”). If Adam Kadmon is the anthropomorphic ur-figure in this system, it is nevertheless still an ungraspable dimension of the deity—and still at considerable remove from a “personal God” of the kind we encounter in classical Judaism. Arikh, though “lower” than Adam Kadmon, remains a face of God of sublime equanimity, nonplussed by the ebb and flow of human history or the good and evil of human actions. With Ze’er, however, whose name suggests a God with a short temper for the first time, we arrive at a familiar face of the divine: this face of God smiles or frowns, depending on you. And finally, to the matter at hand: these are the faces of God we find in the Lurianic ilanot produced from roughly 1650 forward.
There was therefore a solid basis in Lurianic Kabbalah, based on the zoharic idrot, to represent the faces of God in artifacts devoted to mapping the structures and dynamic development of divine realms. That basis did not, however, constitute “permission” to do so, and, a fortiori, certainly not in the public domain. The teachings of the idrot were palpably troubling to their writer, who introduced them with a stern warning voiced by their protagonist and hero, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, echoing the Second Commandment. Although the teachings were of unprecedented anthropomorphism and “plasticity” in their representation of the Godhead, the student was not to take them literally, making of them a “graven image.”
The idrot were included in the zoharic literature published in the midsixteenth century as “the Zohar”—despite vocal rabbinic opposition to its printing. The canonical redaction of Lurianism, Etz Hayyim, would be printed (by a maskil!) in the late eighteenth century. Only in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, would Jews print a Lurianic ilan.
Although in the end, commercial interests seem always to prevail, it would seem that the centuries of reticence were borne of a consensus that ilanot were not for everybody. They were, at least until the Warsaw printing, made exclusively by kabbalists, for kabbalists. It was not simply the complexity of their content that called for discretion—it was all to be found in Etz Hayyim and other printed books after all—but their graphical visualization. All of this to make our second point: our surprise at seeing the faces of God inscribed on a kabbalistic parchment is well placed.
We are not the first to find these images audacious. In the event, our sensibility offers a useful insight into the perceived need to transmit these artifacts within the community of kabbalists equipped to understand them. Now that we too can understand these faces, let us see them.
The man responsible for the canonical redaction of Luria’s teachings (as mediated by R. Hayyim Vital, Luria’s most prominent disciple) was R. Meir Poppers, an itinerant Polish kabbalist. Poppers explained in his introduction to Etz Hayyim that the chaos of these teachings made it impossible to learn them; his editorial motivations were thus primarily pedagogical. It should not come as a surprise to learn that Poppers was also the first to sketch a diagram of Adam Kadmon and the partzufim, and that he did so for his students in Cracow around 1652. In his commentary to Etz Hayyim, Poppers writes that the plethora of theosophical detail found in Luria’s treatment of the reconfigured sefirotic structures (these being the partzufim) in the aftermath of the “breaking of the vessels” should not obscure the fact, writ large, they all served to “enrobe” Adam Kadmon. Continuing this very sentence, Poppers writes, “and in the ilan that I fashioned for my colleagues abroad, I represented all the details possible for me to draw; below we shall write the order of its enrobing.” The Poppers’ ilan thus showed both Adam Kadmon and the partzufim, the latter in their progressive attenuations.
Although we do not have an ilan carrying a colophon that dates it to the mid-seventeenth century that fits this description, a German scholar by the name of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth set out to collect ilanot in this period, regarding them as essential to the kabbalistic education of the readers of his Kabbalah denudata (Sulzbach, 1677). In this volume, Knorr published five ilanot over sixteen fold-out pages. The ilanot were prepared as engravings, and Knorr himself translated their Hebrew content into
Latin. The first of these five ilanot, presented in figures (fold-out pages) 1-7, precisely matches Poppers’ account of his ilan.
Relatively few witnesses of this ilan on its own have reached us, as kabbalists of the eighteenth century began to create hybridic rotuli in which previously independent ilanot were spliced together in succession. In these, the Poppers ilan was either the first or the second of sequence—and indeed the most ubiquitous recurring module of these compound ilanot. A rare example of a “pure” Poppers ilan may, however, be found in the Gross Collection.
These early witnesses share in common an austere aesthetic. Isolating their representation of the face of Adam Kadmon, we note their primary reliance on micrographic textual inscriptions themselves to establish facial features.
These inscriptions and their schematic determination of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth (among other features) of Adam Kadmon may have done the job, but no few of the kabbalist-scribes who have crafted ilanot since the late seventeenth century were men of some artistic ability who could not resist the urge to put their talent to work. Indeed, R. Israel ben Asher Buchbinder, who produced an astounding series of illuminated copies of Vital’s Etz Hayyim in the first half of the eighteenth century—each of which included a large, fold-out ilan sewn into the binding—signed his name on their frontispieces, “the scribe and the artist. (ha-sofer ve-ha-tzayar)” In addition to drafting diagrams of great precision, many added decorative elements to these rotuli, including delicate floral motifs and animal iconography. They also lent the face of Adam Kadmon a more realistic appearance, delineating features with lines and circles, and, in some cases, using more elaborate techniques such as hatching and cross-hatching, particularly for hair, moustache, and beard.
A full range of representational possibilities was already explored by late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century ilan makers. In the early 1700s, a German scribe produced GFC 028.012.010, a hybridic rotulus in which the Poppers ilan is the second of three. In its face of Adam Kadmon, we find lines and circles demarcating features still largely indicated by the size and arrangement of text.
At the other extreme, decades earlier, a Moravian kabbalist and scribe, R. Nossn Khazen Hammerschlag, allowed himself to create a Poppers-inspired ilan with considerably more representational imagery.
Hammerschlag’s Arikh and Ze’er Anpin were no less vivid than his Adam Kadmon, Ze’er even featuring
something of a curly Habsburgian mustache. He would take this approach to an extreme in the epic parchment he completed in 1691, titled “The Ilan of Adam Kadmon.” In this latter ilan, Hammerschlag’s Adam Kadmon evoked Leopold I, the reigning Holy Roman Emperor, sporting the golden Imperial Crown that had been crafted in 1602 for Rudolf II.
By the mid-eighteenth century, elegant ilanot were being produced in Germany and Eastern Europe that figured Adam Kadmon, Arikh, and Ze’er with unmistakable albeit schematically rendered features. Lovely, though somewhat incongruous flowers grace some of these faces.
At times, faces of God seem to have been drawn with a view to conveying something of their distinct attributes, or even their emotional states. Adam Kadmon is sanguine, with a Buddha-like equanimity in the intriguing “Ilan of Holiness,” especially when viewed alongside the image of the partzuf that follows it. Arikh, the latter, seems positively stressed out by the increasing engagement with creation in its ever-busier lower expressions.
One might well wonder whether the anthropomorphism of the divine faces in the Poppers Ilan and its many copies and adaptations was influenced, or at least made possible by the Christian environment in which the ilanot thus far surveyed were produced. As plausible as such a hypothesis may be—and it may indeed be true— it is nevertheless the case kabbalists in the Muslim world were quick to embrace Poppers’ faces of God. From Morocco to the Land of Israel and Iraq, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Poppers ilan was copied as well as selectively incorporated into a variety of novel ilanot. All of these preserved, if not enhanced, the anthropomorphic representation of the divine faces. R. Isaac ben Michael Coppio, a North African kabbalist of the second half of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, created distinctive ilanot the
popularity of which (judging by the number that have reached us) was only slightly less than the hybridic “Great Tree” (attributed whole cloth to Poppers, as in the 1864 Warsaw printed edition). Coppio clearly knew the Poppers ilan and used its Adam Kadmon as a component of his own, in a highly schematic adaptation.
The Baghdadi kabbalist R. Sasson ben Mordekhai Shandukh (1747-1830) knew Poppers as well, but, despite the aniconic ethos of his environment, took the representational depiction of the divine faces to an extreme only rivalled by Hammerschlag.
Confidence—in the authority of R. Meir Poppers as well as in the mores of their own subculture that dictated that ilanot be circulated with a measure of discretion—seems to have overcome any reluctance to draw the image of God’s face borne of Jewish or local Islamic taboos.
The faces of God we have seen in these ilanot—and there are many more in the Gross Collection—are but one facet of the genre that William Gross rescued from obscurity through a combination of curiosity, stubbornness, and generosity. In their spirit, and to paraphrase Number 6, 25, may the Lord shine his face on William and be gracious to him—blessing and keeping him for many happy and healthy years to come.
The image of the Renaissance in scholarship has changed remarkably over the last generations. The seminal works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cast it as the precocious precursor of the rational, disenchanted outlook associated with modernity. From the mid-century, however, scholars increasingly turned their attention to the magical and mystical pursuits of the leading exponents and architects of the Renaissance, pursuits that were no less dear to them than their concomitant commitments to the advancement of Humanism—and that were often profoundly intertwined with them. Thus, for example, Pico della Mirandola’s 1486 De hominis dignitate, the “manifesto of the Renaissance,” was revealed in Brian Copenhaver’s well-known study to be deeply indebted to the kabbalistic sources that Pico passionately studied (Copenhaver 2002). Pico’s kabbalistic oeuvre has been systematically examined by Giulio Busi, who has also published critical editions of the Latin translations prepared for him by Flavius Mithridates. Of particular relevance to the current essay is the edition and commentary of the so-called “Great Parchment” (The Great Parchment 2004). Just as key Christian fi gures of the Renaissance took great interest in the Kabbalah, often studying privately with their local rabbis or engaging the services of Jews who had converted to Christianity to assist with the gathering, translation, and study of this esoteric lore, many Italian Jews quite naturally identifi ed with the project of the Renaissance writ large. The “Renaissance style” literary productions of Italian rabbis—which continued well into the seventeenth century, long after the historical period is generally considered to have come to an end—has been extensively treated by social, intellectual, and art historians too numerous to mention. Like their counterparts specializing in Christian Renaissance culture, these scholars of Jewish culture fi rst focused on “secular” expressions of this sensibility before embracing a more complex picture in which “rationalism” and Kabbalah were no longer cast as being in opposition to one another, but indeed frequently concurrent.
If the historical picture of the “Hebrew-speaking Renaissance” is now richly drawn, having attended to most fi elds of Jewish creativity, there remains at least one genre that has only recently received scholarly attention: that known as ilanot. Ilanot, the plural form of the Hebrew word ilan (tree), is a genre borne of the wedding of schema and medium. In its classical form, it is an arboreal diagram inscribed on a parchment sheet. By the sixteenth century, Guillaume Postel and Moses Cordovero articulated such a generic conception of these artifacts, but literary evidence reveals that this designation had already been in use for generations. If the generic term ilanot was a metonym for such a map of God on parchment by sometime in the fi fteenth century, its arrival displaced an earlier metonym for these artifacts: yeriot (singular yeriah), meaning (parchment) sheet (Chajes 2019).
Ilanot are literally maps of God, which in a kabbalistic context means that they provide diagrammatic visualizations of the sefi rot—the divine categories at the heart of this tradition. Given the generic appellation, the arboreal schema is, not surprisingly, dominant. Unlike the Porphyrian Trees associated with this fi gure, which made their debut in medieval natural philosophy in the eponymous commentary of Aristotle’s Categories as a useful means of visualizing the scale of being, the kabbalistic tree is fully ontologized: it is understood, to borrow Gershom Scholem’s phrase, as the true “mystical shape of the Godhead.”
The use of the arboreal schema to represent the structure of the divine did not begin, however, with such dedicated parchments. The earliest extant kabbalistic manuscripts, copied in Rome in the late thirteenth century, include a number of diagrams (Busi 2005, pp. 125–36) among which a tree fi gure that looks rather more like Darwin’s famous tree than Porphyry’s. Early kabbalistic diagrams in codices that represent the sefi rotic structure are generally modest from a graphical-aesthetic point of view, adumbrating or schematizing the arboreal form. The names of the sefi rot are arrayed to suggest the tree, but the medallions and channels we commonly associate with the schema are omitted. These diagrams often accompany discussions of the “correct” structure of the Godhead, and present divergent views of the sefi rotic constellation as found in the works of the early kabbalists.
It is not apparent that the authors of these early treatises regarded such diagrams as trees, despite their frequent use of arboreal metaphors in the adjacent texts. In fact, the tree was one of the two dominant metaphors for the shape of the divine in classical Kabbalah, the other being the human body. In the seminal thirteenth-century introduction to the sefi rot, Sha‘arei orah (Gates of Light), by the Spanish kabbalist Joseph Giqatilla (extant only in manuscripts from the fourteenth century and later), we thus fi nd him drawing a “form” (tzurah) of the sefi rot that could rightly be classifi ed as an arboreal diagram, but which he clearly meant to suggest the human form. It is truly a “stick fi gure,” as, for instance, in a mid-sixteenth-century Italian manuscript now preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (MS hébr. 822, fol. 94r). There was no need to choose between the two metaphors, of course. The rabbinic tradition had for centuries insisted on the confl ation, intentionally misreading Deuteronomy 20:19 as “man is like the tree of the fi eld.” I suspect that the rich mythologomena associated with the tree in Jewish tradition—from the Tree of Life of Genesis, to the “Tree that is All” of the foundational kabbalistic Bahir of twelfth-century Provençal provenance, as well as the scientifi c prestige of the Porphyrian Tree, ultimately conspired to bring kabbalists to effect the confl ation of metaphor and schema. And if these trends began with the emergence of Kabbalah in Provençe and Spain, and ultimately led to the production of ilanot wherever there were kabbalists, it is clear that the development and full fl owering of this genre took place on Italian soil from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century and beyond.
Although no parchment-sheet ilanot have been found from the fourteenth century, we know they were in use—and in Italy. In that century, the Italian kabbalist Reuben Sarfatti composed the texts for two such artifacts. They have survived, almost exclusively, in text-only copies (TheGreat Parchment 2004, pp. 23–27). Known as “Commentary on the Great Parchment” and “Commentary on the Lesser Parchment,” these works, as they have reached us, were copied from the ilanot (referred to still as yeriot) of which they were originally an integral component. Sarfatti’s textual compositions were devoted to introducing the sefi rot to those beginning the study of the Kabbalah. It was a commonplace of the time to refer to such introductions as “commentaries” on the sefi rot, and the genre proved to be immensely popular. Gershom Scholem devoted an early publication to listing, catalogue-style, no less than 134 such treatises (Scholem 1933–34). As basic research on ilanot has advanced, the close connection between these two genres has become clear: in many cases, the texts we fi nd inscribed in and around the sefi rotic trees of ilan parchments can be identifi ed with one of the “commentaries” in Scholem’s catalogue. It is not always clear whether an ilan—as “iconotext” combining text and image—came fi rst, or whether an existing text was subsequently re-presented by the maker of an ilan. Either way, the intimacy of these genres is highly signifi cant and illuminates a central function of the ilanot of the era. Rather than representing kabbalistic knowledge in the linear mode of pure textuality, the ilan inscribes it in loco. Organized in and around the diagram, this knowledge is layered and patterned to reveal complex but ordered fi elds of meaning. Spatializing information is also critical to its recollection, a mnemonic function that we now know, thanks to the studies of Mary Carruthers and Lina Bolzoni among others, to be no less about generative creativity than about storage and retrieval. Using an ilan was thus an invitation to practice Kabbalah in a manner that combined textual study, visualization, and some form of mental manipulation or movement as suggested by the diagrammatic shape or structure. Pedagogy and theurgy thus went hand in hand. The medium may also have lent a certain performative impetus of its own, as parchment sheets (scrolls or rotuli) were, by this period, reserved exclusively for ritual use among Jews: Torah scrolls, phylacteries, doorpost scrolls (mezuzot), scrolls of Esther. One did not merely study a parchment but perform it.
Sarfatti’s “Commentary on the Great Parchment” provides a fi ne example. It was listed by Scholem in his catalogue of sefi rotic introductions (Scholem 1933–34, no. 28 and no. 52, under different titles). It was also studied by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the Latin translation prepared for him by Flavius Mithridates, again strictly as a text. These texts (Hebrew, Latin, and even a new English translation) were published not long ago in a critical edition produced under the direction of Giulio Busi—the pioneer of the study of “visual Kabbalah.” Busi rightly noted the connection of a very amateurish sketch found in a manuscript now preserved in the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (MS parm. 2419, fols 2v–3r), as related to such a parchment, but this sketch contains little beyond basic captions. Only one fact escaped the attention of these preeminent scholars: the existence of a 1606 copy of a much older ilan that included Sarfatti’s complete Hebrew text. The old, Italian ilan had been acquired by Cardinal Giles of Viterbo early in the sixteenth century. It would subsequently pass to the library of Caterina de’ Medici, the Italian noblewoman who became the queen of France. The ilan was in such poor condition and so diffi cult to read that the great scholar Isaac Casaubon found it impossible to decipher upon discovering it among.
In addition to Sarfatti’s text, this ilan displays many of the features found in early ilanot: above the arboreal diagram, a circle suspended with its bottom-half blackened and its top inscribed with Ein Sof (No End), representing the apophatic divine; the tree of sefi rot, with large, inscribed medallions and channels; drawings of the candelabrum (menorah) and shewbread table (shulhan); a representation of the Chariot, with the four four-headed “beasts” (kruvim) carrying the Throne of Glory (Ezekiel 1); and a view of the Garden of Eden, and its Cherub-guarded gates. The candelabrum and shewbread table, each bearing a long history of symbolic and contemplative meaning, were arrayed to the right and left of the tree, in accordance with their placement in the southern and northern sides of the Temple. The Chariot with its four four-headed angelic beasts was the quintessential marker of the liminal zone between creation and creator; these beasts guarded the gates of Eden (Genesis 3, 24) and appeared when the skies opened above Ezekiel’s head to reveal the “Heaven of Heavens” (Ezekiel 1)—the latter being the direct inspiration for many diagrammatic kabbalistic renderings. They also adorned nearly every component of the Tabernacle—designed to create a portal to the divine—from the tent tapestries to the Ark of the Covenant. In a glance, therefore, we may already sense how the ilan invited the contemplative to explore and to integrate the symbolic systems of a variegated body of Jewish esoteric knowledge, represented in a map-like diagrammatic form. The manuscripts that arrived in the Bibliothèque royale of Paris from Caterina’s collection. Casaubon thus commissioned the skilled Scottish Hebraist James Hepburn to undertake its reproduction (Grafton and Weinberg 2011). Hepburn was not merely a talented Hebraist, but a fi ne artist—as his famous “Virga Aurea” engraving, which he printed in Rome in 1616, amply demonstrates. Hepburn’s copy of the old ilan, which includes a colophon in which he is called “Jacob Hebron,” is today in the collection of the University of Oxford (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Hunt. Add. E.; Neubauer 1886–1908, no. 2429) (see fi g. 1).
In addition to Sarfatti’s text, this ilan displays many of the features found in early ilanot: above the arboreal diagram, a circle suspended with its bottom-half blackened and its top inscribed with Ein Sof (No End), representing the apophatic divine; the tree of sefi rot, with large, inscribed medallions and channels; drawings of the candelabrum (menorah) and shewbread table (shulhan); a representation of the Chariot, with the four four-headed “beasts” (kruvim) carrying the Throne of Glory (Ezekiel 1); and a view of the Garden of Eden, and its Cherub-guarded gates. The candelabrum and shewbread table, each bearing a long history of symbolic and contemplative meaning, were arrayed to the right and left of the tree, in accordance with their placement in the southern and northern sides of the Temple. The Chariot with its four four-headed angelic beasts was the quintessential marker of the liminal zone between creation and creator; these beasts guarded the gates of Eden (Genesis 3, 24) and appeared when the skies opened above Ezekiel’s head to reveal the “Heaven of Heavens” (Ezekiel 1)—the latter being the direct inspiration for many diagrammatic kabbalistic renderings. They also adorned nearly every component of the Tabernacle—designed to create a portal to the divine—from the tent tapestries to the Ark of the Covenant. In a glance, therefore, we may already sense how the ilan invited the contemplative to explore and to integrate the symbolic systems of a variegated body of Jewish esoteric knowledge, represented in a map-like diagrammatic form.
Sefi rotic tree, Candia (Crete), 1451. Vatican Library, Vatican City, MS Vat. ebr. 530 IIIWithout the original parchment for comparison, it is hard to assess whether Hepburn was faithful to its aesthetics and merely recreated them, or whether he took the liberty to embellish as he copied. Hepburn’s ilan is indeed a beauty, with its rich dyes (applied also in the sefi rotic medallions so as to convey their respective color associations), fl oral decorative motifs, and cherubic angel fi gures. Its Throne of Glory recalls the “cabinet-style” throne chairs of Renaissance Italy, which could be found in the homes of Florentine nobility. Giuliano de’ Medici had a particular broad one at his Palazzo Strozzi; more modest throne chairs resembling the one pictured in the ilan could be found in synagogues as well. Such a “synagogue throne” from Siena was in the Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum at the beginning of the twentieth century (Bode 1902, p. 19). The Throne of Glory may also be compared to much earlier artifacts, such as the sixth-century Episcopal Throne of Archbishop Maximianus in Ravenna’s Museo Arcivescovile. Unlike the rest of the fi gures of the ilan, the Throne of Glory is rendered to suggest three-dimensionality. The fi rmament upon which it sits is also drawn as a cube, with diagonals converging underneath it from each of four corners—a technique used in medieval treatises of geometry to convey three-dimensionality but indeed unusual to fi nd in kabbalistic works, to say the least (for a cube represented in two dimensions using the same technique, see, e.g., Gerbert of Aurillac, Geometria, c. 980, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden supra 25, fol. 119v; English, Canterbury?, c. 1200).
It would seem that the basic graphic elements of ilan parchments we have noted were in place by around 1400. They provided the matrix for any number of texts—from singular compositions such as Sarfatti’s to eclectic anthological collages. An examination of the latter reveals not only what was on the bookshelves of the kabbalists who extracted the passages for inscription in and around the diagrammatic elements, but what they thought particularly signifi cant in each.
Of course, not all ilanot had the aesthetic ambitions of the Hepburn ilan—which too may have outstripped its long-lost model in this regard. Few ilan parchments from before 1500 have reached us, and those that have are truly austere. Like Hepburn’s ilan, they avail themselves of an entire parchment sheet. Inscribed upon the sheet is a single, albeit large, arboreal fi gure that serves to visually organize a commentary on the sefi rot. A Vatican parchment (Vatican Library, MS Vat. ebr. 530 III) is a striking example despite its visual austerity (see fi g. 2). Its top edge cut in a manner that retains something of the natural contours of the animal skin while suggesting something like a clerestory roof, this intriguing ilan was drafted in 1451 according to the colophon on its verso. The text arrayed throughout is a commentary on the sefi rot that was listed, in its two very similar forms, in Scholem’s aforementioned index (Scholem 1933–34, nos. 76 and 115). A version of the same commentary appears on an ilan recently discovered in the Biblioteca Queriniana of Brescia (MS L FI 11; see cat. 30 and fi g. 3). The schema of the Brescia ilan is somewhat unusual and clearly expresses a view of the sefi rotic structure in which the central Tiferet is dominant. The “arrowhead” element atop Keter is also distinctive; might it be related to the cut of the parchment found in MS Vat. ebr. 530 III? Neither of the two ilanot embed Ein Sof in shape of any kind, preferring instead to write of the Infi nite in the upper background space of the parchment.
Not every ilan was committed to parchment. It is at times diffi cult to tell whether the more amateurish sketches drawn upon the opening or closing binding pages of old codices were fashioned by students on the basis of their own readings and for their personal use, whether they were preliminary studies for what might next be executed on parchment, or if they were copies quickly made of impressive yeriot. In this regard we may point to the very old codex that is today housed in Munich’s Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS hebr. 119. It is a small miscellany and the compositions it contains were copied by different hands; one of the scribes, a certain “Shem Tov son of Jacob the Sefaradi,” left a colophon attesting to his having created the work for himself in the city of “Modon on the Sea,” today Methoni in Messenia (Peloponnese, Greece), once under Venetian rule. In 1404, Shem Tov, who wrote in a Spanish script, left a fascinating rota diagram of the sefi rot with permutations of the Tetragrammaton inscribed around a central medallion in which Tiferet, the central sefi rah, was inscribed. The rest of the miscellany, also dated to the fi fteenth century, is written in an Italian script—and concludes with an arboreal diagram that shows just how established was the genre by this time. The template that we see in the “Great Parchment” is essentially the same: a denary tree occupies the large, central space of the double page, fl anked on either side by candelabrum and shewbread table. The lowest sefi rah of malkhut, identifi ed with the most immanent expression of the Godhead, the divine presence called Shekhinah, appears as if it were docking atop the celestial spheres—the latter represented, not surprisingly, as concentric circles. By illustrating the created cosmos with this established astronomical schema, the ilan aligns itself with a prestigious scientifi c tradition and stakes its claim to a totalizing knowledge that literally goes beyond it. Arrayed in four squares around the meeting point between the divine and celestial spheres is the illustration of the Chariot, here rendered schematically rather than with the representational approach we have seen in Hepburn’s copy of the Great Parchment. In this rather improvisational sketch—an impression confi rmed by the scribe’s attestations to elements in need of revision—we fi nd texts written in every conceivable angle, in and around the diagrammatic elements. Among them are selections from the seminal thirteenth-century Meirat Einayim (Light of the Eyes), and, most prominently, from the Zohar commentary by the great early Italian kabbalist, Menachem Recanati. During the fourteenth and fi fteenth centuries, most Italian kabbalists knew of the Zohar primarily through Recanati’s commentary—and the Italian ilanot of this era rarely contain zoharic material that is not borrowed from his popular work..
Although the basic elements of ilanot in these centuries were stable and recurring, the range of kabbalistic positions on basic questions relating to the layout of the divine topography produced graphic variations. Some of these variations seem to refl ect local preferences. To take a very easily discernable example, we may observe the array of the top three sefi rot of any given ilan. In those we have adduced thus far, the arrangement is triangulated. Spanish kabbalists believed this layout to be the most accurate representation of the structure of the uppermost sefi rot, made in keeping with the zoharic traditions they so revered.
In the mid-sixteenth century, R. Moses Cordovero, whose name bespeaks his family’s Iberian origins and whose magnum opus, Pardes Rimmonim, both preserved and codifi ed kabbalistic opinions in a manner recalling the halakhic oeuvre of his Safedian neighbor R. Joseph Karo, decided unequivocally in its favor. Cordovero refers to the overall schema as segolta, segol, segol: the names of particular paratextual symbols used in the cantillation and vocalization of the Torah that resemble deltas and nablas. The mnemonic had been coined by the kabbalist R. Judah H· ayyat, a refugee of the 1492 Spanish expulsion, in his Minhat Yehudah, a work he composed in large measure to assert the authority of Iberian traditions in his new home, Italy. It seems that among Italian kabbalists, there was a certain preference for a different confi guration of the uppermost sefi rot, one in which they were centered one atop the other. Why? Because the spatial implications of right and left could not possibly apply to such sublime recesses of divinity—something of a philosophical concern, in keeping with the general character of so much Italian kabbalistic speculation. This tower-like confi guration may be seen in many Italian codices of the period, with examples including the Iggeret hamudot of R. Elijah Hayyim of Genazzano from the late Quattrocento (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, MS hébr. 857, fol. 9r, an Italian manuscript dated 1526. On this work, see Lelli 2002 and fi g. 4 above), in the sefi rotic diagrams included in Seder ha-ilan (Order of the Tree), an anonymous Italian work that may be compared to the emblem books of the period that feature symbolic images and accompanying explanations (e.g. in Vatican Library, Vatican City, MS Vat. ebr. 441, fols. 110r–117v, an Italian manuscript dated to the early sixteenth century (see fi g. 5). Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten and I are nearing completion of a critical edition of this work, to be published in the Vatican’s Studi e testi series). Of particular interest is the arboreal diagram displaying this confi guration that also includes decorative botanical elaboration, something rarely found in kabbalistic trea tises. As we shall soon see, the grandest of all Renaissance ilan parchments, the anonymous creator of which drew extensively on Seder ha-ilan, fashioned the dominant central fi gure of the imposing rotulus in this “Italian” style.
Additional examples of variations expressing conceptual differences could be proffered, but let us suffi ce with two: the representation of Ein Sof, the Infi nite represented above the sefi rotic tree, and what might be called the overall perspective of a given ilan. Regarding the former, the black and white circle was widely used—generally with black below and white above (as we have seen in Hepburn’s ilan as well as in the Iggeret hamudot). A white bottom and black top might be used as well, however, as in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS hebr. 119. These variations suggest differing conceptions of the relationship between the sefi rot, which for all their sublimity retain some degree of knowability, and the Infi nite. The issue of perspective was hotly debated in these centuries as well. Why was the right side of the divine represented by the vertical sequence of sefi rot on the right side of the arboreal diagram as we face it? Would that not imply that they were on the left of the divine? Would that not throw all of kabbalistic symbolism, with its clear associations between right and mercy opposing left and judgment into disarray? Rather than enter the thicket of such discussions, a story will suffi ce: the aforementioned R. Judah H· ayyat tells of having seen an ilan that was the mirror image of the iconic tree. As if spun 180° on its vertical axis, it expressed the divine perspective: right and left as dexter and sinister. “And I bear witness that I saw in an Italian city called Reggio, in the possession of a man of understanding, an ilan that was drawn in this [inverted] manner. And they told me that a great man had made it.” No ilan of this sort has reached us, although suggestive “misplacements” of Abraham (associated with the right but inscribed on the left) and Ishmael (vice-versa) are to be found, including in the Hepburn ilan.
No review of the Italian ilanot of the Renaissance would be complete with at least a brief discussion of two other artifacts—one, indeed, a family of manuscripts with some dozen extant witnesses. The other is a unique ilan crafted in 1533 by R. Elijah Menahem Halfan, in collaboration with his mentor, R. Abraham Sarfatti. Today in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (MS Firenze, Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. XLIV.18; see cat. 29 and fi g. 6), this ilan was discovered by Isaia Sonne (Sonne 1934) and then described by Giulio Busi (Busi 2005, pp. 385–86) and by Fabrizio Lelli (Lelli 2008). Let us begin with this latter scroll. Writ large, Halfan’s ilan has quite a bit in common with Hepburn’s: the large denary tree dominating its center, the candelabrum and shewbread table (supplemented by additional fi gures in this case), and an even more elaborate representation of the Garden of Eden. These elements are well-executed, the scene in Eden representing an attractive, smiling couple on either side of a tree with green leaves and red hanging fruit. In the background we see a section of the wall that is imagined having surrounded the garden, albeit with an open door. Approaching the happy couple is a satyr-like creature riding a dragon, refl ecting kabbalistic traditions that cast the biblical snake as the demonic couple Samael and Lilith. Although neither the divine Chariot nor the celestial spheres are drawn, two Cherubs (as in Hepburn’s ilan, of the “cherubic” rather than of either the beastly or the diagrammatic sort)—presumably representing those atop the Ark of the Covenant—are placed among the other Temple vessels, whereas the central, lower-most inscription declares that “from here and below is the World of the Spheres (galgalim).” Mention should also be made of the peculiar detail of the replicated but miniaturized arboreal diagram placed just below the central fi gure. This diminutive tree seems to represent the sefi rot apprehensible by the human mind, as they are separated from the larger tree above them by an arching biblical inscription: “no person may see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Halfan’s ilan is also densely inscribed with texts. Here again, the text is of the “Commentary on the Sefi rot” genre, and is Halfan’s own, who maintains to have followed the recommendations of the older Abraham Sarfatti (Scholem 1933–34, no. 10, attributed to Halfan; at no. 119 the text is mistakenly presumed to be anonymous). Halfan’s responsibility for both the textual and graphic facets of his ilan shows us with unusual clarity the profound convergence of the two genres of ilanot and sefi rot commentaries.
We conclude with the crowning achievement of Italian ilan-making in the Renaissance. Sometime in early to mid-sixteenth century, a still unidentifi ed Italian kabbalist and scribal artist was inspired to create an ilan of unprecedented scale and beauty (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hunt. Add. D). A broad, long parchment rotulus, illuminated, colorful, and intricately inscribed, it was a masterpiece by any standard. Over its multiple stitched membranes, this great parchment revealed a map of the heavens—and the “Heaven of Heavens”—stretched out, not like parchment, as in Psalm 104:4, but upon it. On parchment sheets stitched sequentially to form a long, vertical rotulus, he inscribed an iconotextual summa: an integrated presentation of the visual and textual Kabbalah as he knew and understood it, expressed in the exquisite conventions of representation that reigned in the Renaissance Italy of his day. Its aspirations to pansophy, or universal knowledge, is evident in its dedication of the bottom third of the rotulus to the presentation of a Ptolemaic scheme of the earth surrounded by the heavenly spheres (fi g. 7).
The imposing vertical scroll is lushly fi lled with hundreds of discrete graphic elements, diagrammatic schemata, symbolic forms, and decorative embellishments, around and within which texts are inscribed. Finely wrought, its density is made possible by the elegant precision of its execution, impressive from afar for its grand scale and, when inspected closely, in the details of its minutiae. Although at present we cannot identify its author, his creation was clearly appreciated, as the many copies that remain with us fi ve hundred years later attest. Copying this work was anything but a trivial matter: only scribes with a mastery of their craft—including complex draftsmanship and decorative illustration—could take on such a commission, and only the wealthiest patrons could have afforded to place an order. Unlike many ilanot, this was most certainly not made by kabbalists for themselves or their students. This luxury manuscript would have undoubtedly been commissioned by the individuals and families for whom illuminated festival prayer books, hagadot, ketubot, and the like were fashioned. Given the interest in Kabbalah in Renaissance Italy among non-Jewish elites, the acquisition need not have been limited to wealthy Jews alone. In all likelihood this was the “Tree of Kabbalah” to which Benedetto Blanis, a Florentine Jew of the early seventeenth century, referred in a letter to his patron Don Giovanni de’ Medici (Goldberg 2011, pp. 120–21):
I am delighted to have so important a Tree of Kabbalah here in Florence, brought from Lippiano at my request. I am having it copied on vellum with great diligence, so it will not be inferior to the original in any way but even better. I hope that this Tree will please Your Most Illustrious Excellency and that we will be able to enjoy it together.
The Tree was cultural capital: to possess it was literally to possess an all-encompassing picture of the cosmos in an age during which the distinction between a picture and the thing depicted, the sign and its referent, was often elided. It would have been presumed to be a powerful talisman as well, the divine structures it represented not being merely symbols but fi gures of divine reality itself.
Extracted from the schemata within and around which they are inscribed are texts that add up to over 30,000 words. A careful study of these texts is only now taking place. Indeed, the brief entry in no. 829 of the Margoliouth Catalogue (Margoliouth 1909–15) and the poetic lines in Giulio Busi’s pioneering monograph are the only descriptions of the Tree ever published (Busi 2005, pp. 387–88). Hand-written notes in the archives of Gershom Scholem reveal that the legendary scholar had inspected the exemplars in the British Library and the Bodleian at the University of Oxford. Scholem wrote that they contain an “unknown gigantic text” (unbekannter Riesentext) and copied the colophon of MS Or. 6465 from the British Library in London (the note is found in fi le 92.4 of the Scholem archives, held by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem). In this colophon—the only one found to date on a witness in this manuscript family—the itinerant Polish kabbalist David Darshan takes credit for having drafted the copy while in Modena in 1556.
Until all of the texts have been transcribed and sourced, we must be circumspect in our characterization of its authorial voice, but still, the Tree seems anything but the work of a neutral compiler. Its selections and the connective tissue that binds them reveal an author/editor who chose, introduced, adapted, and integrated a wide range of material— kabbalistic and scientifi c, philosophical and magical. In his world, these terms were fl uid, complementary, and overlapping if not homologous. Initial surveying reveals an integrative, synthetic, even encyclopedic work, with selections drawn from the corpus of kabbalistic literature circulating in mid–fourteenth-century Italy, including passages from, among others, the Bahir, Nachmanides, the ’Iyun circle, Joseph Giqatilla, Ma’arekhet elohut, Menachem Recanati, Abraham Abulafi a, and Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi. The presence of Maimonides is also felt. The absence of texts from the zoharic literature (citations from Recanati aside) and of post-1450 materials more generally, provides a terminus post quem that is in full accord with the results of preliminary paleographic and aesthetic analysis, which reinforces the dating of the original to the late fi fteenth century.
Just as the creator of the Tree assembled its texts from the corpus at hand, so too its images. Gazing from afar, two stand out: the large, decadal arboreal diagram that dominates the upper two-thirds of the long parchment, and the formidable representation of the concentric circles of the Ptolemaic heavens fi lling its bottom third. For a kabbalist c. 1500, these were the two authoritative schemata for mapping the structure of the sefi rot and the spheres. The central ilan of the Tree adopts the tower-like array of the three uppermost sefi rot. The image of the lower frame, with its spheres sliced into the twelve divisions of the zodiac, is in accordance with the Ptolemaic world-picture and would have been familiar to, and accepted as authoritative by, any scholar of the age.
Taking a closer look at the details of this great parchment, smaller images abound. There is the “Eye”: atop the highest sefi rah, the Infi nite God (’Ain Sof) is fi gured as an open eye. There are dragons and snakes, bubbling springs and fl owing rivers, altars and candelabra, and, most surprisingly, rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, one of the “four who entered Pardes,” pictured to the left of the spheres. Akiva stands tall above the spheres as well, amidst the Chariot beasts that stand just below the concave, rainbow-like fi rmament upon which a pedestal is inscribed, the “fi gure of the Throne” (dmut ha-kise). Were we looking at a Christian cosmograph of the spheres—Jesus and the saints might have been pictured above them in the Empyrean. For our kabbalist, however, the fi gure of the Divine above the Chariot is visualized as the sefi rotic tree.
The great Tree was not a huge textual anthology that happened to be inscribed alongside a myriad of images over a series of parchment sheets. To the contrary, in it, text and image are thoroughly interwoven. This kind of inseparable wedding of text and image has been called an “iconotext” by scholars and refers to an artifact in which the two elements cannot truly be separated. How was one to engage—we can hardly say “read”—with this ilan? This luxury manuscript is hardly representative of the genre, of course. It can be studied, navigated thoroughly and methodically, but it was likely perceived more as a talisman than a textbook. As it represents the totality of the cosmos, it is not necessary that every part be read and studied, because they convey the idea in its entirety. The sublime is characterized by the very fact that it is too much, too great to grasp.