The Ilanot Project: First Stop on the Kabbalah Tour of Israel

Independence Day, 5777/2017 – Ein Zur, Northern Israel

Under the shade of the willows in this beautiful archeological site, beside a spring said to have been flowing without interruption for millennia, we unfurled some of the great scrolls…. Rabbi Dr. Orna Triguboff, the noted Australian Kabbalah teacher, had kicked off her “Kabbalah Tour of Israel” with a morning lecture to her enthusiastic and engaged group on the Sefirot, followed by a hike in Ramat haNadiv…that led them directly to our beautiful meeting spot.

No PowerPoint out in the wild, but I had three full-size reproductions that made for über show-and-tell. After a thrilling introduction, we examined Oxford – Bodleian Library MS Hunt. Add. E. (MS 2429) – a stunning sixteenth-century scroll that presents a simple, yet colorful iconic kabbalistic tree. There was much that even the novices could appreciate in this diagrammatic scroll — from the colored sefirotic hubs inscribed with divine names, to the amusing inscription testifying that the copyist was none other than a Christian (and a Scotsman no less!), James Hepburn (here going by the name Yaakov Hevron).

After that warm-up, they were treated to another jewel in Oxford’s collection: Oxford MS 1949. First designed and drafted in early sixteenth-century Renaissance Italy, this extraordinary scroll is one of roughly a dozen copies known to us today. Others are in the Vatican, Hebrew Union College, the British Library, and in other libraries and private collection around the world. (Our patron saint, William Gross, has a fragment of a copy in his collection, which serves as the image on the homepage of this site.) Oxford 1949 is a long parchment scroll – approaching three meters – about two-thirds of which present an ornately drawn Tree in its most common variation (with the three topmost Sefirot arranged one atop another rather than triangulated). This Tree literally “sits” on a depiction of the Throne of Glory that is atop the bottom third of the scroll. This bottom portion presents the Ptolemaic cosmos with earth centered in the middle, the elements beneath the lunar sphere, the planetary orbs, the astrological constellations and fixed stars, before final reaching literally the edge of the heavenly bodies. At the very top of the circles, we see an opening — from the heavens to the heaven of heavens — with its gatekeepers the Kruvim. Keeping the Lion-Eagle-Ox-Man Kruv company is Rabbi Akiva, the one who successfully entered and exited the Pardes/Orchard.  Here too the scroll, for all of its complexity, provided plenty of interest for these Kabbalah students of varied backgrounds.

As something of a grand finale and shocker, I ended with the mind-bending Hammerschlag Scroll (Munich Cod.Hebr. 450): the Ilan of Adam Kadmon. This shocker of an Ilan is a unicum Lurianic scroll, full of intricate sub-diagrams, but the real interest is in the representation of Adam Kadmon: this anthropomorphic godhead is a Habsburg emperor, complete with the crown fashioned for Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. I will never forget the moment when I realized that Adam Kadmon in fact bore a striking resemblance to Leopold I, who was Holy Roman Emperor when Nossen Neta Hammerschlag created his marvelous scroll. Talk about Habsburg loving Jews! 

One of the take-aways from this gathering was the extent to which interested people of varied backgrounds can be inspired and engaged by the Ilanot. We are busy advancing our efforts to implement cutting-edge technologies in the digital humanities, but we also need to think about how to make our work accessible to the larger public. Getting our work out there, “popularizing” it, is not something that we can get Israel Science Foundation funding to accomplish — though we do thank the ISF for providing funding for our current research (grant 1259/14). Private foundations and contributors will be essential to accomplishing these goals. To share your thoughts and suggestions, and to get info on how to make tax-deductible contributions to the Ilanot Project, please be in touch!

Visiting the Great Ilanot of Baghdad on a Sunday Afternoon

What a joy to be back again in the magnificent apartment of Lisa and William Gross! William, whose curiosity about his own unparalleled collection of artifacts sparked the Ilanot Project, was again sharing. This time, it was his newly-arrived acquisitions from the recent Sotheby’s sale. There was an extraordinary book of practical Kabbalah, perhaps the only one of its kind to best another work that was already part of the Gross collection, as well as another fine exemplar of the Kopio Ilan (about which see the forthcoming book to be published by Eliezer with Cherub Press later this year). But the real excitement was around the latest and greatest scroll by the scholar, artist, and kabbalist Isaac Sason ben Mordechai Shantuch (1747-1830). With this acquisition, William has now acquired four out of five known exemplars of the extraordinary Ilanot fashioned by Shantuch over nearly as many decades. The story of these Ilanot will be told in a forthcoming publication, but for now suffice it to say that they are works of a great and imaginative craftsman — with the latest scroll in the series (that just acquired) representing the artistic peak. The scrolls also tell a fascinating story of knowledge acquired and integrated incrementally from a wide variety of sources, literally from Kurdistan (about which see the forthcoming article in Ars Judaica by Eliezer as well) to the central European Emek haMelekh (published in Frankfurt in 1648).

We could hardly wish for anything more than to unroll three magnificent Ilan scrolls on William’s dining-room table to see how they compare; to struggle to read a colophon that nearly two-hundred years of wear-and-tear have degraded precisely where the date was inscribed; and to use the full parchment scrolls to help put together the fragments of Shantuch’s crumbling paper scroll in preparation for its restoration.

The highlight of the day, though, was enjoying a pizza with William.

10 Plagues

From a kabbalistic point of view, anything of which there are 10 must correspond to the Sefirot, right? That the 10 Plagues are, therefore, some sort of Sefirot of the Dark Side we can find in various sources. The sefirotic tree that adorns this 1988 Haggadah published by “Yeshivat Or” may nevertheless be the first in history to bear both the names of the plagues as well as singularly tasteless cartoons of each.

Haggadah Ilanot

Ilanot don’t just (re)present information. In many cases, they are action-oriented, and serve as tools — most commonly to those seeking to pray effectively. In one ritual context — the Passover Seder — we frequently find Ilanot in manuscript Haggadot revealing the ideal kabbalistic spatial array of ritual foods, to be emulated on the Seder table. When enacted, the table itself becomes an Ilan, and the ritual consumption, a unification.
As Passover approaches, the Ilanot Project team will share a few
— beginning with this lovely example taken from a late-nineteenth-century Yemenite manuscript in the Gross Family Trust  (YM.011.018). In it, the three highest Sefirot are equated with the three matzot that sit atop the six items on the Seder Plate, arrayed as the six intermediate Sefirot. The plate itself is Malkhut, the lowest Sefirah, and the salt-water (here vinegar) for the first dipping is literally “outside.”…/action/…

Blessing Ilanot on Rosh Chodesh Nissan

Today marks the new Hebrew calendar month of Nissan. We at the Ilanot Project are especially happy this time of year, as according to kabbalistic custom, this is the time to go outside, find some lovely fruit trees (=ilanot), and to bless ’em. The HIDA (R. Haim Yosef David Azulai) urged all who recite the blessing to do so with great devotion, and to bear in mind the unique opportunity of this propitious occasion to rescue human souls who have reincarnated in the vegetable kingdom. 

The HIDA’s comments and liturgy for the occasion may be found in the Siddur ha-HIDA, JM 2004, pp. 625-626.

The image of the botanical sefirotic tree is from Seder ha-Ilan (MS Jerusalem NLI 2964), to be released in a critical edition with facsimile by the Ilanot Project in the coming year.