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.


Dr. Chajes Contributes to the British Library Website

Add MS 27091

Dr. Chajes was recently invited to contribute an article to the British Library’s website under the rubric of the Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. Chajes was asked to write on the Kabbalistic diagrams in the British Library’s Margoliouth Catalogue. 

A Hebrew variation-translation of this essay will appear shortly on the new Hebrew-language pages of the British Library site.

The Ilanot Project is pround of this collaboration with one of the great libraries of the world. In addition to his collaboration with the British Library, the Ilanot Project has collaborated with the Columbia University Library, the National Library of Israel, the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and more.

To read Dr. Chajes’s contribution to the British Library web exhibit, click here.