A Very Brief History of the Ilan Genre
Prof. J. H. Chajes
Kabbalah refers to the form of esotericism that has been dominant in Jewish culture since the thirteenth century. Kabbalists, the practitioners of this lore who produce and consume its literature, began to write systematic treatises ca. 1400. These treatises are largely devoted to the sefirot, the ten luminous emanations that distinguish Kabbalah from all previous expressions of Jewish esotericism. The sefirot are the skeleton keys that unlock all of reality. Their modes and relational structure can be seen throughout creation and, with special intensity, in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. As hypostatic facets of the Divine, the sefirot also serve as addresses for intentional prayer and as the objects of human efforts to restore their lost harmony. Such assistance is known by the term tikkun, referring to the repair and enhancement of the sefirotic network. The interface between God and creation is everywhere and it is broken; this, in a nutshell, is the compelling pathos of Kabbalah. Understanding the sefirotic code underlying all things and performing such knowledge is the work of the kabbalist.
To do this work, fourteenth-century kabbalists began drawing arboreal diagrams on membrane sheets, creating artifacts they called ilanot (trees) or yeri‘ot (parchments), one synecdoche highlighting the schema and the other the medium of the genre. The arboreal schema, used in the Middle Ages in a variety of applications—trees of Porphyry, of Jesse, of Vices and Virtues—became increasingly favored by kabbalists to represent the sefirotic array. Although not without symbolic valence, the tree diagram was indexical rather than iconic. Like today’s Venn diagram, it was used to visualize abstract relations. A tree could thus represent the sefirot without necessarily implying imaginal resemblance.
On an ilan (sing.), each sefirah is represented by a medallion, its circle densely inscribed with appellations and associations. The channels that network the sefirot also carry texts that explain their function. Additional elaborations and explanations fill the interstitial spaces within the diagram and in the margins that surround it, in close proximity to the graphical representations of their subjects. An ilan thus served to introduce this fundamental lore, to abet its retention, and to orient the student-practitioner. The development of the “classical” ilan reached its peak in early sixteenth-century Italy with the extraordinary Magnificent parchment.
The teachings of the kabbalist R. Isaac Luria (1534–1572) inaugurated a new kabbalistic era. Luria was born in Jerusalem and lived most of his adult life in Egypt before relocating to the Galilean town of Safed less than two years before his death. In that brief window, Luria shared his ideas spontaneously with a handful of disciples, whom he often addressed individually as a “physician of the soul.” As they recorded his ideas, Luria’s students interpreted, abstracting and systematizing them. Their efforts created the system known as “Lurianic Kabbalah.”
The transition from medieval (“classical”) to early modern (“Lurianic”) Kabbalah has been analogized to that from Newton’s to Einstein’s physics. Although Lurianists recognize the validity of the classical picture of the “lower worlds,” they operate within a vastly more intricate system, accountable to the detailed operations of the “highest.” Visualization, understanding, and performance remain intertwined, as they were for medieval kabbalists. The extraordinary difficulty of the new cosmology, however, was a daunting obstacle, an impediment to pedagogy and practice.
Ḥayyim Vital (ca. 1543-1620), the dominant figure among Luria’s disciples, thus opened his foundational treatise, Eẓ Ḥayyim, with a synoptic, synchronic cosmograph—one of many he included in his works. Vital’s diagrams provide something akin to a fuzzy satellite photo of the terrain: instructive but insufficient to guide a traveler on the ground. R. Jacob Ẓemaḥ and his student R. Meir Poppers, the primary redactors and transmitters of the Vitalian corpus, understood the need for high resolution, diachronic images to initiate adepts and to facilitate the operation of tikkun.
To this end, Ẓemaḥ, inspired by the classical ilan, treated it to a Lurianic “reboot,” thereby inaugurating the second wave of the genre around 1640. Ẓemaḥ sketched a streamlined chart of progressively interlocking trees, now representing the divine personae or parẓufim central to Lurianic teaching. Map had become time-line. In 1650, Poppers jettisoned the structural clarity of Ẓemaḥ’s ilan in pursuit of unprecedented granularity. Poppers’s stated goal was to picture “as many details as possible,” given the material limitations of the medium and, perhaps no less, the daunting task he faced as he sketched the intricacies of a world he knew exclusively from imaginary voyages fueled by Lurianic texts.
Poppers began by drawing the head of the Divine, Adam Kadmon, with schematic restraint. Each part of the head was encoded with its names and valances, with special attention given to the orifices out of which flowed the first lights of creation. Incrementally stepped down from their original intensity, they became the divine personae of Aẓilut, the highest World. The interlocking unfolding and developmental stages of the parẓufim were notated in shorthand phrases that filled the tables to which nearly all the remaining rotulus was devoted. Nearly, because the heads remain exposed—and therefore represented—as the bodies of the higher personae “enrobed” in those below them. For all its detail, however, Poppers’s ilan is unintelligible to one unversed in Lurianic cosmological treatises, first among them Poppers’s own Derekh Eẓ Ḥayyim.
Ẓemaḥ and Poppers were soon joined by other kabbalists, many of them anonymous, who made Lurianic ilanot of their own. Ilanot were designed to treat cosmogonic material found outside the Vitalian corpus, most notably the concept of the divine garment, or Malbush, taught by R. Israel Sarug (active ca. 1600) as a prelude to the emergence of Adam Kadmon. In the late seventeenth century, scribes adopted a modular approach to the Lurianic ilan, mixing and matching from among the various artifacts in circulation. The more creative among them crafted variations of their own, augmented by novel texts and images inspired by new books on their shelves or their personal proclivities. By the eighteenth century, Lurianic ilanot had been produced wherever there were kabbalists. Regional and ideational variation found expression in their scripts, decorative programs, and representational languages, in the books and ideas they visualized, and in varied interpolations, bespeaking investment in other esoteric traditions, whether local or transregional. Ilanot with Sabbatean content offer the clearest examples of the last sort.
This brief history distills the findings of a decade of research during which the foundations were established for the study of the genre. Although the general contours of its history can now be sketched, research in this field remains in its infancy. Progress, moreover, is impeded by the challenges the genre presents given its particular characteristics. How are scholars to analyze artifacts that combine images and texts that, separately and together, may be drawn from a diverse library of manuscripts and printed books—and often in the form of précis or paraphrase? The Digital Humanities initiatives of the Ilanot Project are devoted to tackling precisely these issues.
For a full-length, richly illustrated history of the genre, see now J. H. Chajes’s The Kabbalistic Tree האילן הקבלי, forthcoming with PSUP.