Asher ben David

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ASHER BEN DAVID (first half of the 13th century), Provence kabbalist of the second generation of kabbalists and author of the first "book" of any length intended for a wider audience. His grandfather, R. *Abraham b. David of Posquières, is considered the first known kabbalistic personality, although he refrained from acknowledging this status and from composing anything kabbalistic. His son, R. Isaac the Blind, uncle to R. Asher ben David, composed a highly enigmatic commentary to the Book of Creation, as he denied any literary activity in a celebrated letter to Nahmanides, in which he proclaimed allegiance to Nahmanides' stated policy of a complete reliance on oral transmission of kabbalistic secrets. R. Isaac suggests in this letter of defense that he has "no sign from heaven" to come himself to Spain and correct, or stop, the damage done by his students who were publicly disseminating texts or teachings, and mentions Asher as a possible emissary who could speak for his position on esotericism. We know, however, of no such visit by Asher, which would amount to an important and authorized link connecting the Provençal school directly with Spanish kabbalistic circles. Curiously, what has survived is a compendium of treatises edited into a lengthy work entitled Sefer ha-Yiḥud, the Book of Unity, in which Asher explains major kabbalistic concepts. It is unclear if this work was intended for the audience already exposed to ideas which emerged from Isaac's circle or whether it begins a new form of kabbalistic literature intended for other kabbalists. Sefer ha-Yiḥud is introduced by the first known kabbalistic poem. The treatises or chapters which comprise the book were often copied by kabbalists and survived in short and intermediate versions relative to the full length book, which may have been edited or expanded later by Asher or a student of the circle. A Latin translation of a section of Sefer ha-Yiḥud was prepared by Flavio Mithridates and survives in a single manuscript. An "epistle" attributed to Asher is now understood to be a collection of passages from his work. Finally, a highly popular Commentary to the Account of Creation is attributed to Asher, but his authorship of this work remains highly questionable, though it finds its place in a genre of literature which emerged from Provence. Asher makes one passing reference to an "aggadah," which might be from the Sefer ha-*Bahir, although it is clear that his Kabbalah is not based on the traditions of that work, like that of his teachers and family members in Provence. The Kabbalah of Asher is nevertheless significantly different from that of his contemporaries in Gerona, Ezra and Azriel, students of Isaac. His complete works have been edited in a single volume.


D. Abrams, R. Asher ben David. His Complete Works and Studies in his Kabbalistic Thought (Heb., 1996); J. Dan and R. Elior, Kabbalat R. Asher ben David, Jerusalem (Heb., 1980); M. Rong-Wiznitzer, "Is Paris Ms. 767 Actually a Letter of Asher ben David," in: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 3 (1982), 33–50 (Heb.); G. Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah (1987), 93–94, 148–49, 171–74, 252–56, 303–7.

[Daniel Abrams (2nd ed.)]