Azriel of Gerona

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AZRIEL OF GERONA (early 13th century), one of the outstanding members of the kabbalist center in Gerona, Spain. Azriel is not to be confused with his older contemporary *Ezra b. Solomon, also of Gerona; this mistake has repeatedly been made from the 14th century onward. *Graetz's opinion, that as far as the history of Kabbalah is concerned the two are to be regarded as one, has lost its validity since the works of both authors have been more closely studied. No details of his life are known. In a letter to Gerona that has been preserved, his teacher, *Isaac the Blind, seems to have opposed his open propagation of kabbalistic doctrines in wider circles (Sefer Bialik (1934), 143–8). The poet Meshullam Dapiera of Gerona in various poems hailed him as a leader of kabbalists in Gerona and as his teacher. An Oxford manuscript found by S. Sachs containing his alleged discussions with philosophic opponents of the Kabbalah is the plagiarization of a genuine Azriel manuscript by an anonymous author of a century later, who prefixed it with his own autobiography.

The clear separation of the works of Ezra from those of Azriel is largely the achievement of I. *Tishby. Azriel's works have a characteristic style and a distinctive terminology. All, without exception, deal with kabbalistic subjects. They include (1) Sha'ar ha-Sho'el ("The Gate of the Enquirer"), an explanation of the doctrine of the ten Sefirot ("Divine Emanations") in question and answer form, with the addition of a sort of commentary by the author himself. It was first printed in Berlin as an introduction to a book by Meir ibn *Gabbai, Derekh Emunah, "The Way of Belief" (1850); (2) commentary on the Sefer *Yeẓirah, printed in the editions of this book but ascribed to *Naḥmanides; (3) a commentary to the talmudic aggadot, a critical edition of which was published by Tishby in Jerusalem in 1943. This commentary represents a revision and, partly, an important expansion of the commentary of Ezra b. Solomon, particularly clarifying the differences from the version of his older colleague; (4) a commentary on the liturgy; actually a collection of instructions for mystical meditations on the most important prayers; it generally appears under the name of Ezra in the extant manuscripts. Large sections are quoted under Azriel's name in the prayer book of Naphtali Hirz Treves (Thiengen, 1560); (5) a long letter sent by Azriel from Gerona to Burgos in Spain, dealing with kabbalistic problems. In some manuscripts, this letter is wrongly ascribed to *Jacob b. Jacob ha-Kohen of Soria; it was published by Scholem in Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, 2 (1927), 233–40; (6) a number of shorter treatises, the most important of which is a large section of a partly-preserved work, Derekh ha-Emunah ve-Derekh ha-Kefirah ("The Way of Belief and the Way of Heresy"), as well as essays on the mysticism of prayer (published by Scholem in Studies in Memory of A. Gulak and S. Klein, (1942), 201–22), as well as the yet unpublished treatise on the mystical meaning of sacrifice, Sod ha-Korban.

Azriel is one of the most profound speculative thinkers in kabbalistic mysticism. His work most clearly reflects the process whereby Neoplatonic thought penetrated into the original kabbalistic tradition, as it reached Provence in the Sefer ha-*Bahir. He was acquainted with various sources of Neoplatonic literature, from which he quotes many passages directly. It is as yet impossible to say how he became acquainted with concepts belonging to the philosophy of Solomon ibn *Gabirol and the Christian Neoplatonic thinker John Scotus Erigena; but, somehow, Azriel must have come into contact with their way of thinking. Most significantly, the status and importance of the will of God as the highest potency of the deity, surpassing all other attributes, closely associated with God and yet not identical with Him, corresponds to the doctrine of Gabirol. Other points such as the coincidence of opposites in the divine unity, which plays a special role in Azriel's work, appear to come from the Christian Neoplatonic tradition. Azriel particularly stresses the disparity of the Neoplatonic idea of God, which may be formulated only in negatives, and that of the biblical God, about whom positive assertions may be made and to whom attributes may be ascribed. The former is Ein-Sof, the Infinite; the other is represented by the world of the Sefirot, which in various emanations reveals the creative movement of the divine unity. The logic, by which Azriel established the need for the assumption that the existence of the Sefirot is an emanation of divine power, is entirely Neoplatonic. Yet, in contrast with the doctrine of Plotinus, these emanations are processes taking place within the deity, and not extra-divine steps intermediate between God and the visible creation. Rather, the process takes its course in God Himself, namely between His hidden being, about which nothing positive can actually be said, and His appearance as Creator to which the Bible is testimony. In probing the mysteries of this world of the Sefirot, Azriel displays great daring. The same boldness is exhibited in those theosophical speculations which he carries into the talmudic aggadah. The Kabbalah of Azriel knows nothing of a true creation from nothingness although he uses this formula emphatically. However, he changes its meaning entirely: the "nothingness" out of which everything was created is here (as with Erigena) only a symbolic designation of the Divine Being, which surpasses all that is comprehensible to man, or of the Divine Will, which in itself has no beginning.


I. Tishby, in: Zion, 9 (1944), 178–85; idem, in: Sinai, 16 (1945), 159–78; idem, in: Minḥah li-Yhudah (Zlotnick) (1950, jubilee volume… J.L. Zlotnik), 170–4; G. Scholem, Ursprung und Anfaenge der Kabbala (1962), ch. 4.

[Gershom Scholem]