Isaac the Blind

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ISAAC THE BLIND ("Sagi Nahor "; c. 1160–1235), a central figure among early kabbalists, the son of *Abraham b. David of Posquières. He was usually referred to as "He-Ḥasid" and *Baḥya b. Asher called him "the father of Kabbalah." No biographical facts or details of his life are available, but apparently he lived in Posquières for a time. His name meant hardly anything to 19th century Kabbalah scholars; so little was known of his personality or his work that several incorrect conclusions were drawn about him; for example, that he was the author of Sefer ha-*Bahir (Landauer). In fact, a considerable amount of information concerning Isaac can be gleaned from traditions preserved among his disciples and their disciples, as well as from his pamphlets and those fragments of his other writings that have been preserved.

The question of whether he was born blind remains undecided. His direct disciples do not mention his blindness, but a kabbalistic tradition from the 13th century testifies that "his eyes never saw anything during his lifetime" (Me'irat Einayim, Munich Ms. 17, 140b). Several fragments of his writings contain long discussions on the mysticism of lights and colors, which might seem to refute the assumption that he was born blind, but most of his mysticism is not essentially visual. However, as it appears that he was well-versed in books and even states, "this I found in an ancient manuscript," it is possible that he became blind only after reaching maturity.

Shem Tov b. Abraham ibn Gaon (1287–1330) mentions that Isaac could sense "in the feeling of the air" whether a person would live or die (Recanati, Perush la-Torah, Ki-Teẓe), and "whether his soul was among the new [meaning that it had not undergone transmigration] or among the old" (ibid., Va-Yeshev). To his mystical powers should be added testimonies that he had received "the revelation of Elijah," and magical power in prayer (ibid., Ki-Teẓe).

The fragments of his writings about kavvanah ("intention") and the various forms of meditation which should be employed in different prayers are constructed on a complete system of the Sefirot, the attributes of God, which emanated from Ancient Divine Thought (Maḥashavah) as found in Sefer ha-Bahir. Isaac speaks of three levels within the Divine: *Ein-Sof, Maḥashavah ("Thought"), and Dibbur ("Speech"). His views on Ein-Sof or "the Cause of Thought" avoid any positive attributes or personal characteristics and are intentionally couched in unclear, vague language. Ein-Sof is "that which cannot be conceived of through thought" or the "annihilation of thought," a realm which is mysterious and transcendent even in relation to Divine Thought itself (which is a certain kind of revelation). In contrast with his brief discussion of the Ein-Sof, Isaac deals at length with the first Sefirah, Maḥashavah. It appears that he based his system on the theory that Maḥashavah should not be included among the ten Sefirot, and he adds, in order to complete the number of Sefirot, Haskel (the "Intellect") – the hypostasis of the intellectual act – placed between the levels of Maḥashavah and Ḥokhmah ("Wisdom"). The Divine Will, as a force which activates thought and is superior to it, is absent from his system. Thought is the sphere with which every mystic aspires to unite and thence derive sustenance, the object of kavvanah around which the religious aspiration is centered. Thought is the revelation of the hidden God; it is called the Ayin ("Nothingness," a paradoxical appellation which is used as a symbol of the first emanation). Nothingness symbolizes the higher existence of the Divine in its most hidden manifestation, as well as the annihilation of human thought which desires to contemplate it.

The world of Dibbur begins with the Sefirah Ḥokhmah. Isaac often uses the concept devarim ("words") or dibburim ("speeches" or logoi; in the language of Sefer ha-Bahir, ma'amarot, "sayings") as a synonym for Sefirot. This outlook, which underlies Isaac's system, views the development of the world as a linguistic development, the Creator's expression in His language. He sees the materialization of the Divine Speech in all areas of creation. The apparent letters are nothing but a manifestation of the inner letters by which the Divine Words came into being, and they are the bases of the world.

The Sefirot are not only attributes of God but are the principles of the world outside the world of the Sefirot, which is called the olam ha-nifradim ("world of the separables," in the sense of the world of multiple being). There is a continuous stream of emanation from the Divine Transcendence to the "world of the separables"; Isaac's main aim was to show the way (by contemplation, intention, and devotion) to communication with the world of the Divine Attributes. This is the secret of the whole Torah and of prayer. The internal connection between all essences and stages of creation is ẓepiyyah ("contemplation"). All things contemplate one another and are connected with one another, and there thus exists a universal dialectical process of emanation and spreading out to the limit of lower existence on the one hand, and contemplating upward (teshuvah, "repentance") on the other. The return of things to their origins is an ontological process from unity to plurality and vice versa which exists in every moment of creation and it contains within itself an eschatological significance, for creation is seen as an act of contemplation by God within Himself, and finally a return to the source.

Isaac's writings include commentary to Sefer Yeẓirah (many Mss.; first published by G. Scholem at the end of Ha-Kabbalah be-Provence, 1963); a mystic treatise on sacrifice (several Mss.); commentary on the beginning of MidrashKonen (Ms.; New York, Jewish Theological Seminary); letter to Naḥmanides and Jonah Gerondi (in Sefer Bialik (1934), 143–4); detailed instructions on meditation in prayer (Reshit ha-Kabbalah (1948), 245–8).


G. Scholem, Reshit ha-Kabbalah (1948), 99–126; idem, in: Sefer Bialik (1934), 141–55; idem in: ks, 6 (1929/30), 389, 398–400; idem in: mgwj, 78 (1934), 496–503; idem, Ursprung und Anfaenge der Kabbala (1962), index; Scholem, Mysticism, index; I. Tishby, in: Zion, 9 (1944), 180–2; idem, Perush ha-Aggadot le-Rabbi Azriel (1945), 136; Ch. Wirszubski, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 257–64; A. Jellinek, Ginzei Ḥokhmat ha-Kabbalah (1853), 4–5; A.B. Gottlober, Toledot ha-Kabbalah ve-ha-Ḥasidut (1869), 64–65.

[Esther (Zweig) Liebes]