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Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi


JOSEPH BEN SHALOM ASHKENAZI (also called Josephha-Arokh , "the tall"; early 14th century), Spanish kabbalist. According to his own testimony, he was a descendant of *Judah b. Samuel he-Ḥasid. Only two of his works have survived: (1) a commentary on the Sefer *Yeẓirah (Mantua, 1562), erroneously published under the name of R. *Abraham b. David of Posquières. An abridged version of this commentary was published in Constantinople in 1719. The commentary is often cited in kabbalistic works and even gained Isaac *Luria's appreciation; (2) a commentary on the portion of Genesis in the Midrash Rabbah (in Ms.). Although Ashkenazi made use of many talmudic, philosophical, and kabbalistic sources, he cites very few of them. He did not regard the *Zohar as an authoritative work. Despite his opposition to the Aristotelians, he admired *Maimonides, and his works reveal a tendency to merge philosophy and Kabbalah. Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo of Candia stated that Ashkenazi was "a sophisticated and knowledgeable philosopher." He was opposed to mythical speculation.

Ashkenazi's Teaching

Ashkenazi's philosophical inquiry led him to the conclusion that there must be one cause for all causes which cannot be in potentiality, in change, or in motion. Ashkenazi calls this the Illat ha-Illot ("cause of causes") and, infrequently, *Ein-Sof ("the Infinite"). By using this causal term, he wished to emphasize the revelatory aspect, although he stressed the cause of all causes as being above the world of emanation (Aẓilut). Even the first Sefirah, Keter ("crown"), is neither identical nor coexistent with the cause of all causes despite certain resemblances between them. Thus Ashkenazi opposed a number of Spanish kabbalists who identified Ein-Sof with Keter. At a certain point, the Ein-Sof intended to elevate the Sefirot hidden within it, which served as manifestations of the concealed divinity. The Sefirot constitute inclusive unity and variegated activity into which man is integrated by his theurgic activity.

The principle of paradigma is valid for the entire structure of existence. The emanating element in the Sefirot is described in the image of male and female. And just as the microcosm was created as an amorphous mass, according to the Midrash, the macrocosm began as hylic matter "which was neither potential nor actual," and thus, preceding the Sefirot, there was an amorphous mass called havayot ("essences") or omakim ("depths") – a conception resembling Platonic ideas. The force of evil (temurot, "changes") is considered a real entity, deriving from a supernal source and dependent on good. Evil's main tasks are provocation, accusation, and punishment. In the world to come man will inevitably fulfill the mitzvot and evil will be abolished. Ashkenazi approved of magic as a science, but opposed those who practiced it.

According to Ashkenazi, all existence is merely a system of layers. He posits as a cosmic rule that all that exists, including the seven lower Sefirot (and herein lies his great innovation), will undergo transmigration (*gilgul); through transmigration, a being changes form, either rising or declining. Death is a metamorphosis and not the cessation of existence, and man, in part or as a whole, may be reincarnated into any entity in the world. Ashkenazi is the source of the idea that the Messiah is a reincarnation of Moses.


Basilea, Solomon Aviad Sar-Shalom, Emunat Ḥakhamim (1888), 139; G. Scholem, in: ks, 4 (1928), 286–302; 5 (1929), 263–6; G. Vajda, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 290–300; M. Hallamish, in: Leshonenu la-Am, 17 (1966), 107–12; idem, in: Bar llan, 7–8 (1970), 211–24; R.J.Z. Werblowsky, Joseph Karo, Lawyer and Mystic (1962), 249–51; Y.A. Vaida, in: Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge (1956), 144–5.

[Moshe Hallamish]

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