The Kabbalistic Tree: The Map of God

The second commandment states that “You shall not make for yourself a statue or any image”. The Jewish Kabbalists found a rather unique and complicated way to circumvent this prohibition…

From the 12th century, clandestine groups of Jewish scholars began to speak of the “Kabbalah” – a new code name for secret teachings, which, despite being new – emphasized that these were actually a transmission or reception of esoteric ancient knowledge, and not a groundbreaking innovation (the word kabbalah literally means “reception”). As part of this new-old interpretation of Jewish tradition, Kabbalists began proposing a new, unprecedented system to refer to aspects of the Divine: the Kabbalistic Sefirot.

The Kabbalists found the word sefirot in an ancient esoteric book known as the Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Creation,” which dates back to the first centuries of the Common Era. In the book, there is no mention of prayer, life after death, the End of Days or messianic redemption, or even of the Jewish people.

But, what it does contain, and in abundance, is reference to creation. Just not the creation we know from Genesis. It propounds a completely different kind of creation.  How, then, according to the Book of Creation was the world created? By the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot (probably a reference to the first ten numbers). These are seen as the building blocks of the world. Hence Creation, according to the Book of Creation, is based on the laws of language.

Taking the unique word sefirah (plural: sefirot) from that mysterious work, the Kabbalists changed its meaning. For them, God had two distinct aspects: one is the Ein Sof – The Infinite – about whom nothing can be known, this is the hidden God; the other is the Divine Presence in the world, which emanates from the Ein Sof through the ten Sefirot – divine categories that represent the powers, qualities, attributes (and so much more) of the revealed God.

The Ein Sof in “The Magnificent Parchment”, the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

From the fourteenth century, the Kabbalists began to formulate a visual representation to encode their ideas about the formation of this divine system, the names of the Sefirot and their attributes and qualities. They viewed it is a graphic representation of God and of the world, a visual and conceptual image of the manifestation of the Godhead. This was a glimpse of the order that governs the universe.

The Kabbalists often referred to the structure of the Sefirot as a system of pipes through which the divine emanation – the concealed Ein Sof – flows down to us humans here on earth. Of course, as anyone familiar with the Kabbalah will tell you, people also have a role in this system. Every person has the ability to influence, repair and preserve the entire divine system. Because what happens in the lower spheres affects the upper ones and vice versa. The Kabbalists called this tikkun. The repair happens through intention – through prayer directed at the qualities and powers of a particular aspect of the Divine (one of the Sefirot)– in order to achieve that repair in the world.


Click here for the University of Haifa’s Ilanot project


One must understand, as Prof. J.H. Chajes explains in his new (and highly recommended) monumental book, The Kabbalistic Tree, that the graphic representation of the Sefirot is not a mnemonic tool, but a religious device, one that is comparable to a tree of many branches. The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, for example, recommended using one’s imagination to envision the tree of Sefirot during prayer in order to better concentrate on a particular Sefirah in each and every prayer. Hence the tree is a body on which the Kabbalists drape the spiritual reality.

Eventually, the Kabbalah spread throughout the entire the Jewish world, and this technique spread along with it. We find representations of the tree of Sefirot in Jewish communities all over the world. The earliest “tree” to come down to us was created in Spain, the birthplace of Kabbalah, in 1284, in the shape of a wheel.

Earliest known Sefirot tree, Spain, 1284


But as noted, the tree of Sefirot is common throughout the Jewish world – in Europe, North Africa, Israel and the Middle East. A unique tree discovered in Kurdistan helped researchers to uncover a Kabbalist community about which they knew nothing before.

Researchers distinguish between two types of Kabbalistic trees (Ilanot in Hebrew): the tree of the early Kabbalistic period and the tree that developed in light of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), known as the “Ari”. The “classic” tree presents the Divine according to the Sefirot diagram. The Lurianic tree preserves the Sefirot format but offers an enriched and more intricate  structure and visualization of the divine system. At the end of this article, we include a complete Lurianic tree from Morocco to give you an idea of its complexity.

This does not mean that the older trees did not include additional details, and even illustrations supplementing the text. In fact, every tree – whether of the classic or Lurianic model– “required” the student to read a non-continuous text, and to jump from detail to detail in order to try to grasp the whole picture.

A classic Sefirot tree – from the Kabbalistic manuscript Sha’arei Ora shel R. Yosef Gikatilla


Ahead of the move to its new home, the National Library of Israel has acquired a rare and important collection of Kabbalistic trees, which join the existing material in the field of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the Library’s Gershom Scholem Collection, the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The new collection, which includes 36 parchment and paper scrolls – some of them the longest of their kind in the world (up to 36 feet long!) – joins the 25 scrolls already in the Library’s collection. With the addition of the new manuscripts, the National Library of Israel is now the world’s largest repository of Ilanot, with over sixty scrolls dating from 1660 to 1920, originating from Jewish communities around the world: from Western and Eastern Europe, Yemen, Kurdistan, Morocco, Iraq and more.

And finally, as promised, we present here a Lurianic Kabbalistic tree created in Morocco in 1800. Click on this link to see them item in our online catalog.

Photos: Ardon Bar-Hama.


Further Reading

J. H. Chajes, The Kabbalistic Tree (Pennsylvania University Press, 2022)

The Ilanot project at Haifa University

The Three Jewish Monsters Charged With Saving the World

How is the balance in nature maintained? Well, with the help of three monsters from Jewish mythology, of course! One that lives in the sea, one that moves through the air and another that roams the earth. Naturally, no other creature dares to mess with these guys…

Leviathan, Ziz and Behemoth. Ambrosiana Bible, 1238, Ulm, Germany. Ambrosiana Library, Milan

There is an entire subgenre of disaster movies devoted to terrifying monsters like King Kong or Godzilla, who are hell-bent on destroying everything around them. The monster is typically either created or set free by human intervention, wreaking havoc and chaos on the citizens of the world, or at the very least, New Yorkers.

Medieval Jews saw these matters differently, however. Long before anyone noticed the catastrophic damage human civilization was causing to the environment, the people of the Middle Ages (Jews, Christians and Muslims), whose worldview was dominated by a religious viewpoint, perceived nature as a harmonious system in which no single factor could overtake the others and thereby disrupt the world balance and tilt the scales towards disaster.

This thinking is reflected in the traditions surrounding the three great beasts mentioned in the Bible and Jewish mythology. Each represents a different category of animals: a beast of the sea, a beast of the land and a beast of the air. And each one, in its own terrifying way, maintains nature’s delicate balance.

The Destruction of Leviathan, Gustav Dore, 1865. This work depicts God destroying the legendary Leviathan as described in Isaiah

“In that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea”

(Isaiah 27:1)

The first great monster-beast is the Leviathan, who rules the creatures of the sea and is mentioned in the Book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible. Leviathan is sometimes referred to as a being that challenged the rule of God, much like the taninim (mentioned in Genesis 1:21 and translated alternatively as “great sea creatures”, “great sea monsters” or “great whales”). Bible scholars see this as proof that the biblical Leviathan is a remnant of even more ancient mythologies, for example that of the Ugaritic culture, whose lore influenced and penetrated the Bible. Christianity adopted the image of the Leviathan as a symbol of satanic power and of evil. The gradual evolution of this theme has had a lasting cultural effect – think Moby Dick, the great white whale of Herman Melville’s classic novel.

Jews in the Middle Ages, however, were able to reconcile with the Leviathan and made the beast one of the three guardian monsters presiding over the world order. And so it was transformed from a kind of mighty sea serpent or giant crocodile (some even described it as a terrible dragon) into a fish of gigantic proportion that ensures that none of the other fish in the sea overtakes and destroys their brethren. In modern Hebrew, the word leviathan means “whale”.

The second monster-beast rules over the creatures of the air, in simple terms – birds. But to complicate things slightly, we’ll just let you know it has two names: Ziz and Bar Yochnei. Unusual names for sure, but both appear in the Bible. Ziz is mentioned in Psalms 80:14 in the original Hebrew (the word is generally lost in translation to English).

Although it is not clear who or what is the ziz mentioned in the Hebrew biblical text, the Jewish sages understood this mysterious name as belonging to a miraculous bird that was so big, its wingspan could block out the sun. As in this midrash in Genesis Rabbah 19:4:

“Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said the bird Ziz is pure and when it spreads its wings it covers the sun … and Adam was created after all to rule over all.”

In Jewish mythology, Ziz is identified with the legendary bird Bar Yochnei mentioned in the Talmud: “Once an egg of the bird called Bar Yochnei fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees” (Bekhorot 57b). If you missed the hint, what the sages are saying is that if one egg of this bird could do all that damage, just imagine how big the bird must have been!

The third monster rules over the creatures of the land. In Hebrew writings is it called Behemoth and is described as a gigantic bull.

“Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.

Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.

He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

He is the chief of the ways of God; He that made him can make His sword to approach unto him.

Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.

He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed and fens.

The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.

Behold, he drinketh up a river and hasteneth not; he trusteth that he can draw up the Jordan into his mouth.

Will any take him with his sight, or bore his nose with a snare?”

(Job 40:14–24)

Since the 17th century, biblical scholars have identified the Behemoth with the hippopotamus. Etching by William Blake of the Behemoth and Leviathan

However, with all due respect to the supremacy of the three monsters over other beasts, it was important to subordinate them to God because none were mightier or stronger than Him or could threaten His unwavering rule. Therefore, Jewish lore tells us that the first two beasts (Leviathan and Ziz) were created on the fourth day, and the Behemoth on the fifth day.

Needless to say, the three monsters are busy all year round. At the beginning of the summer, autumn and winter seasons they take part in a special ceremony. Each sounds a special warning to all the other animals –  the Behemoth roars, the Ziz screams and the Leviathan stirs the sea – in case any creature feels tempted to multiply or grow excessively and thus bring life in the world to an end.

These three mighty beasts were also given a messianic role. A fierce battle between the Leviathan and Behemoth is described as taking place in the End of Days. At its climax, both will be killed, and their meat will be served to the righteous at a spectacular banquet in heaven.

No doubt, the significance of the three monsters sounds strange to our modern ears. But perhaps there is still something to learn from them regarding the balance of nature. After all, experts have been warning us now for decades of the excessive dominance of one animal in particular – the human – who has been wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem for a quite a while now: on land, in the air and in sea.

Unveiling the Connection: Why We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot

Each Shavuot Jews gather to read the Book of Ruth… but why? The Book of Ruth doesn’t seem to have any connection to this joyous festival! Dig a little deeper however, and we can find many intricate hidden harmonies and surprising ties between the timeless tale of Ruth and the cherished holiday of Shavuot

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze'ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuot, documents the story of a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her journey of faith and devotion. The book is set during the time of the Shoftim (judges), a period of instability and moral decline in ancient Israel. The story begins with Naomi, an Israelite woman, and her husband Elimelech leaving their home in Bethlehem due to famine, and settling in the land of Moab. There, their two sons, Machlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. However, tragedy strikes when Elimelech and both of his sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find new husbands. Orpah agrees, but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, asserting her loyalty by famously declaring, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d, my G-d.”

Ruth und Boaz, Henri-Frédéric Schopin, 1804-1880, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth goes to work in a field to provide for Naomi and herself. There, she catches the eye of Boaz, the wealthy landowner and Israelite, and Boaz shows kindness to Ruth, providing her with extra food and protection. Naomi recognizes the spark between Ruth and Boaz, and encourages Ruth to make her intentions known to him. Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth approaches Boaz and sets a feminist precedent by proposing marriage to him! Boaz agrees to marry her and look after both Ruth and Naomi, and a little while later the couple gives birth to a son named Oved, who unbeknownst to them will become the grandfather of King David.

Noémie et Ruth, Hector le Roux, 1908, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful and inspiring story of loyalty, faith, and the strength of women. It teaches us about the power of redemption and kindness, and how even in the darkest of times, G-d’s plan can unfold in ways we could never have imagined. That being said, it is incredibly unclear why this story is read on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot is a festive Jewish holiday that occurs 50 days after Pesach (Passover). It is a dual celebration to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and also the spring harvest season in Israel. This gives way to a number of traditions: participating in all-night Torah study sessions to mark the giving of the Torah, eating dairy foods like the ancient Israelites did in the desert in the days leading up to the giving of the Torah, feasting on seasonal and exotic fruits to mark the annual yield, and decorating synagogues with flowers to symbolize the harvest. In synagogue, processions take place as community members dance and sing while parading with their Torah scrolls, while children brandish fruits on sticks and eat sweets. As Jews mark the giving of the Torah and the end of the harvest season, these traditions make sense and fit in perfectly with the symbolism of the day.

Meggilat Rut, a gift for Shavuot, the Likkud party religious division, the National Library of Israel

What doesn’t make sense is how the Book of Ruth relates to this festival at all! But as it happens, the answer lies just beneath the surface.

A kibbutz member carries a milk can, 1941, Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection, the National Library of Israel
Shavuot celebrations, 1970, IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the National Library of Israel

One simple link between the festival of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth is that the story actually takes place around the time of Shavuot. We learn that – out of desperation – Naomi traveled to Bethlehem on Pesach despite the prohibition of traveling during the festival, and from this we can calculate that her reunion with Boaz took place on or around the time of Shavuot. This is further backed up by the fact that when Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, they work in the field harvesting grain. This points us to the fact that the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season. Shavuot celebrates the end of the wheat and barley harvest (the bikkurim), so this holiday is an appropriate time to read from a story that took place on Shavuot, centuries ago.

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

In the Torah portion of Vayikra (23:16-21) the verses deal with the laws of harvest, and explain that one corner of every field should not be gathered, so that the needy may take from those crops. Because the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season, Boaz was actively practicing this Jewish law, and the Book of Ruth actually recalls his performance of the mitzvah as he leaves a corner of his field for the needy women, Naomi and Ruth, as well as instructing the other workers to treat these poor women kindly. Thus, during the harvest season of Shavuot, we read this story to be reminded of this charitable act that must be completed while gathering crops.

Ruth and Naomi, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Another possible connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot is that both have central themes of kindness. The purpose of the Torah is to guide Jews to become better people and through the Book of Ruth we are introduced to two role models: Naomi, who is compassionate, charitable and brave, and Ruth, who is loyal and a woman of faith. Therefore, reading a story which helps Jews hone these skills on the very day that the Torah was given is suitably apt. The people of Moab were actually ostracized from Israel due to their bad character traits according to the biblical narrative, but Ruth is a perfect example of how there is always room for growth and that no matter one’s background, there is always an opportunity to become an exemplary person, which is also a central message in the Torah.

The Book of Ruth, photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

There is possibly no other Jewish story which so adeptly demonstrates the power of compassion and generosity as Ruth, in which we see characters breaking all expectations and going above and beyond the expected norm with their kindness: Ruth herself is so virtuous that she not only has an entire book in the Bible named after her, but also brings redemption to her nation of Moab and is merited with being the great-grandmother of King David. Naomi is also one such praise-worthy woman, who suffered immense shame and disgrace, yet picked herself back up, stood with pride even when she knew that she would be shunned by her community, and took control of a difficult situation in order to look after her family. She is the ultimate example of self-sacrifice and a strong female character. And finally Boaz, who is described (Ruth, 3:9) as a “redeeming kinsman” – a charitable and honorable man who protects even those who are below his own stature.

Boaz and the notables of the town, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As the Jewish belief goes, their collective kindnesses brought together a broken family to create a child whose lineage is prophesied to bring forth the Messiah and end all hatred and evil in the world. Both the Torah and the story of Ruth are based on the Jewish value of chesed (loving-kindness) and thus it is appropriate to read this book on the day on which the Torah was given.

We’ve mentioned King David a few times now, and he really can’t be forgotten in connecting the Book of Ruth with the festival of Shavuot. The Book of Ruth actually ends with a list of King David’s genealogy, with Ruth of course being his great-grandmother. Moreover, King David was both born and died on Shavuot (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah, 2:3) as the Gemara says that the holiest people die on the same day that they were born (Rosh Hashanah 11a.) Therefore, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot to recall King David and read the story of his ancestry in his honor. Just as we often use the anniversary of one’s death to recount their life story, so to do we do this on Shavuot with King David.

A Shavuot celebration, Kibbutz Kinneret, 1970-80, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.
Shavuot celebrations at Pika school – “The land has given a harvest”, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Interestingly, conversion also plays a role in the joining together of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth. Of course, conversion is a strong theme in the Book of Ruth, as Ruth tells Naomi that she wants to become part of the Israelite nation and abandon her own Moabite roots. The Sefat Emet says that Shavuot is an appropriate time to recall Ruth’s conversion to Judaism for a few reasons: Firstly, because it was only upon the Jews receiving the Torah that they became ready to teach it to all those who wanted to be part of the faith, like Ruth; and seeing Naomi accept Ruth should teach us to accept all people who wish to take on the mitzvot for themselves. Secondly, in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the People of Israel were essentially converting to Judaism, as they were deciding to take on the Jewish laws for the first time. Because Ruth chose to convert to Judaism, she merited to become the ancestor of the Messiah, and similarly upon accepting the Torah, the Jewish people merited to become the Children of G-d. Ruth was already 40 years old when she became Jewish (Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 4:4) and this shows us that Judaism is not limited to those of a specific background, and in fact any person of faith can take the Torah laws upon themselves with due dedication.

Ruth and Boaz, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

We are taught that when the Jewish people went to Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, they immersed in the mikve and the males were circumcised, just as any convert to Judaism must do, so of course on the anniversary of this event, we should read about the first ever convert to Judaism!

We actually learn from the Book of Ruth how to conduct a Jewish conversion: The Rambam says that we follow Naomi’s instruction: we tell a potential convert about the basics of the religion, we make sure that they have no undesirable motives for converting, and then warn the convert that Judaism can often be difficult. If they still want to join the religion, we must allow them to do so and then teach them the more intimate laws. This is how Naomi addresses Ruth, and Ruth tells Naomi that she will not be deterred – whatever she is signing up for, she is in! Just as during the original festival of Shavuot on Mount Sinai the Jewish people said – “We will do and then we will listen” – so too did Ruth.

Ruth, Henry Ryland, 1910-1914, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

We mentioned previously that the Jewish people took on all the mitzvot at Mount Sinai, but actually they only accepted 606 commandments at that time. Maybe this seems strange considering the fact that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. However, gentiles are also required to observe 7 of the 613 laws (the 7 Noachide Laws,) which the People of Israel were keeping even before receiving the Torah. Thus, only 606 new laws were introduced on the festival of Shavuot. This was comparable to Ruth. Her acceptance of the additional 606 laws of Judaism was analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of these laws, emphasized in the story by the fact that her name רות has the numerical value of 606!

Many of the main tenets of the Torah are also taught in the Book of Ruth. Through her story (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 47B) we learn the laws of the Sabbath, preparation for the Sabbath, laws of family purity, and idol worship, rules of punishment, how to greet one another, and the laws of Jewish burial! As Ruth decides to take on these important tenets of the Jewish faith, so too do Jews reaffirm their commitment to these mitzvot on Shavuot. Moreover, reading a story which includes so many of the fundamental elements of the Torah seems more than appropriate on the festival of receiving the Torah!

Ruth, Tanach, 1971, Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse even more significantly, we are taught the importance of mitzvot in general in the story of Ruth, which, as the essence of Torah, makes it the optimal story to read in order to mark the giving of the Torah. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz was a man of stature within his community. He was 300 years old and had amassed a big family and great wealth in those years (I Chronicles 2:11Rashi, Bava Batra 91a) so he really had no reason to take in the needy Ruth and Naomi. That being said, he was also a man of faith who believed in doing good deeds. His moral actions were rewarded with the prophecy that his offspring would include the Messiah. The Sefat Emet teaches that a holy life is made up not only by observance of religious laws, but also of good deeds, and Boaz was the perfect example of that.

Ruth, Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ruth experienced many hardships in her simple pursuit of observing the Torah. Jews believe that this can inspire them to be more appreciative of the Torah that they were given on the festival of Shavuot, and thus the reading of the Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service on Shavuot is a custom which dates back to the Talmudic era (Soferim 14:16). The connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot hasn’t always seemed clear perhaps, but upon deeper inspection, it is unquestionably no coincidence. This brilliantly crafted story that can’t help but inspire loyalty, faith, and above all, kindness.

Boldness of Invention and Falsification: Gershom Scholem on Elias Gewurz

Gershom Scholem's acerbic wit was on full display in the notes he scribbled on works written by a particular Theosophist author…

Gershom Scholem (left), the founder of modern academic study of the Kabbalah, and Theosophist author Elias Gewurz (right)

Elias Gewurz (1875-1947), a Jewish Theosophist author, who wrote about Kabbalah, has until this point, not merited an entry in Wikipedia. Rather his biography is recorded here, on the “Theosophy Wiki” website. According to the site, Gewurz was born in Krakow and educated in Vienna. He later moved to the Canary Islands and during World War I immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Los Angeles. Gewurz lived at first in the “Krotona Colony” of the American Theosophical Society, which was located in Hollywood. He moved around a bit in California, and eventually settled in Ventura, where he died, apparently a bachelor.

Gewurz was quite active in the “Theosophical Society” and a number of his published works made their way to Gershom Scholem’s personal library, which can be found today in the Gershom Scholem Reading Room the National Library of Israel.

These works include The Diary of a Child of Sorrow (composed in Las Palmas, Grand Canary) and The Cosmic Wisdom – As Embodied in the Qabalah and in the Symbolical Hebrew Alphabet (both London 1914, the latter co-authored by L. A. Bosman and published as part of the “Esoteric Studies” series of The Dharma Press), as well as The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah: Volume 1: The Transmutation of Passion into Power (Chicago 1918).

The follow-up volume to The Hidden Treasures, The Mysteries of the Qabalah, was “written down by seven pupils of E. G.” (“Yogi Publication Society – Masonic Temple”, Chicago 1922).

The first volume, based upon lectures given at the “Krotona Lodge” and the “Krotona Institute” of the Theosophical Society in 1915, includes a brief introduction into the nature of the Kabbalah.

Needless to say, Scholem was unconvinced by the dating of Rabbi Moses de Leon to the 12th (as opposed to the 13th) century and noted that with a “?” in the margin.

The Mysteries volume, which was composed not by Guwerz himself, but by his devotees, includes an interesting dedication as well:

In it we learn that the tract was composed by “one of the seven”, to whom Gewurz had pointed out the path, that he himself had trodden with “bleeding feet”. We also learn that this was to have been part of a much larger work on the Hebrew language that apparently was never completed.

But it was his 1924 volume Beautiful Thoughts of the Ancient Hebrews, published in New York by the mainstream Bloch Publishing Company: The Jewish Book Concern, that was to draw the ire of Gershom Scholem.

The work was published with an introduction by California Reform Rabbi Martin A. Meyer, a colorful figure, whose mysterious demise aroused much speculation at the time. Some of his remarks regarding Kabbalah are worth noting:

The truth is that Scholem had previously commented on the 1914 Diary of a Child of Sorrow volume, referring to Gewurz’s early work as one of “Pseudo-Kabbalah”.

He also noted that Gewurz’s family hailed from the Polish town of Dembitz and that he was a “theosophist”. The Dembitz connection was also noted in Scholem’s copy of Sefer Dembitz (a memorial volume, Tel-Aviv 1960), where information of Gewurz’s somewhat illustrious ancestors was preserved.

In his copy of Beautiful Thoughts, Scholem shared some of his own not-so-beautiful thoughts regarding our author and his work.

Scholem’s comments in English and in Hebrew are quite different. In the English, perhaps addressed more to the Bloch Publication Company than to the author himself, Scholem informs us that; “[Gewurz is] remarkable by boldness of invention and falsification of nearly all the quotations contained herein! And nobody has taken pains to examine his ‘sources’ and the swindle is going on!” As we shall see, some of Scholem’s terms here (“swindle” and “invention”) made their way into his marginalia as well.

Scholem’s Hebrew notes are of a biographical nature and inform us that;

“The author’s name was Eliyahu ben Alter ben Daniel ben Henich, a son of a prominent family in Dembitz. And I heard from Mr. Daniel Leibel [the author of Sefer Dembitz] the author who knew him as a youth, that around 1899 he travelled to England and it was rumored that he converted, and this is apparently an error. Rather he become a Theosophist, and see now in Sefer Dembitz…”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Gewurz was actually from Dembitz, as claimed here, or from Krakow, as purported on the “Theosophy Wiki”, we learn from Sefer Dembitz that Gewurz’s ancestors included Chief Rabbis and rabbinic judges, as well as wealthy community leaders, until “the Rabbinate was conquered by the Hasidim of Ropshitz”.

Returning to Scholem’s critical comments on Beautiful Thoughts, they are interspersed throughout the volume, and continue the theme of Guwerz’s falsification and/or invention of sources. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this point:



“a book which has never existed”



Scholem was, however, significantly more charitable (or more sarcastic?) towards the book in his brief review in Kiryat Sefer (1:4, 1925), describing it as “a slim anthology of Kabbalah. The sources are a bit strange and much…is not that of ancient Jewish thought, but rather of the author himself, and that is also good. Perhaps the author could inform us, which ancient Jewish book he was referring to under the title of ‘The Golden Gate’, for we have not heard of this book and blessed is the one who knows.” This is the book that Scholem had described in the margins as having “never existed”.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

Lastly, returning to the rumors alleging that Gewurz had converted to Christianity in England that Scholem had discounted since “he became a Theosophist”, one could ask if the two categories are in fact mutually exclusive or if he could have either progressed from Christianity to Theosophy, or if he had in fact become a Christian Theosophist who retained an interest in his native Judaism, including Kabbalah, as well.

In his work The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah, in a fascinating chapter intitled “The Feminine Elements in Man and Their Redeeming Power”, Gewurz, seemingly ahead of his time, argues for the need for men to take on more feminine qualities and to balance their “masculine strength” with “feminine beauty”, even though they are “in reality one and the same thing”. He ends the chapter waxing eloquently about the figure of Jesus, whom he claims “was of a feminine nature. He only wore the body of a man, but His soul was womanly”. Leaving the gender issue aside, it is hard to imagine anyone other than a committed Christian lavishing such praise upon Jesus. Nonetheless, his call to the reader, that “we may grow juster and fairer and purer, more kind and more true, more silent and more humble”, is still relevant, more than one hundred years after his words were written.