“Nor shall you follow their laws”? The Influence of Islamic Mysticism on Judaism

A look at the subtle influence of Islamic mysticism on Jewish worship and thought from the Middle Ages to the present

Abraham, son of Maimonides, was born to greatness. As the only son of the great Jewish thinker, he was educated from childhood to inherit his father’s role.

Rabbi Abraham eventually did inherit his father’s position as head of the Jewish community in Egypt. But when he came to lead the Jewish community and strengthen its adherence to Judaism, he revealed himself to be deeply influenced by the Islamic mystical movement of Sufism. This influence is evident in his writings and halakhic rulings, as for example in his innovation of washing the feet as well as the hands before prayer. He based this novel practice on a single Talmudic source that had been rejected by the Sages, though the true influence clearly came from the Islamic culture and tradition that surrounded him.

Rabbi Abraham Maimonides rejected the criticism that he was imitating the customs of the Gentiles in two ways: first, by grounding his innovations in Jewish sources, however esoteric and unique, and second, by asserting that imitating Muslims did not amount to a violation of Leviticus 18:3 –

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”

Even before Rabbi Abraham’s time, Sufi influence on the Jewish pietistic movement was a well-known phenomenon.

Bahya ibn Paquda, who was born in 1050 in Zaragoza, Spain, wrote Hovot HaLevavot (“The Duties of the Heart”), the first known book in this tradition. The structure of Hovot HaLevavot is a series of “gates” that lead the reader along a spiritual path at the end of which he will discover, as the tenth gate states, “true love for God may He be exalted.” The structure is analogous to Sufism which is also made up of stations whose purpose is to gradually bring the believer to the exact same point. Originally written in Judeo-Arabic, the book uses Islamic and non-Jewish expressions to describe God. The author makes use of the phrase Hashem yit’aleh (“God will rise”) in Hebrew, which corresponds to the Arabic Allah yita’alah. Another Hebrew phrase that appears in the book is Hashem yitromem veyitnaseh, (“God will rise up and be exalted”), corresponding to Allah ‘azz wa-jal in Arabic.

In addition to the Muslim phrases, Ibn Paquda quotes Islamic sources as validation for his own words. For example, he quotes the Egyptian Islamic mystic Dhul-Nun al-Misri (d. 859), in a chapter dedicated to proving God’s presence in the world: “He who knows God the most is the most humble in relation to Him.” Later in the same chapter, while discussing the comprehension of God’s divine nature, he writes: “It is more fitting to say this about the Creator of everything, that ‘There is nothing like unto Him'”, making use of a quote from the Quran (42:11).

Manuscript of Hovot HaLevavot, 14th century

The book’s structure suggests that it may not be the first composition of this type, but it is the earliest that has been preserved to the present day. Even today, Hovot HaLevavot remains popular and is considered a fundamental book in the fields of faith and musar (morality). The book has been published recently in both a scientific edition and one that is divided into short chapters intended for daily study especially around the period of Sliḥot before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year)

The difference in the popularity of the two authors is due to the fact that while Rabbi Abraham Maimonides wrote with the goal of educating his immediate community, Ibn Paquda wrote for a more generalized audience of Jews, regardless of their existing spiritual knowledge or understanding.

The Sufi movement and its values ​​contributed greatly to the development of Judaism, from the coining of the concept of heshbon nefesh (lit. “an accounting of the soul”), as in a personal reckoning, which did not exist until the appearance of Hovot HaLevavot, through the development of musar literature, to inspiring the emphasis on kavanat halev (lit. the “intention of the heart”), that is mindfulness in the act of fulfilling the commandments.

Once Every Seven Years: Dismissing Debt on Rosh Hashanah

The concept of Shemittah – the Jewish Sabbatical Year – includes among other things a provision to release people from debts owed to others. Though clearly a noble and moral sentiment, such a law can easily lead to problematic situations and even exploitation. Levi Cooper delves into one possible solution to this issue, provided by a 2000 year-old legal loophole…

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card depicting an act of charity, the Hebrew caption across the bottom reads: “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree”, early 20th century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

One aspect of Shemittah – the biblically mandated Sabbatical Year – is debt relief: Creditors release debtors from loans that are due to be repaid. The release – termed Shemittat Kesafim (release of monies) – is triggered on Rosh Hashanah following the Sabbatical Year: sundown September 25, 2022.

The workaround

During the Second Temple period, it became apparent that creditors were not extending loans to the needy, lest they would not be able to recover the funds because of Shemittat Kesafim. Extending credit to the needy is a form of charity. Moreover, not providing loans because of Shemittat Kesafim is in conflict with the biblical warning not to let the remission hinder extending credit.

To combat the trend, Hillel the Elder instituted a legal instrument termed prozbul – a fictitious transfer of bonds held by creditors to the court of law. The sabbatical remission applies only to debts owed to individuals, and not to debts owed to the court. Hence, the bond remains intact despite the biblical debt relief. Creditors – acting as agents of the court – can then recover outstanding debts despite Shemittat Kesafim.

Prozbul involves a simple declaration attested by witnesses or judges: “I deliver to you [insert names] judges of [insert location], that any debt that I have [owed to me] that I may collect it at any time I choose.”

The specific goal of Hillel’s legal innovation was to help the needy by encouraging creditors to extend loans. The motivation for Hillel’s enactment is also described in general terms as mipnei tikkun ha-‘olam, for the sake of order of the world. In contemporary discourse, Tikkun Olam has become a popular – and one could argue overused – catchcry.

It was Greek to me

The meaning of the Greek term prozbul and its Hellenistic legal origins have been discussed by scholars. Already in Babylonia, the rabbis were unsure of the term’s etymology. Thus Rava sought assistance from a foreigner who spoke Greek as to the meaning of the term. The Greek-speaker explaned: Pursa (enactment) of the matter. Scholars have suggested that the term comes from προσβολή (prosbolé), meaning delivery and describing the transfer of the bond to the court. Other scholars suggested that the term is a portmanteau of πρὸς βουλῇ βουλευτῶν (pros boulé bouleuton), meaning before the assembly of councilors and describing the authority that receives the bonds. The Talmud offers a different explanation: The term comes from the words pros buli and buti – the enactment (pros) for the wealthy (buli) who can recover debts, and for the impoverished (buti) who can obtain loans.

Lost in time

By the Middle Ages, Shemittat Kesafim had been forgotten in many Jewish communities. It was not just that the loan remission was not observed, but executing a prozbul to avoid debt cancellation was also not widespread. This is apparent from legal sources that can be divided into four categories:

  1. Justifications for the neglect;
  2. Critique for the neglect and calls for reinstatement;
  3. Contractual stipulations – actual or implied – that circumvent the law;
  4. Communal ordinances that abrogate the law of debt cancellation.

To be sure, prozbul templates and documents from the Middle Ages have survived. For example, a prozbul from 1224 was discovered in the Cairo Genizah.

A prozbul document from the Cairo Genizah, 1224, Jacques Mosseri, Paris, France

The balance of the legal sources was a demand to keep the debt relief law, which meant choosing between two alternatives: either debt release or using a legal instrument to avoid debt release. This second path included various options, such as executing a prozbul, incorporating a circumvention clause in the loan contract, setting the payment date after Rosh Hashanah, securing the loan with collateral, and more.

No one suggested that there was a legal need or a religious value for creditors to do both; that is, cancel debts and avoid debt release. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with choosing different alternatives for different debts. It was at the discretion of creditors whether to cancel a debt or opt for a workaround. It is not hard to imagine a creditor applying the debt release to certain loans, while avoiding the release for other loans. For example, a creditor may choose to cancel a personal loan to a poor debtor, but execute a prozbul for a loan to a successful entrepreneur who has suffered a temporary loss. In other words, the circumstances might dictate the creditors’ decision. No sources suggested that there was a religious ideal to actively seek a way to fulfil the biblical command and release debts.

Symbolic loan

The great Baghdadi scholar, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835-1909), discussed debt relief laws in his Ben Ish Hai – a compendium of practical Jewish law, designed as a two-year programme of study. Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a prolific writer, but he is identified by the title of this volume due to its widespread popularity. After recounting the basic laws of prozbul, Ben Ish Hai added a watershed passage:

And behold there are those who act piously, after they write the prozbul, they lend some sum of money – ten grush or less or more – to a friend, and on that amount the prozbul is ineffective, since they loaned [the money] after the time of the prozbul.

And then, after Rosh Hashanah, when his friend brings him the funds to pay him back, [the creditor] should say to [the debtor] “I cancel [the debt],” and [the creditor] should not receive [the funds] from [the debtor], and the debtor can use these funds and enjoy them, and the creditor can enjoy the mitzvah of releasing monies [owed] that he actually fulfilled.

Grush refers to a silver currency unit used for daily transactions in the Ottoman Empire. The purchasing power of ten grush in Ben Ish Hai’s context may be estimated at US$15-20. Thus the loan that Ben Ish Hai was advocating was a symbolic gesture, though the amount was not worthless. The symbolism of the act is further emphasised by the identity of the recipient – a friend, rather than a pauper. This post-prozbul loan was an attempt to preserve an element of debt release, even if it was only a shadow of the original biblical commandment.

A prozbul document from the early 1860s, signed by Ya’akov Bar Ya’akov Amsalem, Morocco, donated by Ezra P. Gorodetzky, the National Library of Israel

Ben Ish Hai opened his description with the claim that “there are those who act piously” – indicating that this was an existing custom. Alas, documentation of such a practice has not reached us. At least as far as local practice was concerned, Ben Ish Hai seems to have introduced the custom in Baghdad, as the following biographical note suggests:

I instituted this mitzvah here in our city Baghdad, may God protect it. I printed prozbul documents and I distributed them to a number of people and they executed them.

And I also taught them that they should do thus – to loan any sum after the prozbul time and to actually fulfil the mitzvah.

Ben Ish Hai added a further angle:

And also if a person borrowed loaves of bread from his friend, even one loaf, the law of Shemittah applies to this.

In the eyes of the Ben Ish Hai, this was an opportunity for fulfilment of the mitzvah by another sector of the community:

Therefore, it is good if the woman loans a loaf of bread or two or three to her friend on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and after Rosh Hashanah when [the borrower] pays her back, she will say to her: “I cancel [the debt],” and thus this woman fulfils the commandment of Shemittah.

Once again Ben Ish Hai provided a local report, followed by a triumphant crescendo:

And thus a number of women did so in our city, may God protect it, because with the help of God may he be blessed, I preached [about] this matter in public. Fortunate is Israel!

“An Announcement on the Matter of prozbul” – a public notice on behalf of the the “Edah Haredit” community organization, mentioning that rabbis would be answering questions on the subject of prozbuls, “everyday between 3 and 4 in the afternoon”, 1966, the Pashkevil Collection at the National Library of Israel

Last minute loan

Lest we think that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a lone voice advocating this creative course: Another authority, from a later period and from a different cultural milieu also signed a prozbul and then gave a loan in order to preserve an element of the original biblical requirement. This episode was reported in 1994 as Shemittah 5754 drew to a close.

On Shabbat afternoon, August 6, 1994 – the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul, the final month of that Shemittah year – Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter of Ger (1926-1996) spoke to his Hasidim, as was his custom. These talks were posthumously published under the title Pnei Menahem. As per the Ger practice, the title of the rebbe’s work became the standard name for the hasidic master.

Within a month of the talk, people would diligently execute prozbuls before the next Hebrew year began. At the end of his talk, Pnei Menahem added a vignette about his father, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (Imrei Emet, 1865-1948):

I heard from one the elders who saw that my father of blessed memory (when he was in the Land of Israel) in the Shemittah year wrote a prozbul as per the institution of the sages, and nevertheless since he wanted to fulfil the commandment of Shemittat Kesafim, therefore after writing the prozbul he sought after a poor person to lend him a bit of money in order to fulfil the plain meaning of the verse “and your heart shall not be resentful [when you give to him; Deut. 15:10], since loans from here henceforth are released.

Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (The Imrei Emet), the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

There is no indication that the Polish hasidic master had been inspired by the Baghdadi rabbinic leader. Imrei Emet seems to have gone further than Ben Ish Hai in that he sought a needy person, so that the debt relief would provide real assistance to the impoverished.

Notwithstanding the difference, it seems that the two rabbis – who were educated in different cultural contexts – were driven by a heartfelt desire to fulfil the original biblical commandment, despite the existence of an acceptable rabbinic workaround.

Martha, Daughter of Boethus, Who Died From Stepping Out Onto Jerusalem’s Streets

More delicate than the princess from "The Princess and the Pea", more spoiled than a Kardashian. Among the Talmudic legends surrounding the destruction of ancient Jerusalem is the strange story of a wealthy woman who was unaccustomed to contact with the outside world. Why did the Talmudic sages choose to focus on this particular tale, and is there a modern lesson to be learned from it?

A Jewish woman in fanciful dress, studio portrait, Tunisia. Courtesy of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute

Martha daughter of Boethus was a rich woman who lived in Jerusalem during the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. She was a member of a priestly family with close connections to those in power. Martha daughter of Boethus was so wealthy that following her wedding to Yehoshua ben Gamla, she bought him the office of high priest directly from the king.

Martha daughter of Beothus spent most of her time at home, among the servants and extravagances reserved for a woman of her status. But once a year, on Yom Kippur, she would leave the comforts of her house and make her way to the Temple to see her husband, the high priest, lead the ceremony in front of the Holy of Holies. On Yom Kippur it is forbidden to wear leather sandals, which meant that Martha daughter of Boethus had to go out into the street barefoot. But Jerusalem’s dirty streets were not worthy of her delicate feet, and so, according to the midrash, on Yom Kippur the servants would lay a carpet across the city just for her. A carpet on which only she would walk, from the threshold of her house all the way to the Temple, just so that her precious feet would not have to touch Jerusalem’s dirty cobblestones.

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The story of Martha daughter of Boethus in a 19th century manuscript of the midrash Eikhah (Lamentations). From the collections of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, made accessible through the Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

But then came the Roman siege. Little by little, food disappeared from the marketplace and Martha daughter of Boethus’ money too became worthless. Day after day she sent her servant out to purchase food but day after day he returned empty handed. There no wheat flour, no barley flour and not even bran to be had.

Marta daughter of Boethus decided that there was no other choice, she would have to go out herself. She would to go down into the city, out among the people and search for something to eat, or else she would surely starve.

She was in such a hurry that she went out barefoot. Yes, the woman who never dared to venture out onto the streets of Jerusalem without a carpet being laid in her honor, now stepped outside barefoot.

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Model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

One can only imagine the streets of Jerusalem at the time. The siege weighed heavily on the city No one could enter, no one could leave. There was no food or water to be had anywhere, chaos reigned and sewage flowed in the alleyways. As fate would have it, the moment she put one foot outside her door, Martha daughter of Boethus stepped on a piece of dung and died. Or, as the Talmud put it, “Dung settled on her leg and she died.”

Why did Martha daughter of Boethus perish so suddenly? Did she die of disgust, or perhaps from anxiety?

Clearly, with this story the Jewish sages intended to criticize the elitism, corruption and detachment of the wealthy priestly families from the people. The rich priestly class had become so remote and aloof that they did not see the hunger, suffering, pain, and poverty all around them until it was too late, until it was impossible to save the city and its people.

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The story of Martha daughter of Boethus in a 19th century manuscript of midrash Eikhah (Lamentations). From the collections of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, made accessible through the Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gitin, 56a) Martha daughter of Boethus’ story is preceded by a tale about three rich men—Ben Tzizit Hakesset, Nicodemus Ben-Gurion, and Kalba Savua —who chose to donate food to the residents of the city to help them withstand the siege. Martha daughter of Boethus on the other hand, does not make good use of her wealth. She keeps the money for herself, which is perhaps the very reason it ultimately cannot save her. Her vast riches—wealth belonging to her priestly family—are worthless.

There is another aspect of this story that relates to Martha’s place in society as a woman. Women of that time were often restricted to the home. Hence, Martha daughter of Boethus, whose feet were accustomed to only the softest and cleanest surfaces, was ill prepared to deal with reality as it was, as she never encountered the real world. Thus, one interpretation of the dung in this story is that it symbolizes life’s difficulties, the complexities and challenges we face in our everyday life. Martha daughter of Boethus simply did not know how to cope with these.

Embedded in the story is an idea that connects to our own times, and one that could account for the story’s inclusion among the legends surrounding the destruction of the Temple. Martha daughter of Boethus was only ever exposed to people like herself, of her echelon. She never rubbed shoulders with the outside world. She never met men and women of different classes or who held religious or political outlooks different from her own.

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The Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. Colored postcard by Karl Vetke, a German artist known for his exotic landscapes. The postcard is part of Archive Network Israel (ANI), accessible through the cooperation of the Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem, and the National Library of Israel

The first time she goes out into the real world and is forced to grapple with the rest of Jerusalem society, she is suddenly overwhelmed, to the point of death.

A possible interpretation of the story of Martha daughter of Boethus, is that it contains a lesson teaching us to be receptive to the world, encouraging us to meet one another face to face. Perhaps the sages are even calling us to confront complex and painful issues head on, as opposed to shielding ourselves (or our children) from life’s difficulties. If we do not meet with each other, get to know each other, our resilience as a society may be undermined, the Talmud hints to us. If we dare not look directly at each other, we may find ourselves alone, and without the ability to cope when we are under siege.

The story of Martha daughter of Boethus reminds us to take down the barriers that divide us and to learn to live together, to discover how we can simply meet, face to face.

The Hebrew Manuscript That Dared to Depict God

We decided to examine the manuscript that boldly violated the explicit commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness”

Genesis 2:23 “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man”. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama

The second of the Ten Commandments states “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:2-3). The conventional understanding of the second part of this commandment concerns first and foremost the image of God. Was this not what set the chosen people apart from other peoples? Was this not what set monotheism apart from polytheistic religions?  According to tradition, the God of Israel has no face and no form, except in a metaphorical sense.

Of course, some would disagree with this blanket claim and say that already in ancient times the Children of Israel sculpted their gods, but that their tools were words. The Bible opens with the personification of God when it speaks of Man created in God’s image, and is replete with other images of God personified, such as Moses seeing the back of God, descriptions of God’s wrath using metaphors referring to his nose (חרון אפו – charon apo), and much more. True, one can argue, as did the great Jewish sages and thinkers including Maimonides, that this is a classic case of “the Torah speaking in human language.” But of course there are other examples of the physical image of God in Jewish tradition and literature that would be hard to argue with: for example, the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, esoteric writings that likely stemmed from the Talmudic period, and which describe God as standing behind the curtain in the center of the seventh heavenly palace. The purpose of the Ma’aseh Merkava, (“Account of the Chariot”) is to observe the king in his palaces, that is, to see God sitting on the throne of honor.

However, the boldest text by far is the Shiur Koma (lit. dimensions of the body), a work dedicated to the description of God’s enormous physical stature. According to this book, the pupil of God’s right eye measures thousands of parsot (an ancient measurement of distance), and “each and every parsa is three miles, and each and every mile is ten thousand amah (cubits) and each amah is three zeratot (spans, though the singular zeret also means ‘little finger’) […] and his zeret is the breadth of the entire world.” In other words, the measure and form of God’s body cannot be grasped in human terms.

But if this is how God is represented in words, how did illustrated Hebrew manuscripts deal with the biblical prohibition relating to making images of God? And were there some that nevertheless disregarded the strict prohibition? Let’s begin by looking at some of the ways the prohibition was circumvented.

 

Image for illustrative purposes only

 

In the context of Hebrew manuscripts, there are a number of conventional methods of representing God, and the first of these is depicting an image of God’s hand. The hand of God commonly appears in medieval Hebrew manuscripts in scenes of Abraham’s rescue from the fiery furnace. There are also earlier examples which appear in synagogue art, for example in the third-century CE synagogue of Dura Europos (south-eastern Syria) and the 6th-century CE synagogue of Beit Alpha, near Bet She’an in northern Israel.

Leipzig Mahzor | Library of University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century

 

Detail, the hand of God appearing from the clouds to deliver Abraham from the fiery furnace

 

While Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, is indeed a biblical figure, the story of his rescue from the fiery furnace into which he was thrown by order of King Nimrod appears in the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Bible. Nevertheless, the story captured the imaginations of illustrators, and we can find several versions of it in Hebrew manuscripts.

Sometimes, however, even this image was too bold a choice, and angels were brought in to replace the divine hand, as in this example from the Barcelona Haggadah. In this case, the illustrator chose to emphasize another aspect of the midrash about Abraham and the furnace, which recounts that when Abraham was thrown into the fire, he not only remained unscathed, but was even quite able to sit and converse with the angels.

Barcelona Haggadah | the British Library, London, England, 14th century

 

Another way to depict God is to closely follow the biblical text and represent “the voice of God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” as in the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illuminated in the same century as the two manuscripts we have already mentioned. Despite its name, this spectacular Haggadah was probably written in Barcelona, ​​Spain in approximately 1350. The Haggadah is displayed in the city of Sarajevo at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sarajevo Haggadah depicts Adam and Eve in a series of illustrations somewhat reminiscent of a comic strip. First, in the upper-right corner, Eve is created from Adam’s rib, a scene immediately followed by Adam eating from the forbidden tree as Eve and the serpent watch. At bottom right Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves after realizing they are naked. And in the final illustration below on the left, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden: Eve is fully clothed, and Adam tills the soil by the sweat of his brow.

 

In the lower right image, where Adam and Eve cover themselves after realizing they are naked, the sharp-eyed viewer will notice rays of light emanating from above the tree at left. The artist has found an interesting compromise for depicting God through a close reading of the biblical verse: “And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately explains: “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” The unknown illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah visualizes the voice of God as heavenly light.

 

Some 30 years before the appearance of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around the year 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated, also in Catalonia. This Haggadah is known as the “Golden Haggadah” for the gold backgrounds that adorn the 128 illustrated pages out of its 322 pages in total. This manuscript also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah depicts two scenes that we encountered previously in the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and the eating of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Above the illustration is written “Adam and his wife naked.” Here, however, is a truly astonishing innovation in the depiction of the figure emerging from a cloud to admonish the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. We can assume that this is not the figure of God himself, but an angel, an acceptable and even reasonable choice. It reminds us of yet another biblical story—that of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God, who is presented as God himself.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: a heavenly figure rebukes Adam and Eve

Yet the clearest and most baffling example of the personification of God comes from a Hebrew illuminated manuscript written in Corfu in the 18th century. The manuscript, titled Piyutim Le’Hatan (“Liturgical Hymns for the Bridegroom”), is preserved in the Braginsky Collection in Zurich, and includes, besides the many piyutim and poems, 60 illustrations in gouache of various scenes from the book of Genesis, by the hand of a talented artist who likely was trained in Venice.

At the bottom of the illustration it is written, “Creation of the heaven and earth, the sun and moon.” The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge

 

At first glance, the figure with the crown could be mistaken for King David standing in front of the wonders of creation, as in Psalm 8:4: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the star, which you have made.” If not David, it could also be interpreted as a depiction of the long-awaited Messiah, traditionally a descendant of King David.

However, by the third illustration in the manuscript, there is no longer any mistaking this figure for David. While the Jewish sages and biblical commentators had much to say about the early chapters of Genesis, they certainly never suggested that it was King David or the Messiah who created Eve from Adam’s rib.

“And He took one of his ribs” (Gen 2:21). The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge

 

The fifth illustration leaves no doubt about the identity of this figure as God, who is portrayed admonishing Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

“And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8), image on the left. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click to enlarge

How could practicing Jews rationalize such a blatant violation of the second commandment? Contrary to the example we will examine next, the owner of this manuscript made no attempt to delete or cover up the problematic illustrations—three in all—alongside the other 57 illustrations of scenes from Genesis, most of them incidentally depicting the life of Joseph. On the contrary, below each illustration, a corresponding biblical verse was inserted.

Another interesting detail related to the manuscript is that the order of the illustrations runs counter to the text. In other words, the first illustration—God creating the heavens and the earth (and the sun and the moon)—appears at the end of the manuscript rather than at the beginning. This may very well be the clue we were looking for: The images are intended to be displayed in the book from left to right, suggesting that the illustrator was a Christian who obviously did not work closely with the Jewish author of the text. It is also possible that the Christian artist illustrated the manuscript independently, before it was subsequently bought by a Jew who had the texts added later. This would explain the captions in Hebrew under the illustrations and the fact that the texts do not relate to the illustrations, all of which are from the Bible, while the texts are liturgical hymns meant for a bridegroom.

We now turn to the opposite example, in which the violation of the biblical prohibition was not overlooked. In 1984, while studying the biblical illustrations in a manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in the David Kaufmann Collection at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, researcher Evelyn Cohen noticed a puzzling detail. In the scene showing Moses giving the Tablets of the Covenant to the people of Israel, she spotted the remains of a figure that had been erased and covered up by a later correction.

Click to enlarge

 

The first illustrated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written 90 years after the death of its author who was one of the Jewish people’s greatest thinkers, indeed shows the image of God giving Moses the Tablets of the Law. It is difficult to distinguish the image as it was erased and all that remains of it is a single hand at the right holding the Tablets along with Moses at left. This hand apparently originally belonged to an image of God in all his glory, which was covered up and turned into a mountain. Here too, as was the case with the manuscript from Corfu, the artist was likely a Christian who was not aware of the prohibition against making any graven image or likeness. Or, what is more likely, since the prohibition also exists in Christianity, the artist may have simply interpreted its meaning differently

Can you spot the hand holding onto the Tablets of the Law along with Moses?

 

One can always make excuses: It is possible to claim Christian influence, or as the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia Gaon argued, that at stake is God’s glory and not his body, as God does not and cannot have tangible form. Be that as it may, we have now seen several examples in which an image of God was certainly created.

In fact, so long as the illustrations were related to Kabbalistic theory, various loopholes have enabled artistic representation of the figure of God for centuries. Visualization of the Sefirot has always been permitted in Jewish tradition, even when it includes the figure of Adam Kadmon (lit. primordial man), who according to the Kabbalah is the first of the Four Worlds (spiritual realms in the descending chain of existence) created by God, who extracted them from Ein-Sof (infinity). Essentially, this means that the figure of Adam Kadmon is not a separate entity from God but rather part of the Godhead itself. At the risk of oversimplification, this is therefore an image of the one true God. No?

Amulet for exorcising a dybbuk, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Click on the image to enlarge

 

 

Thank you to Daniel Frank and Sara Offenberg for their help in preparing this article