Ketem Paz - The Kabbalistic Doctrine of Rabbi Simeon Lavi in his Commentary of the Zohar

A Dissertation Submitted for the Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Presented to the Senate of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, by

Boaz Huss

October 1992

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Ketem Paz was written by the kabbalist Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi in Tripoli (Libya), in the second half of the 16th century. This book, an extensive work of 900 pages, is the most in-depth interpretation of The Zohar that was written outside of the sphere of influence of the kabbalistic school of Safed. The importance of Ketem Paz, as a commentary to the Zohar, and as the major kabbalistic work written in North Africa in the second half of the 16th century, was recognized by the eminent scholars of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, Isaiah Tishby, Moshe Idel and others. Yet, this thesis is the first study dedicated to the hermeneutics and to the kabbalistic ideas of Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi.

The aim of this dissertation is to describe and analyze Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi's hermeneutics and his kabbalistic doctrines in his commentary to the Zohar, while examining the connection between Ibn Lavi s hermeneutics and the shaping of his kabbalistic theories. Ibn Lavi’s kabbalistic ideas and interpretative methods are compared to other 16th century kabbalists and Zohar commentators in order to evaluate the place of Ketem Paz in the history of Zohar commentaries and kabbalistic thought. The comparison between Ketem Paz and other 16th century kabbalistic works emphasizes some major characteristics of postexilic Kabbalah.

The first part of the dissertation summarizes information found in various sources, about Ibn Lavi ‘s life and literary works. The second part describes Ibn Lavi` s sources and analyzes his assumptions about the nature of the Zohar and his hermeneutics, emphasizing the link between Ibn Lavi s conception of the Zohar to his interpretative methods, and comparing Ibn Lavi `s hermeneutics to other major Zohar commentators of the 16th century. The third part of the dissertation is dedicated to Ibn Lavi's views on major kabbalistic subjects and the connections between Ibn Lavi s hermeneutics and his kabbalistic theories. The issues discussed in the third part of this thesis are Ibn Lavi's doctrines concerning the Deity and the Sefirot (divine powers), his ideas about the emanation process, his conception of man and the soul, his understanding of Dvekut (cleaving of man to God) and prophecy; and finally Ibn Lavi's theories of theurgy and magic.

Only a few facts are known Simeon Ibn Lavi, most of them gathered about the life of Rabbi from various sources written long after his time. Ibn Lavi was born in Spain, from where he was exiled as a child, to the city of Fez in Morocco. He left Fez in the year 1549, on his way to the land of Israel. He was captured by Arab bandits and after being ransomed arrived in Tripoli, in the year 1551. In view of the deteriorated religious condition of the Jewish inhabitants (probably Marranos that lived in the city during the period of Christian rule) he decided to stay in Tripoli. One of the sources informs us that Ibn Lavi served as the Turkish governor’s doctor. R. Simeon Ibn Lavi died in Tripoli in the year 1585 and the local Jewish community has venerated his grave throughout the years.

Ibn Lavi’s major kabbalistic work is his commentary to the Zohar, known as Ketem Paz. The book includes his commentary to the Zohar on the book of Genesis (other sources indicate the existence of commentaries written by Ibn Lavi to the Zohar on Exodus). The book was written in Tripoli, around the year 1571, a date mentioned by Ibn Lavi in Ketem Paz. The book was first printed in Leghorn more than two centuries after its composition, in the year 1795. No manuscript of Ibn Lavi’s commentary is known to have survived the vicissitudes of history. Ketem Paz was mentioned and cited only by a few kabbalists before its printing, and the only source to use the book before the 18th century is Yodei Binah, a commentary to the Zohar written by Rabbi Yoseph Hamitz and Rabbi Moshe Zacut. I have found that a few anonymous commentaries to passages of the Zohar included in Rabbi Abraham Azulai’s early 17th century collection of Zohar commentaries, Or ha-Hammah, bear a strong resemblance to Ibn Lavi’s interpretations, indicating, in my opinion, that these commentaries were written by Ibn Lavi, probably prior to composition of Ketem Paz.

Another work attributed to Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi is a short dictionary of foreign words in the Zohar. This short treatise, found in various manuscripts (only one of which bears the name of Ibn Lavi) was printed twice. A comparison of interpretations found in the dictionary to those included in Ketem Paz reveals that there is reason to doubt Ibn Lavi’s authorship of this treatise.

Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi was also a poet and his song Bar Yohai gained enormous popularity. Other songs written by him are printed in the end of Ketem Paz and are found in several manuscripts. Another work attributed to Ibn Lavi is a program for the Pentecost night liturgy, Tikkun Leil Shavouoth. The Tikkun attributed to Ibn Lavi is different from the Tikkunim described by other 16th century kabbalists.

Several times Ibn Lavi mentions his teacher, without naming him. Yet, in contrast to other kabbalists, he does not claim that he received his kabbalistic doctrines through oral tradition, or as supernatural revelations. The sources of his kabbalistic doctrines are primarily the Zohar and other written texts. A major part of the sources, which influenced Ibn Lavi (including the Zohar), belong to the main stream of Spanish Kabbalah. Only a few kabbalistic works written outside Spain, before and after the expulsion, are mentioned in Ketem Paz. It is important to note that the ecstatic Kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia, which was rejected by the main stream of Spanish Kabbalah, but had a considerable influence on 16th century Kabbalists, had no influence on Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi. Although Ibn Lavi opposes Philosophy, he uses several philosophical works, especially Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, which bears a strong influence on his ideas. Ibn Lavi shows a critical attitude to the various sources he used, not refraining from criticizing venerated figures like Maimonides and Nahmanides. His critical approach also characterizes his attitude to the Zohar.

In the center of Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi’s kabbalistic activity stands the book of the Zohar. Ketem Paz is dedicated to the Zohar, the song Bar Yohai to its author. Ibn Lavi presents his kabbalistic ideas as explanations and expansions to the Zohar, claiming the legitimacy of innovations based on Zoharic interpretations. Other important kabbalists of the 16th century also present their doctrines in the context of Zohar interpretation. The claim that the interpretation of the Zohar is the source of kabbalistic knowledge is a major feature of 16th century Kabbalah, especially that of the two great kabbalists, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Isaac Luria. A central assumption underlying this dissertation is that in order to evaluate a system based on the interpretation of a sacred text one must understand the commentator’s concept of the nature of the text and the hermeneutic methods he employs. Ibn Lavi, as most other kabbalists in the 16th century, consider the Zohar to be the primary kabbalistic work, a book which includes no mistakes or contradictions, and which it’s author, Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, has absolute authority in doctrinal, as well as legal (halachic) issues. Ibn Lavi believes that the act of learning and of interpreting the Zohar advances the advent of the messiah, but in contrast to other kabbalists of his period, he does not emphasize the supernatural origin and the magical and theurgical powers of the text. Ibn Lavi regards the Zohar as a kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah from the tannaitic period, which discloses the hidden knowledge about the Sefirot in each and every sentence of the Torah. In contrast to the Lurianic view, regarding the Zohar as reflecting countless aspects of the deity, Ibn Lavi regards the Zohar as revealing a limited level of meaning concerning the deity and the inner relationship of the divine forces. In answer to critics who claim that the Zohar repeats itself and discloses again and again the same information, Ibn Lavi says that the importanceof the Zohar does not lie in the knowledge it reveals per se, but in leading the reader to meditation of God, through the revelation of his names and powers in the Torah.

Ibn Lavi’s assumptions about the nature of the Zohar and the significance of its study are reflected in his interpretative methods. A major characteristic of Ibn Lavi’s hermeneutics is his critical and philological approach to the text. This approach, related to his assumption about the human origin of the Zohar, is expressed in his corrections to the text, his interest in the foreign words used in the Zohar and in his discussions of the inconsistencies and difficulties of the Zohar’s homilies.

Another major characteristic of Ibn Lavi’s hermeneutics is his understanding of the symbols and myths of the Zohar as allegories and metaphors. In the Zohar, there is a close link between the symbol (the human body, the biblical heroes and other aspects of the corporeal world) and the signified (the divine and demonic worlds). The essential link between symbol and signified in the Zohar leads to bridging the gap and blurring the boundaries between the mundane and the divine, giving the Zohar its mythical character. In Ketem Paz Ibn Lavi eliminates this feature of the Zoharic use of symbols. Ibn Lavi tends to emphasize the distance between the mundane symbol and divine signified, understanding the Zohar’s symbols as metaphoric figures of speech and interpreting the Zohar’s myths as allegories. Ibn Lavi’s attitude rises from his assumption about the nature of the Zohar and reflects the influence of the allegoric approach of Jewish philosophers to the anthropomorphic language of the bible. Ibn Lavi claims that the enlightened (Maskil) reader of the Zohar can uncover the intellectual content concerning the deity that lies behind its anthropomorphic and sexual symbols.

Ibn Lavi’s kabbalistic doctrines are presented in his commentaries to the homilies of the Zohar and in several discussions on different Kabbalistic topics he introduces to his commentaries. A major topic discussed in Ketem Paz is the nature of the `Sefirot`. Two major concepts of the Sefirot exist in kabbalistic literature, one regarding the Sefirot as identical in essence to God, and the other as instruments of God, different from him in essence. Ibn Lavi, who does not openly relate to the controversy about the nature of the Sefirot, declares that the Sefirot are identical in essence to the deity, but at the same time brings concepts derived from sources holding that the Sefirot are God s instruments. Ibn Lavi s assumption that authoritative kabbalistic writings exhibit one truth brought him to try and reconcile the different views he found in various sources. Ibn Lavi s solution to the question of the Sefirot essence lies in describing the identity or difference between God and the Sefirot as different aspects of the Sefirot and not as different concepts about their nature. Ibn Lavi claims that prior to the emanation process the Sefirot which are hidden in the depths of first Seafarer, Deter (Crown), are identical in essence to God, while in the emanation process a distinction arises between them and their emanator, the first Sefira. Attempts to harmonize the different kabbalistic concepts about the nature of the Sefirot are a characteristic feature of 16th century Kabbalah. Other eminent 16th century Kabbalists, Shlomo Alkabetz, Moshe Cordovero and Isaac Luria, also regard the different kabbalistic concepts of the nature of the Sefirot as relating to different aspects of the deity. Another important feature of Ibn Lavi s doctrine of the Sefirot lies in his use of philosophic concepts derived in his interpretation to the mythical concept of the deity in the Zohar. Thus Ibn Lavi explains The Sefirot as attributes describing God s actions. Ibn Lavi’s use of philosophical terminology in interpreting the Zohar is related to his hermeneutic assumptions concerning the meaning of the Zohar’s symbolic language.

Ibn Lavi’s tendency to harmonize different kabbalistic ideas is reflected in his discussions about the emanation process and the coming into being of the corporeal worlds. Ibn Lavi uses various motives that he found in his sources in order to create a comprehensive description of the process of emanation and creation of the world. A central motif Ibn Lavi uses in describing the emanation process is the motive of the expansion of the divine light and its concealment (Gnizat Ha-Or - a motive taken from the Talmudic literature). According to Ketem Paz, the divine light was hidden in the beginning of the emanation process as well as in its end. The concealment of the divine light in the lower Sefirot caused the creation of the corporeal worlds. Ibn Lavi uses this notion to explain the origin of evil and the mythical concept of the divine copulation found in the Zohar. The centrality of the idea of Gnizat Ha-Or is unique to the Kabbalah of Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi. Nevertheless, Ibn Lavi’s emanation doctrine bears several points of resemblance to ideas developed in the writings of other 16th century kabbalists. Some striking parallels exist between Ibn Lavi s doctrine of the concealment of the divine light and the famous kabbalistic doctrine developed in the writings of Moses Cordovero and in Lurianic Kabbalah, of Gods self contraction (Tsimtsum ). These similarities, which are not the result of mutual influence, indicate similar tendencies characteristic of 16th century Kabbalah, especially the interest in organizing kabbalistic motives and myths found in the Zohar and other sources into a comprehensive description of the chain of being from the infinite emanator to the lower spheres.

A major interest of Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi lies in issues concerning man and his relationship to God. Ibn Lavi follows the Zohar’s concept of the tripartition of the human soul, and the divine origin of the highest part, the spirit (Neshama). Ibn Lavi’s commentaries to Zohar homilies concerning the human soul are characterized by his tendency to stress the intellectual aspect of the spirit, and his explanation of the gradual entrance of the different parts of the soul into the human body, as the intellectualization process of man. This tendency reveals again the influence of philosophic notions on Ibn Lavi s understanding of kabbalistic ideas. Ibn Lavi brings the kabbalistic doctrine of transmigration of souls, as found in the Zohar and other 13th century kabbalistic writings, but as opposed to other kabbalists of his time, he does not elaborate on this doctrine, which does not play a major role in his thought.

Ibn Lavi’s explanation of the concept of the parallelism between the human body and the structure of the Sefirot, a major concept in the Zohar, exhibits his tendency to mitigate the mythical character of the Zohar. This tendency exists in Ibn Lavi’s understanding of the anthropomorphic descriptions of the deity as allegories and in his explanation of the parallel between the human body and God as pertaining only to man and the lowest Sefira.

Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi brings several explanations for the medieval Jewish conception of human` s ability to cleave to God, and to the phenomenon of prophecy. Ibn Lavi’s discussion of ‘Cleavence’ (Dvekut) is theoretical, and he does not describe personal mystical experiences or mystical techniques. Ibn Lavi uses different theories of Dvekut, which stem from various kabbalistic and philosophic sources and reflect the medieval use of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas. In his explanation of the supernatural experience of the sages described in the Zohar, and in explaining the phenomenon of prophecy and dreams, Ibn Lavi synthesizes the different theories of Dvekut by understanding concepts derived from different schools of thought as bearing the same significance. Thus he identifies the Aristotelian concept of the union of the human intellect and the active intellect with the Neoplatonic concept of the return of the human soul to its divine origin. Ibn Lavi’s discussions of Dvekut, prophecy and dreams exhibit his tendency to stress the intellectual nature of the connection between man and God. Ibn L’s lack of interest in the mystical and experiential sides of Dvekut indicate the dominance of the theurgical-theosophical Kabbalah and of philosophic sources (especially the Guide of the Perplexed) in his thought. Although Ibn Lavi does not show an interest in the mystical aspect of Kabbalah, he stresses the importance of the enthusiastic way of studying the Zohar as the way of approaching and meditating God. This again emphasizes the central position of the study of the Zohar in Ibn Lavi s kabbalistic thought.

A major kabbalistic interest lies in the influence man exerts on the deity, a concept designated in scholarly literature as theurgy. Theurgic issues play a central role in Ketem Paz. Alongside the discussions about the power of prayer, the fulfillment of the commandments and the influence of man s good and evil deeds on God, Ibn Lavi is interested in man s magical power, which he sees as similar to his Theurgic powers.

Ibn Lavi cites various ideas, derived from rabbinical and kabbalistic literature, as to the influence man exerts on God. He formulates the theurgic principle in an emphatic way, comparing the world on high to a mirror, in which every act performed by man is reflected. This striking formulation of the theurgic principle is unique to Ibn Lavi, but emphatic formulations of man’s influence on God are found also in other kabbalistic writings of the 16th century.

Another characteristic of Ibn Lavi’s theurgy is his claim that man’s capacity to influence the deity is inherent in his mental power. Among the theurgic models offered in rabbinical and kabbalistic literature, Ibn Lavi emphasizes the model of attraction of the divine plenitude (meshikhat shefa) as the major model for understanding the influence man exerts on the deity (in contrast to models speaking of mans influence on the inner dynamics of the divine powers). Ibn Lavi’s tendency to understand theurgy in terms of the attraction of divine plenitude to the lower spheres is related to his reservations about the mythical conceptions underlying the theurgic models of human influence on the very dynamics within God found in the Zohar.

Ibn Lavi shows a keen interest in magic, citing magical texts and giving information about various magical practices. Ibn Lavi believes in the power of astral magic and describes a magical technique that combines astrological and kabbalistic knowledge. This technique, similar to one described by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, uses a theurgic technique of mental imaging of the name of God in colors in order to achieve magical goals.

A major feature characterizing Ibn Lavi’s kabbalistic doctrine is the closeness he establishes between man’s theurgic and magic powers. There is a similarity in the way man’s physical and mental powers influence the deity on the one hand, and the forces of nature and the heavenly bodies on the other hand. The same model of the attraction of plenitude, found in his theory of theurgy is introduced also in his discussions on idolatry and magic. Thus also Ibn Lavi describes the use of kabbalistic knowledge and divine powers in order to gain worldly goals. The astral-sefirotic magic found in Ketem Paz and in other 16th century kabbalistic writings presents an interesting type of kabbalistic magic, differing from both the conception of magic found in late 15th century Spanish Kabbalah and the theories of magic of the Italian kabbalists of the Renaissance period.

The similarity between theurgy and magic in Ketem Paz is linked to a main characteristic of Ibn Lavi s kabbalistic thought and Zohar hermeneutics: His tendency to mitigate the mythical conceptions of the Zohar. In contrast to ‘Mythical theurgy’, which characterizes the Zohar and other thinkers in the history of the Kabbalah, Ibn Lavi tends towards ‘magical theurgy’ which perceives man’s impact on the deity in terms of drawing down the divine plenitude from the sefirotic world.

The investigation into Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi’s hermeneutics and his major kabbalistic ideas reveals the central role of his hermeneutics in forming his kabbalistic doctrines. Analyzing Ibn Lavi s ideas in his commentary to the Zohar, and comparing them to prior and contemporary kabbalistic doctrines discloses several major tendencies of continuity and innovation characterizing the Kabbalah after the expulsion.

Rabbi Simeon Ibn Lavi is verily entitled to be named the ‘last Spanish kabbalist’. By the time he wrote Ketem Paz, he was the last active kabbalist still born in Spain. According to the sources used by Ibn Lavi, and the kabbalistic issues discussed by him, Ketem Paz belongs to the sphere of Spanish Kabul. On the other hand, the central role of Zohar hermeneutics in shaping Ibn Lavi s kabbalistic doctrines as well as his attempt to harmonize different sources and to shape various kabbalistic motives into a comprehensive system, are central characteristics of the new trends of the Kabbalah after the expulsion from Spain.

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