The Shabbat in the Classical Kabbalah

Elliot K. Ginsburg

Despite the acknowledged historical import of the Kabbalistic Sabbath and the richness of its literary sources, there has been relatively little scholarly study of its classical (pre-Safed) dimensions. It is just this formative period that will concern us here. Throughout the study, I shall analyze the historical development of the mystical Sabbath in its various tradition strands, assess its relation to earlier understandings of Shabbat, and construct a theoretical framework for the interpretation of its dense myth-ritual structure. The format of the study is as follows:

The Introductory chapter consists of an historical overview of classical Kabbalah and an outline of its symbolic universe (with special emphasis on the sefirotic system). Its express purpose is to introduce the non-specialist to the varieties of Kabbalistic expression and to provide an historical framework in which the Sabbath material may be assessed.

Chapter 1 (The Symbolism of the Kabbalistic Sabbath) opens with a conceptual overview of the pre-Kabbalistic Sabbath and the major aspects of its Kabbalistic re-reading. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to historical and phenomenological analyses of the key mythic motifs which underlie Sabbath-observance and which lend it special resonance. Among the motifs studied are the Sabbath as source of cosmic blessing, the Sabbath as perfected Time, the drama of divine restoration (as reflected in the myth of hieros gamos), and the drama of human transformation (as articulated in the motif of the Sabbath-soul). These multi-faceted motifs all bespeak the profound renewal which the Kabbalists experienced on the day.

Chapters 2 through 4 are focused on the Kabbalistic reinterpretation of Sabbath-ritual, which served as the primary means for dramatizing and effecting the Sabbath-mythos. Chapter 2, "Aspects of Meaning in Kabbalistic Ritual," is devoted to a theoretical discussion of the function and meaning of Kabbalistic ritual and the problematics of its interpretation. The extended typology provided in this chapter paves the way for the close study of several particularly dramatic rituals located on the Sabbath's margins: the rituals of preparation (discussed in chapter 3) and the rituals of separation (analyzed in chapter 4).

Finally, two brief appendices deal with specialized issues in the interpretation of Kabbalistic symbolism and ritual, again focusing on the case of Shabbat.

It should be noted that this book is part of a two-volume study of the mystical Sabbath prior to the Safed Renaissance. While The Sabbath in the Classical Kabbalah is a synthetic study drawn from a wide range of sources, its companion volume is a translation of and critical commentary to a single text, entitled Sod ha-Shabbat (The Mystery of the Sabbath), from the Tola'at Ya'aqov of R. Meir ibn Gabbai (1507). His is a summary exposition, inclusive yet succinct, perhaps the finest systematic treatment of the Sabbath in classical Kabbalah. lt is hoped that the reader of the present

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