Berechit Bara Elohim and the Zohar

« Zohar »

The Book of Creation (« Sefer Yetsirah ») explains that the ten Sefirot Belimah (literally: the ten « numbers of non-being ») are « spheres of existence out of nothingness ». They have appeared as « an endless flash of light, » and « the Word of God circulates continuously within them, constantly coming and going, like a whirlwind. »i.

All of these details are valuable, but should not in fact be disclosed at all in public. The Book of Creation intimates this compelling order: « Ten Sefirot Belimah: Hold back your mouth from speaking about it and your heart from thinking about it, and if your heart is carried away, return to the place where it says, ‘And the Haioth go and return, for that is why the covenant was made’ (Ezekiel 6:14). » ii

I will not « hold my mouth » : I will quote the very texts of those who talk about it, think about it, go to it and come back to it over and over again.

For example, Henry Corbin, in a text written as an introduction to the Book of Metaphysical Penetrations by Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzi, the most famous Iranian philosopher at the time of the brilliant Safavid court of Isfahan, and a contemporary of Descartes and Leibniz in Europe, wonders in his turn about the essence of sefirot, and raises the question of their ineffability.

« The quiddity or divine essence, what God or the One is in his being, is found outside the structure of the ten sefirot, which, although they derive from it, do not carry it within them at all. The ten sefirot are ‘without His quiddity’ (beli mahuto, בלי מהותו), such is the teaching of the sentence in the Book of Creation. (…) But a completely different exegesis of the same sentence from the Book of Creation is advanced in the Sicle of the Sanctuary. For this new exegesis, the word belimah does not mean beli mahout (without essence) but refers to the inexpressible character of the sefirot whose mouth must ‘refrain itself (belom) from speaking' ». iii

So, the question is : are sefirot « without divine essence », as the Book of Creation seems to say?

Or are sefirot really divine, and therefore « unspeakable »?

Or are they only « that which cannot be spoken of », according to the restrictive opinion of Moses de Leon (1240-1305), who is the author of the Sicle of the Sanctuary?

It seems to me that Moses de Leo, also apocryphal author of the famous Zohar, occupies a position on this subject that is difficult to defend, given all the speculations and revelations that abound in his main work…

Moreover, if one « cannot speak » of the sefirot, nor « think » about them, how can one then attribute any value whatsoever to the venerable Sefer Yetsirah (whose origin is attributed to Abraham himself, – but whose writing is dated historically between the 3rd and 6th century A.D.)?

On the other hand, – an argument of authority it is true, but not without relevance -, it should be emphasized that the Sicle of the Sanctuary is nevertheless « a little young » compared to the Sefer Yestsirah, which is at least a millennium older.

In view of these objections, let us consider that we can continue to evoke here (albeit cautiously) the sefirot, and try to reflect on them.

The sefirot, what are they? Are they of divine essence or are they pure nothingness?

The Zohar clearly states :

« Ten Sefirot Belimah: It is the breath (Ruah) of the spirit of the Living God for eternity. The Word or creative power, the Spirit and the Word are what we call the Holy Spirit. » iv

Finding expressions such as the « Word » or the « Holy Spirit » in one of the oldest philosophical texts of Judaism (elaborated between the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D.), may evoke strangely similar wordings, used in Christian Gospels.

There is, at least, a possibility of beginning a fruitful debate on the nature of the divine « emanations », to use the concept of atsilut – אצילות, used by Moses de Leon, and on the possible analogy of these « emanations » with the divine « processions » of the Father, Son and Spirit, as described by Christian theology?

What I would like to discuss here is how the Zohar links the « triple names » of God with what Moses de Leon calls the divine « emanations ».

The Zohar repeatedly quotes several combinations of God’s « names », which form « triplets ».

In addition, it also deals with the divine « emanations » of which the sefirot seems an archetype, as well as expressions such as the « Breath » of God or his « Seed ».

Do the « divine emanations » and the « triple names » of God have some deep, structural, hidden relationship, and if so, what does this teach us?

The « triple names » of God.

In Scripture, there are several instances of what might be called the « triple names » of God, that is, formulas consisting of three words that form a unitary whole, an indissoluble verbal covenant to designate God:

-Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »)

-YHVH Elohenou YHVH (Deut. 6:4) (« YHVH, Our God, YHVH »)

To these « trinitarian » formulas, the Zohar adds for example:

Berechit Bara Elohim (Gen 1:1) (« In the beginning created Elohim »)

Bringing these different « triplets » together, the Zohar establishes the idea that the names contained in each of these « triplets » are individually insufficient to account for the divine essence. Only the union of the three names in each of these formulations is supposed to be able to approach the mystery. But, taken individually, one by one, the names « YHVH », or « Ehyeh », or « Elohim », do not reach the ultimate level of comprehension. It is as if only the dynamic « procession » of the relationships between the names « within » each triplet could account for the mystery of God’s « Name ».

On the other hand, the Zohar suggests a kind of structural identity between the « triple names » just mentioned. Thus, by comparing term by term the verses Ex. 3:14 and Dt. 6:4, one can assume a kind of identity between YHVH and « Ehyeh ». And, based on the supposed analogy between Dt 6:4 and Gen 1:1, we can also identify the name « YHVH » with the names « Berechit » and « Elohim ».

Finally, if we pursue this structuralist logic, a word that could a priori be a « simple conjunction » with a grammatical vocation (the word « asher« ) acquires (according to the Zohar) the status of « divine noun », or divine hypostasis, as does the verb « bara« .

Let’s look at these points.

The Zohar formulates these structural analogies as follows:

« This is the meaning of the verse (Dt. 6:4): ‘Listen, Israel, YHVH, Elohenu, YHVH is one’. These three divine names designate the three scales of the divine essence expressed in the first verse of Genesis: ‘Berechit bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaim’, ‘Berechit’ designates the first mysterious hypostasis; ‘bara’ indicates the mystery of creation; ‘Elohim’ designates the mysterious hypostasis which is the basis of all creation; ‘eth-ha-shamaim’ designates the generating essence. The hypostasisElohim’ forms the link between the two others, the fecundating and the generating, which are never separated and form one whole. » v

We see that the Zohar thus distinguishes, from the first verse of the Torah, two « triplets » of divine names, somehow embedded in each other: ‘Berechit bara Elohim’ on the one hand, and ‘Bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaym’ on the other.

We also deduce that the second « triplet » is somehow « engendered » (in the sense of « generative grammars ») by the first « triplet », thanks to the special role played by the name ‘Elohim’.

The generative theory of the divine « triplets » also allows us to better understand the profound structure of the famous verse ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »), and moreover allows us to establish a link with the theory of the divine emanations of the Zohar.

Let’s look at this point.

The Seed of God: ‘Asher’ and ‘Elohim’.

The « Seed » of God is evoked metaphorically or directly in several texts of Scripture as well as in the Zohar. It has various names: Isaiah calls it ‘Zera’ (זֶרָע: ‘seed’, ‘seed’, ‘race’)vi. The Zohar calls it « Zohar » (זֹהַר: glow, brightness, light), but also « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who » – that is, as we have seen, the grammatical particle that can be used as a relative pronoun, conjunction or adverb), as the following two passages indicate:

« The word glow’ (Zohar) refers to the spark that the Mysterious One caused when he struck the void and which is the origin of the universe, which is a palace built for the glory of the Mysterious One. This spark constitutes in a way the sacred seed of the world. This mystery is expressed in the words of Scripture (Is. 6:13): ‘And the seed to which it owes its existence is sacred.’ Thus the word ‘glow’ (Zohar) refers to the seed He sowed for His glory, since the purpose of creation is the glorification of God. Like a mollusk from which purple is extracted and clothed in its shell, the divine seed is surrounded by the material that serves as its palace, built for the glory of God and the good of the world. This palace from which the divine seed has surrounded itself is called « Elohim » (Lord). This is the mystical meaning of the words: ‘With the Beginning He created Elohim’, that is, with the help of the ‘light’ (Zohar), the origin of all the Verbs (Maamaroth), God created ‘Elohim’ (Lord) ». vii

But a few lines later, the Zohar assigns to the word « Zohar » two more meanings, that of « Mysterious » and that of « Beginning ». Therefore, since the word « Zohar » is no longer available as a metaphor for the divine « Seed », the Zohar uses the word « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who ») to designate the latter, but also the word « Elohim », which derives from it by synonymous engendering and following a kind of « literal » pirouette, as shown in this passage:

« By the word glow’ (Zohar), Scripture refers to the Mysterious called ‘Berechit’ (Beginning), because it is the beginning of all things. When Moses asked God what His name was, God replied (Ex. 3:14): « Ehyeh asher Ehyeh » (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה , I am He who is). The sacred name ‘Ehyeh’ appears on both sides, while the name ‘Elohim’ forms the crown, since it appears in the middle; for ‘Asher’ is synonymous with ‘Elohim’, whereas the nameAsher’ is formed from the sameletters that make up the wordRoch’ (head, crown). ‘Asher’, which is the same asElohim’, is derived from ‘Berechit’. As long as the divine spark was enclosed in the sublime palace, that is to say, before it manifested itself,it did not form any peculiarity that could be designated in the divine essenceby anyname; the Whole was One, under the name ‘Roch’. Butwhen God created, with the help of the sacred seed (‘Asher’), the palace of matter, ‘Asher’ took shape in the divine essence; only then did ‘Asher’ take, in the divine essence, the shape of a crown head (‘Roch’), being situated in the middle (‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’). Now, the word ‘Berechit’ contains the word ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’;it forms the words ‘Roch’ and ‘Baït’, i.e. ‘Roch’ enclosed in a palace (‘Baït’). viiiThe words: ‘Berechit Bara Elohim’ thus mean : When ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’,wasused as divine seed in the palace of matter, ‘Elohim’ was created; that is to say, Elohim took shape in the essence of God. ix

Let’s summarize what we just learned from the Zohar.

The divine « Seed » receives, according to its authors, the following names: Zera‘, Zohar, Asher, Roch (‘seed, glow, who, head’).

The « Seed » is deposited in the middle of the « palace ».

The Palace-Semen together are called ‘Beginning’ (Berechit).

And this ‘Beginning’ ‘created’ ‘Elohim’.

And all this is presented in the first verse of the Torah.

How can we fail to see in this thesis of the Zohar a structural analogy between « Elohim » and the Christian concept of « Son of God »?

Decidedly, even a purely ‘monotheistic’ theology needs « emanations » to live in the « world ».

iBook of Creation, 1.5

iiBook of Creation, 1.7

iiiHenry Corbin. The vocabulary of being. Preface to the Book of Metaphysical Penetrations. Molla Sadra Shiraz. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse. 1988, p. 50

ivBook of Creation, 1.8

vZohar 1, 15b

viIs. 6.13

viiZohar, 1.15a

viiiThe two consonants of Baït, B and T frame the two consonants of Rosh, R and SH, in the word BeReSHiT.

ixZohar, 1.15a-15b