1270 AD to 1290 AD, Psalm 111: The Zohar.

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Zohar_Pritzker_editionthis generation is that of the 1270s and 1280s

Following [1] the failure of the last crusade in 1270, Sultan Mamluk Baybars continues his offensive against the last Christian strongholds in the East. These places that the crusaders had conquered by causing many deaths, especially among Jewish communities, fall one after the other, many victims this time on the side of the Crusaders.

krak chevaliers shutterstock_280577375The Krak of Knights in Syria, the most powerful Frankish fortress, held by the Hospitallers and which had resisted all assaults for two centuries, only withstand two months the Mamelukes. The fortress goes to 1271. In 1272, English arrived in Acre, supported by ten thousand Mongols. Not getting any convincing results, the British go back to the sea.

Baybars, to protect themselves from possible new attacks from the sea, tries to gain a foothold in Cyprus. Its fleet breaks on the shores of the island, demonstrating once again that for Muslims, the sea remains an indomitable element. This failure definitively marks the limits of the Mamluk empire which will be confined to the lands of the East, marking for many centuries the limits of Christian and Muslim influence around the Mediterranean.

1263_Mediterranean_Sea annoteBaybars dies in 1277. His son succeeds him for two years without brilliance, in 1279, Kalaoun becomes the new Mamluk Sultan. After successfully pacifying his empire and containing the Mongol and Armenian threats, Kalaoun dismantles new Frankish strongholds. After other strongholds, it is Tripoli (Antioch) that falls in 1288. It begins the preparations for the conquest of Acre, the last stronghold of the Crusaders in the East in 1290 but dies the same year. Acre will fall in 1291 putting a definitive end to the Frankish presence in the Holy Land.

In Europe, after the death of Louis IX (Saint Louis), his successors continue his anti-Jewish policy and thus gradually destroy the Jewish intellectual presence initiated by Rashi and widely pursued by the Tossaphists. In the next generation (1306), Philip Le Bel (the Fair) will expel the 100,000 Jews of France.
The passage of the torch to Christian Spain is therefore providential for the development of the Kabbalah within Judaism. In Christian Spain, which still has the priority of Reconquista, the Jews still enjoy (it will not last very long) a favorable status because they allow the Christian kings of Spain to develop lands recently conquered to Islam.
Spain becomes the center of the development of Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. The jewel of this mystical creation, the Zohar emerging from the present generation, signifies a salutary renewal in Jewish thought:
  • In Jewish history [2] a new period opened with what we have unfortunately called – significant translation error – the « Closing of the Talmud ». In the sixth century the living word of the rabbis ceased to be written because it stopped speaking, that is to say, it went into a long exile beyond the history of which it was guarantor. The records of the life of the study have become finite, completed, countable. Many treatises could not be written, and the unique human endeavor of an infinite book without authors has stopped. We can dream of what would have been a Talmud who would have continued to write until today. The Jewish tradition is, in the language of men, become the rabbinic tradition, which has identified itself entirely with the Talmud. Religious Hebrew literature has shrunk, becoming tiny and concentrating in tiny characters on the margins of the central text, gloating, commenting, explaining – but already out of the book. […] The miracle is the Zohar himself who realized it: he managed to revive the tradition of the book in Israel, he proved that the word was not extinct, silted in the long tragic history of exile. The Zohar must therefore be considered as a member of the Talmud treaty family, the youngest, no doubt, late and unexpected, but of a fiery youth, initiator of the future. […] The literary structure of the Zohar is not an imitation of the literary structure of the Talmud, it is the continuation of it. The essential difference between one and the other does not reside in the supposedly artificial character of the Zohar’s discussions […] but in the fact that the word here is mostly exchanged on the way, on the occasion of journeys. The fellow-students are fellow travelers here, so that the story line follows the meanders and encounters of the courses. The theme of exile is intimately involved, as Rabbi Abraham Azulai, one of the greatest commentators of the Zohar, writes in his book, « Hesed le Abraham »: « We must understand, » he says, « the problem of displacement of righteous people, such as Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and his companions, most of whose words were pronounced on the roads. The reason is that after the ruin of the Temple, the Presence was repudiated from the Palace of the King of the World and no longer unites with him. She left, wandering from place to place. […] « While the reader of the Talmud has the posture of the seated man (talmudic school = yeshiva, sitting), the reader of the Zohar is invited to take that of the traveler, the man on the move.
In the wake of Maimonides, who had opened the way by making Judaism compatible with philosophy, the mystical movement that really emerges from this generation after having made its gestation in the different regions of Europe allows a new impetus of Judaism thanks to which most of those who are interested in sacred texts, the righteous. They will be able to contemplate the divine work from another angle.
This is what the beginning of the psalm of this generation glorifies:

(extract of the psalm 111 associated to this generation, verses 1 and 2 )

  • Hallelujah, I shall thank the Lord with all my heart with the counsel of the upright and [in] the congregation.
  • Great are the works of the Lord, available to all who desire them.
While the fate of the Jews during this generation is far from clearing up and that, on the contrary, the night of exile sinks more and more into the darkness, the breakthrough represented by the outbreak of Jewish mysticism, symbolized by the spread of the Zohar is greeted by an « Alleluia » which introduces this psalm. Indeed, it is probably thanks to this mysticism that the Jewish people will find the strength to survive in the trials that will burden the horizon of the Jews of Europe. This term also introduces the two following psalms that prolong the diffusion of the Zohar in Jewish thought. And although these generations are unfortunately also associated with dark pages in the history of Judaism, especially European Judaism.
Kabbalah redefines the role of the Jew in relation to God:
  • In [3] the Kabbalist conception, the notion of En Sof (« Not Ended », infinite) is fundamental and emphasizes the immense gap and the total opposition between the divinity and all that is not it. The Kabbalists thus describe this Divinity as desiring to open up, even partially to the world of men. This conception is all the more important in the perspective of religion, for Divinity is defined in the Scriptures as an authority that commands and addresses man. Man, on his side, also addresses God in his prayer, a Divinity that would be personal. The prophets play the role of intermediary between God and men. […]
  • Religious perfection becomes a theurgic tool capable of influencing Divinity itself. The ideal state is one of harmony, especially between the masculine and feminine elements, between the Tifferet sefira (the « Splendor« ) and the Malchut sefira (the « Majesty« ).
Harmony that the continuation of the psalm recalls where the words « Majesty » and « Splendor » are not fortuitous:

(extract of the psalm 111 associated to this generation, verses 3 to 5 )

  • Majesty and splendor are His work, and His righteousness endures forever.
  • He made a memorial for His wonders; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
  • He gave food to those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant forever.

Johannisbrotbaumkerne und -frchteThe_grave_of_Rabbi_Shimon_bar_Yochai2_(before_1899)In this last verse, the « food of those who revere it » seems to be an evocation of Simon Bar Yohai, author of the Zohar following the Jewish legend, who would have eaten only carob and water for thirteen years took refuge in a cave to escape the Romans and devote himself to study.

 

Recall also that the term « Majesty and splendor » had already been used in Psalm 96:
(extract of previous psalm 96 , last part of verse 5 and verse 6 )
  • but the Lord made the heavens.
  • Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.
In fact, the associated generation (the generation associated with the 970s and the 980s) was linked to a cultural revival within Judaism, as we had pointed out:
  • Historians [4] of Hebrew literature often use such terms as « new thrust », « from one day to another », « ex nihilo », « revolutionary act », etc. « In Spain […] by a unique miracle, has flourished on the stage of history […] a certain virgin Judaism […] who lived until then totally isolated or almost and suddenly began to immerse himself […] […] ] Jewish and Arab cultural bases « . Men of the golden age themselves considered the beginnings of poetry as a great renewal. Abraham ibn Dawud, Jewish chronicler of the twelfth century, says in his « Book of Kabbalah »: « In the days of Hasdai Ha-Nasi, they begin to whistle and time Shlomo ha-Naguid they sing out loud »; Moshe ibn Ezra (1055-1140), in his classic book on poetics, says in the chapter of the poetry of the Golden Age: « In these times, spirits come out of their torpor. »
It is therefore likely that the Zohar is the fruit of this renewal initiated at generation 96.
Since the first Crusades and the degradation of their condition on Christian soil, the Jews could have had a hard time keeping their faith such an adversity. The Jewish mysticism, whose major work, the Zohar, which blossoms to the present generation brings an answer to the Jews as to their question on the good, the bad and the just (or rather the unjust) retribution of the acts of each one.
Ein_Sof1Through this the role of the Jewish people within the nations is thus reaffirmed as well as the necessity of the divine laws for the final triumph of the divine:
  • The Cabalists [5] put the relationship with God at the center of all their attention: above Thinking and Being. God is called « En Sof », the Unlimited, the Infinite, the Perfect Divine, hidden and unknowable. […] It is precisely by trying to establish a link with the Divine that the Cabalists wondered whether it was thinkable that the Perfect (God) and the limited (the man) could have communicated? Otherwise, the ecstatic or at least intuitive contact with God, the main aspiration of the mystic, would be lost. […] Thanks to the Sefirot, God made himself visible. […]
  • The role of the people of Israel became important in this ideal construction: by analogy with the Sefirot, he was a mediator, but between God and all humanity. The six hundred and thirteen precepts (or mitzwot) would be the pivot of the action of the Jewish people on earth. After the abolition of the Sacrifices (consequence of the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem), the prayer had acquired a fundamental importance: it had to, in an absolute ahistorical immobility, preserve the divine connotations of each word and each rite.
It is this new aspiration confirming, through the covenant, the place of the Jewish people in relation to their creator and to the nations, the role of the precepts, which the psalm of this generation concludes:

(extract of the psalm 111 associated to this generation, verses 6 to 10 )

 

  • The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations.
  • The works of His hands are truth and justice; all His commandments are faithful.
  • Steadfast forever, made in truth and uprightness.
  • He sent redemption to His people; He commanded His covenant forever; His name is holy and awesome.
  • The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; good understanding to all who perform them; his praise endures forever.

 

 

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[1] According to André Clot: « The Egypt of the Mamluks, 1250-1517, the Empire of the Slaves ». Chapters: « The war of liberation / The end of the crossed states of the rising ». (French: « L’Égypte des Mamelouks, 1250-1517, l’Empire des esclaves ». Chapitres : « La guerre de libération  / La fin des états croisés du levant». (p. 92 à 114) )

[2] Foreword About Zohar Volume 1 (Verdier Publishing) by Charles Mopsik (French: Avant-Propos du Zohar Tome 1 (éditions Verdier ) de Charles Mopsik (p. 10 à 12) )

[3] (Directed by) Shmuel Trigano « The Sephardic world – II, Civilization ». Chapter of Moshe Hallamish: « Kabbalah in Medieval Spain ». (French: « Le monde sépharade – II, Civilisation ». Chapitre de Moshe Hallamish: « La Kabbale dans l’Espagne médiévale ». (p. 375,376) )

[4] (Directed by Ron Barkaï): « Christians, Muslims and Jews in medieval Spain ». Tova Moqed-Rosen: « Spanish Jewish poetry ». (p.106). The author inscribes a quote from E. Fleischer. (French:  « Chrétiens, musulmans et juifs dans l’Espagne médiévale ». Tova Moqed-Rosen : « La poésie juive espagnole ». (p. 106) ).

[5] Riccardo Calimani: « The Jewish wandering ». Chapter: « Discrimination, Persecution, Survival ». (French: « L’errance juive ». Chapitre : « La discrimination, la persécution, la survie ». (p. 176) )