The National Library of Israel (NLI) on Sunday debuted its new collection of 36 kabbalistic “maps of God.” Known in Hebrew as ilanot, or trees, these scrolls are arboreal diagrams of the Divine, their branches composed of images and words rooted in the fundamentals of Kabbalah, a strain of Jewish mysticism dating back to the 12th century.
The new scrolls, known as the Gross collection, were acquired from Judaica collector William L. Gross for an undisclosed sum. Joining 25 scrolls previously held by NLI, the manuscripts have diverse origins, ranging from Eastern Europe to Kurdistan, and date back to the 17th century.
“This collection allows us to be on the forefront of research for scholars of Kabbalah and mysticism, and signifies the library’s investment and focus on being the library of the Jewish people worldwide,” Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at NLI, said Sunday.
Haim Neria, curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Jewish Collection, explained that these scrolls can be understood as diagrams, but are in many ways much more complex than that.
Neria displayed the longest known ilan scroll in the world, which was completed in 1872 by Rabbi Sasson ben Mordechai Shandukh of Baghdad’s Jewish community.
Gesturing at a section of the scroll, Neira pointed out anthropomorphisms.
“Here you very much see character, you see eyes… there’s a drawing of a nose… there is a mustache here… everything here has a kabbalistic significance. Now, this picture in the eyes of the majority of Jews is, of course, something pagan or avodah zara, but no — this was the world of a portion of the kabbalists,” he said, using the Hebrew term for idolatry.
The manuscripts illustrate the relationship between the sefirot, attributes of the Divine that lie at the center of the kabbalistic tradition. Each attribute, which essentially represents an emanation of God, can also represent other concepts, such as the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, or gender and familial role.
“Each character, each sefira is symbolic — for example, bina [understanding] is Leah, while Abraham is represented by hesed [lovingkindness],” Neria explained.
One of the scrolls in the collection, from 17th century Italy, contains a portrayal of the well-known Pardes midrashic legend, in which four rabbis enter an orchard that symbolizes esoteric knowledge of the Torah, but only one comes out unscathed. This rabbi is then portrayed in another part of the scroll ascending and catching a glimpse of the higher worlds.
“This is the reason we must relate to the kabbalistic trees as maps — they guide the kabbalist and show him how to behave. They aren’t just pictures or diagrams,” Neria said.
The act of illustrating God through the ilanot raises the question of what exactly the “image of God” means in practice. The position of the kabbalists on how much a human being can understand about God differed starkly from that of 12th-century Sephardic philosopher Maimonides, who maintained that God could not be understood as corporeal in any way.
“Maimonides describes the ‘image of God’ more as the mind, not the body, but what they [kabbalists] said was: ‘No, the image is the body,’” Neria said. “The perspective of the kabbalists was: ‘Yes, we are representing the world of God, a much more colorful and complex world. There are things we can learn and understand, but there are also things that are still distant from us and that we struggle to understand.”
A modern center for the study of Kabbalah
The National Library has a long history as a center for the study of Jewish mysticism, going back to its first curator of Judaica, Gershom Scholem, renowned as the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah.
“When he passed away, his personal collection was donated to the National Library, and now this is one of the collections we have. It has a special status — the National Library is the leading institution in the research of Kabbalah in the world. For anyone who studies Kabbalah and wants to get access to rare books, manuscripts, the National Library is the place,” Neria said
Although the new collection features manuscripts from antiquity, the visual representation of sefirot is still practiced by modern-day Kabbalists, according to Dr. Zvi Leshem, who directs the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the library.
“Certainly [in] the books coming out of Safed, [visual representations of God] don’t bother anyone in the Kabbalistic world — today there are kabbalists all the time coming out with detailed charts of all sorts, mostly to help beginners figure out what’s going on,” he said.
Ukeles hopes that this new collection will reaffirm the institution’s status as a center for the study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, as it prepares to migrate to its new location adjacent to the Knesset.
“[This collection] shows our commitment to scholars of Kabbalah and Hasidism — but also scholars of Jewish studies worldwide — that as we move to the new era of the National Library, which will be a much more public and culturally focused institution, we are 100 percent committed to continuing to be a world center of Judaica scholarship,” she said.
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