Do not believe everything you read: a Kabbalistic case study (Jonnie Schnytzer)

Do not believe everything you read: a Kabbalistic case study

Jonnie Schnytzer reads between the lines of a commentary to The Book of Creation, and explores how copyists have the power to alter the meaning of secret symbols.
Manuscripts are like people. Each is one of a kind. Unlike today, where you pick up the latest Harry Potter book and you can be sure that millions out there are reading the very same thing, in times before printing what would you do to get hold of the book everyone was raving about?
Well, if you had the money, you could hire a scribe to copy the book for you. And if you were well educated and had the most precious commodity of all – time – you could write it on your own. Let’s presume you had money. Usually this meant you had two options of scribes to choose from, assuming both were in a village near you: the cheap option or the expensive option.
You could hire a learned scholar, who would surely do the job for a handsome price – many in this category were doctors. Either implying that Jewish doctors did not get paid much, hence the need for extra income. Or maybe their ample income afforded them plenty of spare time and they wanted to learn, so they copied texts for themselves and perhaps sold them as books.
But if you didn’t have enough money, or such a scribe was not around, you could hire someone who probably didn’t know what they were reading, but who did know how to read and write. Hiring a copyist like this would usually lead to mistakes beyond spelling. Imagine a copyist who had the bright idea that he would save time by copying the book on a carriage across the Atlas Mountains – an example inspired by a true story!
Enough about regular books. Let us shift our attention to cryptic Kabbalistic books. When you think about it, a Kabbalist is essentially an expert on reading between the lines. I mean that quite literally. For a Kabbalist, nothing is what it seems. There are deeper meanings and well-kept secrets everywhere in nature. Just as the precise structure of human anatomy can hint to the shape and mechanisms of the spiritual world of angels and God, every letter and word in the Hebrew language hides behind its secret symbols. If carefully deciphered, these lead to the ultimate source truth.
So when Kabbalists first started writing mystical books in the early medieval period, possibly breaking a long-lasting tradition of a master passing on to his pupil secret teachings orally, they wrote in a style that hid the true meaning of their words. If you were not taught by a mystical master, and happened to come across such a book, you wouldn’t be able to understand its true meaning.
Now, if regular books were ‘altered’ by the unreliable work of copyists (or purposely edited by scholarly scribes), imagine how much more the damage could be when dealing with a Kabbalistic book, where each and every word hints to secret symbols and images.
To illustrate this point we’ll examine a few pages from a commentary on The Book of Creation by Joseph Ben Shalom Ashkenazi.[1] He was a doctor and a curious erudite who mastered a deep understanding of a wide spectrum of wisdom, from philosophy and medicine to witchcraft and astrology. But first and foremost he was an innovative Kabbalist (beyond this, Ashkenazi's life remains an enigma).
Ashkenazi incorporated terms and ideas from the worlds of medicine, philosophy and astrology and wrapped them with mystical meaning. To Ashkenazi, these forms of wisdom seemed to be necessary pillars of knowledge (albeit slippery ones as they could lead to delusional and faulty thinking). But they could only go so far as the doorstep to the world of Kabbalah – the door through which one enters into the ultimate source of truth. These wisdoms are seen and used by Ashkenazi as keys which merely open the door from which one ascends to the highest form of contemplation and understanding.

Perush Sefer Yetsirah

The supposed beginning of a commentary on the Book of Creation, Add MS 27180, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

The supposed beginning of a commentary on The Book of Creation (Add MS 27180, f. 2v)

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Take a look at the picture above. It seems clear that there is a title heading and then comes the text. However, this is not the case. Far from it, in fact. The text you see is a mere excerpt[2] of about ten pages taken out of Ashkenazi's canonical commentary, which is around 100 pages in length. And yet, to the naked eye, or to someone who happened to come across this ‘book’ within a manuscript, you would think this is the ‘Harry Potter’ that everyone is talking about.

Notice how simple it is to turn a first sentence of a paragraph (originally somewhere towards the end of the introduction) into a title or the assumed beginning of the commentary of the Book of Creation. Thus a book which goes to great lengths to describe the idea of creation (the creation of God's outstretched hand, angels, the creation of the world – both upper and ours, and the creation of man as well as man as creator) becomes a brief passage. Make no mistake; the medieval copyist had immense editing power.

This commentary became popular and therefore copied many times,[3] however only one manuscript mentioned Ashkenazi as the author of this work[4] (hence an example of a scholarly scribe). In fact, over time in some manuscripts the work was attributed to another Kabbalist. Ultimately, it was from one of these manuscripts that the first printed edition was published in Mantua in 1562 CE. To this day, all printed copies of this commentary carry the wrong author.[5]

Let us get back to examples which illustrate the way in which a Kabbalistic book was prone to be all the more affected and perhaps ‘contaminated’ by the copyist business.

Perush Sefer Yetsirah

Deciphered code words in gloss in a commentary to The Book of Creation, Add MS 27180, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Deciphered code words in gloss in a commentary to The Book of Creation (Add MS 27180, f. 5r)

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As mentioned above, a Kabbalist can be seen as an expert of reading between the lines. Thus Kabbalists wrote books that had hidden meanings and some words were codes for mystical symbols and ideas. If you look carefully at the illustration above, regardless of whether you can or can't read Hebrew, let alone medieval script, you will notice something interesting between the lines of the text. Notice that above a few words there are some groupings or triangles of dots. Then beside the original text there is some gloss – an attempt to decipher the mystical meaning of the words in the text. Without getting into detail, one of the words in the text is ‘sky’, which is marked as code for an essential characteristic or even a bodily part of God (I would tell you what the code is, but it’s a secret).
If you were to look at this exact passage in several different manuscripts, you may find that some do not reveal the secret – implying that this was the edition by a scholar who copied the book for himself and then reproduced and dispersed it. In some manuscripts you might find an almost exact copy of this gloss but with a different meaning given to the very same code word. This would suggest that there was a battle over the true meaning of the text.
You can imagine how much of a mess this could create in understanding what the original meaning of the mystical master was. In fact, quite a few gloss notes, or interpretations to words, which were clearly later additions, were incorporated into the first printed edition (Mantua, 1562 CE) as being part of the text!

Perush Sefer Yetsirah

Editing the text; changing the word "to destroy" into "to connect" in a commentary to The Book of Creation, Add MS 27180, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Editing the text; changing the word “to destroy” into “to connect” in a commentary to The Book of Creation (Add MS 27180, f. 4r)

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In the picture above, we have yet another interesting example of the variance found in the text and how a single word can change an entire idea. The passage discusses one of the paths through which God created the world. In this specific passage it discusses the cosmic order and planets. There is an infinitive in the text which says (לחבלם) (le-hablam) ‘to destroy’.
Above the infinitive there is a little marking which shifts the reader's attention to the gloss. Here, an alternative is offered – the infinitive (לחברם) (le-habram) ‘to connect’. In Hebrew, the difference between these two words – which are clearly worlds apart – is made possible by changing only one single letter. The printed edition kept the word ‘to destroy’ but perhaps the true meaning of the passage requires the word ‘to connect’. Maybe the 16th-century printer made a mistake? Imagine, it would be like reading a book about Barry Potter instead of Harry Potter, except with so much more at stake – understanding how the world was created!
So how do we know today that the manuscripts chosen for print represented the original works? The simple answer is that we don’t. And in the case of Kabbalistic books, a genre where every letter and word matters, it becomes all the more challenging a task to unravel.


[1] The Book of Creation is believed to be an ancient mystical book complied c. 1,800 years ago. There have been several famous commentaries written on The Book of Creation such as that of Saadia Ga'on, the Vilna Ga'on etc. One of the most canonical commentaries (especially amongst Kabbalistic circles) was that of Joseph Ben Shalom Ashkenazi, who lived around the turn of the 13th century CE. The specific manuscript we are looking at was copied circa 15th century CE, in a Sephardic hand. However, this does not necessarily mean that this manuscript was written in Spain. It could just as easily have been written by a Spanish Jew who migrated elsewhere e.g. the Byzantine Empire. 

[2] The excerpt describes 32 mystical paths through which the world was created.

[3] Manuscripts of this commentary vary in script but were predominantly written in Sephardic hand, Italian, Ashkenazic or Byzantine. As I mentioned above, the hand in which a manuscript was written is not necessarily an indication of the origin due to possible migration. As for dates, the manuscripts mostly vary between the 14th and 16th centuries CE. Ashkenazi lived around the turn of 13th century CE yet the earliest surviving manuscripts, with many gloss notes by students, were written towards the end of the 14th century CE.     

[4] Most manuscripts of Ashkenazi's commentary begin with the title Commentary to The Book of Creation without any mention of an author. At the end of one particular manuscript (Or 11791) from the late 14th century CE, the scribe (Moshe son of Isaac) mentions himself as the scribe who copied the commentary of Joseph (Ashkenazi).  

[5] In a small number of manuscripts Ashkenazi's commentary to The Book of Creation was wrongly attributed to Abraham ben David of Posquieres. The first printed edition must have been based on one of these manuscripts, attributing the commentary to Abraham, as did later printed editions. This resulted in an overall belief that he was the author. The phenomenon of misattributing a text to the rightful author was not uncommon, especially given the manner of the ‘copyists industry’. Interestingly, the commentary is still catalogued in most libraries as being authored by Abraham ben David of Posquieres.

Jonnie Schnytzer
  • Jonnie Schnytzer
  • Jonnie is a Phd candidate in Bar Ilan University's Department of Jewish Philosophy. Through delving into medieval mystical manuscripts, Jonnie is writing the first critical edition to a Spanish Cabbalist's commentary to The Book of Creation. Jonnie has taken on several leadership roles in the Jewish world including advisor to the CEO of Birthright and an executive manager with StandWithUs. He has spent several years lecturing about Judaism and Israel abroad - from Washington to Harbin. He lives in Israel, loves photography, and thinks that Australian Rules Football is the greatest sport ever invented.

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