Kabbalistic Diagrams in the British Library Margoliouth Catalogue (Yossi Chajes)

Kabbalistic diagrams in the British Library's Margoliouth Catalogue

Using the work of the Library’s Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, Dr Yossi Chajes examines ‘visual Kabbalah’, its interpretations and its importance
Diagrams have historically been neglected by scholars of Kabbalah, figuring that they are, at best, eye-candy illustrations of unrelated discussions, and at worst the raw material for book-jacket designers. Even when recognised as key features of kabbalistic work, they have been dismissed as ‘confusing more than clarifying’, in the words Gershom Scholem – scholar of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. The pictorial element of scientific literature was also neglected by generations of science historians, no doubt as result of similar prejudices that strongly favoured the verbal over the pictorial.

However, this neglect was replaced with intense interest some 30 years ago. The visual materials of the Kabbalah are now being similarly questioned for their potential contribution to a more ‘embedded’ history; one that goes beyond philosophical-theological concepts to mnemonic[1] and pedagogical[2] dimensions of kabbalistic culture. These new approaches also expose the common elements of medieval and early modern science and kabbalah.

Kabbalistic diagrams can be divided in a number of ways: according to their temporal and regional origin, according to conceptual schools, or according to form or function, etc. A simple and useful division relates to the materials on which they are drawn, with some diagrams appearing in books (codices)[3] and others in scrolls and fold-outs. Those in books tend to illustrate the texts they are drawn alongside. Those in scrolls and fold-outs tend to be independent. So since the same diagram – for example, concentric circles – can mean so many things, one can only truly understand it in light of its context.

What exactly do kabbalists draw? Typically, they map the topography of the Godhead, often imagined in terms of four gradually emerging worlds and ten luminous emanations,[4] known as Sefirot. Sefirot are a characteristic feature of kabbalistic theosophy and were understood as the divine energetic categories that structured all of creation. Whether dimensions of divine essence, or modes of divine action, the Sefirot were the object of ongoing kabbalistic speculation. In a manner similar to the DNA double helix, the Sefirot were understood to be meaningfully structured: their order and interconnections forming the cosmological core of this belief. The medieval kabbalists adopted one of the most useful and versatile schemata (form of diagrammatic representation) in the learned repertoire of their day to represent the Sefirot – choosing the arboreal (relating to or resembling a tree) diagram; in Hebrew, the Ilan (pl. Ilanot).

The summa (comprehensive summary) of classical kabbalistic thought, Pardes rimmonim (literally meaning ‘an orchard of pomegranates’), was completed by Rabbi Moses Cordovero in 1548 CE. Its grand scale inspired a synopsis by his student Samuel Gallico, entitled Asis rimmonim (which translates to ‘pomegranate essence’). Perhaps meant for beginners, Gallico’s work expanded on the diagrams featured in the original.
The 1588 CE manuscript (Add MS 27091) includes a number of examples. One (f. 25v) shows a simple full-page arboreal diagram in the denary form. Each of the circular hubs of the tree has the name of the Sefirah, as well as with a particular name of God with which it is associated, written on it. Note that the top circle, which represents the Sefirah of Keter ‘elyon (Supernal Crown) and the divine name AHYH (אהיה) (cf. Exodus 3:14), have a chimney-like opening to the background; the latter is labelled Ein sof, literally ‘No End’ – suggesting the infinite and indivisible divine source of all.

An abridgment of a kabbalistic treatise

Arboreal diagram, Kabbalah: An abridgment of a kabbalistic treatise, Add MS 27091, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Arboreal diagram (Add MS 27091, f. 25v)

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The very next page of this manuscript features another full-page arboreal diagram (f. 26r), sharing an identical outline with the one just described. With this one, however, the content of the circular hubs has been replaced by ten volvelles.[5] The volvelles illustrate the fractal (each part containing the whole) concept of the Sefirot discussed in the text. According to this, each Sefirah contains all ten of the Sefirot; quickly increasing the combined and creative possibilities. The idea of physically manipulating the discs gives tangible expression to the importance of practicing visual variations when contemplating the divine; the structure should be perceived as alive and bearing almost infinite potential.

An abridgment of a kabbalistic treatise

Arboreal diagram with rotating volvelles, Kabbalah: An abridgment of a kabbalistic treatise, Add MS 27091, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Arboreal diagram with rotating volvelles (Add MS 27091, f. 26r)

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If the purpose of the Asis rimmonim diagrams are to primarily complement the text, the ‘Grand Parchment’ dated to 1556 CE (Or 6465) is an example of the independent scroll type of Ilan. In this, we find a magnificent copy of an elaborate kabbalistic scroll of Italian origin. This copy was made in Modena by a young Polish scholar called David Darshan; other copies may be found in Oxford and the Vatican collections.

Measuring some 572mm x 2m, the scroll presents a cosmological map of the divine realm – again shown with a denary tree – on top of a representation of the created universe, the latter taking up the bottom third of the scroll. The lower section maps creation in the typical Ptolemaic[6] fashion, with concentric circles around the dark hub of earth, divided into twelve sections corresponding to the zodiac. Planetary and elemental links are also noted.

Olam Sefirot

A cosmological map of the divine realm, Or 6465, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

A cosmological map of the divine realm (Or 6465)

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The real interest in this section is found in its edges, which dramatises the devotion to – and dangers of – the ascent to the divine realm. Thus we find a passage from the story of the ‘four who entered the orchard’ (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b) along with a rare figurative representation of its rabbinic heroes. Most significant, is the representation of the liminal[7] ‘hinterland’ (an area lying beyond what is visible or known) between the created and divine realms.
At the top of the circles we see images of the four chariot beasts of Ezekiel 1; they surround an image of 2nd-century CE sage Rabbi Akiva, who shows an expression celebrating his successful movement to, and retreat from, the divine realm. Above these figures, in keeping with Ezekiel, is the arc of the heavens and the Throne of Glory. Whereas the biblical texts depict God as a man-like figure seated on this Throne, our scroll details the divine realm in a rich array of images and texts that literally tower over the lower realm. The texts are a gathering of classical kabbalistic texts from the 13th-15th centuries CE. Of particular interest graphically are the dragons of the demonic ‘left side’; the vertical rather than triangulated arrangement of the upper three Sefirot; and the frame in which the infinite font of all, Ein sof, is inscribed.

For all its renaissance richness, the theosophical system mapped in the Darshan scroll was relatively simple. As the prominent late 16th-century CE kabbalist Rabbi Hayyim Vital wrote, this classical system could be mastered in a manner of days. Vital’s point was to contrast it with the system of his master, Rabbi Isaac Luria (d. 1572 CE), whose method was of bewilderingly complex. The new Lurianic[8] system was, if anything, even more spatial-mechanical in its approach to the divine realm, making diagrams more essential than ever to the aspiring kabbalist.

The earliest expressions of the newly branching divinity maps are to be found (often as fold-outs) in cosmological codices, such as the 17th-century CE Italian copy of Vital’s Otsrot Hayim (‘treasures of life’) in the British Library collection (Add MS 27006). A glance at a full-page diagram in this manuscript reveals the familiar form of the denary tree, now kaleidoscopically multiplied. This array of trees is intended to help the visualisation of the complex process of emanation taught by Luria, according to which the higher levels of divinity are transposed and expressed in the lower levels.

Otsrot Ḥayim

The denary tree, kaleidoscopically multiplied, Kabbalah: A treatise by Ḥayim Vital, with additions by other kabbalists, Add MS 27006, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

The denary tree, kaleidoscopically multiplied (Add MS 27006, f. 227r)

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The study of ‘visual Kabbalah’, a genre long neglected, is finally beginning, more intensely than ever before. The rich manuscripts at the British Library are invaluable to this research and thanks to digitisation they are also increasing in accessibility.


[1] A system such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations which assists in remembering something
[2] The method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept
[3] From the singular codex, meaning an ancient manuscript text in book form
[4] A being or force which is a manifestation of God
[5] A medieval instrument consisting of a series of concentric rotating disks, used to compute the phases of the moon and its position in relation to that of the sun
[6] Relating to the Greek astronomer Ptolemy or his theories 
[7] Meaning ‘on the threshold’ from the Latin limen
[8] Lurianic Kabbalah is a school of kabbalah named after the Jewish rabbi who developed it: Isaac Luria (1534–72 CE)
Yossi Chajes
  • Yossi Chajes
  • J H (Yossi) Chajes (Ph.D., Yale University 1999) is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa and the director of its Center for the Study of Jewish Cultures. His book, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (2003) was listed by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top five books on spirit possession, alongside Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. Dr. Chajes currently directs the Israel Science Foundation supported Ilanot Project – an ambitious attempt to catalogue and describe all kabbalistic cosmological diagrams. Some of his publications may be found at https://haifa.academia.edu/JHChajes.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.