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Zohar in Focus: Manna and Wisdom

In Religion on November 10, 2009 at 4:28 pm

There exists a magical word in Welsh folklore: Caerdroia.  The literal translation of this idiom into modern English is roughly equivalent to “Castle of Turns,” although we may find a more familiar and congruous synonym in the word labyrinth.  Labyrinths can be thought of as symbolic forms of pilgrimage; people can walk the path, ascending towards salvation or enlightenment. This spiritual awakening is manifest in a more practical and corporeal sense, as well.  By walking amongst the turnings, the user of the labyrinth loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind. The result is a relaxed mental attitude, free of internal dialog. This is a form of meditation.  One need not travel outwardly to holy sites and far away lands for understanding, as the use of labyrinths supplant that need.

By its design, the Zohar is such a labyrinth. It is a mystic garden of living statues, breathing fountains, and rich foundations that support a veritable cornucopia of myth and interpretation. The rhizomatic structure of the Sefirot weaves along its soft walls like a web of ancient vines.  These are the holy veins of the Zohar, which keep the text alive with the constant gush and flow of divine light.  This light pours out in prismatic splendor for all of those who have learned the secrets of the maze, and may navigate freely through her ornate arches and mirrored halls.  The Zohar is full of hidden passages, each one an enigmatic tableau laced with subtle paradoxes and complex meanings.  In order to reveal these latent paradigms and hidden networks of understanding, it becomes necessary to focus the attention to a specific passage of the Zohar, Manna and Wisdom.

A passage of the Zohar is like a flower in bloom; each portion, an interpretive amplification of the Torah, much like the Midrash.  Manna and Wisdom is a beautiful poem and an enigmatic reflection on an excerpt from Exodus (Verse 16:4, 9-10, 13-15) that depicts the miraculous event wherein YHVH proclaims to Moses that he will deliver to the wandering Israelites “bread from heaven.”  The term “manna” does not appear anywhere in the Zohar passage, but as Daniel Chanan Matt insightfully reveals, it is a clever pun derived from the Hebrew phrase “what is it?” (or man hu in Hebrew), which also translates to “it is manna.”  The excerpt from Exodus is an intriguing base for the Zohar to blossom, although certain lines are still a mystery and left unrendered by the mystical Zohar.  Specifically, the line “That evening, the quail rose and covered the camp” is a gross vagueness.  Are the quail messengers from God? Are they a blessing?  A miracle?  A hidden Sefirot?  This foul remains a mystery.

The Sefirot are exposed from the biblical passage by the filtrating lens of the Zohar.  The path of the holy bread is traced down the Tree of Life in the following lines:

Every single day, dew trickles down / from the Holy Ancient One to the Impatient One, / and the Orchard of Holy Apple Trees is blessed.

The Holy Ancient One in this verse is a reference to Keter, the crown and the first Sefirot.  It is from Keter that the spiritual dew is first differentiated from Ein Sof, the infinite Godhead.  The Impatient One, explains Matt, is an allusion to the eight lower Sefirot from Hokhmah to Yesod.  The Orchard of Holy Apple Trees implies the Shekhinah drawing divine substance from Hesed to Yesod who populate her orchard.  The imagery stresses the need for students of mysticism to study the Sefirot and the dynamic path that leads life from the unknowable Ein Sof down to the Presence of Shekhinah. The manna was made available to the Israelites through (or at least strengthened by) their connection to Yesod or the “Holy King” by circumcision.  This covenant with God secured Israel’s tie to divine gifts and protection.  The mazzah that the Children of Israel ate when first entering the desert symbolizes their communion with Shekhinah. In fact, the Zohar interprets the entire journey from Egypt to Sinai as direct metaphor for the “spiritual journey into the divine realm.”  This type of structured symbolism is typical of the Zohar and typified specifically by this verse.  It illustrates the Zohar’s purpose as a mystical tool that aids in the understanding of the Ten Sefirot and their connection to all things (but especially to Jewish history and mythology).   The word “Heaven” is used several times in explaining the divine realm that is the source of manna.  “Heaven” is linked with Tif’eret, the bridegroom of Shekhinah. The last major Sefirot touched upon in the passage is partnered with Manna in the very title of this reading, it is “Wisdom” or Hokhmah. This is the highest Sefirot and spiritual union with Hokhmah is one of the greatest goals of the mystic.  It is at the single point of Hokhmah that the Torah was derived and it only with Hokhmah that one arrives at the source of revelation.

The insights that make Manna and Wisdom a truly unique passage are its exclusive discussion between Rabbi Shim’on and Rabbi El’azar on the nature of “angel bread” and other gradients of divine sustenance, and the relationship between these delicious sacraments and the mysterious Comrades.  The latter being a term for the disciples of R. Shim’on and the mystic followers of the Zohar.  R. Shim’on remarks, that while mazzah and “angel bread” (or manna) were given to the wandering Israelites by Shekhinah and Tif’eret, respectively, “Comrades engaging the Torah are nourished from an even higher sphere.”  This sphere is Wisdom or Hokhmah. The Comrades are granted this diet as their close understanding and appreciation of the Torah, brings them closer to the sphere from which the Torah was forged: Wisdom.  R. El’azar counters with a query that examines the discrepancy between the Comrades supposed spiritual power and their physical weakness.  R. Shim’on carefully explains that food from that high a sphere is too fine a substance to  be detected on the physical planes of existence, and is manifest only in the realms of spirit and soul-breath.  “Happy is the body that can nourish itself on food of the soul!”

Manna and Wisdom is a carefully crafted blueprint that thrives equally off of the Torah and Jewish imagination; it is a mystical guide depicting how students may climb the ladder of the ten Sefirot and partake of the blessed tastes that fill the upper realms.  It is a reminder to “engage Torah day and night” and to cleave to their heart the forces of YHWH, so that they may flourish in the garden of life and live long, prosperous lives[i]


[i] All quotations and information gathered from “Manna and Wisdom,” a chapter in Daniel Chanan Matt’s translation of the Zoahr.  Paulist Press.  1983.

 

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