“The Book of Concealment. The book that weighs in the balance. For until there was the balance, they did not look at one another face to face, and the Ancient Kings died and their ornaments could not be found and the earth ceased to be.”
That’s how I understand the opening words of the short, intriguingly cryptic Aramaic text that goes by the name of Sifra di-Tzeniuta, “The Book of Concealment.” Professor Daniel Matt, in his monumental multi-volume translation of the Zohar, takes them just a bit differently:
“The Book of Concealment, a book balanced on scales. For until there was a balance, they did not gaze face-to-face, and the primordial kings died and their weapons vanished and the earth was nullified.”
The Sifra di-Tzeniuta is part of the Zohar, the three-volume Kabbalistic classic that the Facebook group to which I belong has been reading one page a day, from its beginning to (we hope) its end, for the past two years. We got to the Sifra di-Tzeniuta this past Monday, which happens to have been my birthday, the day I embarked upon my 70th year. (I’m now 69.) Pure coincidence, I know. But we humans love to find meaning in coincidences, and I’m no exception.
Which is why I decided to post this week on the material our group is now reading.
For the traditionally minded Kabbalist, the Sifra di-Tzeniuta is a writing of the most inconceivable holiness, mystery, and antiquity. The Lithuanian scholar Chaim of Volozhin, writing in 1820, identified its authors as “the very earliest of our teachers, masters of mysteries in whom the spirit of the Holy God dwelt and before whom all gates were unlocked.” These men composed their holy-of-holies of a book marked by “the most astounding conciseness … so that unworthy individuals, unprepared to receive the awe-filled light from above, should not burst in to gawk at Divinity.” Only hundreds of years later did the heirs to the secret tradition, the 2nd-century rabbis of the Holy Land, incorporate the Sifra di-Tzeniuta into their Zohar, unpacking its themes in more accessible (but still Aramaic) language.
All this was debunked by Gershom Scholem, the 20th century’s greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism. According to Scholem the Sifra de-Tzeniuta, like the rest of the Zohar, bubbled up from the turbid, fruitful unconscious of a single man: Moses de Leon, a Kabbalistic writer who lived in Spanish Castile at the end of the 13th century. De Leon wrote the Zohar as a kind of theosophic novel, freely inventing the “sources” he claimed to be quoting.
Scholem was not a man with whom you wanted to quarrel. The best of your learning was a feeble pop-gun against his stunning erudition; take him on and you would be flattened. For many years his view was taken as proven, certain, end of story. But the pendulum of scholarship won’t stop swinging, and a new generation of Zohar scholars is returning to the notion that the Zohar is the work not of one person but of many, not of a single historical moment but of decades and possibly centuries.
One of these scholars, Ronit Meroz of Tel Aviv University, has just published a long, fascinating article (in English; thanks to Judy Barret and Joel Hecker for posting the link on the Zohar page), in which she presents a shorter version of the Sifra di-Tzeniuta that she’s found in manuscript. She’s inclined to think, although she admits one can’t be certain, that it’s older than the version printed in our Zohar editions. An earlier stage of a long process of evolution.
It starts off much like the longer version:
“The chapters of the Book That Weighs In The Balance. For until there was the balance, they were not situated face to face, and the Ancient Kings died, and their ornaments [weapons?] were not found, and the earth ceased to be.”
So what is that “balance”? Who were the “they” who didn’t look into each other’s faces, and the “Ancient Kings” who died? What was that “earth,” and how did it “cease to be”?
“Unworthy” and “unprepared,” as Chaim of Volozhin says, we need to tread gingerly. Meroz shows that the Sifra di-Tzeniuta is presenting a revisionist history of the creation described in the opening chapters of Genesis, with the Biblical chronology often switched around. At the very beginning, says Genesis 1:2, “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness upon the face of the abyss and the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.” So is the Sifra di-Tzeniuta trying to say that this wasn’t the very beginning, that there was an “earth” before it became “unformed and void”–and trying to explain how that happened?
Other Zoharic sources, if we’re prepared to admit their testimony, give a clue to who the “Ancient Kings” are likely to have been.
Genesis 36:31: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel.”
What follows this Biblical verse reads like a dry bit of ancient Palestinian history: a list of eight kings, sometimes with the names of the cities they built, only one–the eighth–with the name of his wife. Of the first seven kings, but significantly not the eighth, the Bible says, “and he died.” Why are dead Edomite kings so important, the Kabbalists ask, that Scripture should trouble to tell us about them?
But the Bible is written in symbols and mysteries. The “Ancient Kings”–those kings who ruled “before there reigned any king over the children of Israel”–are code-words for elements of Divinity, existing in an archaic world of “redness,” which is what the name “Edom” etymologically means and which for the Kabbalists is a symbol of the harshness of divine Judgment. They didn’t–except for the eighth–have the necessary “balance” of Female and Male, Judgment and Grace, “looking at one another face to face” in erotic embrace.
They were therefore doomed to “death,” to “shattering” as the Kabbalists called it, to being turned into “formlessness and void.” They had to be rebuilt, or “mended” as the Kabbalists called it, into a new “balanced” structure out of which God was to be constituted, symbolized by those kings who “reigned over the children of Israel.”
In The Mending, an unfinished novel that I really and truly intend to get back to someday, I imagine the thoughts of a young Kabbalist of the 17th century, confronting the first full sentence of the appropriately called “Book of Concealment”:
“The world of the Ancient Kings had been male, and only male. Red was its color—of anger, of blood, of fiery pain. In its severity it could not sustain itself, and it crumbled. The Kings had no women to cool and soften them; therefore they died. The fragments of their shattered world became the demons, each with a divine spark trapped inside. Some demons are male, but just as many are female. As in Divinity, so it is on the Other Side: male and female embracing.”
And that’s just the first sentence.
Our Facebook group of Zohar-readers has an odyssey before us, through this Sifra di-Tzeniuta. It’s an exciting way to kick off my 70th year on planet Earth.
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+
Don’t have time to keep checking my blog? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter, with summaries and links to the past month’s posts, plus oldies-but-goodies from the archive.