Let there be Kabbalah

At the time the Corpus Hermeticum was ‘rediscovered’ in the Renaissance, other occult traditions also came into focus, including Hebrew Kabbalah, which held a special fascination for Christians, as Hebrew was the language used by God to create (‘And God said: Let there be light’ – in Hebrew). Kabbalah emerged as a mystical tradition in the Middle Ages in the south of France and in northern Spain, which had thriving Jewish communities. Sefer ha-Zohar, attributed to the 2nd-century Simeon bar Yochai but probably composed by Moses de Léon (c. 1240-1305), is one of the key texts of Hebrew Kabbalah and is in the collection in one of the earliest editions, together with other famous kabbalistic works like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer ha-Bahir. From the time Hebrew Kabbalah came to be disseminated in Christian circles, the interest in this Jewish mystical tradition assumed a decidedly polemical thrust. The Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola contended that ‘no other science affords us so much certainty about the divinity of Christ than magic and Kabbalah’; Johannes Reuchlin introduced a variant spelling of the name of Jesus so he could ‘prove’ kabbalistically that the tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God, was converted in the pentagrammaton or the name of Jesus by adding the Hebrew letter ‘shin’ (De verbo mirifico, 1494). The tetragrammaton (4 letters) was thus transformed into a pentagrammation (5 letters). Reuchlin’s later work De arte cabalistica (1517), also present in the BPH, on the other hand gave full credit to the tradition of Hebrew Kabbalah, without any ulterior motives.