The claim that the Talmudic sages were great kabbalists is a historical error. Most sages make no mention of the kabbalistic tradition at all. Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in a cave and composed 1700 pages of kabbalistic texts, is an exception and should be considered separately.
Bar Yochai spent thirteen years hiding from the Romans in a cavern near Peki’in, and took advantage of his long downtime to write what would later become the Zohar – the founding work of kabbalah, as brilliant as it is impenetrable. Worried that it would lead younger students into flights of overwrought superstition, the orthodox banned study of the Zohar to everyone except married Jews above the age of forty -and even these carefully selected students tended to go off the deep end after a while. The circumstances of the Zohar’s composition are widely believed to be the origin of the old rabbinic proverb against delving too deep into arcane secrets: לֹא תִּיכָּנֵס לַמְעָרוֹת , meaning “don’t go into the caves”.
— Gebron and Eleazar, Kabbalah: A Modern Approach
October 3, 1990
Gulf of Mexico
“WE SAY THAT MAN WAS MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD,” said Uriel. “BUT GOD IS INEFFABLE AND WITHOUT PHYSICAL FORM. RESOLVE THE PARADOX.”
“I’m hungry,” said Sohu.
She was sitting on a little cloud, a dozen or so meters across. In the middle, the cloud-stuff had been piled up into a little amorphous cottage where she slept and stored her books. On the far end of the cloud was the flying kayak, tied down with cloud-ropes.
“UM.” Uriel thought for a moment. “I CAN MAKE MORE MANNA.”
“I had manna yesterday and the day before. It doesn’t taste like anything!”
“UM. SORRY. YOU ARE VERY PICKY.”
“We’re in the middle of an ocean! Aren’t there fish or something?”
The archangel bent down, reached into the deep, and placed a giant grouper the size of a Jeep on Sohu’s cloud. It flailed half-heartedly for a moment, then stared at Sohu with dinner-plate-sized lidless eyes. It looked resigned.
“AS I WAS SAYING, GOD HAS NO PHYSICAL FORM, SO THE CLAIM THAT HUMANS WERE MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD MUST HAVE SOME MORE SUBTLE MEANING. RABBI AKIVA PROPOSED – ”
“Uriel!” protested Sohu. “What are you doing?”
“I AM TEACHING YOU THE KABBALAH.”
“I can’t eat this!”
“IT IS A FISH. IT IS KOSHER AND FULL OF NUTRIENTS.”
“It’s staring at me!”
“THAT MAKES SENSE. IT DOES NOT HAVE EYELIDS.”
“Uriel! Make it stop!”
Fast as lightning, the archangel rearranged some of the glowing letters in front of him, causing them to pulse and whirl ominously.
The fish had eyelids. It blinked.
“That doesn’t help!”
“YOU ARE VERY PICKY.”
The poor fish gave up the ghost.
“Humans don’t just eat giant fish the size of jeeps! They need to be cut apart, and cooked, and covered in bread crumbs, and I like them with ketchup even though Father says it makes me a barbarian.”
A series of knives rained from the sky, barely missing the girl’s head, and embedded themselves point down in the cloud. They were followed by frying pans and entire stoves and bottles of ketchup and, finally, manna.
“SORRY,” said Uriel. “IT WAS THE CLOSEST I COULD COME TO BREAD.”
Sohu stared at the objects for a while, then sighed, then picked up one of the larger knives.
“RABBI AKIVA PROPOSED THAT THE VERSE HAS BEEN MISINTERPRETED. ‘GOD MADE MAN IN HIS IMAGE’ MEANS ‘GOD MADE MAN ACCORDING TO AN IMAGE BELONGING TO GOD’. IN OTHER WORDS, MAN WAS BUILT TO A SPECIFIC CELESTIAL BLUEPRINT. WE CALL THAT BLUEPRINT ADAM KADMON, MEANING ‘ORIGINAL MAN’. ADAM KADMON IS THE BLUEPRINT NOT ONLY FOR MAN, BUT FOR THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THIS BLUEPRINT AND THE UNIVERSE ITSELF IS THE BASIS OF KABBALAH.”
Sohu cut through a scale, and was rewarded with a spurt of blood for her efforts. She shrieked and almost fell off the cloud.
“Aaak!” she said. Then: “Sorry. I was listening. Really.”
“NOVICES IN KABBALAH EXPECT THERE TO BE A SIMPLE CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN ASPECTS OF ADAM KADMON AND OBJECTS IN THE UNIVERSE. FOR EXAMPLE, ONE PART OF ADAM KADMON MIGHT DESCRIBE HUMANS, ANOTHER MIGHT DESCRIBE TREES, AND ANOTHER MIGHT DESCRIBE THE STARS. THEY BELIEVE YOU CAN CARVE UP THE DIFFERENT FEATURES OF THE UNIVERSE, MUCH LIKE CARVING A FISH, AND SIMPLY…”
“No,” said Sohu, who was still trying to wipe blood off herself. “No fish-carving metaphors.”
“THEY BELIEVE YOU CAN CARVE UP THE DIFFERENT FEATURES OF THE UNIVERSE, ENTIRELY UNLIKE CARVING A FISH,” the angel corrected himself. “BUT IN FACT EVERY PART OF THE BLUEPRINT IS CONTAINED IN EVERY OBJECT AS WELL AS IN THE ENTIRETY OF THE UNIVERSE. THINK OF IT AS A FRACTAL, IN WHICH EVERY PART CONTAINS THE WHOLE. IT MAY BE TRANSFORMED ALMOST BEYOND RECOGNITION. BUT THE WHOLE IS THERE. THUS, STUDYING ANY OBJECT GIVES US CERTAIN DOMAIN-GENERAL KNOWLEDGE WHICH APPLIES TO EVERY OTHER OBJECT. HOWEVER, BECAUSE ADAM KADMON IS ARRANGED IN A WAY DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENTLY FROM HOW OUR OWN MINDS ARRANGE INFORMATION, THIS KNOWLEDGE IS FIENDISHLY DIFFICULT TO DETECT AND APPLY. YOU MUST FIRST CUT THROUGH THE THICK SKIN OF CONTINGENT APPEARANCES BEFORE REACHING THE HEART OF -”
“No. Cutting. Metaphors,” Sohu told the archangel. She had finally made a good incision and was slowly pulling things out of the fish, sorting them by apparent edibility.
“THE BIBLE IS AN ESPECIALLY CLEAR EXAMPLE OF A SYSTEM WHICH IS ISOMORPHIC TO ADAM KADMON. SO ARE ALL HUMAN LANGUAGES. SO IS THE HUMAN BODY. SO IS THE TAROT. SO ARE THE WORKS OF WILLIAM BLAKE. SO IS THE SKY AND CONSTELLATIONS.”
Sohu nodded. Was that a spleen? Did fishes even have spleens?
“THERE ARE FOUR GOSPELS IN THE BIBLE, FOUR LETTERS IN THE TETRAGRAMMATON, FOUR LIMBS ON THE HUMAN BODY, FOUR SUITS OF THE TAROT, FOUR ZOAS IN BLAKE, AND FOUR QUARTERS OF THE SKY. THE NOVICE CONSIDERS THIS A COINCIDENCE. THE ADEPT UNDERSTANDS THIS IS BECAUSE THE NUMBER FOUR IS AN IMPORTANT ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE OF ADAM KADMON, AND INSOFAR AS ALL SYSTEMS REFLECT ADAM KADMON, THEY ARE ALSO ORGANIZED INTO FOUR PARTS.”
Sohu managed to extract the heart from the fish. For a second she felt some strange significance at seeing it divided neatly into four chambers. Then she shook herself out of it and moved on.
“THERE ARE TEN COMMANDMENTS IN THE BIBLE, TEN DIGITS IN THE NUMBER SYSTEM, TEN FINGERS ON THE HUMAN BODY, TEN PIP CARDS IN THE TAROT, TEN PROPHETIC BOOKS IN BLAKE, AND TEN CELESTIAL BODIES IN THE SKY.”
“Ten celestial bodies?”
“EIGHT PLANETS, THE SUN, AND THE MOON. THERE ARE TWENTY-TWO BOOKS IN THE HEBREW BIBLE, TWENTY-TWO LETTERS IN THE HEBREW ALPHABET, TWENTY-TWO SOMATIC CHROMOSOMES IN THE HUMAN BODY, TWENTY-TWO MAJOR ARCANA IN THE TAROT, TWENTY-TWO ENGRAVINGS IN BLAKE’S BOOK OF JOB, AND TWENTY-TWO CONSTELLATIONS IN EACH OF THE FOUR QUARTERS OF THE SKY.”
Sohu wiped off her hands. She was pretty sure she had gotten everything even potentially edible out of the fish now. She looked at her piles. There were twenty two weird unidentifiable fish organs.
“Huh,” she said.
“LIKEWISE, THERE ARE SEVENTY-TWO BOOKS IN THE CATHOLIC BIBLE, SEVENTY-TWO LETTERS IN THE SHEM HA-MEPHORASH, SEVENTY-TWO HEARTBEATS PER MINUTE IN A HEALTHY HUMAN ADULT, SEVENTY-TWO SIDES OF NUMBER CARDS IN THE TAROT, SEVENTY-TWO PAGES IN WILLIAM BLAKE’S POETICAL SKETCHES, AND SEVENTY-TWO YEARS TO ONE DEGREE OF PRECESSION OF THE EARTH’S EQUINOX.”
Sohu had finally extracted enough pieces of fish innard to put on a frying pan. She placed it on a stove. Even though the stove was unconnected to any source of gas or electricity, it started burning with a thin blue flame.
“IN KABBALAH,” Uriel continued “WE RECOGNIZE CERTAIN DIVISIONS OF ADAM KADMON AS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT. A FOURFOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS FOUR WORLDS. A TENFOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS TEN SEPHIROT. A TWENTY-TWO-FOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS TWENTY-TWO PATHS BETWEEN SEPHIROT. AND A SEVENTY-TWO-FOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS THE SEVENTY-TWO-FOLD EXPLICIT NAME OF GOD. BY UNDERSTANDING ALL OF THESE DIVISIONS, WE LEARN THE STRUCTURE OF ADAM KADMON AND THEREFORE THE ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES OF THE UNIVERSE. ONCE THE ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES OF THE UNIVERSE ARE UNDERSTOOD, THEY CAN BE CHANGED. IT IS AS EASY AS SHOOTING FISH IN A BARREL.”
“You’re doing it on purpose now!”
“THERE ARE MANY FISH METAPHORS.”
“Wait a second. If you can create stoves and ketchup bottles ex nihilo, how come you can’t create food ex nihilo for me?”
“THE MOST BASIC DIVISION IN THE MYSTICAL BODY OF GOD IS THE TEN SEPHIROT. SEPHIRAH IS A HEBREW WORD RELATED TO THE ENGLISH “SAPPHIRE”, BECAUSE THE SAGES IMAGINED THEM AS SAPPHIRE-LIKE JEWELS ARRANGED IN A STRING. THE TEN SEPHIROT ARE A SERIES OF STAGES OR LEVELS OR JEWELS THROUGH WHICH DIVINE POWER FLOWS IN ITS MOVEMENT FROM GOD TO THE FINITE WORLD. EACH ONE CORRESPONDS TO A SPECIFIC DIVINE ATTRIBUTE. THE FIRST REPRESENTS THE WILL OF GOD. THE SECOND REPRESENTS THE WISDOM OF GOD. AND SO ON.”
A spark appeared on Uriel’s finger, and in lines of fire he traced a diagram into the sky in front of him.
“THERE ARE TWENTY-TWO DIFFERENT PATHS BETWEEN THESE JEWELS. EACH CORRESPONDS TO A PARTICULAR HEBREW LETTER.”
Sohu looked at the glowing diagram. “Okay,” she said. “But what does all this mean?”
“THIS WAS GOD’S MACHINE FOR CREATING THE WORLD,” said Uriel. “IT HAD MANY PROBLEMS. SO I HACKED INTO IT AND MADE IT EMULATE A DIFFERENT MACHINE WHICH RUNS THE WORLD MY WAY. IT INVOLVES MANY FEWER SURPRISES. IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW THE STRUCTURE OF THE ORIGINAL MACHINE BOTH IN ORDER TO CONTROL THE EMULATION, AND BECAUSE THE EMULATION IS NO LONGER COMPLETE.”
“So the whole universe runs on this system of sapphires connected by paths?”
“MOST OF IT RUNS ON SAPPHIRES ON PATHS, BUT I USE RUBY ON RAILS FOR THE DATABASES.”
“Huh? Is that a different thing?”
“WE CANNOT TALK NOW,” said Uriel, suddenly. “THE BUTTERFLIES ARE MIGRATING”.
“I JUST REALIZED. THE BUTTERFLIES ARE STARTING TO MIGRATE. IT IS ONLY OCTOBER. THEY SHOULD NOT MIGRATE FOR SEVERAL MORE MONTHS. I THINK I MIGHT HAVE MADE AN OFF-BY-ONE ERROR THE LAST TIME I SYNCHRONIZED THE INSECT MIGRATION ALGORITHMS.”
“Can’t you just let them migrate early?”
“EVERY TIME A BUTTERFLY FLAPS ITS WINGS, IT CREATES A CASCADING CHAIN OF AFTER-EFFECTS WHICH CAN UPSET THE ENTIRE COURSE OF HISTORY. IF THE ENTIRE BUTTERFLY MIGRATION HAPPENED AT THE WRONG TIME, THE RESULT WOULD BE TOO HORRIBLE TO IMAGINE.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. I AM GOING TO FIX THE BUTTERFLY MIGRATION. I WILL GIVE YOU HOMEWORK FOR TONIGHT. ALL LANGUAGES ARE ISOMORPHIC TO ADAM KADMON, BUT IN DIFFERENT WAYS. YOU WILL NEED TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST THEM. YOUR HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT IS TO LEARN EVERY HUMAN LANGUAGE.”
“Um, that’s not something humans can realistically do.”
“OH. THEN DO SOMETHING HUMANS ARE GOOD AT. FALL IN LOVE. START A WAR.”
“But – ”
The archangel was no longer listening, focusing the attention of his glowing gold eyes on the stream of letters in front of him, already rearranging them with frightening speed.
Sohu experimentally slathered one the fried fish-parts in ketchup, tentatively took a taste, then spit it out. Making sure Uriel was distracted with his butterflies, she furtively started squirting ketchup from the bottle straight onto her tongue. She swallowed, shrugged, and curled up on her cloud with her book and one of the ketchup bottles as the archangel gesticulated above her.