Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Power of Names

The Maaseh Buch is a sixteenth-century collection of Yiddish legends revolving around Rabbi Judah ha-Hasid (the pious), a leader of the mystic movement known as the German Pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz). This movement was started by members of the Kalonymide family- Samuel ha-Hasid, his son the aforementioned Judah ha-Hassid, and his cousin, Eleazar Rokeah of Worms. The Kalonymides had arrived in the Jewish communities of the Rhineland after leaving Italy during the 9th century. They brought with them the teachings, writings, and traditions of the Merkabah mystics. Some of these have been preserved only in the writings of the Pietists and those influenced by them[2].
The Italian families in the Rhineland also brought with them many piyyutim (hymns) originating in Byzantine Palestine, such as El Adon, and Untaneh Tokef[3].
Merkabah mysticism was spread throughout Italy thanks to men like Aharon of Baghdad, but its roots are in Palestinian synagogues of the first few centuries CE, among priestly circles. This point will be discussed more fully in a later post.
In the Maaseh Buch is a tale of how R. Eliezer, son of R. Amnon of Mayence, wishes to study with R. Judah, despite instructions from his father never to leave Mayence. R. Judah reluctantly takes R. Eliezer in, yet refuses to teach him mystical knowledge until R. Eliezer decides to return to Mayence for the Passover Seder. He would not be able to make it back from Regensburg in time, so R. Judah intervenes.

"Then R. Judah took his staff and wrote holy names in the sand. He told R. Eliezer to read those words, and when he did, R. Eliezer found that he knew as much as R. Judah himself. But a moment later R. Judah covered the words with sand, and at that instant R. Eliezer forgot everything. R. Judah the Pious did this three times, and three times R. Eliezer was filled with great knowledge, and three times he grieved when it was gone. The fourth time R. Judah wrote the words in the sand, he told R. Eliezer to eat the words of sand. And when R. Eliezer swallowed the sand on which those words were written, the knowledge remained with him, and he never forgot it again. Then R. Judah pronounced the priestly blessing, followed by a pair of holy names. And a moment later, R. Eliezer found himself at the door of his home in Mayence."[4]

R. Judah uses holy names- the various names of angels and God- in order to impart knowledge to R. Eliezer. R. Eliezer is in possession of this knowledge only as long as he is in possession of those holy names[5].
After using the names to impart knowledge, R. Judah says the priestly blessing,[6] and a pair of holy names, enabling R. Eliezer to travel great distances in no time at all.
Part of the use of holy names of holy names in earlier Merkabah mysticism was to enable the mystic to ascend into the heavens[7].
In Jewish lore the ability to cover long distances almost instantaneously by the use of holy names is fairly widespread, attributed among others to R. Shimon ben Tzemah Duran[8] and the Baal Shem Tov[9].
A name was considered to carry with it power.
Gershom Scholem wrote that, “the magic quality of the name relies on the fact that a close and substantial relation exists between the name and the name's bearer.
The name is a real, non-fictitious quantity. It contains a declaration about the nature of its bearer or at least something of the potency attaching to it; it is, further, identified with the nature and essence of what is named by it.”[10]
Ephraim E. Urbach went as far as to say that the name and the power were synonyms.[11]
It could be used either to wield power on its own, or to compel the bearer of the name to accomplish some task.
A classic example is that of the Sar Torah, or prince of the Torah. This was an angel who, when summoned, would reveal the secret of how to master the Torah and its secrets, as well as make it that the student would never forget the things he was taught.
The Chapter of R. Nehuniah b. ha-Qanah relates how R. Ishmael at thirteen years of age was unable to commit to memory any of the teachings of R. Nehuniah, his teacher.
R. Nehuniah took R. Ishmael to the chamber of hewn stone (lishkat ha-gazit) in the temple grounds, and there instructs him on how to summon the Sar Torah.

"He adjured me by the great seal, by the great oath, in the name of Yad Naqof Yad Nakuy Yad Heras Yad Suqas; by his great seal, by Zebudiel Yah, by Akhtariel Yah, by heaven and by earth. As soon as I heard this great secret, my eyes became enlightened. Whatever I heard- Scripture, Mishnah, anything else- I forgot no more. The world was made new for me in purity, and it was as if I had come from a new world. Now: any student (talmid) who knows what he learns does not stay with him should stand and say a blessing, rise and speak an adjuration, in the name of Margobiel Giwat’el Ziwat’el Tanariel Hozhayah Sin Sagan Sobir’hu , all of whom are Metatron. Marg[obiel] is Metatron; Giw[at’el] is Metatron; Tanariel is Metatron; Hozhayah is Metatron; Sin is Metatron; Sagan is Metatron; Sobir’uhu is Metatron. Because they love him so much in heaven, they call him Ziwat’el servant of Zebudiel Yah, Akhatriel Yahweh God of Israel, Yahweh, Yahweh, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and full of faithfulness and truth (Exodus 34:6). Blessed be the wise one who knows secrets, the master of mysteries…
R. Ishamel said: When I was thirteen years old, I pondered this matter, and went back to my teacher, R. Nehuniah b. ha-Qanah. I said to him, “What is the name of the prince of Torah (sarah shel torah)?” He said to me, “His name is Yofiel.” I then arose and afflicted myself for forty days, and spoke the great name until I brought him down. He came down in a flame, his face like the appearance of lightning (cf. Daniel 10:6)."[12]

The Sar Torah is extremely belligerent, threatening and insulting Rabbi Ishmael.
Without the ability to control an angel summoned from above (again, by use of holy names and through personal preparation and purity) the results are potentially devastating.
An early 19th century folktale from Holland relates how a certain scholar was a master of Kabbalah, particularly the Zohar. If he did not know the answer to a question, he would pronounce a holy name, summoning a spirit who would reveal the mystery. One night the scholar fell asleep, and four of his best students decided to pronounce the name themselves. The spirit teaches them what they wanted to know, but not one of them remembers the name which would release the increasingly furious spirit, who threatens to destroy them if he is not released.[13]
Another danger arises from a careless pronounciation of a name, which, as in the case of the story about the Baal Shem Tov and R. Adam’s son, where the prince of fire is summoned instead of the Sar Torah.[14]
Maayan Hochma is a midrash relating how Moses ascended into heaven in order to receive the Torah. The angelic sentinels initially oppose him, until God himself defends and protects Moses and reveals to him the Torah and the proper way of reading it. The angels then become the friends of Moses rather than his enemies. Mayan Hochma serves as an introduction to a text known as Shimushei Torah (theurgic uses of the Torah), which, when read in the proper order, is actually the secret name of God himself.[15]
The Mishnah (t. Sukkah 4:5) relates how, “Each day they [the priests] made one circuit around the altar and they would say: "Please O Lord, save; Please O Lord, save us!" (Ps. 118:25). R. Yehudah states: [they would say] Ani wa-Ho, save us! Ani wa-Ho, save us!” Urbach surmised that this is a mumbled version of ana (please) and the Tetragammaton.[16] It was mumbled so that the unrighteous would not hear it because of the power inherent in it. As seen above, careless pronounciation of a name was dangerous, deliberate, malicious use was far worse. Cursing someone (always done by invoking a divine name) was punished severely, no matter what name was used. In the Qumran community it resulted in permanent expulsion from the group. When the curse used the ineffable name the results were considered deadly. Literally so.[17]
Using a name to wield power over its bearer is an essential feature of many sorts of amulets.
Hayyim David Yosef Azulai, in his Yosef ba-Seder 6, relates a tradition about the origin of amulets protecting against the demoness Lilith, who seeks to harm women and children.
“Lilith said, “O lord, release me from your curse and I swear by God’s Name to forsake my evil ways. As long as I hear or see my own names I will retreat and not come near that person.
I shall have no power to injure him or do evil. I swear to disclose my true names to you.”
Elijah said, “Tell me what your names are.”
Lilith said, “These are my names: Lilith, Abiti, Abizu, Amrusu, Hakash, Ode, Ayil, Matruta, Avgu, Katah, Kali, Batub, and Paritasha.”
Let them be written and hung about the house of women who are bearing a child, or around the child after it has been born.
And when I see those names, I shall run away at once. Neither the child nor the mother will ever be injured by me.”
And Elijah said, “So be it. Amen.”[18]
These beliefs are nothing new, but are rooted deep in biblical times.
The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible has this to say in its entry on names. “The name of a person or deity is especially closely associated with that person or deity, so that knowledge of the name is connected with access to and influence with even magical control of-the named… Certain deities in the Ancient Near East are celebrated for the multiplicity of their names or titles. e.g. the 50 names of Marduk in Enuma Elish, the 74 names of Re in the tomb of Thutmosis III and the 100-142 names of Osiris in Spell 142 of the Book of the Dead. The deities may also have hidden or secret names so as to emphasize their otherness and to guard against improper invocation by devotees. (Note the story about how Isis persuaded Re to divulge his secret name, thereby lending great power to her magic; ANET 12-14.).[19]

[1]More on the Pietists can be found in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

[2]See for instance my earlier post on Enoch the shoemaker.

[3]Untaneh Tokef is one of those rare instances in which a text is dated later than it really is, rather than earlier. Popular legend ascribes it to R. Amnon of Mayence, martyred in the 12th century. The piyyut though has been found in old manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah.

[4]Howard Schwartz, Gabriel’s Palace, The Words in the Sand, pg. 171-172. See also the note on pg. 322.

[5]In practice, holy names were only imparted after preparation, involving fasting, ritual purification by water, and prayer. See Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, pg. 135-137.

[6]Numbers 6:23-27. Gersonides, in his commentary on this verse, sees the priestly blessing as another form of God’s name. “It should be said, the priests will place the mystery of My name on My people in such a way that all will know it, and then I will bless them…”

[7]Rachel Elior, The Priestly Nature of the Mystical Heritage in Heykalot Literature, in Experience et Écriture Mystiques dans les Religions du Livre, edited by Paul Fenton and Roland Goetschel.
“The knowledge and command of arcane divine names (shemot) was perceived as a prerequisite for mystical ascent, for conjuring the angels and for gazing upon the divine chariot.”

[8]Schwartz, Gabriel’s Palace, Rabbi Shimon’s Escape, pg. 126-127.

[9]Ibid, The Tree of Life, pg. 192-193.

[10]Scholem, The Name of God and the Linguistic Theory of the Kabbala, Eranos lecture, 1970.

[11]E. E. Urbach, The Sages, pg. 124. In Acts 4:7 the question the high priest and his circle asked the apostles was “By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?”

[12]David J. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot, pg. 378-379. A work dealing solely with Sar Torah traditions is Michael D. Swartz’s Scholastic Magic.

[13]Schwartz, Gabriels Palace, The Secrets of Kabbalah, pg. 155-156.

[14]Ibid, The Prince of Fire, pg. 187-189.

[15]Yehudah David Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim, pg. 306-307.

[16]Urbach, Sages, pg. 127-28.

[17]Ibid, pg. 131-33. Several traditions are mentioned where a Persian cursed his child by the ineffable name, resulting in the child’s death.

[18]Howard Schwartz, The Tree of Souls, Lilith and Elijah, pg. 224-225.

[19] For more on Isis and Re, see David Tayman’s superb blog post at

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