From alphabetical mysticism to theosophical kabbalah: A rare witness to an intermediate stage of Moses de León's thought

Avishai Bar Asher*

*Corresponding author for this work

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1 Scopus citations


This article investigates Moses de León's early kabbalistic thought through a cluster of his unsigned works in manuscript, some of which have only recently come to light, and others of which have not received any scholarly attention at all. The analysis of these works reveals an intermediate stage of his thought that bridges his earlier esoteric writing with the later, and more familiar, theosophical compositions that bear his name. The folia of these unsigned works are replete with speculations concerning the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the names of God, through which de León expressed a unique blend of theology and angelology that was shaped, mainly, by Aristotelian paradigms. Scholars previously posited that de León, and other kabbalists active in roughly the same time and place, abruptly and mysteriously abandoned this worldview for a new one predicated on the theosophical foundation of a multiplicity of attributes or sephirot within the emanated Godhead. Through careful study of these works in manuscript, particularly a neglected work in MS Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibl., hebr. 47, the author recovers a transitional period in de León's thought, when he had not quite given up one conceptual paradigm for the other. A new historiographical account is then proposed, according to which Castilian kabbalists living in the generation of the Zohar absorbed the new theosophy slowly and tried to incorporate it into existing paradigms, resulting in unique hybrids, even as they also consolidated new modes of speculation. This article therefore provides an alternative account of a critical stage in the history of medieval kabbalah, one which concerns the fundamental stratum of the so-called Sepher ha-Zohar. In addition to deepening our knowledge of the conceptual humus from which the Zohar's foundational concepts germinated, the findings of this study force us to reconsider what we know about the appearance of the most canonical work in Kabbalistic literature.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)351-384
Number of pages34
JournalRevue des Etudes Juives
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2020

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