Isaac the blind's letter and the history of early kabbalah

Avishai Bar-Asher*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


No document is more central to the scholarly historiography of kabbalah's "origins" than a unique letter written by R. Isaac the Blind. Since its discovery, scholars have made it the foundation for an elaborate narrative about the transmission of kabbalistic traditions from Provence to Gerona at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Scholars have not only used the letter to help reconstruct the ties between these two centers, but even to reconstruct their purported theological concerns about the transmission, composition, and dissemination of esoteric lore.The present study offers a fresh and thorough explication of this cryptic, and partly encrypted, document, which is here translated and critically edited. Whereas previous scholars focused on its exoteric opening, neglecting the esoteric central portion that spans nearly half of the letter, the author elucidates this difficult section, with the assistance of traditions attributed to Isaac and the writings of his own trustworthy nephew, Asher b. David. Particular attention is paid to Isaac's quotations from Sefer yetsirah, which reveal the central pillar of theology supporting Isaac's doctrine of mystical intentions (kavanot). This decipherment yields a new understanding of the exoteric section and of the entire correspondence between the kabbalists: they were debating the mystical-contemplative significance of certain liturgical kavanot and religious rituals (especially taking an oath by the Tetragrammaton).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)414-443
Number of pages30
JournalThe Jewish Quarterly Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2021

RAMBI Publications

  • Rambi Publications
  • Isaac -- the Blind -- approximately 1160-1235
  • Cabala -- Spain -- History -- 13th century


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