23 Dec BOOK OF THE WEEK — OTIOT (SACRED SIGNS)
“When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to make the world, all the letters of the Alphabet were still embryonic,
and for two thousand years the Holy One, blessed be He, had contemplated them and toyed with them.
When He came to create the world, all the letters presented themselves before Him in reversed order… ”
— The Zohar
Leipzig : Bibliophilen-abend, 1998
N7433.4.R43 S35 1998
Bereshith bara Elohim eth — According to Rab Hamnuna, the Venerable, these first four words of the Torah are “out of order,” in that the root beth comes before the root aleph. It is this story of letters which serves as an introduction to the fundamental book of Jewish mysticism, The Zohar. However, to call it a “book” is to overlook the vast literature and complexity between its pages. It is the supreme commentary of Jewish Kabbalah, with a network of treatises, texts, fragments of texts, which belong to different periods but all resemble each other in their method of mystical interpretation of the Torah. In addition, it serves as the “book of books” with regards to material on mythical cosmogony and mystical psychology, containing discussions on the nature of God, the structure of the universe, and their relationships to man.
Kabbalah, in it of itself, is the oral tradition of the Torah which is said to date back to the Garden of Eden. Despite this, Kabbalistic practices and schools did not appear until the sixth century, and were later revived in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Zohar is said to have originated during this time, although its true origin has long been debated. The Zohar, which translates to “splendor” or “radiance,” is often attributed to a 13th century Kabbalistic writer, Moses de León of Spain (circa 1240-1305). De León however, never took credit for the work, and instead ascribed The Zohar to Shimon bar Yochai, a 2nd century Rabbi. Legend has it that, during the Roman persecution, Shimon Bar Yochai hid in a cave for thirteen years while studying the Torah, and was later inspired by the Prophet Elijah to put his ruminations into writing. De León thus claimed that his Zohar was based on a transcription of Shimon’s ancient manuscript. He took this assertion to his death, and only later did his widow argue otherwise.
The first printed editions of The Zohar appeared in the 16th century, almost simultaneously and in two different Italian cities. The first was the Mantua edition (1558-1560), which included a long and elaborate introduction by Isaac de Lattes. A one-volume edition was later printed in Cremona (1559-1560), then a separate three-volume edition back in Mantua. Subsequent editions popped up in Salonika, Greece; Lublin, Poland; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Constantiople, and Venice. While nearly all of these editions were based on the original Mantua manuscript, they all included somewhat different texts. Peculiarly, The Zohar is mostly written in an obscure style of Aramaic — a 3,000 year old language which long served as the lingua franca of divine worship, in addition to being the dialect of Jesus Christ during his public ministry. Aramaic script is the ancestral language to both Arabic and modern Hebrew alphabets. The Aramaic of The Zohar is unique in that it unsophisticated and does not appear native to its writer. It also includes traces of vocabulary from medieval Spanish and Portuguese, further affirming the theory that De León is it’s true author.
“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.”
— Psalm XXXIII
The Zohar continues to draw inspiration in and outside of Jewish society to this day. For Josua Reichert, this text acts as a foundation of his own interpretive work, Otiot. The title, a Hebrew word which translates into “sacred signs,” directly addresses the Hebrew alphabet and its mystical power, as described in the first passage of The Zohar. These “sacred signs” are said to have the very same script found on the two stone tablets which were passed down to Moses. As symbols written by God’s own hand, there exists a supernatural quality to each of the 22 characters. Not only does each character represents a numerical value, the Otiot suggests that the name, function and visual component of the character share equal importance. Josua Reichert embodies this mentality through his artistic representation of the Hebrew alphabet.
Although Reichert is considered to be one of Europe’s most noted typographers, the character images from alef to tav in this text are based on “Chaim,” — a typeface designed by the Polish graphic designer, set designer, and book illustrator, Jan Le Witt (1907-1991) in 1929. Each of the twenty-two colorful serigraphs feature Le Witt’s characters against a background of striking color patterns that provoke optical illusions. Opposing the letters are passages from The Zohar, edited by Reichert and translated from Aramaic to German by Heinz Beir. These short passages depict the Creator selecting and making the case for the order of the alphabet and, subsequently, the order for which the world will be created:
“The letter Tau advanced in front and pleaded: May it please Thee, O Lord of the world, to place me first in the creation of the world, seeing that I am concluding letter of EMeTh (Truth) which is engraved upon Thy seal, and seeing that Thou art called by this very name… The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: Thou art worthy and deserving, but it is not proper that I begin with thee the creation of the world, since thou art destined to serve as a mark on the foreheads of the faithful ones who have kept Law from Aleph to Tau, and through the absence of this mark the rest will be killed; and, further, thou formest the conclusion of MaWeThe (Death).
Hence thou art not meet to initiate the creation of the world.”
Rare Books copy is one of 150 signed copies numbered in Roman numerals.
Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator