The Old Man

9 05 2010

Since the great Gershom Scholem, academic study of the Zohar has progressed in leaps and bounds. While he (along with Isaiah Tishby, and others) was inclined to view nearly the entirety of the text as stemming from the 13th century, many scholars today are receptive to the possibility that some larger components of the corpus might owe their origin to a significantly earlier time. That the text was written (or was based on a text written) by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the story of whose transformation I covered here, is patently absurd, but to suggest that the entire Zohar proper originates with Moses ben Shem-Tov, a 13th century Spanish Jew from Léon, might be likewise untenable.

Traditionally published in seven volumes, the first five volumes of the Zohar contain a midrashic homily on most of the parashot of the Torah, while the subsequent two volumes (Tiqqunei HaZohar and Zohar Chadash) contain meditations on the first word of Genesis and quotations of early Kabbalists, respectively. Of the former five volumes, a total of twenty two sources can be delineated, including the largest source, which is that of the main text – considered by Scholem and Tishby as the section most certainly composed by Moses of Léon. Those sources are discussed in this article.

I wanted to comment upon one of those twenty-two sources, which is sometimes labelled “Discourse of the Old Man”. It runs from 2:94b-114a, and constitutes a discourse on the human soul, based upon some passages in Exodus that concern the laws of the Hebrew slave. I have only recently encountered this text and am therefore not at liberty to properly discuss it, but I wanted to share the text’s beginning. I have included it below in my translation. For those who are interested, I include the Aramaic at the end of this post:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yosi met one evening in Migdal Tsor. They walked together and were pleased with one another.
Rabbi Yosi said, “How pleased I am to see the countenance of the Shekhinah! Right now, this whole way, I’ve been struggling with an old merchant, who was questioning me the whole way:

Which is the serpent who flies in the air and walks alone? And despite all this, there is comfort for the single ant, lying between his teeth? It commences with companionship and concludes with isolation? And which is the eagle who establishes his nest in the tree that does not exist, whose young are stolen, but not by creatures, and who was created in an uncreated location? When they ascend, they descend, and when they descend, they ascend. There are two which are one, and there is one which is three. Who is the beautiful girl who has no eyes, whose body is both hidden and revealed, who goes out in the morning but is covered by day, and who adorns herself with non-existent jewellery?

He was asking me all this on the road, and I was struggling. But now I have peace, for had we travelled together we would have laboured with words of Torah, rather than these other haphazard matters.”
Rabbi Hiyya asked, “Did you know this old merchant?”
He told him, “I knew that there was no substance to his speech. Had he known anything, he would have commenced with words of Torah and the journey would not have been in empty chatter.”
Rabbi Hiyya said, “Where is this merchant now? It sometimes happens that a man might find a golden bell in such empty discourse.”
He told him, “Here, he’s fixing food for his donkey.”
They called out to him, and then came before him. He said to them, “Now the two have become three, and the three are as one.”

– Zohar 2:94b-95a

Of this section, the most telling linguistic anachronism (in my opinion) is found in Rabbi Yosi’s response to Rabbi Hiyya’s question, “Did you know this old merchant?” Rabbi Yosi answers him by suggesting that he didn’t, but that he knew at least that there was no substance to his speech. The Aramaic word here for “substance” is a back-formation from the Hebrew ממשות. This Hebrew word didn’t exist at the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, although the author of this passage was evidently unaware of that fact. It was invented by Samuel ibn Tibbon at the end of the 12th century, itself a back-formation from the Hebrew ממש, in order to translate Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew.

Linguistic issues aside, for which one can consult the voluminous writings of Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby, or (more conveniently, albeit briefly) the article to which I linked earlier, there is the question of content. I am led to believe that encountering an old man, apparantly untrained in the strictures of rabbinic exegesis, who gives off all of the signs of being poor and uneducated but who subsequently dazzles his rabbinic companions by divulging a homily upon the secrets of the Torah, is something of a trope in the mystical literature. The provocative, possibly nonsensical, introduction serves to get the reader’s attention, and the means by which one of its more enigmatic pronouncements (“There are two which are one, and there is one which is three”) is spontaneously fulfilled brings promise of the ensuing exegesis being of an enlightening nature.

I was disappointed to discover that the ensuing narrative, while being of interest in its own right, only served to elucidate the final part of the introduction (“Who is the beautiful girl who has no eyes…”), but I wonder if anybody else also thought that the opening line of the old man’s speech was suggestive of a connection between the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3) and Satan (chiefly, Job 1:7, 2:2)?

For those who are interested, the Aramaic reads as follows:

רבי חיא ורבי יוסי אערעו חד ליליא במגדלא דצור אתארחו תמן וחדו דא בדא אמר רבי יוסי כמה חדינא דחמינא אנפי שכינתא דהשתא בכל ארחא דא אצטערנא בחדא סבא טיעא דהוה שאיל לי כל ארחא

מאן הוא נחשא דפרח באוירא ואזיל בפירודא ובין כך ובין כך אית ניחא לחד נמלה דשכיב בין שנוי שרי בחבורא וסים בפירודא ומאי איהו נשרא דקא מקננא באילן דלא הוה בנוי דאתגזלו ולאו מן ברין דאתבריאו באתר דלא אתבריאו כד סלקין נחתין כד נחתין סלקין תרין דאנון חד וחד דאנון תלתא מהו עולימתא שפירתא ולית לה ענין וגופא טמירתא ואתגליא איהי נפקת בצפרא ואתכסיאת ביממא אתקשטא בקשוטין דלא הוו

כל דא שאיל בארחא ואצטערנא והשתא אית לי ניחא דאלו הוינא כחדא אתעסקנא במלי דאוריתא מה דהוינן במלין אחרינן דתהו אמר רבי חיא וההוא סבא טיעא ידעת בה כלום אמר לה ידענה דלית ממשו במלוי דאלו הוה ידע יפתח באוריתא ולא הוה ארחא בריקניא אמר רבי חיא וההוא טיעא אית הכא דהא לזמנין באנון ריקנין ישכח גבר זגין דדהבא אמר לה הא הכא איהו ואתקין חמרה במיכלא קרו לה ואתא לקימיהו אמר לון השתא תרין אנון תלת ותלת אנון כחד



One response

10 05 2010
John Hobbins


Perhaps past reference is to be assumed:

מאן הוא נחשא דפרח באוירא ואזיל בפירודא

Who is the serpent who flew through the air and was going away on its own (apart)?

I don’t know what is being referred to, if anything, but it reminds me, not of satan, but of the winged serpents, or seraphim, in Isaiah 6 and elsewhere.

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