The Kab­bal­is­tic Tree / האילן הקבלי

December 29, 2015

Ilan­ot―parch­ment sheets pre­sent­ing the kab­bal­is­tic tree of life”―have been at the cen­ter of Jew­ish mys­ti­cal prac­tice for the past sev­en hun­dred years. Writ­ten by lead­ing ilan­ot expert J. H. Cha­jes, The Kab­bal­is­tic Tree is a com­pre­hen­sive and gor­geous­ly illus­trat­ed his­to­ry of these arbo­re­al maps of God.”

This book doc­u­ments when, where, and why Jews began to visu­al­ize and to draw the mys­ti­cal shape of the Divine as a Por­phyr­i­an tree. At once maps, man­dalas, and mem­o­ry palaces, ilan­ot pro­vid­ed kab­bal­ists with dia­gram­mat­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of their struc­tured image of God. Scrolling an ilan parch­ment in con­tem­pla­tive study, the kab­bal­ist par­tic­i­pat­ed mimet­i­cal­ly in tikkun, the devel­op­ment and per­fec­tion of Divin­i­ty. Cha­jes reveals the com­plex lore behind these objects. His sur­vey begins with the clas­si­cal ilan­ot of pre-expul­sion Spain, Byzan­tine Crete, Kur­dis­tan, Yemen, and Renais­sance Italy. A close exam­i­na­tion of the ilan­ot inspired by the Kab­bal­ah taught by R. Isaac Luria in six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Safed fol­lows, and Cha­jes con­cludes with explo­rations of mod­ern ilan amulets and print­ed ilan­ot. With atten­tion to the con­texts of their cre­ation and how they were used, The Kab­bal­is­tic Tree inves­ti­gates ilan­ot from col­lec­tions around the world, includ­ing forty from the incom­pa­ra­ble Gross Fam­i­ly Collection.

Discussion Questions

J. H. (Yos­si) Chajes’s ground­break­ing The Kab­bal­is­tic Tree pro­vides us with the first in-depth analy­sis of a fas­ci­nat­ing Jew­ish visu­al and lit­er­ary genre that has been large­ly ignored by schol­ars. Kab­bal­is­tic Tree sur­veys and elu­ci­dates hun­dreds of dia­grams pro­duced by medieval kab­bal­ists that depict the divine world. Under­min­ing the oft-repeat­ed schol­ar­ly descrip­tion of Judaism as an ani­con­ic reli­gion — that is, a reli­gion that eschews any depic­tion of the deity—The Kab­bal­is­tic Tree shows how medieval Jews from the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry onward brave­ly inscribed the inner work­ings of the God­head, the ten sephi­rot, onto parch­ment or paper. Refer­ring to these visu­al dia­grams as icono­texts,” Cha­jes demon­strates how these medieval mys­tics mapped their under­stand­ing of God onto the form of a Man — or, draw­ing on ear­li­er Greek neo-Pla­ton­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the world, onto an upside-down tree, or ilan. The book is filled with breath­tak­ing pic­tures of these ilan­ot and insight­ful, lucid expla­na­tions of them. Cha­jes does a mar­velous job of both pro­vid­ing the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al back­ground for these mar­velous mys­ti­cal draw­ings and high­light­ing how Jew­ish con­cep­tions of God have changed since medieval times.