Kabbalah Before the Law


Before the law stands a doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark, "I'm only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything."

Alef with all and all with Alef, Bet with all and all with Bet, Gimel with all and all with Gimel, and they all return again and again, and they emanate through two hundred and thirty-one gates.

From its first appearance this crucial text was not historical, but exemplary. Fire ascends, water descends and wind balances between the two. Mem is silent, Shin is sibilant, and Alef balances between the two.

The doorkeeper frequently conducts little interviews, asking the man who comes to him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. By this method one attains perfection, takes control over his life and transcends the limitations of time and space. And even in his darkness he is aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law.


Twelve are arranged in battle: three are friends, three are enemies, three are murderers, and three are resurrectors. They all are attached one to another.

"The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him."

Before the doorkeeper one becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he's come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind.

At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether his eyes are only deceiving him. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage.

The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper.

"Two stones build two houses. three stones build six houses. four stones build twenty-four houses. five stones build one hundred twenty houses. six stones build seven hundred twenty houses. seven stones build five thousand forty houses."

This is how it goes.


"Thenceforth go out and calculate what the mouth is unable to say and what the ear is unable to hear."

"He carries and maintains the entire creation: dwelling in eternity, because His reign is eternal and uninterrupted; holy be His name: because He and His servants are sacred and they declare unto Him every day: holy, holy, holy."

"Twenty-two letters: He carved them, hewed them, refined them, weighed them, and combined them, and He made of them the entire creation and everything to be created in the future."

"How did He combine them?"

To just such a doorkeeper had come a man from the country and prayed for admittance to the Law. It's all presented in terms that constitute both the statement of an ideal and a warning against embarking on a quest for it. In light of the entries in the diaries regarding this, an influence can hardly be contested. What's more there are the three mothers: Alef, Mem, Shin: a great mystery concealed, marvelous and magnificent, whence emerge fire, wind and water, whence everything was created. It is said that "He created reality from Tohu and made His existence out of His nothingness, and He hewed great pillars from the intangible air."

And still the man from the country curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, only by grumbling to himself.


The interpretation of this account depends on the context in which it is used; thus it is a mistake to try to establish a single "genuine" meaning common to all versions.

"Ten Sefirot out of nothing according to the number of the ten digits, which are five against five and a single covenant to be determined in the center."

Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked.

"Seven doubles: Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, Tav. Seven doubles: Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, Tav. seven and not six, seven and not eight. Seven doubles: Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, Tav which are to be pronounced in two tongues: Bet, Vet, Gimel, Ghimel, Dalet, Dhalet, Kaf, Khaf, Peh, Feh, Resh, Rhesh, Tav, Thav, a pattern of hard and soft, strong and weak."

What question?


All the words and all the creatures emanate from One Name. In thirty-two mysterious paths of wisdom, Yah, eternal of hosts, God of Israel, living Elohim, almighty God, high and extolled, dwelling in eternity, holy be his name, engraved and created His world in three Sefarim: in writing, number and word. He engraved them, hewed them, tested them, weighed them, and exchanged them. Spirit from Spirit engraved and hewed: He cut the four dimensions of Heaven: the east, the west, the north and the south, and there is a wind for each direction. One of the key exemplary texts is the account of the four sages, the four upright persons who entered the Pardes, the Orchard or Garden, all but one of whom were severely damaged by the experience despite their excellent qualities. Blessed is the Eternal in His dwelling.

"Examine them, investigate them, think clearly and form."

These are difficulties the man has not expected. The Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone. But as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.

In word and tongue and mouth they are ten extending beyond limit: depth of beginning, depth of end, depth of good, depth of evil, depth above and depth below, depth of east and depth of west, depth of north and depth of south, and the sole master and lofty king faithfully governs them all from his holy dwelling in eternity forever.

Twelve diagonal boundaries divide the directions and separate the different sides: the extremity of the northeast, the extremity of the eastern height, the extremity of the eastern depth, the extremity of the northwest, the extremity of the northern height, the extremity of the northern depth, the extremity of the southwest, the extremity of the western height, the extremity of the western depth, the extremity of the southeast, the extremity of the southern height, the extremity of the southern depth.


Many of today's readers of find something of the rigorous splendor of the canonical in these texts--a hint of the Absolute that breaks into pieces.

During many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. Just as a person cannot function properly in this world without having knowledge of it, so also his soul cannot function properly in the upper world without knowledge of it.


The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door.

"When you go walking by night up a street and a man, visible a long way off--for the street mounts uphill and there is a full moon--comes running toward you, well, you don't catch hold of him, not even if he is a feeble and ragged creature, not even if someone chases yelling at his heels, but you let him run on."


Their foundation is seeing, hearing, smelling, swallowing, copulating, acting, walking, raging, laughing, thinking, and sleeping.


Their end is infused with their beginning, and their beginning with their end like a flame attached to a glowing ember.


"Kabbalah" is the most commonly used term for the Jewish mystical tradition, especially the kind which originated in Israel and spread through Europe. Kafka was a careful observer and evidently a very attentive listener. Kafka knew more about Judaism than his remarks on the subject would lead one to believe.

"What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper.

Know, think and imagine that the Creator is One and there is nothing apart from Him. Before One what do you count?

Know, meditate and imagine that the fire supports water.


"And I am only the last of the doorkeepers," the doorkeeper finally laughs. "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto."

Such efforts lead to awful (aweful?) encounters with angels. Their result is the experience of a tremendum. A comparison of the diary entries with the Eastern European Hebrew and Yiddish original works leaves no doubt about their reliability.

Twenty-two foundation letters: three mothers, seven doubles, and twelve simples.

Now he has not very long to live.


He makes many attempts to be admitted and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity.

The Hebrew word Kabbalah (from the verb root k-b-l, "to receive") means literally, "[oral] received [tradition]."


The nature of the heavens is fire, the nature of air is wind, the nature of earth is water.


Observe them: they appear like a flash. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.

The opposite of life is death, the opposite of peace is evil, the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, the opposite of wealth is poverty, the opposite of fruitfulness is barrenness, the opposite of grace is ugliness, the opposite of dominion is slavery.


And they pursue His saying like a whirlwind; and they prostrate themselves before His throne. Place the word above its creator and reinstate a Creator upon His foundation; and they are ten extending beyond limit. He is the place of the universe and the universe is not His place.

An enormous number of folkloric morality books and collections of homilies popularized the teachings of the Kabbalah. One of the works of Fludd presents an interpretation of the Sefirotic Tree which he illustrates as a palm whose ten spreading branches raying forth from the lowest world suggest that man on earth is a microcosm or reflection of the macrocosm or universe.

Seven doubles: Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, Tav, which are to be pronounced in two tongues: Bet, Vayt, Gimel, Ghimel, Dalet, Dhalet, Kaf, Khaf, Peh, Feh, Resh, Rhesh, Tav, Thav, a pattern of hard and soft, strong and weak. Alef, He, Het, Ayin are pronounced at the end of the tongue at the place of swallowing; Bet, Vav, Mem, Feh between the teeth with the tip of the tongue; Gimel, Yod, Khaf, Qof on the palate; Dalet, Tet, Lamed, Nun, Tav on the middle of the tongue and pronounced with the voice; Zayin, Samech, Tsadeh, Resh, Shin between the teeth with the tongue at rest.

The wisdom of Kabbalah provides you with this knowledge.


In his book on Walter Benjamin, *The Story of a Friendship*, Scholem quotes himself: "I said then that one would have to read the works of Franz Kafka before one could understand the Kabbalah today, and particularly The Trial ."


Their boundary has no limit, for His word is with them: "and they ran and returned."

"Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man. "So how does it happen that for all these years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?"

Instead of reading this as a biographical account, we should read it as a typological account, one describing types of experiences and the types of effects those experiences can have.

The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you."

Such prayers remain hanging somewhere in the low levels of the ontological hierarchy and may even become imprisoned in celestial "attics" provided for this very purpose.

And once again it must be said that this is not a report of historical events; it should be taken as a collection of traditions about the effects of entering the Pardes. The doubles represent the contraries. His diaries reproduce what he saw and heard with an accuracy that lends his notes the authority of religious-historical source material.

It seems to have been less than delightful, and was reserved for the very few. Two results were positive: one person died, but remained loyal; one, Rabbi Aqiva, remained safe. Two results were negative: one person went mad; the other became a heretic. The proof of this is revealed in the universe, the year, and the soul, which rule ten, three, seven and twelve. Over them rule Tali (the dragon), the wheel, and the heart. Six sides in the six directions, and the Holy Palace ruling in the center.


The doorkeeper says he cannot grant admittance at the moment. "It is possible," he says, "but not at the moment."

Ten Sefirot out of nothing, twenty-two foundation letters, three mothers, seven doubles and twelve simples. Ten Sefirot out of nothing. ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Alef, Mem, Shin are signed in six rings and enveloped in male and female. Twelve simples: He, Vav, Zayin; Chet, Tet, Yod; Lamed, Nun, Samech; Ayin, Tsadeh, Qof. Twelve simples: He, Vav, Zayin; Het, Tet, Yod; Lamed, Nun, Samech; Ayin, Tsadeh, Qof. Twelve and not eleven, twelve and not thirteen.

There he sits for days and years. In this respect we might consider the philosophical speculation concerning the Kabbalah that developed around the Platonic Academy founded by the Medici family in Florence.

Days and years; days and years.

Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper finally steps to one side, he stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

Stop your mouth from speaking, stop your heart from thinking, and if your heart runs, return to a place of which it is said "they ran and returned".

Even Kafka was unable to study the often extremely difficult classical kabbalistic texts in the original Hebrew or Aramaic languages. He must then have been familiar with certain basic patterns that had been popularized.

Basic patterns?


"But take note: I am powerful."

This cannot be taken as a historical document, despite the fact that all four did live at approximately the same time. The Kabbalah teaches a practical method to apprehend the upper world and the source of our existence while still living in this world. Although there are thousands of extant kabbalistic texts (and many more which haven't survived), the primary method of teaching Kabbalah until recently was by means of oral transmission from teacher to disciple.

Water of spirit carved and hewed of it Tohu and Bohu, mud and clay. By means of these media, Yah, eternal of hosts, God of Israel, living Elohim, almighty God, high and extolled, dwelling in eternity, holy be His name traced out [carved] three fathers and their posterity, seven conquerors and their hosts, and twelve diagonal boundaries. He traced twenty-two letters and fixed them upon a wheel.

Pico himself had a considerable amount of Kabbalistic literature translated into Latin by the scholarly convert Samuel ben Nissim Abulfaraj.


Understand in Wisdom and be wise in Understanding. The universe is calculated according to ten: the three are fire, air, and water; the seven are the seven planets; the twelve are the twelve signs of the zodiac.

This text is used in different ways in different settings. In mystical literature it is used to point out dangers that can befall the mystic. In Talmudic-Midrashic sources it is used to point out the dangers and achievements that are related to speculations, rather than to experiences.


The two main varieties of pre-kabbalistic Jewish mysticism are called Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereshit. Later there is the particular variety of mysticism that emerged in the eighteenth century in Europe and continues among Jews to this day.


He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body.

Toward the end of his article titled "Ten Unhistorical Statements about the Kabbalah" (Judaica III), Scholem writes: "Although unaware of it himself, [Kafka's] writings are a secularized representation of the kabbalistic conception of the world."


Yah is composed of two letters; YHVH is composed of four letters; Hosts: it is like a signal in his army; God of Israel: Israel is a prince before God; Living Elohim: three things are called living: Living Elohim, the water of life and the Tree of Life; El: strength, Shaddai: He is sufficient to this point; Lofty: because He dwells in the heights of the universe and is above all elevated being; Extolled: because He carries and maintains the height and depth whilst the bearers are below and their burden is above.

"I am now going to shut it."




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