Come and Hear™ to increase interfaith understanding
This page has been scanned from The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906) to ensure availability for future students of Come and Hear™




Dilling Exhibit 289

[page 681] […] as Kayserling holds (“Moses Mendelssohn,” p. 481, Leipsic, 1888), “a poetical presentation of Solomon Maimon,” seems to be conclusive. An anonymous writer in “Ha-Karmel” (1872, P. 462) relates that Abba lived in Glusk, near Lublin, and was well remembered by its old inhabitants. Max Letteris quotes a parody which Abba is said to have improvised on the occasion of his being thrown down a flight of stairs by the impetuous Jacob Emden in Altona. A study of Abba Glusk appeared in the “Vossische Zeitung” (Aug. 80, 1885), in which are reproduced several interesting anecdotes, especially of Abba’s troubles with the unfriendly representatives of the Berlin community, and later with the police of that city. It seems that after wandering aimlessly in various Western countries, Abba returned in his old age to Poland, after which all trace of him was lost.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Letteris. In Ha-Maggid. v. 21. No. 7; Kohut, Moses Mendelssohn und Seine Familie, p. 51, Dresden and Lepsic, 1886.

H. H.

P. Wi.




GNOSTICISM. An esoteric system of theology and philosophy. It presents one of the most obscure and complicated problems in the general history of religion. It forced itself into prominence in the first centuries of the common era, and the Church Fathers were constrained to undertake its refutation. Writers on the history and dogmas of the Church have therefore always devoted much attention to the subject, endeavoring to fathom and define its nature and importance. It has proved even more attractive to the general historians of religion, and has resulted during the last quarter of a century in a voluminous literature, enumerated by Herzog-Rauck (“Real-Encyc.” vi. 728). Its prominent characteristic being syncretism, the scholars, according to their various points of view, have sought its origin, some in Hellenism (Orphism), some in Babylonia, others elsewhere. This question, however, can not be discussed here, as this article deals with purely Jewish gnosticism.

Jewish gnosticism unquestionably antedates Christianity, for Biblical exegesis had already reached an age of five hundred years by the first century C.E. Judaism bad been in close contact with Babylonian-Persian ideas for at least that length of

Jewish Gnosti-

time, and for nearly as long a period with Hellenistic ideas. Magic, also, which, as will be shown further on, was a not unimportant part of the doctrines and manifestations of gnosticism, largely occupied Jewish thinkers. There is, in general, no circle of ideas to which elements of gnosticism have been traced, and with which the Jews were not acquainted. It is a noteworthy fact that heads of gnostic schools and founders of gnostic systems are designated as Jews by the Church Fathers. Some derive all heresies, including those of gnosticism, from Judaism (Hegesippus in Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.” iv. 22; comp: Harnack, “Dogmengesch.” 3d ed. i. 232, note 1). It must furthermore be noted that Hebrew words and names of God provide the skeleton for several gnostic systems. Christians or Jews converted from paganism would have used as the foundation of their systems terms borrowed from the Greek or Syrian translations of the Bible. This fact proves at least that the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation, while it does not preclude the possibility of new wine having been poured into old bottles.

Cosmogonic-theological speculations, philosophemes on God and the world, constitute the substance of gnosis. They are based on the first sections of Genesis and Ezekiel, for which there are in Jewish speculation two


well-established and therefore old terms: “Ma‘aseh Bereshit” and “Ma‘aseh Merkabah.” Doubtless Ben Sira was thinking of these speculations when he uttered the warning: “Seek not things that are too hard for thee, and search not out things that are above thy strength. The things that have been commanded thee, think thereupon; for thou hast no need of the things that are secret” (Ecclus. [Sirach] iii. 21-22, R. V.). The terms here emphasized recur in the Talmud in the accounts of gnosis. “There is no doubt that a Jewish gnosticism existed before a Christian or a Judaeo-Christian gnosticism. As may be seen even in the apocalypses, since the second century B.C. gnostic thought was bound up with Judaism, which had accepted Babylonian and Syrian doctrines; but the relation of this Jewish gnosticism to Christian gnosticism may, perhaps, no longer be explained” (Harnack, “Geschichte der Altchristlichen Litteratur,” p. 144). The great age of Jewish gnosticism is further indicated by the authentic statement that Johanan b. Zakkai, who was born probably in the century before the common era, and was, according to Sukkah 28a, versed in that science, refers to an Interdiction against “discussing the Creation before two pupils and the throne-chariot before one.”

In consequence of this interdiction, notwithstanding the great age and the resulting high development of Jewish gnosticism, only fragments of it have been preserved in the earlier portions of traditional literature. The


doctrines that were to be kept secret were of course not discussed, but they were occasionally touched upon in passing. Such casual references, however, are not sufficient to permit any conclusions with regard to a Jewish gnostic system. If such a system ever existed (which may be assumed, although the Jewish mind has in general no special predilection for systems), it surely existed in the form of comments on the story of Creation and on Ezekiel’s vision of the throne-chariot. It is even probable that the carefully guarded doctrines lost much of their terrifying secrecy in the course of the centuries, and became the subject of discussion among the adepts. Magic, at first approached with fear, likewise loses its terrifying aspects as the circle of its disciples enlarges. The same thing happened in the case of gnosticism, which was itself largely colored by magic. Hence it may be assumed that the scattered references of the amoraim of the third to the fifth century C.E., which in view of the statements made by the heresiologists of the Christian Church are recognized as being gnostic in nature,


Dilling Exhibit 290

[page 682] contain much older gnostic thought. They are quoted in the names of later scribes only because the latter modified the Ideas in question or connected them with passages of Scripture, and not because they were the authors of them or the originators of the system. It is also highly probable that a not inconsiderable part of the earliest Jewish gnosis is still extant, though in somewhat modified form, in the mystical small midrashim that have been collected In Jellinek’s “Bet ha-Midrash,” and in the medieval products of the Jewish Cabala. Although at present means are not at hand to distinguish the earlier from the later elements, it is undeniable that the devotees of secret science and magic in general can not be easily exterminated, though they may seem to disappear from time to time. Krochmal, and after him Joel, have already pointed out gnostic doctrines in the Zohar. Further investigation will show the relationship of gnosticism to the Cabala, as well as that of both to magic in general.

In the gnosticism of the second century “three elements must be observed, the speculative and philosophical, the ritualistic and mystical, and the practical and ascetic” (Harnack, l.c. p. 219).

Definition and Termi-

These three elements may all be traced to Jewish sources. The ritualistic and mystical element, however, was here much less developed than in Judaeo-Christian and Christian gnosticism, as the liturgical worship and the religio-legal life had been definitely formulated for many ages. Although very clear traces of it exist, it is difficult to determine exactly the limits of gnosis and to distinguish between what belongs to its domain and what to the domains of theology and magic. This difficulty is due to the nature of gnosis itself, the chief characteristic of which is syncretism, and also to the nature of the Jewish sources, which do not deal with definite problems, but with various questions indiscriminately. If the gnostic systems were not known through other sources, the statements relating to them in the rabbinical works could not be recognized. These elements were, in fact, discovered only in the first half of the last century (Krochmal, Graetz), and new ones have been ascertained by more recent investigators (Joel, Friedlaender, etc.); much, however, still remains to be done.

The speculations concerning the Creation and the heavenly throne-chariot (i.e., concerning the dwelling-place and the nature of God), or, in other words, the philosophizings on heaven and earth, are expressly designated as gnostic. The principal passage with reference thereto is as follows: “Forbidden marriages must not be discussed before three, nor the Creation before two, nor the throne-chariot even before one, unless he be a sage who comprehends in virtue of his own knowledge [‘hakam u-mebin mida’ato’]. Whoever regards four things would better not have been born: the things above, the things below, the things that were before, and the things that shall be. Whoever has no regard for the honor of his God would better not have been born” (Hag. ii. 1). As Johanan b. Zakkai refers to this interdiction, it must have been formulated in pre-Christian times (Tosef., Hag. ii. 1, and parallels). The characteristic words “hakam u-mebin mi-da’ato” occur here, correspondlng to the Greek designations [Gr.] and [Gr.] ( I Cor. viii. 1-3). The threefold variation of the verb [Hebr.] in the following passage is most remarkable: “In order that one may know and make known and that it become known, that the same is the God, the Maker, and the Creator” (Abot iv. end; Krochmal, “Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman,” p. 208); these words clearly Indicate the gnostic distinction between “God” and the ‘demiurge.’” “Not their knowledge but my knowledge” (Hag. 15b), is an allusion to gnosis, as is also the statement that man has insight like angels (Gen. R. viii. 11 [ed. Theodor, p. 65, [Hebr.]]). These expressions also occur elsewhere, while [Gr.] and [Gr.] are not found once in the rabbinical vocabulary, though it has borrowed about 1,500 words from the Greek; It may be concluded, therefore, that these speculations are genuinely Jewish. In classical Greek [Gr.] does not mean “one who knows,’ but “that which is to be known”; hence the technical term may even have been coined under Jewish Influence.

Gnosis was originally a secret science imparted only to the initiated (for instance, Basilides, in Epiphanius, “Hæreses,” xxiv. 5) who had to bind themselves by oath, [Gr.] (Justin, “Gnost. in Hippolytus, “Philosophosemena,” v. 24; comp.

A Secret Science.

ib. v.7: [Gr.]; also Wobbermin, “Religions-geschichte Studien zur Frage der Beeinflussung des Urchristenthums Durch dasAntikeMysterienwesen,” p. 149; and Aurich, “Das Antike Mysterienwesen In Seinem Einfluss auf das Ohristenthum,’ p. 79). The gnostic schools and societies, however, could not have made very great demands on their adherents, or they could not have increased enough to endanger the Church as they did. The Pneumatics, who formed a closed community, endeavored to enlarge it (Herzog-Hauck, l.c. vi. 734). Indeed, most gnostic sects probably carried on an open propaganda, and the same may be observed in the case of Jewish gnosticism. The chief passages, quoted above, forbid in general the teaching of this system, and Eleazar (3d cent.) refused in fact to let Johanan (d. 279) teach him it. Origen, who lived at the same time in Palestine, also knew the “Merkabah” as a secret science (“Contra Celsum,” vi. 18; comp. Friedlaender, “Der Vorchristliche Judische Gnosticismus,” pp. 51-57, on Philo and the conditions of being initiated). Joseph, the Babylonian amora (d. 322), studied the “Merkabah”: the ancients of Pumbedita studied “the story of the Creation” (Hag. 13a). As they studied it together, they were no longer strict in preserving secrecy. Still less concealment was there in post-Talmudic times, and hardly any in the Middle Ages. Philosophy never has been hedged with secrecy, and the mandate of secrecy reminds one of the [Gr.] of the magic papyri. Gnosis was concealed because it might prove disastrous to the unworthy and uninitiated, like magic formulas. By “correct knowledge” the upper and the lower world may be put in motion. When Eleazar was discussing the throne-chariot, fire came down from heaven and flamed around those present; the attending angels danced before them, like wedding-guests before the groom, and the trees intoned songs of praise. When Eliezer


Dilling Exhibit 291

[page 683] and Joshua were studying the Bible, “fire came down from heaven and flamed around them,” so that the father of Elisha b. Abuyah, the gnostic referred to below, asked affrightedly: “Do you mean to set my house on fire?” (Yer. Hag. 77a, b; comp. Lev. R. xvi. 4; Friedlaender, “Der Vorchristliche Judische Gnosticismus,” p. 59). These men were all pupils of Johanan b. Zakkai. When two other scholars interpreted the Merkabah the earth shook and a rainbow appeared in the clouds, although it was summer. These stories indicate that this secret doctrine revealed the eternally acting media of the creation of heaven and earth.

Knowledge of this kind was dangerous for the uninitiated and unworthy. When a boy read the Merkaba (Ezek. i.) before his teacher and “entered the hashmal with his knowledge” [Hebr.] fire came out of the hashmal [comp. Ezek. i. 4, “as hashmal out of the fire”] and consumed him [Hag. 13a], for the boy was one who knew [Hebr.]. Gnosis is neither pure philosophy nor pure religion, but a combination of the two with magic, the latter being the dominant element, as it was the beginning of all religion and philosophy. The expression “to shake the world,” used by the gnostic Bar Zoma (Gen. R. ii. 4, and parallels), reminds one of the origins of gnosis. The phrase “to trim the plants,” occurring in the second leading passage on Jewish gnosticism, quoted below, must be noted here, for it refers, of course, to the influencing of the heavenly world by gnostic means.

The ophitic diagram that Krochmal shows in the pictures that “may not be looked upon” (Tosef., Shab., and parallels). is evidently derived from magic, for the cabalistic sign of the pentagram is

Gnostic Signs.

found on one of the earliest shards (Bliss and Macallster, “Excavations in Palestine During the Years 1898-1900,” plates 29, 42; Dr. Emaus, in “Vajda, Magyar Zsido Szemle,” xvii. 315 et seq.). A mere reference to this view must suffice here; its importance has been noted by Anrich, l.c. pp. 86-87; it points the way to an understanding of Jewish gnosis. A few interesting examples may be given here. The following passage occurs in the Berlin Papyrus, i. 20, Parthey: “Take milk and honey and taste them, and something divine will be in your heart’ The Talmud, curiously enough (Hag. 13a), refers the phrase, “Honey and milk are under thy tongue’ (Cant. iv. 11), to the Merkabah, one of the principal parts of Jewish gnosis, saying that the knowledge of the Merkabah, which is sweeter than milk and honey, shall remain under the tongue, meaning that it shall not be taught (comp. Dietrich, “Abraxas,’ p. 157: “honey and milk must be offered”). The Valentinians taught that in order to attain salvation the pneumatic required nothing further “than gnosis and the formulae [Gr.] of the mysteries” (Epiphanius, Haereses,” xxxi. 7).

“Four scholars, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher [Elisha b. Abuyah], and Rabbi Akiba, entered paradise [Hebr.]; Ben Azzai beheld it and died; Ben Zoma beheld it and went mad; Aber beheld it and trimmed the plants; Akiba went in and came out in peace” (Tosef., Hag. ii. 3; Hag. 14b; Yer. Hag. 77b; Cant. R. i. 4). The entering into paradise must be taken literally, as Blau points out (“Altjudisches Zauberwesen,” pp. 115 et seq.).

The Four Who Entered Paradise.

The following proof may be added to those given there: “In the beginning of the Paris Papyrus is that great [Gr.] in which the mystic rises above stars and suns [Gr.] near to the Godhead. By such art Iamblichus, freed from his body, endeavored to enter the felicity of the gods [‘ De Mysteriis,’ i. 12], and thus his slaves said that they had seen him, ten ells above the earth, his body and garments gleaming in golden beauty” (Dietrich, lc. p. 152). Paul (II Cor. xii. 1-4) speaks similarly of paradise, a passage that Joel (“Die Religionsgesch.” i. 163, note 3) misinterprets as a “picture of gnosis.” This instructive passage is as follows: “It is not expedient for me, doubtless, to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I can not tell; or whether out of the body, I can not tell: God knoweth); such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man… . How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”

Philo says, similarly: “Some one might ask, ‘If true holiness consists in imitating the deeds of God, why should I be forbidden to plant a grove in the sanctuary of God, since God did the same thing, when

ming the Plants".

He planted a garden?’… While God plants and sows the beautiful in the soul, the spirit sins, saying, ‘I plant’” (”De Allegoriis Legum, §§52 et seq; ed. Mangey, §§ 117 et seq.). Philo here speaks also of trimming the trees. It is evident that this is the language of gnosis, but the words are used allegorically, as in Scripture. The literal interpretation here is perhaps also the correct one. The mystic imitates God, as Philo says, in planting a grove—that is, the mystic becomes himself a creator. He likewise has the power to destroy. There were books on the plants of the seven planets—for example, a work by Hermes, [Gr.] (Dietrich. l.c. p. 157, note 1). Hence the planets were also regarded as “plantations,” and Aber’s “trimming of the plants” in paradise must be interpreted in this sense. Berechiah (4th cent.) interpreted the words of Canticles i. 4, “God brought me into his apartments,” to refer to the mysteries of the Creation and the throne of God (Cant. R. ad loc.; Bacher, “Ag. Bab. Amor.” iii. 356). Hence he regarded the knowledge of the Merkabah as an entering of the apartments of God, or as entering the “Pardes”. Akiba says to his companions who have entered paradise: “When you come to the pure marble stones, do not say, ‘Water, water!’ for of this It is said (Ps. ci. 7): ‘He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house’” (Hag.. xiv. 6). “Ben Zoma stood and pondered; R Joshua passed him and addressed him once and twice, but received. no answer. The third time he answered quickly. Then Joshua said to him: ‘Whence the feet [Hebr.]? He answered, ‘Nothing “whence,” my master.’ Then R. Joshua said, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness that I will not stir from this place […]