The Intense and Splendiferous Light of the Shekhinah
as Reflected in the Ancient Priestly Blessing
Translated from the Hebrew by Martin S. Cohen
In the footsteps of Martin Buber, who generally understood myths as fragments of spiritual events that took place in the inner lives of the ancients, I would like to direct my focus in this essay on something that the tradition forbids us to gaze on at all—that is, the priests as they bless the people with the words preserved at Numbers 6:24–26 and known liturgically as Birkat Kohanim (“The Priestly Blessing”)—in an attempt to reconstruct some sense of the original core conception of a ritual that has morphed forward through many different versions and iterations over the course of the many years that separate the biblical period from our own day.1
Nevertheless, in contradistinction to Buber (who was at constant loggerheads with the intellectual world of his day, a world that strongly favored a positivist approach that discouraged accepting at face value information culled from ancient documents), I tend these days—after spending about three decades studying the aggadic testimony of Jewish antiquity—to accept this kind of material at face value, and thus to presume that this kind of ancient testimony was possessed in the distant past of a fully real, even tangible, dimension that can under certain circumstances still be recovered today. (Buber, like so many rationalist thinkers that preceded him, felt obliged to consider such information as merely metaphoric—that is to say, as the record of internal feelings or events; but that is precisely the approach I do not wish to take.)
This study, which shall concern the belief that the divine indwelling (the Shekhinah) becomes physically present when the kohanim bless the people, will serve as an excellent example of the approach to ancient texts I wish to set forward for my readers to consider.
Rabbi Judah, the son of Rabbi Naḥmani, lived in third-century C.E. Galilee and a tradition is preserved in the Talmud in his name, to the effect that “there are three groups of individuals whose eyesight becomes dim because of what they have gazed upon…[and one of these is made up of those who,] when the Temple still stood, would gaze upon the kohanim when they stood on their platform and blessed Israel using the explicit [four-letter] name [of God].2
This source is undoubtedly dependent on ancillary traditions according to which the Shekhinah hovered over the kohanim when they blessed the people in God’s name.3 This tradition is also cited by Rashi who, using the following language, explains the Mishnah’s remark that one of the differences in practice between the synagogues of antiquity and the Jerusalem Temple was that, although in the Temple the priests would lift their hands up over their heads, in the synagogue ritual the priests would only lift their arms to shoulder-height:
Above their heads. [Why was it that the kohanim in the Temple lifted their hands up over their heads?] Because [it was only there, in the Temple that] the priests would bless the people using the explicit [four-letter] name, in which context the Shekhinah hovered directly over their knuckles.4
This tradition was hardy an invention of the sages of medieval Ashkenaz, nor does Rashi suggest that it was. In my opinion, it should properly be understood as a reflex of an old midrash deriving from the Land of Israel and preserved in the ancient collection of texts relating to the Song of Songs, Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah. There, we find the following:
My lover is like a gazelle or a young buck. And suddenly there he was, standing behind our walls, watching through the windows, peering through the latticework. And then my beloved called out and said to me, “Come, my beloved, my beauty, and hurry off.” Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Ḥanina [said]…“Standing behind our walls” refers to the walls of synagogues and study halls; “watching through the windows” means that [God is present] between the shoulders of the kohanim; “peering through the latticework” means that [God is present] amidst the fingers of the kohanim. And [then we read:] “And then my beloved called out and said to me.” What [exactly] did he say to me? “May the Eternal bless you and guard you” (Numbers 6:24).5
This text, however, brings another question in its wake: if the ancients understood this concept of the presence of the Shekhinah as something fully spiritual and abstract, thus as something lacking all physicality and sensual reality, then why should it be forbidden to gaze at the kohanim when they pronounce the blessing—let alone to the point of threatening any who dare do so with dimmed eyesight?6
From this jumping-off point, I would like to proceed now to put forward an argument that I know will, at least at first, sound far-fetched. Nevertheless, I find myself unable to think about traditions that have come down to us from antiquity in any other way; and so I wish to propose that the concept of the presence of the Shekhinah mentioned above be taken neither metaphorically nor poetically, but simply as a statement of sensually perceptible reality. And it seems reasonable to me also to assume that this ancient experience of divine presence was accompanied by a parallel experience of effulgent light—a phenomenon that, as I shall attempt to demonstrate presently, is widely taken in many different cultures as indicative of divine presence.
If I am correct in this assumption, it seems logical to suppose that the obligation to avert one’s eyes from the priests pronouncing the blessing, prohibiting one from gazing upon the kohanim as they pronounced the Priestly Blessing, was not understood by the ancients as an expression of polite deference prompted by respect and awe, but rather as a prohibition that derived directly from the simple fact that it is not possible for human eyes to gaze directly at the source of such powerful, blinding light without coming to harm. It was for this specific reason that tradition tells us, almost in the style of simple reportage, that the eyesight of those who dared to gaze upon the kohanim as they pronounced the blessing became noticeably weakened—the Hebrew literally means “his eyes dimmed”—as a result of staring into the blinding effulgence.7
I also believe that it is possible to see, in another of the traditions of our classical sages, a kind of oblique reference to a similar feature of life in the Temple precincts witnessed in its day by many. This tradition, preserved in Vayikra Rabbah, tells us that the face of the High Priest “burned like torches ablaze when the holy spirit descended upon him” on Yom Kippur.8
The Bible itself reports several similar events. When, for example, Moses encountered the divine Presence “in a fiery flame from within the bush” (Exodus 3:2)—which is to say that the bush, which “was not consumed,” was the source of the fire—the narrative also reports immediately that “Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to gaze directly at God” (3:6). It is obviously possible to understand Moses’ instant response of covering his face as an expression of respect toward God and nothing else, but my point is that it is no less reasonable to read the text as reporting an instance in which Moses was confronted with light of such awesome intensity that he naturally feared that its blinding effulgence might well damage his eyesight—perhaps even permanently.9
Later, we hear that Moses himself was granted this kind of photic effulgence—which image I believe readers are intended to take literally—when the Bible’s most holy of men began to exude light, which actually shone off him in rays. Well known, of course, is the text that relates how Moses, after descending from Mount Sinai, “knew not that the skin of his face was giving off rays [of light]” (Exodus 34:29). The point there is that this new development was an immediate effect of Moses having spoken directly with God, as the text specifically says that the light began to emanate from his skin “when He [i.e., God] spoke to him” (Exodus 34:30).10 And the same verse also says that Aaron and the Israelites “feared approaching him.”11
In another incident, we find that the angelic visitors who come to see Lot in Sodom are able to inflict blindness—the ultimate “dimming” of one’s eyesight—on the unruly mob that surrounds Lot’s home.12 The implication here is that Lot’s would-be attackers were struck with blindness caused by a sudden effulgence of light that flowed directly to them from the visitors. And we may compare to this the story of the prophet Elisha smiting the armies of Aram with blindness.13
It also bears recalling that God was conceived of in ancient times as being visible as pure photic effulgence. This assertion can be demonstrated with reference to many different passages in the Bible, but for the sake of brevity I will only point out two: “For with You is the source of life; in Your light shall we see light” (Psalm 36:10) and “The sun shall not provide you light by day nor shall the shining moon illumine you, but instead shall the Eternal be your everlasting light, your God [whose existence is] your splendor” (Isaiah 60:19).14 Indeed, it is in light of such passages that biblical scholars have interpreted the expression found uniquely in the Priestly Blessing, “May the Eternal illumine for you the divine face” (Numbers 6:25); and similarly the text of Psalm 67:2, “God shall act beneficently toward us and shall bless us; God shall illumine the divine face for us, selah.”15 In fact, biblical scholars have pointed out that this concept actually pre-dates the biblical text, insofar as an enveloping aura of shining light was already attributed to the gods in Mesopotamian texts at the end of the Assyrian period (i.e., the seventh century B.C.E).16
In the writings of our ancient sages we also find many similar expressions of the same idea, but here I will only mention a few of them. Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥman, for example, is cited as having remarked that “the blessed Holy One self-swathed in light as though it were a robe, and the brightness of [the consequent] divine splendor shone forth from one end of the universe to the other.”17 And in the Yerushalmi we find the interesting statement to the effect that once, when Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua were studying Torah, there suddenly “came down from heaven fire that surrounded them.”18 In my opinion, this story is about a kind of spiritual light that enveloped the sages with a kind of body-halo that, instead of encircling their heads, actually covered their entire bodies.19 And a final example of this kind of story is preserved in the Bavli, where it is reported that once, when Rabbi Yoḥanan found himself in a gloomy room, he simply “exposed his arm and light streamed out [into the dark space].”20 Concerning the talmudic stories that feature light flowing out of the body of a holy individual: I do not think that it is reasonable to understand these texts other than literally and simply, nor do I believe there are reasonable grounds for considering these stories as mere allegories intended poetically to illustrate their subjects’ fine inner virtues.
I will turn to several brief anecdotes that demonstrate that such discussions continued well into the Middle Ages. But first I would like to highlight the common theme shared by the first two sources I am going to cite—which they also share with other texts by medieval kabbalists. It is the case, as Moshe Idel concluded after analyzing them himself, that “light appears [in kabbalistic Jewish texts of this specific sort] in connection with the activity of writing or of combining the letters of the Ineffable Name in writing.”21 This point is crucial for my analysis as well because, as I have tried to demonstrate, these kabbalistic lessons have their roots in the talmudic tradition relating to the use of the ineffable four-letter name of God in the Priestly Blessing.22 Indeed, just as Rashi understood from the midrash, they are tightly tied to the traditions regarding the physical presence of the Shekhinah made perceptible by the appearance of intensely splendiferous brilliance of light or fire.
Now, to the sources themselves. Rabbi Natan ben Saadiah Harar, the author of Shaarei Tzedek and a student of Abraham Abulafia,23 describes the moment that this wondrous light appeared in his home once after midnight:
The third night, after midnight, I nodded off a little, quill in hand and paper on my knees. Then I noticed that the candle was about to go out. I rose to put it right, as oftentimes happens to a person awake. Then I saw that the light continued. I was greatly astonished, as though, after close examination, I saw that it issued from myself. I said, “I do not believe it.” I walked to and fro all through the house and, behold, the light was with me. I lay on a couch and covered myself up, and behold, the light was with me all the while.24
Similar to this text is a parallel account by Rabbi Isaac of Acre, who writes as follows in his Otzar Ḥayyim:
Moreover, in the third watch, when I was half asleep, I saw the house in which I was sleeping full of a light which was very sweet and pleasant, for this light was not like the light which emanates from the sun, but was [bright] as the light of day, which is the light of dawn before the sun rises. And this light was before me for about three hours, and I hastened to open my eyes to see whether the dawn had broken or not, so that I might rise and pray, and I saw that it was yet night, and I returned to my sleep with joy, and after I rose from my bed in order to pray, I suddenly saw a secret of the letter alef.25
From the traditions of medieval Ashkenaz, I shall reference only the short anecdote from Sefer Ḥasidim that describes how one of the local ḥasidim was washing himself in a bathtub when suddenly “a shaft of light smacked the head of this righteous man while he was still in the water.”26
* * *
Testimonies from ancient and medieval times like the ones cited above must be paired with the large number of extant non-Jewish sources—both literary and artistic—to which they are parallel. Indeed, we can find such parallels in cultures that derive from every corner of the world, including different sorts of shamanistic religions, in Central American culture,27 in Hinduism,28 in Buddhism,29 in Christianity,30 and in Islam.31 Common to all of these passages is the depiction of the holy individual who experiences the physically real indwelling of divine presence (what Jewish sources call the Shekhinah) as a flaming lamp, as a pillar surrounded by fire, or as someone from whose head radiates a halo of light.32
As stated at the beginning of this essay, I have come to believe that Jewish tradition (in this respect similar to many other world cultures) has preserved accurately the original ideational framework that underlay the ancient ritual of the Priestly Blessing, by maintaining the recollection of that ritual as an entirely sensory experience of the intense light upon which no mortal, or at least no “regular” mortal, may gaze.33 And I have also come to believe that there is no rational way to interpret these traditions, at least in their ancient settings, as merely abstraction and metaphor.
* * *
I wish to embellish my argument with a telling anecdote. A close friend tells me that once, back in the 1990s, she regularly attended the classes of Yemima Avital, a spiritual teacher whose method contained many kabbalistic elements.34 In the course of one of those classes, my friend tells me that she lifted up her head from her notebook and saw a very strong blue light adhering to the wall facing her, just in front of which Yemima was standing. My friend further says that she was so shocked by the experience that she automatically lowered her head and looked directly into her notebook, whereupon she heard Yemima’s voice addressing her personally and by name, asking “Did you see something on the wall?”
* * *
Before I conclude, I would like to address a question that flows naturally from the argument put forward in this essay but which I have not yet discussed: So what? Even if we were to accept as proven all the suggestions made above, we are still left with the challenge of explaining the meaning of these supernatural occurrences and their significance for Jews today who have no personal experience of any of this and who, even if they were to have such experiences, might well respond by shrugging their shoulders. Would that gesture imply a lack of faith or a lack of certainty? Since such a discussion could easily become very long and complex, however, I will limit myself here to a line of thought that strikes me as the most potentially useful for members of our own generation facing the challenge inherent in these supernatural phenomena (insofar as they can be demonstrated to constitute actual spiritual events and not mere illusory tricks).
Given the intense emotion that history has embedded in the harsh story of Jewish efforts to find a place for Judaism among the religions of the world (and this is particularly so if we take into account the painful history of Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim relations in the medieval period), I wish to begin by saying clearly that I am not proposing anything here that is especially incompatible with what one might hear in traditional Jewish circles. Indeed, many medieval Jewish sages adopted a similar stance toward the supernatural phenomena that they perceived as functions of the presence and power of the holy individual.
Of all those medievals I could cite, I will quote here the words of Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380–1444),35 who wrote as follows in his masterwork, Sefer Ha-ikkarim:
A prophet who offers a [supernatural] sign to demonstrate the legitimacy of his prophetic calling—for example, one who “proves” his status by walking through fire without being burnt or by means of some similar stunt—has, in so doing, only really offered a sign that he is the kind of individual capable of provoking miraculous signs and wonders. Such, however, should not be taken to constitute verification of his status as a true prophet. Nor, needless to say, should it be taken to constitute a sign of legitimate ability to offer a [new] Torah to the world, because, indeed, there are many instances of wonders and signs of that ilk being provoked by sorcery or magic, or being performed by truly righteous individuals who nonetheless were not prophets. Examples of this are given, for example, in the Talmud, where we read about the effort of Rabbi Eliezer to demonstrate the correctness of his position by successfully ordering a carob tree to uproot itself or commanding a stream of water to reverse the direction of its flow. But even in that instance they specifically did not fix the halakhah in accordance with his opinion, [because such wondrous signs were not deemed to constitute evidence of prophetic status].36
Albo’s argument is as follows: the fact that a holy individual can perform (or at least provoke) a miracle—or, as we today would say, the fact that supernatural phenomena appear to attend a specific holy individual—merely demonstrates that that person is someone “capable of provoking miraculous signs and wonders.” In other words, such signs merely demonstrate that the individual capable of provoking them is not a “regular” individual like the rest of us, but rather someone close enough to God for divine behavior in his ambit specifically not to be bound by the regular laws of nature. To make this specific point, Albo brings the example of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who, in the context of his famous debate regarding the halakhic status of the specific kind of clay oven called an “Akhnai” oven, was able to provoke remarkable examples of “miraculous” behavior—and yet his views were still not accepted as authoritative based on those supernatural “proofs,” and precisely because it does not go without saying that even an individual capable of such feats was necessarily a legitimate spokesperson for God. Therefore, there is no specific reason to believe the claims even of such a wonder-worker to have received direct instructions from God regarding a new revelation merely because he or she was able to perform a supernatural feat.
It seems obvious that Albo, a medieval well ensconced in his own world, was aiming his remarks directly at Christians and Muslims. Seen in this light, his argument—if I may restate it in unambiguous modern terms—is simply this: even if we accept that Jesus or Muhammed were holy men who were able to provoke impressive supernatural events in their followers’ presence, this ability alone does not grant them the right to promulgate a torah different from the Torah revealed to Israel at Sinai. Therefore we, the Jewish people, are justified in rejecting these “new” revelations as legitimate torah from God.37
Basing myself on Albo’s formulation, I can formulate a response in the classical Jewish style to the issue at hand as follows. Traditional Judaism recognizes that there are, in every corner of the world, holy individuals in whose ambit supernatural occurrences of various sorts may occasionally occur. We there have no specific obligation, both as moderns living in an age of ever-advancing technology and also as faithful Jews, to respond to reports of such incidents in knee-jerk fashion or by denying their possibility. Indeed, may we reasonably accept as possible the reality of holy individuals possessed of supernatural abilities, without abandoning our integrity.
On the other hand, we also recognize that the intellectually and spiritually naïve in our midst may be so overwhelmed with such supernatural events that they find themselves almost involuntarily swept along in the wake of such holy individuals to the point at which they conclude that their spiritual teachings “must” constitute absolute truths. (In such category, for example, would be those naïfs who feel drawn to Sufi mystics, even to the point of abandoning their own faith for the sake of embracing Islamic truth instead.) The “correct” Jewish response to such individuals need not involve an absolute denial of the holiness of the Sufi sage in question. Rather, since there is no compelling reason not to embrace both the fact that some specific Sufi sage is a truly holy person and that he or she has come to that stage of holiness in the Sufi context because that is the religious framework in which that individual lives and labors, it stands to reason that an individual can grow into holiness in the context of any spiritual society, faith group, ideological school, or religious civilization. However, the fact that an individual attains holiness—even to the point of being rationally considered to be a true intimate of God—does not necessarily imply that the ideology, religion, or religious sect to which he or she belongs itself was vouchsafed the authentic word of God more powerfully or really than any other such group.
On the other hand, accepting that there are holy individuals in the world—and that such virtuous people wholly given over to the service of God are plausibly to be found among every people or faith group across the globe—is a profoundly meaningful step for modern (or, more precisely, post-modern) believers to take. Such a step can open wide the gate to new approaches to the worship of God, regardless of the ethnicity or religious context from which they derive. Indeed, the sole requirement for such a role in our lives should be the holiness, virtue, and integrity of the teacher—none of which should be supposed to be the exclusive province of only one group or sect.
Perhaps one could say the same thing using the language of Hasidism. Indeed, in light of the well-known hasidic belief that the sparks of divine holiness are scattered all across the world, we could conclude that one may well seek to come close to the service of God in any place in which individuals of personal merit and virtue gather, regardless of which faith group they belong to…as long as they prove themselves able to raise up at least some of the holy sparks that are to scattered in every corner of the sublunary world.38
1 With regard to Buber’s belief regarding the myth as a remnant of some sort of spiritual event, see in far more detail the sources cited in my essay “Shamati Mi-mori: Al Musag Ha-masoret V’al Ha-mashma·ut Ha-p’nimit Shel Mitzvat Talmud Torah,” in Dimmui 27 (2005–2006), pp. 4–40.
2 B. Ḥagigah 16a.
3 The clear implication is that the priests used the ineffable name (i.e., the Tetragrammaton) when pronouncing the blessing; cf. M. Sotah 7:6, which explicitly notes that “in the Temple, the name [i.e., the four-letter name of God] was pronounced out loud.” In other words, none of the traditional circumlocutions was employed. And cf. also the interesting ideas regarding Birkat Kohanim set forward by Michael Schneider in his Mareh Kohen: Tei-ofaniah, Apotei-ozah V’tei¬ologia Binarit Bein He-Hagut Ha-kohanit Bi-t’kufat Ha-bayit Ha-sheini L’vein Ha-mistikah Ha-y’hudit Ha-k’dumah (Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2012), p. 114. Regarding the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton in late Second Temple times, see Gedalyahu Alon’s Meḥkarim B’toldot Yisrael Bimei Bayit Sheini U-vi-t’kufat Ha-mishnah V’ha-talmud (Tel Aviv: Ha-kibbutz Ha-me¬uḥad, 1957), vol. 1, pp. 194-205.
4 Rashi to B. Sotah 38a, s.v. u-va-mikdash, referencing M. Sotah 7:6. As far as the custom today goes, the Tosafot (commenting on B. Ḥagigah 16a, s.v. ba-kohanim) follow Rashi and instruct us that the fear that “the eyes of the onlooker may be dimmed” only pertained in ancient times and in the Temple, but that even in antiquity there was no need for anyone outside the Temple to worry that someone who gazed upon the priests as they pronounce the blessing risked poor vision, let alone blindness. Nevertheless, even though the halakhah forbidding gazing on the priests was limited to the Temple, it remains customary not to gaze upon the priests as they pronounce the blessing, lest one be distracted by some unusual feature of the kohanim’s appearance and as a result be unable fully to concentrate mindfully on the blessing as it is spoken aloud. (Cf. also in this regard M. Megillah 4:7.) In addition, see Rabbi Israel Ha-kohen of Radin’s comment in his Mishnah B’rurah to S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:23, §89: “From a strictly legal standpoint, all that is forbidden is overly focusing on the kohanim in a way that might distract one’s attention [from the blessing at hand], but a quick glance is permitted. This is so because, when the Temple stood, they [the kohanim] would pronounce the blessing using the explicit [four-letter] name [of God], whereupon the Shekhinah would hover over their hands, and it was in that specific context that even a casual glance [at them] was forbidden; but this has no pertinence today. Nevertheless, it remains customary [to avert one’s eyes from the kohanim as they pronounce the blessing and] not to look at them at all, as a kind of homage to Temple practice.” It seems likely to me that a comment in the Zohar (II 147a) was probably influential in the retention of the custom to not look at all. There, Rabbi Yitzḥak asks: “If one cannot actually see the Shekhinah, why should it matter [if one looks at the priests as they pronounce the blessing or not]?” The Zohar’s answer is that the Tetragrammaton is allusively present amidst the priests’ fingers even today—and that one should therefore not gaze on them out of a sense of awe, and also because one who would dare gaze upon them would be guilty of displaying unwarranted insolence toward heaven. (On the specific custom of the kohanim spreading out their fingers in the traditional way, see Alon, Meḥkarim, pp. 181-182.) It is also well worth noting that there were kabbalists who attempted to re-create the version of the Priestly Blessing that was in use in the Temple. Indeed, we know that the kabbalists of Beit-El (a group with origins in the eighteenth century and still in existence), following the lesson of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572) as preserved in the Sha·ar Ha-kavvanot of Rabbi Ḥayyim Vital (1543–1620), required that the kohanim lift their hands over their heads when pronouncing the blessing, just as was the practice in the Temple. (Regarding this practice and its theoretical justification, see Naftali Hoffner, N’si·at Kappayim V’taḥanun [Tel Aviv: Mossad Eliezer Hoffner, 5761 [2000–2001], p. 80.) Later, the custom of averting one’s eyes from the priests as they pronounced the blessing was considered by some halakhic decisor requisite as halakhah l’ma·aseh, as is obvious from the comment of Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Schwadron in his Da·at Torah to S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 128:23 (ed. Jerusalem, 5718 [1957–1958], pp. 177–178). He bases himself there on the fact that Rabbi Abraham of Narbonne in his Sefer Ha-eshkol (ed. Halberstadt, 5628 [1867–1868], part 1, Hilkhot Birkat Kohanim, p. 30) does not formulate the prohibition of gazing on the hands of the priests in the past tense, but uses instead present-tense verbs—suggesting that he understood the prohibition of gazing on the Shekhinah to remain in full force in his own day (and cf. the comment in the Naḥal Eshkol commentary by Rabbi Tzvi Auerbach [ad locum §3] in this regard).
5 Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah 2:2 (commenting on Song of Songs 2:9–10), s.v. davar aḥeir: domeh. And cf. the text as it appears in Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah (=Midrash Ḥazit) 2:21, ed. Shimshon Dunsky (Jerusalem: Dvir, 1980), p. 67.
6 See my discussion above of B. Ḥagigah 16a.
7 The phrase einav keihot appears in the Talmud at B. Ḥagigah 16a, and cf. the comments of the Tosafot ad locum, s.v. ba-kohanim bi-z’man she-beit ha-mikdash kayyam.
8 See Vayikra Rabbah 21:12, ed. Mordechai Margoliot (1953–1960; rpt. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1993), p. 493.
9 Regarding a similar progression of ideas, beginning with the sensory apprehension of the otherwise ethereal notions of kavod (taken here as something no less tangible than any ordinary material object) and hod (the term in this context denoting a deity’s halo of light) and leading directly to the abstract use of both terms to denote the God of Israel in the biblical context, see Menachem Haran’s Mikra V’olamo: Mivḥar Meḥkarim Sifrutiyim V’historiyim (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2009), p. 408, n. 13.
10 The text could also be read as “when he [Moses] spoke to Him [i.e., God],” but the point is the same. Perhaps the midrash is suggesting that Moses, who earlier on (i.e., at the burning bush) was unable to gaze upon the effulgence of the Shekhinah, later ascended to a higher plane when he was permitted to encounter God directly when receiving the Torah atop Mount Sinai. It is important to note that, according to this line of exegetical thinking, the language used to describe the shining-forth of Moses’ skin implies that henceforth he himself would be able to gaze upon the effulgent light of the Shekhinah; cf. the midrash preserved in Devarim Rabbah 11:3 that reads: “Isaac said to Moses, ‘I am greater than you, for I [willingly] stretched out my neck atop the altar and [at that moment] saw the face of the Shekhinah.’ Moses responded, ‘I have ascended to greater heights than you, for your eyes dimmed when you gazed upon the face of the Shekhinah but I encountered the Shekhinah face to face and my eyes did not grow dim.’ [And how do we know that Isaac’s eyes grew dim?] From the verse in which it is explicitly written, ‘And it came to pass that Isaac grew old and his eyes grew too dim to see’ (Genesis 27:1). [Instead of reading the Hebrew mei-re’ot as translated here ‘to see,’ take it to read that his eyes grew dim ‘from seeing.’] And from seeing what did Isaac’s eyes grow dim, if not from seeing the Shekhinah? [And whence do we know this about Moses?] From the verse that reads ‘And Moses knew not that the skin of his face [was giving off] rays [of light]’ (Exodus 34:29).”
11 It is worth noting, however, that several Christian exegetes, including Jerome (who was simply following the lead of the targum of Aquila), understood from the passage here that Moses actually grew horns, which interpretation found its most classical and widely known expression in Michelangelo’s Moses. Nevertheless, most other interpreters took the verse to mean that Moses was endowed with some sort of glowing halo. In this regard, see Menachem Haran, Mikra V’olamo, pp. 402–403. For a detailed survey of other biblical interpreters who comment on this passage, see Yaakov Gertner, “U-moshe Lo Yada Ki Karan Or Panav,” in Mi-peirot Ha-ilan Al Parashat Ha-shavua, eds. Yehoshua Schwarz and David Algavish (Ramat Gan [Israel]: Bar Ilan University Press, 1998), pp. 278–279.
12 See Genesis 19:11: “And they smote the men who stood at the gateway of the house with blindness, young and old alike, so that they eventually tired of ever finding the gateway.”
13 See 2 Kings 6, especially verse 18.
14 For a more detailed account of these points and for biblical sources in their regard, see Menachem Haran, Mikra V’olamo, pp. 407–409. And cf. also Nahum M. Waldman, “Hebrew זע and the Divine Aura,” in Graetz College Annual of Jewish Studies 1 (1972), pp. 7–13.
15 Cf. George Buchanan Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), p. 73; and, similarly, Menachem Haran, Mikra V’olamo, p. 408.
16 See, e.g., Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, Peirush Al Sefer Sh’mot (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1962), p. 313, available in Israel Abrahams’ English-language translation (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967), p. 448. And cf. also Menachem Haran, Mikra V’olamo, p. 408; Avigdor Victor Horowitz, “L’diyukano Shel Ha-eil Ha-mesopotami,” in Eilei Kedem: Ha-politeiyizm B’eretz Yisrael U-sh’kheinoteha Min Ha-elef Ha-sheini Lifnei Ha-s’firah V’ad Ha-t’kufah Ha-muslamit, eds. Menachem Kister, et al. (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzḥak Ben Tzvi, 2008), pp. 22–25; and Thomas Podella, Das Lichtkleid JHWHs: Untersuchungen zur Gestalthaftigkeit Gottes im Alten Testament und seiner altorientalischen Umwelt (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1996).
17 Bereishit Rabbah 3:4, ed. Theodor–Albeck, pp. 19–20. And cf. the analysis of Ḥananel Mack, Mi-reishit Le-Bereishit Rabbah (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2010), pp. 57–61. Regarding the concept of divine light too powerful to be seen by human eyes, see the material collected by Louis Ginzberg in his Legends of the Jews, trans. Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1909–1938), vol. 5, p. 338, n. 102.
18 Y. Ḥagigah 2:1, 77a. Regarding the correct text for this passage, see Nurit Beeri, Yatza L’tarbut Ra·ah: Elisha Ben Abuya, Aḥeir (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aḥaronot, 2007), p. 36. And cf. also the comments of William D. Davies in his Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), p. 185 n. 1, regarding the revelation of the Holy Spirit to Paul as fire, and see too the discussion of Davies there on p. 184 where he claims that the same perception was held by the Rabbis.
19 There is even a source (B. Niddah 30a) about the “light of wisdom” that shines forth from the human head, found in the description of the unborn fetus that, in the rabbinic conception—and this idea appears in non-Jewish sources as well—knows everything while still in its mother’s womb, insofar as it is able “to see from one end of the universe to the other”—hence the description of the fetus as having a lighted lamp on its head.
20 B. Berakhot 5a. For other talmudic sources that feature this motif, see my book Massekhet Nashim (Jerusalem: Keter, 2007), pp. 101–106.
21 Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 81–82.
22 In the book cited in the previous note, Idel specifically does not make this point—even though it could have served him as one of the more important sources for the later kabbalistic traditions he discusses. Regarding the link between visible fire and the audible names of God, see also the midrashic text Otiyyot D’rabbi Akiva, text A, published by Abraham Wertheimer in his Battei Midrashot (1950–1953; rpt. Jerusalem: Ketav Va-sefer, 1968), vol. 2, p. 365: “…and the blessed Holy One is seated upon a throne of fire and all around in every direction are the explicit divine names in the form of pillars of fire…such that, when an individual uses [i.e., speaks aloud] these names, every [intermediary layer of] firmament is [immediately] filled with fire that descends to burn the world…when an individual uses these name, the world is instantly filled with fire.” And cf. Moshe Idel’s comments in Mystical Experience, p. 106, n. 236.
23 See Moshe Idel, “Rabbi Natan Ben Saadia Harar V’hashpa·ato B’eretz Yisrael,” in Shalem 7 (2001), pp. 47–58. (I thank Rabbi Martin S. Cohen for this reference.)
24 This passage is cited in Idel, Mystical Experience, p. 79, from the original manuscript that had previously been published by Gershom Scholem in Kiryat Sefer 1 (1924–1925), p. 134; emphasis added.
25 This citation comes from Idel, Mystical Experience, p. 81, where he cites the text from Moscow-Ginzburg ms. 775, p. 197a. The phrase “third watch” references the final third of the night, cf. B. Berakhot 3b.
26 Sefer Ḥasidim §370, ed. Reuven Margoliot (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1957), p. 272. Moshe Idel, who collected some of the more pertinent medieval kabbalistic sources relating to the link between having a mystical experience and seeing the intense light, notes that in his estimation this is a very wide-spread phenomenon in world culture, and merely bringing together a few sources that can at best serve to limn the larger topic for their readers will hardly be sufficient to understand it fully. In his summary of the matter in Mystical Experience, Idel states that, in his estimation, “the subject of the specific kind of ‘illumination’ vouchsafed the mystic as part of the mystic experience itself would make a worth subject for a [full-length] study” (p. 148, n. 38).
27 For the fascinating personal account by contemporary anthropologist Nachum Meged of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem of his own experience of supernatural light in the context of shamanistic ritual, see Nachum Meged, Sha·arei Tikvah V’sha·arei Eimah: Shamanizm, Magia, V’khishuf Bi-d’rom U-merkaz Amerika (Tel Aviv: Modan, 1998), p. 165.
28 Cf. Stella Kramrisch, “The Triple Structure of Creation in the Ṛg Veda,” in History of Religions 2:1–2 (1962–1963), pp. 140–175, and particularly her comment on p. 172: “The light of Vaisvanara is seen here in this world and it is the inner light of the seers. It passes through their filters…in the heart, on the road of meditation, on the road of illumination.” And cf. also Weston La Barre, Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition about Sexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 80–82, where the author presents various traditions (including from shamanistic religions) regarding fire coming forth from the head of the holy individual.
29 Cf., e.g., Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, ed. Partick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 278–290, “Intrinsic Radiance,” and especially the section entitled “The Duration of the Ground Luminosity,” on pp. 269–270. And cf. also the interesting account on p. 275: “Then something extraordinary happened. An incandescent, milky light, looking like a thin and luminous fog, began to appear and gradually spread everywhere. The palace temple had four large electric lamps outside; normally at that time of the evening they shone brightly, as it was already dark by seven o’clock. Yet they were dimmed by this mysterious light. Apa Pant, who was then Political Officer to Sikkim, was the first to ring and inquire what on earth it could be. Then many others started to call; this strange, unearthly light was seen by hundreds of people. One of the other masters then told us that such manifestations of light are said in the Tantras to be a sign of someone attaining Buddhahood.”
30 Cf. Mircea Eliade, The Two and the One, trans. J. M. Cohen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1962, pp. 61–65.
31 For a source in the Koran in which God is described as light, see sura 24 (called “The Light”), and particularly line 35: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth; his light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance” (The Koran, trans. N. J. Dawood [London: Penguin, 1990], p. 353).
32 For a general analysis of sources featuring the halo, see Avidov Lipsker’s essay, “Or Zarua La-tzaddik,” in Entziklopedia Shel Ha-sippur Ha-y’hudi—Sippur Okev Sippur, eds. Yoav Elstein, Avidov Lipsker, and Rella Kushelevsky (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2004–2013), vol. 1, pp. 105–134. In Lipsker’s own rich and illuminating essay, from which I myself first learned of some of the sources I have cited here, the reader will find many references to cross-cultural material regarding the concept of the halo that crowns the head of the righteous individual with light. See in particular the material regarding the specific connection between the righteous individual and light (p. 107, n. 3), and the material regarding the ancient belief according to which the sun or the moon themselves originally emanated from the head of ancient kings or priests (pp. 106–107); and see there also Lipsker’s reference to the Egyptian hieroglyphs in this regard, as well as his comments about archaeological finds in Mykonos and India, as well as his reference to the image of the halo on the drawings found at Dura-Europos (p. 111, n. 7). In this regard, see also Marthe Collinet-Guérin’s Histoire du nimbe: des origins aux temps modernes (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1961), in which that author discusses the image of the halo in many different world cultures. In addition, cf. also Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Vol. 5 (L-Z) (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1955), p. 455.
33 I am obviously not arguing that this phenomenon recurred over and over throughout the long period of the Temple’s existence. Nevertheless, it hardly matters for my argument even if we are speaking of the recollection of something that happened one single time that was subsequently presented in the annals of Jewish legend as though it were an ongoing, oft-repeating feature of the Priestly Blessing in the Temple. Regarding the tantalizing historical question of whether the Priestly Blessing was performed in the First Temple, see the remarks of Menachem Haran, Mikra V’olamo, pp. 421–432.
34 Yemima Avital was born in 1929 in Casablanca and died in 1999 in Herzliya. She was a spiritual teacher, as well as a kabbalistically-oriented religious mystic, who developed the school of mystic thought known as “consciousness awareness” or simply “the Yemima method.” I heard of a similar experience from a different friend who attended the classes of Jean Klein; cf. what I wrote in my column “Merḥavim” in the Israeli newspaper Maariv on Friday, November 29, 2013, p. 15. For yet another report, see the book by Friedrich Weinreb (himself also a Jewish mystic), Begegnungen mit Engeln und Menschen—Mysterium des Tuns: Autobiographische Aufzeichnungen 1910–1936 (Bern: Origo, 1988), p 198. Weinreb’s comments were summarized by Israel Koren in his essay “Y’sodot Mistiyim U-n’vi·iyim Eitzel Friedrich Weinreb,” published in Kabbalah 4 (1999), p. 371: “Weinreb writes about an experience he had in the prayer house in Scheveningen, Holland, in 1932 when he was twenty-two years old, an experience that, like the majority of his mystical experiences, came to him unheralded and unexpected. Weinreb tells that, in the course of the prayer service in the study hall, the room filled with bright light unlike anything one would normally see with one’s own eyes. He tells how, at that very minute, he understood for the first time what light really is. And the presence of this light exerted an influence as well on the words of the liturgy themselves which appeared themselves to be radiating the light. Weinreb instantly understood that this experience was tied to the presence of a different man, a guest who had arrived in that place whom Weinreb only noticed when the prayer service ended. When he shook that man’s hand, Weinreb felt himself to be intimately connected to this stranger. Then, the next day, they met again and began to speak to each other. It turned out that the man’s name was Rabinov and that he had been a student of the Ḥafetz Ḥayyim [Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan, 1838–1933] but was now working as a congregational rabbi in Hamburg. The conversation between the two men took on a distinct mystic overtone” (emphasis added).
35 Regarding Albo and his philosophy, see most recently Dror Ehrlich’s Haguto Shel Rav Yosef Albo: K’tivah Ezoteirit B’shilhei Y’mei Ha-beinayim (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2009), and especially his discussion of the philosopher’s exact dates on p. 15, n. 2.
36 Rabbi Joseph Albo, Sefer Ha-ikkarim 1:18 (ed. Warsaw 1847), p. 76. The talmudic passage cited may be found at B. Bava Metzia 59b.
37 It should be noted that Rabbi Joseph Albo served as one of the Jewish representatives in the disputation at Tortosa, the great public debate held between Jews and Christians in the years 1413 and 1414 in Tortosa, a town in Catalonia. See R. Ben Shalom, “Vikku·aḥ Tortosa: Vincente Ferrer U-v’ayat Ha-anusim Al-pi Eiduto Shel Yitzḥak Natan,” in Zion 56:1 (1991), pp. 21–46. Regarding the specific role of Rabbi Albo at Tortosa, see Ehrlich, Haguto, p. 16.
38 Regarding the scattered sparks, see Louis Jacobs’s essay, “The Uplifting of the Sparks in Later Jewish Mysticism,” in Jewish Spirituality, ed. Arthur Green (New York: Crossroad, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 99–126.