AZRIEL (EZRA) BEN MENAHEM (BEN SOLOMON)
Founder of the speculative Cabala, and called "The Saint"; born at Gerona in 1160; died in 1238. As to the identity of Azriel and Ezra, taken for two brothers by Grätz ("Gesch." vii. 447 et seq.) and Bloch (Winter and Wünsche, "Jüd Literatur," iii. 261), compare Jellinek ("Beiträge zui Geschichte der Kabbala," i. 41; Landauer, "Lit.-Bl." vi. 196; and Michael, "Or ha-Ḥayyim," No. 1151). Attracted by the mystical studies that had begun to spread in Spain, Azriel went early to southern France, and became there a pupil of the celebrated cabalist Isaac the Blind, the son of Abraham of Posquières. Later he left France and traveled all over Spain, making propaganda for the Cabala. He endeavored to win the philosophers over to his mystic views, but did not succeed, as he himself confesses in the introduction to his commentary upon the Ten Sefirot. "For," says he, "the philosophers believe in nothing that can not be demonstrated logically." He came back disappointed to Gerona, and there founded a school in which Naḥmanides received Azriel's cabalistic instruction, as is stated by Abraham Zacuto ("Yuḥasin"), Meïr ibn Gabbai, Ibn Yaḥya ("Shalshelet ha-Ḳabbalah"), and others (see Grätz, l.c.). Azriel wrote a commentary on the Ten Sefirot in the form of questions and answers, following therein the speculative method of philosophy (edited by N. A. Goldberg, Berlin, 1850). Its title, not given by the editor, was "Ezrat Adonai" (see Grätz, l.c., following S. Sachs). He also wrote a commentary on "Shir ha-Shirim," ascribed often to Naḥmanides, published under his name (Altona, 1764), in which the 613 commandments are explained mystically as based upon the Decalogue. Azriel was, further, the author of a commentary on "Sefer Yeẓirah," entitled "Sefer ha-Milluïm," which was likewise ascribed to Naḥmanides, and published under his name in Mantua, 1719. Besides these he seems to have written a cabalistic commentary on the prayers, and a hymn with his name "Ezra" as acrostic. His system rests chiefly on his Neoplatonic conception of God as the "En Sof," the Endless One, Gabirol's "En lo Tiklah" (compare Joel, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie," Appendix, p. 12, "Lewi ben Gerson," 1862.
His Doctrine of God.
God, he contends, can be determined only in a negative way: what He is not can alone be ascertained; not what He is. All positive attributes bear the stamp of sensualism. The Being that is the originator of all things can have no intention, desire, thought, word, or action. He is infinite; the negation of all negations; the Endless.
After having stated this strange conception of God, Azriel investigates the relation of this En-Sof to the universe. Has the universe been created from nothing? No. Aristotle is perfectly right in saying that nothing can proceed from nothing. Moreover, creation implies a decrease in the Creator's essence through subtraction, and that can not be predicated of the En-Sof. Nor can the universe have existed eternally, as Aristotle asserts, because nothing is eternal save God. Accordingly, the Platonic idea of a primary matter is not acceptableeither. Azriel, in order to solve the problem of creation, has recourse to the theory of emanation, which he develops as follows:
The universe, with all its multifarious manifestations, was latent in the essence of the En-Sof, in which, notwithstanding its infinite variety, it formed an absolute unit, just like the various sparks and colors that proceed from the one and indivisible flame potential in the coal. The act of creation did not consist in producing an absolutely new thing; it was merely a transformation of potential existence into realized existence. Thus there was really no creation, but an efflux (see Aẓilut). The effluence was effectuated through successive gradations from the intellectual world to the material, from the indefinite to the definite. This material world, being limited and not perfect, could not proceed directly from the En-Sof; neither could it be independent of Him; for in that case He would be imperfect. There must have been, therefore, intermediaries between the En-Sof and the material world; and these intermediaries were the Ten Sefirot. The first Sefirah was latent in the En-Sof as a dynamic force; then the second Sefirah emanated as a substratum for the intellectual world; afterward the other Sefirot emanated, forming the moral, the material, and the natural worlds. But this fact of emanation does not imply a prius or a posterius or a gradation in the En-Sof—a candle, the flame of which is capable of igniting an indefinite number of lights, although, in itself, it is a unit. The Sefirot, according to their nature, are divided into three groups: the three superior forming the world of thought, the next three the world of soul, the last four the world of corporeality. They all depend upon one another, being united like links to the first one. Each of them has a positive and a passive quality—emanating and receiving. The first Sefirah is called by Azriel not Keter, as the later cabalists call it, but Rum Ma'alah. Grätz (l.c.) thinks that Azriel meant by that term Ibn Gabirol's "Will" ("Ḥefeẓ")—the highest dynamic force of the Deity. Indeed, Azriel's contemporary, Jacob ben Sheshet, called the first Sefirah Raẓon ("Will"). The second and third Sefirah were Hokmah and Binah; the fourth, fifth, and sixth, Ḥesed, Paḥad, and Tiferet; the seventh, eighth, and ninth, Neẓaḥ, Hod, and Yesod 'Olam; and the tenth, Ẓedeḳ. These Ten Sefirot were put by Azriel into correspondence to the ten parts of the human organism and to the ten different refractions of light.
The whole system, with the exception of the theory of the Sefirot, is derived from Ibn Gabirol's "Meḳor Ḥayyim," which Azriel imitated, even as to its form, in arranging his commentary upon the Ten Sefirot, by putting it into questions and answers as Gabirol did. Azriel, however, had the merit of affording some guidance in the labyrinth of mysticism.
Jellinek, Beiträge zur Gesch der Kabbala, i. 61-66, ii. 32;
Ehrenpreis, Die Entwickelung der Emanationslehre in der Kabbala im Dreizehnten Jahrhundert, pp. 23 et seq.;
Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, vii. 447-453;
Landauer, in Literaturblatt des Orients, vi. 196;
Myer, Qabbalah, pp. 284 et seq.;
Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 755;
Michael, Or ha-Ḥayyim, No. 1151;
Bloch, Die Jüdische Mystik und Kabbalah, in Winter and Wünsche, Jüd. Literatur, iii. 261, 262.