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Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah

Joseph Dan
AJS Review
Vol. 5 (1980), pp. 17-40
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1486451
Page Count: 24
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Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah
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Abstract

The description of the divine world as a mythical struggle between good and evil is one of the basic symbols of the kabbalah, and a detailed mythology based on it is found in the Zohar late in the thirteenth century. The main source of the Zohar on this subject is a treatise by Rabbi Isaac ha-Kohen, called "On the Emanation on the Left," written in Spain at the beginning of the second half of the thirteenth century, a generation before the Zohar. The problem studied here is: What were the sources of Rabbi Isaac's myth of evil? Rabbi Isaac described Samael and Lilith as a pair, being the central powers in the Emanation on the Left. It seems that the literary development which brought forth this formula began with the myth of Lilith as presented in the satirical Pseudo-Ben Sira (tenth century?) and later revisions of that work which were known in Europe in the eleventh century and included a description of a sexual relationship between Lilith and a "Great Demon," who was later identified as Samael. Both Lilith and Samael in these stories are not principles of evil; this transformation probably occurred only in the work of Rabbi Isaac. When describing the levels of the spiritual world, Rabbi Isaac discussed a sphere he called "third air" which is the source of both prophetic visions and "use" of demons. This concept seems to be derived from the writings of Rabbi Judah the Pious and Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, the Ashkenazi Hasidim, early in the thirteenth century. In their works, however, there are no dualistic or mythical elements; these were probably added by Rabbi Isaac. Rabbi Isaac formulated the myth of the evil worlds which were destroyed before this world was created, a myth which became a central motif in the kabbalah. It seems that this too is derived from the works of the Ashkenazi Hasidim, though it was Rabbi Isaac who added the mythology and the dualism. It should be noted that among such additions and elaborations by Rabbi Isaac we also find a detailed messianic myth which was rare if not absent among previous kabbalists.

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