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The Art of Metoposcopy: A Study in Isaac Luria's Charismatic Knowledge

  • Lawrence Fine (a1)

Amongst the most important roles which Isaac Luria (1534–1572), the preeminent kabbalist of sixteenth-century Safed, played in the lives of his disciples was that of physician of the soul. Before they could practice rituals which were intended to enable them to bind their souls to the divine realm, and to “repair” that realm in accordance with the teachings of Lurianic mythology, his disciples had first to mend their own souls, to cleanse and purify them of all imperfection No individual whose own soul had failed to achieve a certain level of perfection could hope to engage successfully in the intricate and elaborate contemplative rituals-such as the Yiḥudim-which Luria devised. A person had to undergo a period during which he cultivated certain spiritual and moral traits and atoned for whatever sins he might have committed. Luria, in fact, provided his followers with highly detailed rituals of atonement by which they were to mend their souls. These penitential acts were known as tikkunei avonot (“amends of sin”) whose purpose, in the words of Hayyim Vital's son Shmuel, was to “mend his soul"”and “cleanse him from the filth of the disease of his sins.” Hayyim Vital (1542–1620), Luria's chief disciple, himself introduces the tikkunei avonot with a discussion of the relationship between one's soul and sin.

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1. The major exposition of Lurianic mythology is byTishby, I., Torat ha-Ra ve-ha-Kelippah be-Kabbalat ha-Ari (Jerusalem, 1960). See also idem, “Gnostic Doctrines in Sixteenth Century Jewish Mysticism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 6 (1955); Scholem, G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1941), lecture 7; idem, Sabbatai Sevi (Princton, 1973), pt. 1. For a general introduction to the religious life of Safed in the sixteenth century, seeFine, L., Safed Spirituality (New York, 1984).

2. For a detailed study of the Yiḥudim, see Fine, L., “The Contemplative Practice of Yiḥudim in Lurianic Kabbalah”” in Jewish Spirituality, ed. A., Green, vol. 2 (Crossroad, forthcoming).

3. The tikkunei avonot are discussed in Sha'ar Ruaḥ ha-Kodesh of the Shemonah She'arim,pp. 40–64 (see below, n. 4). They are studied in the above-mentioned article.

4. Ḥayyim Vital was responsible for the most detailed versions of Lurianic teachings, among which the Shemonah She'arim (“Eight Gates”) is the most important. All references to the Shemonah She'arim are to the Yehudah Ashlag edition (Tel Aviv, 1962).

5. Sha'ar Ruaḥ ha-Kodesh of the Shemonah She'arim, p. 39 (hereafter cited as SRH).

6. SRH, p. 40.

7. For treatments of non-Jewish approaches to metoposcopy, see Thorndike, L., A History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York, 1923–58), especially vols. 6–8;Seligman, K., Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion (New York, 1948), pp. 256261;Alexandrian, S., Histoire de la philosophie occulte (Paris, 1983), pp. 201203. Concerning the development of the physiognomic arts in Judaism, see nn. 11–12 below.

8. SRH, p. 19. Other versions of this list are found in Sefer ha-Gilgulim (Przemysl, 1875), p. 26; Shivḥei ha-Ari (Bardejov, 1929), pp. 6–7; Sefer Toledot ha-Ari, ed. M. Benayahu (Jerusaem, 1967), p. 156; Eleh Toledot Yiẓḥak, Benayahu, pp. 248–251.

9. For discussion of the Sefer Yeẓirah, seeScholem, G., Ursprung und Anfdnge der Kabbala Berlin, 1962), pp. 2029; idem, “The Name of God and the Linguistic Theory of the Cabbalah,” Diogenes 79 (1972): 59–80; idem, Kabbalah (New York, 1974), pp. 23–30. See as well the studies by Weinstock, I. and Aloni, N. in Temirin, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1972), pp. 999. Suria's use of the Sefer YeẒirah in this connection is explicitly acknowledged, SRH, pp. 15–16. For broader discussions of the relationship between language and Kabbalah, seeScholem, G., On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York, 1965), pp. 3286; idem, the Diogenes article nentioned above, as well as its continuation in Diogenes 80 (1972): 164–194.

10. SRH, p. 16. This idea is already found in the Zohar, in the context of its discussion of physiognomic matters. See, for example, Zohar 2, 73a, where we learn that the mystery of the twenty-two letters is engraved within the ruaḥ of an individual, and that these letters can appear on the face. According to the anthropological views of the Kabbalah, the soul is considered to have three aspects. The nefesh is automatically present and active in every individual; the two more elevated levels, however, are latent. These manifest themselves only in the case of persons who are spiritually advanced and who have strived to develop themselves through religious activity. Such activity aids in the cultivation of the higher powers of cognition and results in the fullest maturation of the soul. Later kabbalists—including the Lurianists—added two other levels of soul. These are ḥayyah and yeḥidah, and are considered to represent still higher stages of spiritual attainment, present only in the most select figures. These two aspects of soul do not figure in the Lurianic discussion of metoposcopy.

11. SRH, pp. 15–16. The primary Lurianic account of metoposcopy is found in SRH, pp. 15–22. The earliest Jewish interest in physiognomy, in general, appears to go back to a Qumran document, published as 4Q 186. According to this text certain physiognomic criteria, such as the size and shape of the thighs, toes, fingers, hair, eyes, beard, teeth, height, and quality of voice, can be examined to ascertain an individual's moral and spiritual status. Such criteria, along with a person's zodiacal sign, were used to determine a person's fitness for membership in the “House of Light”, that is, the righteous among Israel. Concerning this, see Discoveries in the Judean Desert, vol. 5, Qumran Cave 4, ed. Allegro, J. M. (Oxford, 1968), pp. 8991. Physiognomic considerations play little role in conventional rabbinic materials, but were of great interest to the Merkavah mystics. As in the Qumran text, the Merkavah literature indicates that physiognomic criteria were employed to determine eligibility for admission into the circle of mystics. These criteria have to do with the character of the nose, lips, eyes, eyebrows, eyelashes, and sexual organs, although greatest significance was attached to the lines and letters upon the palm and forehead. These texts already speak, albeit in an unsystematic and exceedingly obscure way, of certain letters which appear on the hand and forehead. The primary text in this connection is Hakkarat Panim le-Rabbi Yishmael, which speaks of twelve letters that are visible on the forehead, although it does not specify which letters these are. This chapter and related materials are analyzed in two articles by Scholem, G., “Hakkarat Panim ve-Sidrei Sirtutin” in Sefer Assaf (Jerusalem, 1953), pp. 459495(see particularly, pp. 481–485), and “Ein Fragment zur Physiognomik und Chiromantic aus der Spatantiken judischen Esoteric,” in Liber Amicorum: Studies in Honor of Professor Dr. C. J. Bleeker (Leiden, 1969); see also idem, “Chiromancy,” in Scholem's Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1974), pp. 317–319; Gruenwald, I., “Ketaim Hadashim mi-Sifrut Hakkarat Panim ve-Sidrei Sirtutin” Tarbiz 40 (1971): 301319; idem, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism (Leiden, 1980), pp. 218–224. The most extensive treatment of physiognomy, chiromancy, and metoposcopy in medieval Jewish literature, prior: the Lurianic texts, is found in the zoharic corpus. Concerning this, see below, n. 12.

12. SRH, pp. 15–16. While the Lurianic notions of metoposcopy described here do not ippear to have any direct link to the material found in the Merkavah literature (see above, n. 11), they are unmistakably indebted, at least to some degree, to the fairly extensive discussions n the zoharic corpus. The literature of the Zohar treats physiognomic, chiromantic, and netoposcopic issues in several places, including: (1) Zohar 2, 71a–78a (along with the parallel version in Raza de-Razin); (2) Zohar 2, 272b–276a; (3) Zohar Hadash 35b–37c; and (4) Tikkunei Zohar, tikkun 70. These speculations are based, in part, on exegesis of Exodus 18:21. While I plan to analyze these materials elsewhere, it is worth noting here certain substantial differences between the Zohar's discussions and the Lurianic one: (1) Whereas the Zohar treats in some detail the several subjects of physiognomy, chiromancy, and metoposcopy—discussing the significance of the hair, forehead, eyes, face, lips, lines on the hand, and the ears—Luria was almost exclusively concerned with metoposcopy, that is, the forehead. He takes up other matters in the most passing way. (2) The Zohar's analysis of metoposcopy is mostly concerned with the shape of the forehead and with the lines or creases appearing in it, and far less with letters. In Luria's case, on the other hand, there is no discussion of anything but the letters and words which manifest themselves. (3) Whereas the Zohar's discussion incorporates elements of astrological speculation, the Lurianic account has only the briefest passing reference to this (see SRH, p. 16) and is clearly not genuinely concerned with astrology. (4) The Zohar tends to indicate how physical characteristics, such as the shape of the forehead or eyes, signify certain moral and spiritual traits in general ways. Thus, for example, a person is said to be inclined toward anger, impulsiveness, or joyfulness. In our texts, Luria is able to determine the specific sins or righteous acts which a person has performed

13. SRH, p. 17.

14. ibid., p. 18. According to B.T. Menahot 43b, R. Yose declares it to be the duty of everyone to recite one hundred blessings daily, whereas Numbers Rabbah 18 indicates that King David instituted the one hundred daily blessings.

15. SRH, p. 16.

16. ibid., p. 17.

17. ibid., p. 22.

18. ibid., p. 17.

19. ibid., p. 20. See nn. 11–12 above.

20. Kohelet Yaakov (Safed, 1558), p. 57a

21. Vidas, Elijah de, Reshit ffokhmah (Venice, 1957), “The Gate of Love,” chap. 6. Concerning de Vidas, his relationship to Luria, and Reshit Ḥokhmah, see Fine, Safed Spirituality,pp. 83 ff.

22. Sefer Ḥaredim (Venice, 1601), p. 25a.

23. Peri Ez ffayyim (Jerusalem, 1980), Sha'ar ha-Amidah, chap. 19.

24. This report is found in a somewhat legendary account of Luria's activities, Eleh Toledot ed. Benayahu in his Sefer Toledot ha-Ari, p. 251.

25. Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim of the Shemonah She'arim, hakdamah 17.

26. Sha'ar ha-MiẒvot, Ve-etḥanan, p. 87.

27. SRH. p. 17.

28. Sefer Toledot ha-Ari. Benayahu, p. 190.

29. Sefer ha-Iiezyonol, ed. A. Z. Aeshcoly (Jerusalem, 1954), p. 165. Concerning Vital's soul-ancestry in general, and his relationship to Hezekiah in particular, cf. pp. 143–144, 174, 184, 191, 198.

30. Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot, p. 173.

31. Sha'ar ha-MiẒvot, Mishpatim, p. 36.

32. See above, sec. I.

33. Sefer ha-Gilgulim, p. 27. The Lurianic literature is replete with stories and references to Luria's experience of meriting the revelation of Elijah. See, for example, the references to Elijah in Sefer Totedot ha-An, Benayahu, index to the names of individuals, p. 379. Regarding revelations of Elijah experienced by earlier kabbalists, see G. Scholem, Reshit ha-Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1948), pp. 66–98. Concerning the multifaceted role of Elijah in Jewish literature, seeWiener, A., The Prophet Elijah in the Development of Judaism (London, 1978).

34. Sefer ha-Gilgulim, p. 25a.

35. ibid., p. 25b.

36. ibid., p. 37b.

37. In this connection, see Idel's, M. study of Nahmanides' own view regarding what constitutes genuine and legitimate kabbalistic tradition, “We Have No Kabbalistic Tradition on This”, in Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban): Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity, ed. Twersky, I. (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), pp. 5173. Concerning the question of divine revelations experienced by the earliest kabbalists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, seeHeschel, A. J., “Al Ruah ha-Kodesh be-Yemei ha-Beinayim” in Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (New York, 1950), pp. 165207, especially pp. 190–193;Twersky, I., Rabad of Posquieres: A Twelfth Century Talmudist (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), pp. 286300.

38. Sefer ha-Gilgulim, p. 26a. Cf. Shivḥei ha-Ari, p. 6.

39. Sefer ha-Gilgulim, p. 26a.

40. ibid., p. 27a. It would be mistaken to conclude from this that Luria did not engage also in conventional textual study, of both exoteric and esoteric texts. Concerning this subject, see, for example, the traditions reported in Sha'ar ha-MiẒvot, Parashat Ve-etḥanan; SRH, pp. 34–46. Some of the relevant texts are translated in Fine, Safed Spirituality, pp. 68–70.

41. For a discussion of the notion of religious charisma as it is used here, see Keyes, Charles F., “Charisma: From Social Life to Sacred Biography” in Charisma and Sacred Biography, ed. M. Williams, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Thematic Studies 48, nos. 3 and 4 (1982): 122.

42. See, for example, the often-cited text in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava MeẒia 59b. On the question of revelation and authority, seeScholem, G., “Religious Authority and Mysticism” in his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, pp. 5–31; idem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York, 1971), pp. 282–303.

43. Concerning the experiences of Joseph TaitaẒak, see Scholem, G., “Ha-Maggid shel R. Yosef TaitaẒak ve-ha-Giluyim ha-Meyuḥasim Lo”, Sefunot 11 (1977): 69112. On the revelations accorded Cordovero and AlkabeẒ, see Werblowsky, R. J. Z., Joseph Karo, Lawyer and Mystic (Oxford, 1962), pp. 5155, as well asLiebes, Y., Ha-Mashiaḥ shel ha-Zohar—le- Demuto ha-Meshiḥit shel R. Shimon bar Yoḥai (Jerusalem, 1982), pp. 107109. On Karo, seeWerblowsky, , Joseph Karo, passim. Vital's technique is studied inFine, L., “Mishnah as a Vehicle for Mystical Inspiration: A Contemplative Technique Taught by Hayyim Vital”, Revue des etudes juives 141 (1982): 183199. In this connection, see Fine, L., “Maggidic Revelation in the Teachings of Isaac Luria”, in Mystics, Philosophers, and Politicians, ed. Reinharz, J. and D., Swetschinski (Durham, N.C., 1982), pp. 141157. See also the study by Idel, M., “Iyyunim be-Shitat Ba'al Sefer ha-Meshiv” Sefunot, n.s. 2, no. 17 (1983): 185266, in which he discusses this book's influence upon the development of the kind of revelatory techniques mentioned here. See, as well, the survey of such techniques in Werblowsky, Joseph Karo, pp. 38–83.

44. One ought not to underestimate the influence which the personality of Isaac Luria exerted upon later mystical developments, particularly Sabbatianism and Hasidism, in significant part through the hagiographical works on Luria, Shivḥiei ha-Ari and Toledot ha-An. In this connection, see Dan, J., Ha-Sippur ha-Ivri be-Yemei ha-Beinayim (Jerusalem, 1974), chap. 11. This is a subject which deserves further investigation.

45. SRH, pp. 39–40.

46. This has already been noted and briefly discussed by Y. Liebes in his important study, mentioned in n. 43, Ha-Mashiaḥ shel ha-Zohar, pp. 109–110 and passim.

47. See Shivḥei ha-Ari, p. 17; Sefer Toledot ha-Ari, Benayahu, pp. 179–180; Sefer half Ḥzyonot, p. 153.

48. The section of the Zohar entitled Idra Rabba is in Zohar 3, 287b–296b. For an English translation of these sections, see Rosenberg, R., The Anatomy of God (New York, 1973). The Idra Rabba is studied in the monograph by Liebes mentioned in the preceding note. In general, the Idra Rabba played an exceedingly important role in Isaac Luria's thinking.

49. Shivḥei ha-Ari, p. 17.

50. Sefer Toledot ha-Ari, pp. 179–180.

51. The subject of metempsychosis constitutes a major topic in Lurianic teachings, the primary accounts of which are Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim, Sefer ha-Gilgulim, and Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot,pt. 4. A survey of the history of metempsychosis in kabbalistic literature may be found in Scholem, G., Pirkei Yesod be-Havanat ha-Kabbalah u-Semaleha (Jerusalem, 1976), a German version of which is found in idem, Von der mystischen Gestall der Gottheit (Zurich, 1962). A thorough study of the place of metempsychosis in Luria's mythology, and its relationship to his fellowship's self-understanding, is still needed.

52. See, for example, the account in Vital's Sefer ha-lfezyonot, pp. 210–229; Sefer ha- Gilgulim (Vilna, 1886), chap. 35. Cf. Liebes, Ha-Mashiaḥ shel ha-Zohar, p. 109, n. 95. Concerning the messianic roles of Luria (and Vital), see Tamar, D., “Ha-Ari ve-ha-Raḥu ke-MashiaḤ ben Yosef”, Sefunot 7 (1963): 167177; Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, pp. 52–58.

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