CANON: SHEM TOV IBN GAON AND THE
CRITIQUE OF KABBALISTIC LITERATURE
Literary canons might be looked upon as attempts to solidify previous oral traditions into authoritative canonical texts. The emergence of literary canon endows a tradition with authority and endurance, which is independent from the localized and bounded channels of oral transmission. Yet such transformation might undermine that same tradition it aimed at solidifying. This essay which revolves around the emergence of Kabbalah as a literary corpus, examines what I believe is one of the most powerful reflections on such a complex process.
In the middle of the 13th century Meir Ibn Sahula, a Castillean kabbalist, described his kabbalistic learning as acquired from books rather than authors. According to his testimony, he was already in possession of a sort of kabbalistic library of writings from Provence and Gerona, and his knowledge was not based on a continuous oral transmission but on critical synthesis of differing textual traditions. In his commentary on Sefer yetzirah, he writes:
“For several years already, I have been studying these things relating
to all secrets, starting with the Sefer Habahir, which explains some matters,
and the writings of Rabbi Asher who wrote the Perush Shlosh Esreh Middot
and the Perush Hashevu’ah, and Rabbi Ezra, Rabbi Azariel and Rabbi
Moshe ben Nahman, all of blessed memory. Also, I studied those
chapters. And I acquired some of the commentary on Sefer Ƴetzirah
attributed to Rabbi Moshe bar Nahman of blessed memory, but I was
unable to acquire all of it” (MS Rome Angelica 1/145, p. 2b).
The existence of a kabbalistic library, whose items are enumerated by Ibn Sahula, and which serve as the basis for his kabbalistic knowledge, teaches us about the rapid shift from oral tradition to an independent literary corpus.
This development stands in stark opposition to Nachmanides’