שמע | Kabbalistic Commentary on the Shema from Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz’s Siddur Shaar haShamayim

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), known as the Shlah from the name of his chief work (Shnei Luḥot HaBrit – The Two Tablets of the Covenant), was a rabbi in Central and Eastern Europe and later Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem. This text is an excerpt from his kabbalistic prayer book, Siddur Shaar haShamayim (Gate of Heaven), which deals with the Shema prayer.

According to Eliot Wolfson, the Shla went to Israel to study the work of the chariot, which was not pursued as strongly in Eastern and Central Europe. That he was very much influenced by Yitzḥak Luria is shown not only by his writings, but by his specific visit to Ḥayyim Vital’s son in Damascus where he was shown some uncirculated manuscripts.

The majority of the material is a compilation of direct quotes from well-known kabbalistic writings (See the section in the bibliography under “Kabbalistic Sources.”) These texts mostly span the period from the 12th to 17th centuries and are written in Hebrew and a sort of Medieval Aramaic, thus serving as a microcosm of the Kabbalistic genre. Much work has been done over the last 70 years to translate and explain , and much remains to be done. Roughly 40% consists of Lurianic kavvanot quoted directly from the ARI of which a quarter consists of paraphrasing by the Shla. The remainder of the material quotes from Moshe Cordovero (Pardes Rimonim), Meir ibn Gabbai (Avodat Hakodesh, Tolaat Yaakov), and from the Zohar on Genesis.[1]Avrum Goodman credits the following translators:
Everett Fox, Torah and Samuel. (Michael Friedlander, Jewish Family Bible (1883) for all else, as presented in Koren Publisher’s Jerusalem Bible).
Gerald Friedlander, Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer.
Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah.
Miles Krassen, The Generations of Adam (from Isaiah Horowitz, Shnei Luḥot haBrit)
Danny Matt, Zohar. (The Soncino Zohar (1935) for translations not yet available from Matt).
Adin Steinsaltz, Talmud Bavli Tractates Taanit & Sanhedrin. (Contributors to the Soncino Talmud for works not yet translated by R’ Steinsaltz.)
Reuven Hammer, Sifre (of Deuteronomy).

It is possible that the Shla did not do extensive editing on the texts – there are several cases, even in this short section, of whole sentences repeating themselves (shown by underline with the words adjacent ‘repeated above’ or ‘repeated below’). Within a specific quote, the various sentences appear in somewhat different sequence than in the most common version of the Pri Etz Ḥayim. It is possible that they are instead from Shaar haKaavanot (at least one excerpt definitely is), but I have not managed to locate any version which has the excerpts in the same order. The other quotes do seem to match almost exactly.

The rest of the material consists of paraphrases of various ideas by the author. Because all the discussion relates in one way or another to the Shema (either directly or through a closely related prayer), this text provides an interesting cross-section and comparison in the development and differentiation of kabbalistic understandings and practices.

The original edition (p. 167-172 or 84a-86b) was five pages of very small Rashi script, divided into five paragraphs. A more recent edition (p. 329-338) has nine pages of somewhat larger Rashi script, with mostly correct references to text sources and multiple paragraphs. The original text has been retyped from the Rashi script to modern Hebrew script, with appropriate layout to better show the flow of the material. The seven original glosses (hagahot) are notated by a number enclosed in parentheses e.g. (1), and placed at the end of the texts which they refer to. I have added interlineal comments in square brackets []. The notes are simple and serve only as an aid to explain specific limited matters, such as the calculations for various gematria, or point to a related discussion.

Textual analysis has generally been limited to the historical, literary, philosophical, or religious. There are three inter-twined approaches which would be fruitful in new ways:

a. scientific – Lurianic thought especially can be seen as a precursor to and influence on modem scientific thinking.
b. depth psychology/comparative mysticism- the kavvanot’s dynamics can be illuminated by comparison with other explorations of the psyche
c. visual thinking and creativity – The facility to think visually is necessary to appreciate much of the Kabbalah, and is significant in relating to kavvanot as a creative process.

By addressing the first three challenges, it is possible to attempt the fourth, by making it possible for experts in those fields to approach the original texts, rather than only through interpretations and translations. [It is recommended to supplement this with access to one of a number of glossaries and the Encyclopedia Judaica.] One example of following these other approaches is to correlate kavvanot with processes of scientific creativity and inspiration.

DOWNLOAD: ODT | PDF (Introductory notes)

DOWNLOAD: ODT | PDF (Transcription with Annotated Translation)

Download Avrum-Goodblatt-Understanding-Kabbalistic-Texts-Shla-on-the-Shema-annotated-translation.pdf (PDF, 415KB)


We are grateful to Avrum Goodblatt for sharing this transcription accompanied by his notes, originally prepared in 2001 for an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies (minor in Jewish Studies) from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Some of this work was previously published at the Avrum’s homepage. I have re-organized this material into two files: one containing the introductory notes, the second containing the transcription and notes with their associated translation. The latter is nearly, but not perfectly complete. There are several notes and one paragraph that are missing from Goodblatt’s work. These have been highlighted in yellow. There are also several lines of text beginning with asterisks or lower-case letters that are unexplained. These have been kept pending further elucidation. This work contains material in the Public Domain as well as translations that remain under copyright to other translators, and which have not yet been shared under Open Content licenses. These are provided here under Avrum Goodblatt’s Fair Use Right due to their transformative, scholarly use. — Aharon Varady]

Notes   [ + ]

  1. Avrum Goodman credits the following translators:
Everett Fox, Torah and Samuel. (Michael Friedlander, Jewish Family Bible (1883) for all else, as presented in Koren Publisher’s Jerusalem Bible).
Gerald Friedlander, Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer.
Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah.
Miles Krassen, The Generations of Adam (from Isaiah Horowitz, Shnei Luḥot haBrit)
Danny Matt, Zohar. (The Soncino Zohar (1935) for translations not yet available from Matt).
Adin Steinsaltz, Talmud Bavli Tractates Taanit & Sanhedrin. (Contributors to the Soncino Talmud for works not yet translated by R’ Steinsaltz.)
Reuven Hammer, Sifre (of Deuteronomy).

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