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The Bahir (Hebrew for "Illumination) is a pseudonymous mystical work attributed to Nehunya ben ha-Kanah, a first century rabbinic sage, and a contemporary of Johanan ben Zakkai (first century), because it begins with the words, "R. Nehunya ben ha-Kanah said". It was first published in the 12th century, southern France.

It is an early work of esoteric Jewish mysticism which eventually became known as Kabbalah.


Nahmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, (Genesis 1) is one of the first to quote the work under the title Midrash R. Nehunya ben ha-Kanah. ("R. Nehunya b. ha-Kanah said," the opening sentence)

Among medieval Kabbalists it became known as Sefer ha-Bahir, taken from the comment in the Book of Job, "One verse says: 'And now men see not the light which is bright (bahir) in the skies'" (Job 37:21).


Kabbalists acribed authorship of the Bahir to R. Nehunya, a rabbi of the Mishnaic era, who lived around 100 CE. Medieval Kabbalists write that the Bahir did not come down to them as a unified book, but rather in pieces found in scattered scrolls and booklets. The scattered and broken nature of the Bahir's text, which sometimes ends discussion in mid-sentence, and which often randomly jumps from topic to topic, supports this tradition.

The historical critical study of this book points to a later date of composition. For some time scholars believed that it was written in the thirteenth century by Isaac the Blind, or by those in his school. The first sentence, "And now men see not the light which is bright in the skies" (Job 37:21), being isolated, and having no connection with what follows, was taken to be an allusion to the blindness of its author. However, modern scholars of Kabbalah now hold that at least part of the Bahir was an adaptation of an older work, the Sefer Raza Rabba. This older book is mentioned in some of the works of the Geonim; however no complete copies of Sefer Raza Rabba are still in existence. However, quotes from this book can still be found in some older works.

Many scholars of Kabbalah hold that the Bahir adds gnostic elements to the older work. The question of how much gnosticism has influenced Kabbalah is one of the major themes of modern-day research on Kabbalah, see the works of Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel for more information.

There is a striking affinity between the symbolism of Sefer ha-Bahir, on the one hand, and the speculations of the Gnostics, and the theory of the "aeons," on the other. The fundamental problem in the study of the book is: is this affinity based on an as yet unknown historical link between the gnosticism of the mishnaic and talmudic era and the sources from which the material in Sefer ha-Bahir is derived? Or should it possibly be seen as a purely psychological phenomenon, i.e., as a spontaneous upsurge from the depths of the soul's imagination, without any historical continuity?
"Bahir", Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing


The Bahir assumes the form of an exegetic midrash on the first chapters of Genesis. It is divided into sixty short paragraphs, and is in the form of a dialogue between master and disciples.

The main characters are "R. Amora" (or "Amorai"), and "R. Rahamai" (or "Rehumai"). Some statements in the book are attributed to R. Berechiah, R. Johanan, R. Bun, rabbis mentioned in the later midrash literature.

The Bahir contains commentaries explaining the mystical significance of Biblical verses; the mystical significance of the shapes of the Hebrew letters; the mystical significance of the cantillation signs and vowel points on the letters; the mystical significance of statements in the Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Creation"); and the use of sacred names in magic.


The Hebrew word "sefirot" was first described in Sefer Yezirah as corresponding to the ten basic numbers, and did not possess the meaning that later Kabbalists gave to it. It is in the Bahir that we find the first discussion of the Kabbalistic concept of Sefirot as divine attributes and powers emanating from God.

Creation of the universe

The world, according to the "Bahir," is not the product of an act of creation. Like God, this book existed from all eternity, not only in potentiality, but in actuality; and the Creation consisted merely in the appearance of that which was latent in the first "Sefirah," "Or ha-Ganuz," or, as it is called, "Keter 'Elyon," which emanated from God.

This Sefirah gave birth to "Hokmah" (Wisdom), from which emanated "Binah" (Intelligence). From these three, which are the superior "Sefirot", and form the primary principles of the universe, emanated, one after another, the seven inferior Sefirot from which all material beings are formed. All the ten Sefirot are linked one to the other, and every one of them has an active and a passive quality—emanating and receiving. The efflux of one Sefirah from another is symbolized in the form of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus the gimel (ג), shaped like a tube open at each end, represents a Sefirah, which receives strength at one end and discharges it at the other. The ten Sefirot are the energy of God, the forms in which His being manifests itself.


The "Bahir" adopts the concept of reincarnation to solve the question of why the just may suffer in this world, while the wicked may be prosperous: "The just may have been wicked in their former lives, and the wicked righteous."

Editions and Commentaries

One of the most accurate manuscripts of the final form of Sefer Bahir was written in 1331 by Meir ben Solomon Abi-Sahula; his commentary on the Bahir was anonymously published as Or ha-Ganuz, "The Hidden Light".

It has been translated into German by Gershom Scholem and into English by Aryeh Kaplan

See also


  • Free Encyclopedia of Thelema (2009)
  • Wikipedia (2005) Bahir. Retrieved July 11, 2005.

External links