Uncovering a Handspan and Covering Two by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
In the places where they come to reveal a deep matter, there is a pearl in the mouth of the great Men of the Name: “I am uncovering a hand-span but covering two” [cf. BT Nedarim 20b]. And, look, the ancients took great care not to utter words needlessly, as our Sages taught, “[What is: To You silence is praise (Psalms 65:2)?… Rav Dimi said: In the land of Israel they say:] A word is a coin, silence two” (BT Megillah 18a). Meaning that if one has a valuable word, worth one coin, he should know that not saying it is worth two as much. This refers to those who say needless words with no relevant content or purpose, except to make their tongue attractive in the eyes of their beholders. However, in the eyes of our Sages this is strictly forbidden, as I will prove in my pamphlets. Therefore, we must be careful to understand this frequent saying of theirs.
Three kinds of hiding the Wisdom
There are three parts to Secrets of Torah. Each part has its special reason for being hidden. And they are called: unnecessary, impossible, and The LORD’s counsel is for those who fear Him (Psalm 25:14). There is not a speck in this wisdom in which these three parts do not apply, and I shall clarify them one by one.
No good will stem from its uncovering. Of course, this is not such a great loss because there is only the matter of the purity of mind here, warning of those actions called “what of it?” Meaning, “so what if I did so, there is no harm in it.” But you should know, in the eyes of the Sages “what of it?” is most destructive. This is because all destructive people in the world, those that have been and those that will be, are the “what of it?” kind. They occupy themselves and others with needless things. Hence, the Sages would not accept any disciple until they were sure that he would be זָהִיר (zahir), careful, in his affairs, so as not to uncover what was unnecessary.
Meaning their language does not compel [the Sages] to say anything of the supernal quality [of Secrets of Torah]. Hence, any attempt to clothe [the mysteries] in words may only mislead, veering one towards a false way, which is considered the worst of crimes. Therefore, in order to uncover anything of these matters, permission must be granted from Heaven. This is the second part of the hiding of this wisdom. Yet, this permission, too, requires clarification.
Permission from Heaven
This matter is explained in the book, Sha’ar Ma’amarei Rashbi, of the Ari [Rabbi Yitsḥaq Luria], of blessed memory, on Zohar 2:100a–b (SdM). It reads:
Know that some souls of the righteous are from the side of surrounding light, and some are from the soul of the inner light. Those that are from the side of surrounding light have the ability to speak Secrets of Torah by way of covering and intimation, so their words are understood only by those worthy of understanding (Sha’ar ha-Maqqifin, Anaf № 48). Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai, peace be upon him, his soul was from the side of surrounding light. Therefore, he had the ability to clothe words, expounding them in such a way that even if he taught them to many, only those worthy of understanding would comprehend. This is why he was granted permission to write the Book of Zohar. Permission was not granted to write a book of this wisdom to his masters, or to the first ones who preceded them, even though they were certainly more adept in this wisdom than him. But the reason is that they did not have the ability to clothe matters as did he. This is the meaning of what is written, “Son of Yoḥai knows how to guard his paths” and so forth. Now you can understand the great concealment of the Book of Zohar, composed by Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai, which not every mind can grasp.
And his words in essence: Clarifying matters in the Wisdom of Truth does not depend on the greatness or smallness of the kabbalist whatsoever. Rather, it has to do with the illumination of soul dedicated to this. A soul’s illumination [itself] is considered permission granted from Heaven—revealing supernal Wisdom. We therefore learn that one who has not been granted this permission must not make clarifications in this wisdom, as he is unable to clothe delicate matters in fitting words so as not to fail the disciples. For this reason we do not find a single book in the Wisdom of Truth prior to Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai’s Book of Zohar, since all books of wisdom prior to his are not [vital] interpretations of the Wisdom. Rather, they are merely hints, in disarray, as is known to those who seek knowledge. Thus far, the understanding of his words [cf. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim 21:6 on the Bahir; Rabbi Ḥayyim Vital, Ets Ḥayyim 119a].
I should add, as I had received it from books and authors, that since the time of Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai and his disciples, [who were] the authors of the Book of Zohar, until the time of the Ari there was not a single author who understood the words of the Book of Zohar and the Tiqqunim like the Ari. All the compositions before his time are mere inklings in this wisdom, including the books of the Ramak [Rabbi Moshe Cordovero], of blessed memory. And the same words spoken of Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai should be said of the Ari himself: his predecessors were not granted permission from Heaven to reveal interpretations of the Wisdom, but he was granted permission. This is not to rank greatness or smallness [among kabbalists], since it is possible that the virtue of his predecessors was much greater than the Ari’s, only they were not granted permission at all. For this reason, they refrained from writing commentaries that pertain to the actual wisdom, but settled for hints unconnected to one another. For this reason, now that the compositions of the Ari have appeared in the world, all who study the wisdom of Kabbalah have withdrawn their hands from all the compositions of the Ramak, and all the great ones prior to the Ari, as is known among those who engage in this Wisdom. Their very selves cling only to the compositions of the Ari. And the main books, considered authentic interpretations of this wisdom, are only the Book of Zohar, the Tiqqunim, and after them the compositions of the Ari.
The LORD’s counsel is for those who fear Him
Secrets of Torah are revealed only to those who fear His Name, who guard His Glory with their heart and soul, and from whom חִלוּל הַשֵׁם (ḥillul ha-Shem), desecration of the Name, would never escape their hands, perish the thought. This is the third part of the hiding of the Wisdom. This part of the hiding is most strict, and this kind of revealing has failed many. From the bellies of those emerge all the masters of adjurations and amulets, masters of קַבָּלָה מַעֲשִׂית (qabbalah ma’asit), practical magic, who hunt souls with their cunning, and all the “Masters of Mysteries,” who employ withered wisdom that came from under the hands of unworthy disciples, to draw material benefit for themselves, or for others. The world has suffered much from this, and is suffering still.
You should know that the root of the hiding was only this part. Here the Sages were very strict in testing disciples, “[Rabbi Zera said:] רָאשֵׁי פְּרָקִים (Rashei peraqim), chapter headings, may be transmitted only to the head of a court or to one whose heart is anxious within him” (BT Ḥagigah 13a). Also, “[One may not expound on forbidden sexual relations in the presence of three,] nor the Account of Creation in the presence of two, nor the Chariot in the presence of one, [unless he is a sage who understands from his own knowledge]” (M Ḥagigah 2:1). There are many other such statements, and all this fear is because of the aforementioned reason. And for this reason, few are those who have been rewarded with this Wisdom, and even those who passed all the tests and scrutinizing solemnly vow to not uncover a thing from those three parts. Do not misunderstand my words, in that I have divided the hiding of the wisdom into three parts.
I do not mean that the Wisdom of Truth itself is divided in three. Rather, I mean that these three parts stem from every detail of this wisdom, since they are the only three approaches used in this wisdom. However, here we should ask: If it is true, that the hiding of the Wisdom is so strict, how were the thousands of compositions in this wisdom all undertaken? The answer is that there is a difference between the first two parts and the last part. The main burden lies only with the aforementioned third part, for the reason we have explained. But the first two parts are not under a perpetual ban, since sometimes an issue under the “unnecessary” is undone, stops being unnecessary for a certain reason, and becomes necessary. Also, the “impossible” sometimes becomes possible. This is so for two reasons, either due to the development of the generation or by permission being granted from Heaven, as happened with Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai and the Ari, and to a lesser extent their predecessors.
All genuine books composed in the Wisdom emerge from these [three] aspects. This is what is meant by their saying, “I am uncovering a hand-span and covering two”—they revealed something new, undiscovered by their predecessors. And this is why they say that they are only uncovering one hand-span, meaning they uncover the first part of the three hidden parts, and leave two covered. This indicates that something occurred, which is the cause of that uncovering: either “unnecessary” became necessary, or permission was granted from Heaven, as I have explained. This is the meaning of, “I am uncovering a hand-span.”
The readers of these pamphlets, which I intend to print during the year, should know that they are all novella, though not fully introduced as such, [nor] with their precise content in any book previous to mine. I received them “mouth to mouth” from my master, who was authorized, meaning he, too, received from his master “mouth to mouth.” And although I have received under all the conditions of covering and guarding, by the necessity introduced in my essay, Time to Act, “unnecessary” has become “necessary” for me. Hence, I have uncovered this hand-span with absolute permission, as I have explained. And yet, I will certainly cover the other two hand-spans as I am obligated to.