picture by Marc Attali.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is the text of a conference given by Charles Mopsik at a symposium devoted to the theme of colors at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1995. After his passings, family and close friends collected key articles and essays and with the Editions de l’Eclat published ‘Chemins de la Cabale, vingt-cinq études sur la mystique Juive‘, in 2004. The present study is number 9 in the index of the book, from page 125 to 135. Via-HYGEIA is glad offer to the English speaking community, as a respectful token of remembrance for this trailblazing scholar, this English translation. A link to the original French is provided below. Similar studies about colors by Gershom Scholem and Henry Corbin will follow in the near future, as God generously allows.
Colors are often perceived by human societies as the symbols of a so and so emotion, of what is allowed and what is prohibited, of what is of a finer realm and spiritual and of what is material and coarse, of a regal or of a commoner nature. Their meaning vary considerably from one human group to another, even from a period of time within the same society, even though it may be possible to build an anthropology of colors able to do the inventory at the universal level of some constants in their symbolic usage. The building up of an universal anthropology of symbolic of colors is still but a wish. It is an enormous task that requires multiple skills and the participation of specialists that are not aware of each other most of the time. In the field of the mysticisms and the theosophies of the great monotheistic religions, we dispose of a few studies, those of Henry Corbin for Shi’a Islam and of Gershom Scholem for the Jewish qabbalah (1). Despite its pioneering virtues, Gershom Scholem’s laudable work is far from having exhausted this topic. He presents general data and study them only through an historical and phenomenological point of view. But, colors comprise an aspect of the doctrinal construct of the qabbalists. Rather than offering various aspects concerning the motif of colors in qabbalah through a large literature, it occurred to us that in order to be more useful we will focus upon a single text of a great doctrinal length. But before giving a quasi-exhaustive translation, it is necessary to present qabbalah under the most relevant angle to understand how colors took such a space that have acquired in this thought system.
Qabbalah is a Jewish mystagogic doctrine (2) that appeared upon the scene of history in the south of France and the North of Spain at the end of the XIIth century. (3) From the very beginning it is characterized by a desire to describe the world-or rather worlds-in a systematic manner, by the mean of the ten sephiroth. Even though this Hebrew term means ‘number’, it was already used in the ‘Book of Creation’, or ‘Sefer Yetsirah’-an ancient Hebrew cosmological treatise of an uncertain date-to designate ten primordial elements through which God created the universe in combining them with the letters of the alphabet.
For the qabbalists, these sephiroth are ten emanations proceeding from the hidden Origin or En Sof (infinite); they first formed the structure of the divine pleroma or God manifested, then their outpourings and activity structured the inferior degrees of reality, so that everything in the universe, the whole of the degrees of existence, comes from these sephiroth and bears their mark. This intermediary structure between the world of below and the unfathomable infinite is reflected, according to the qabbalists, at the core of every part of creation. If every thing draws its being from the sephiroth, some are particularly able to represent them. Among them, colors occupy a singular place. Leaning upon the Bible and the rabbinical literature of late Antiquity, the medieval qabbalists developed a system of correspondances between the visible colors and the parts of the divine world that are for them the ten invisible sephiroth. In fact, one would rather speak of a plurality of correspondance systems, because the qabbalists split between diverse schools of thought, each of them providing their own proper system. These systems however, despite their diversity, bear numerous common points. We owe an excellent synthesis between these diverse systems of correspondance to a qabbalist who lived in Safed between 1522 and 1570. From a family probably originating from Spain, Rabbi Moses Cordovero is the most gifted thinker of his generation, both for the fecundity as a writer and for the speculative deepness of his thought. The rationality of his demonstrations is measured by their systematicity, by their exhaustivity and to the dialectical character of the approach of this extraordinary qabbalist.
Colors, due to their flexibility in usage, their mixing ability, their disposition to fuse between themselves in infinite nuances, are for him the best symbols of the sephiroth of the divine world, who, despite their limited numbers, are in relationship with one another and form an exchange network of infinite connections. Altogether a system open in the inside by the illimited multiplicity of interactions it is the center of, and a system open to the outside by its rooting into the boundless Origin from which it originated and with which it stays in contact, the pleroma of the ten sephiroth lends itself perfectly to the representation of its complex organization by the mean of a thousand colors color-chart: alike it, the fondamental colors stand in determined numbers, and alike it also, they can enter into combinations one with another without it being possible to fix a limit to their interactions.
This symbolical usage of the colors dates back according to our author, to the Bible itself, continues in the Talmud and in the Zohar. Hence the doctrinal necessity to clarify the meaning of this usage and to reveal the mysteries that are hidden behind their use. Rabbi Moses Cordovero offers in his ‘Pardes Rimonim‘ (The Orchard of Pomegranates)(4) the most synthetic exposition about colors in the Jewish mystagogy. In the ‘tenth gantry (or portico), which is the door of colors‘, (folio 59b), this peerless qabbalist explains to us not only the function of the usage of colors in the qabbalistic terminology-their symbolic meaning, but also the theurgical power of their manipulation:
“The aim of this chapter is to explain the question of colors mentioned by the exegetes, in the Zohar, and in the sayings of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai; Therefore we will be highlighting the color of each of the sephiroth and its meaning, in a very condensed manner.
Many times the reader of the books of the qabbalists and of the Zohar finds that specific colors are assigned to each of the sephiroth, to this he must beware. He ought not to believe or to think that things are in accordance with their apparent meaning-God forbids!- because color is of a material order and is one of the aspect of matter and one of its accidents. Hence, what is not partaking with matter ought not to be represented by matter’s accidents-God Forbids!-The person who believes that colors are located in the sephiroth according to the literal meaning of the statements of the qabbalists destroys the world and breaks the limits the ancients have bounded, and, consequently, he materializes what is divine-God Forbids!-The reader, therefore, must be aware about this subject.
In reality, colors are used as metaphors to describe the operations emanating from the roots of above. An illustration: It is of usage to assign the color red to the Gevurah sephira that ‘takes it to war’, because that it has the inclination to shed red blood; moreover, red manifests cruelty, passion and the outburst of anger. This was explained. This is why redness is put into relationship with the field of severe judgement. Furthermore, there is no doubt that red things proceed from the might of this very root, as we had mentioned in the gantry (portico) dealing about quiddity and the governance of the universe. Similarly, white color is assigned to mercy and to peace; it is in the temperament of the people of pale constitution to me merciful, like elders and people with white hair, that are not prone to enlist in the army. Therefore, when we want to assign a color to peace, to grace and mercy, they are put in relationship with whiteness. There is no doubt that things white emanate from the might of this very root, as we have explained in the gantry (portico) mentioned above; such is the aim of the assignment of colors to the sephiroth: They serve as metaphors for the operations emanating from the sephiroth according to their nature and function. We do not own any other tropes nor any other structures but the colors to represent and characterize them according to their differentiations, colors that differentiate, dominate or intensify in function of the prevalence of a color over another. It is for this reason that color metaphors are used to represent divine operations. The aim is to let them become intelligible to the corporeal ear through what it is able to hear. There is no doubt that colors own an intrinsic access path to the operations of the sephiroth and to their outpouring of energy. This is why when the theurgist wishes to attract a merciful influx from the Hesed sephira, he will draw in front of him the name of this sephira with the appropriate color of the thing he desires, in conformity to the color of the thought of divine dimension; if it is absolute grace he desires, he will use pure white. If it is not absolute grace he desires to attract the influx, he will draw with whitish calcium carbonate or other similar pigments, as we have explained in the gantry (portico) of meditation. In the same manner, when he would want to undertake a ‘supernatural’ action and that he will need a emanation of the Gevurah energy (rigor, severity, din), then this man will wear red clothes and will draw the shapes of the divine names (hahavayot) with red. Likewise for all operations and attractions of influx. When he will need grace or mercy, he will wear white clothes. The example of the priests gives us clear proof: The attraction they exerted originated from the Hesed sephira and their clothes they were wearing were white, in order to manifest peace. It was the case of the high priest during the Yom Kippour day: He would take of his golden ornements and wear white clothes because the worship of the day required white clothes. The masters of the talmud gave an explanation:”Why does the high priest not enter the holy of the holies wearing golden clothes to perform the worship? Because like that the accuser will not transform into the defender”. (Roch ha-Chanah 26a)-They explicitly referred to the subject of our concern. It goes the same way, obviously, with the making of amulets. When a man makes an amulet in order to attract grace, he will draw this name in a shining white, because the efficiency of this name will grow. As for the energy of Gevurah (rigor and severity, din), one has to draw the name of rigor in red, and it will be best if one draws it with a ram’s blood, because the color and its cause will be bound together in connection with Gevurah. These things are known and understood by the makers of amulets, but we partake not in their work. We have already observed a person who drew names in amulets connected with severity with red, to grace with white and to mercy with yellow, and all this in concordance with the directives of authentic instructors who taught him the art of making amulets. This demonstrate that colors own access paths to the operations emanating from above. Close to this practice are the star worshipers (astrolaters); they performed their worship with the usage of an incense known to their community, so that the might of a star flew towards them and they would wear clothes, dyed of a color in relationship with their activity, according to their stupidity. What is a true testimony of the reality of the efficiency of colors is the high priest’s pectoral; It was composed of twelve stones (5) linked to the attraction exerted by the twelve tribes upon the high Place.
We should not reject this phenomenon; in fact, physicists said that if a man concentrate his eyes upon some masses of running water, whiteness will awake in him, so that when sick people who are restless and whose sleep is not smooth, will spurt out streams of water allowing whiteness to awake in them, humidity will then predominate and finally they will find sleep. When the reader will reflect with a clear head, he will find a large part of evidence advocating that through the mean of visible colors or imagined in the intellect, the spiritual realm is activated: The sensitive soul wakes up the spirit, the awakened spirit awakes the superior soul and that soul rises from degrees of existence to degrees of existence (6) until it reaches the divine place where it is nourished with being and where it awakes it (the place) in conformity with the nature of the color it has pictured. …/… Because the awakening and the aspect of the things below are depending upon men. …/…and therefore proportional to the intensity of this awakening the outburst from above will be. …/… It is the reason of the whitening of the crimson strip placed on the door of the sanctuary on the day of Yom Kippour (7), because when rigor disappear from the superior root, its inferior branches reciprocate also and, like the source where the determining principle of red changed from rigor to mercy, similarly the inferior branch (the crimson strip attached to the door of the temple) changed from red to white. It is for the same reason that the ancient worshipers, during the celebration of harvest, were throwing water in from of them when they were saying their prayers: It was done so that they would concentrate upon this subject, so that their souls would be moved and attract an outburst reciprocating their pull. There is also no doubt that it is for the same reason that the mourners of Sion (8) wear black clothes; their aim is to be moved by the absence of light and by the dominant obscurity. …/…” (Pardes Rimonim, folio 59 b and c).
Colors induce an emotion to the soul, an internal movement that reverberates upon their superior roots within the divine world and awakes the divine energies to attract them down here or modify their intensity and their particular predominance. At the beginning of his presentation, Cordovero insists upon the purely metaphoric or analogic character of colors. He says, ‘they are used as metaphors to describe operations that emanate from the roots of above‘, these roots being the sephiroth, composing the divine pleroma. But they are far from being mere tropes: they own an access path to the operations of the sephiroth and to their outbursts of energy, in other words, they can be used as some sort of talismans able to attract the sensible divine powers, according to their proper nature, to such and such color. The necessity to know the symbolic meaning of the colors is not only of an gnoseological order but it is also of a practical and theurgical order. Each color vibrates the rung of the chain of being with which it is in a relationship. Cordovero gives a few examples to illustrate his point, examples taken from the biblical literature, from the Talmud, but also from popular devotion, magic and physics of his time as well. His aim is to demonstrate to the skeptical reader that colors act really in moving the soul and the mind of man and set in motion the ‘roots of above’, that is the sephiroth of the divine pleroma.
After this chapter, the qabbalist develops in detail the correspondance system between the colors and the ten sephiroth of the upper world. Starting with a quite lame Hebraic terminology of biblical origin, he is compelled to distinguish several nuances for the same color by enriching his vocabulary. In ancient Hebrew, only a few colors are expressively named: blue, white, dark, green-yellow (shades then confused), and red. To get to the number 10 (the number of the sephiroth), he is compelled to mix between themselves a few colors or to rely upon mineralogy. We suggest in the coming lines a summary of the table of correspondance that he has established, in providing the synthesis of all the traditions that have come to reach him. In order to better appreciate his color system, it would be useful to be already familiar with the system of the sephiroth and to have a rather precise understanding of the function of each of them. We cannot in the frame of this presentation undertake a thorough description of the sephiroth. It is necessary at least to know that the sephiroth are here presented in a hierarchical order, starting from the highest and the most hidden of them, and descending towards the last one, the most manifest. Each comprise an extra degree of the divine manifestation and is a particular center of activity. Each represents also the organs of the great anthropomorphic divine body (macro-anthropos). We summarily point out these elements in the following table:
The main source for the table of correspondance outlined by Moses Cordovero is not the Zohar, nor the ‘Tiqqun ha-Zohar‘ (he quotes it a few times), but a writing of a Castillian qabbalist of the end of the XIII th century, Rabbi Joseph ben Chalom Achkenazi (called the tall one) (11). The correspondance system becomes more and more complex, the more we move away from the first sephira. The tenth and last represent somehow the degree of emanation where it is possible to associate the whole set of colors. This table tells us about the perception of colors at the time of our author and about his medieval sources. Visibly, those who elaborated this system of correspondance were able to perceive tiny nuances that only an experienced eye today is now able to distinguish. Moreover, the color red spoken of earlier is not the red that becomes pink once it is mixed with white, but a brownish or yellowish red. The dominant color, as it was shown at the very beginning, is the color blue, that enters more or less in the composition of all the other colors. It is related to black, which is not considered as a color by itself, but which represent more the absence or the lack of color. White can be either shining (extreme white, dazzling), either more duller, either blue-ish, reddish or shining. But the qabbalist considers in fact that each color derives from a primordial color-blue, which is the color of the sephira Hokhmah, the Wisdom proceeded from the totality of the divine pleroma. A mix of colors corresponds to the fusion of the emanation of a few sephiroth.
All the texts that we have translated or presented illustrate the constant concern of the qabbalists: To translate the complexity of the divine world by the mean of images, concepts and symbols taken from sensible perceptions, emotions, abstract notions (numbers, geometrical figures) and biblical or rabbinical terms driven back to their original esoteric signification. The color system fills in quite a particular space among these symbols and mediating objects. Colors are not only sensible perceptions of the visible order, but they are also the corporeal and immediate manifestations of emotions felt within the human soul. They are located simultaneously in two universes that they tend to link: The world of external nature, of the physical cosmos, and the internal world of the emotional experience, of the feeling. Their existence at the two levels of being testify, in the eyes of the qabbalists, the intertwining of the levels of experience and the presence of a ‘continuum’ made of a unique substance, of which the degree of expression vary at each rung of the chain that binds all beings. The ability of colors to be prone to mixings, to intensifications or attenuations, to the most subtile variations, have made them performing instruments to express a complex system, that of the pleroma of the emanations emanated from the Infinite, by nature superabundant and rebellious to frozen definitions and to bounds of all sorts. If the Infinite was designated by the symbol of light, the sephiroth were by the symbols of the colors, as unique modalities of the emergence of light. If the hidden God is a light that no eye can apprehend, the revealed God in the plurality of His hypostasis, the biblical God who speaks to mankind and that they manage to perceive, is color. The opposition between hidden God/revealed God was often expressed by the qabbalists by the mean of the opposition light/colors, which is also an opposition between unity and plurality, between unknowing and knowing, between soul and body, between internality and externality. In this opposition, the first term is rich of the fullness of the second, the second overflows of the might of the former and together they form a couple that nothing can separate, but the guilty ignorance of men. Each color-each sephira-therefore is a singular mode of emergence of the light-of the Infinite. It veils itself in the colors that manifest it, It shows itself only in hiding in these colors.
The qabbalists constantly resorted to metaphors taken from the world of light and colors, so that an author like Moses Cordovero thought it was necessary to dedicate a full part of his qabbalistic master-piece to the question of colors. We only scratched the surface of this important subject that would necessitate itself greater developments. Colors are not just ordinary symbols among others for the qabbalists. From all those they called for to testify of the ineffable and tell the unfathomable, colors are the only symbols that express, at the very surface of matter immediately perceivable, the combinations infinitely complex at the intimate heart of things and beings-leading seers beyond seeing, towards the pure light that is their abstraction and their hidden source.
(1) These studies, which were first the material of speeches given in 1972 at the Eranos Circle conferences in Ascona (Switzerland) were then published in the Eranos-Jahrbuch, 41, 1974. Henry Corbin’s study was republished in ‘Temple and Contemplation’, Flammarion, 1980, under the title: ‘The Realism and Symbolism of Colours in Shiite Cosmology’ (page 7 to 66) (Via-HYGEIA note: First published in 1986 by Routledge with an English translation by Philip Sherrard). Gershom Scholem’s study was translated in French and published in ‘The Name and the symbols of God in Jewish Mysticism’, Paris, Le Cerf, 1983, under the name: ‘The symbolic of colors in the Jewish traditions and mysticism.’ (Via-Hygeia note: The Eranos lectures upon the subject of colors were recently re-issued by Klaus Ottmann in English by Spring Publications, in 2016)
(2) We much prefer to qualify qabbalah as a mystagogy rather than as a mysticism, even though, in this manner, we move away from a well anchored habit in modern research. We did explain ourselves upon this choice in our work, ‘The Great Texts of the Qabbalah, the rites that make God’, Verdier, 1993, page 14.
(3) A few steps of the history of the origin of qabbalah were retraced by Gershom Scholem in ‘The origin of qabbalah’, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1966.
(4)This work was published in Kracow in 1592, and was re-published then many times. We are using the 1967 Jerusalem edition.
(5) See Exodus 28:17-21. The Midrach Numbers Rabba 2:7 develops this subject. The paragraph devoted to it was translated by Scholem in his article mentioned earlier, note 1 page 164 of the french translation.
(6) Cordovero’s conception of the human soul as channel that links the worlds and makes them communicate was developed in our work, ‘The Great Texts of the Qabbalah, the rites that make God’, Verdier, 1993, page 401 and 409.
(7) See Michnah Yoma 6:8; Babylon Talmud, Roch ha-Chanah 31b. A crimson strip was placed on the door of the sanctuary in Jerusalem the day of Expiation, Yom Kippour. After that a ram (the famous scape-goat) who was ment to carry the yoke of the evils of the people, was released in the rocky country-side and after he broke his neck by falling down from the hills, the strip miraculously changed from crimson to white, a sign that the evils of the group were being erased.
(8) The ‘avale tsion’, the mourners of Sion, were a kind of devotional fraternity that was conspicuously observing the ritual mourning of the destruction of the second Temple during the first centuries.
(9) The word ‘tekhelet‘ in Hebrew designate the color blue obtained from the blood of a mollusc. It was used to dye on of the ritual bangs, with which one could distinguish at dawn, day from night. See for this subject, Gershom Scholem, ‘The symbolic of colors in the Jewish traditions and mysticism.’ note 1 page 158.
(10) The odd character of this mix ought not to surprise us, as it is only apparent, By red we mean an ocre red, a kind of brown. By whitening this red, we obtain yellow. This kind of red is often referred, in the writings of the qabbalists, as the color of gold.
(11) See his ‘Commentary of the Berechit section of the Midrach Rabbba, edited by Moshe Hallamish, Jerusalem, 1984, page 132 to 134. We have translated this paragraph in our work, ‘Letter upon Sainthood, the secret of the relationship between man and woman in the Qabbalah’, Verdier, 1986, page 116 to 117.
For the original French
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