Levels of Meaning in Holy Scipture: "NiSAN"
Professor Boaz HussBen Gurion University
R. Isaac of Acre was active in the last decades of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth. Not many detailes are known about his life. He was probably born in Palestine and left the town of Acre in 1291. In his writing he relates that he left the town of Estella in the kingdom of Navarre in the year 1305, and traveled to Castile in order to investigate the appearance ofSefer Ha-Zohar (the book of Splendor). His report of his meeting with R, Moshe de Leon are of great importaance to the question of the authorship of the Zohar. In his later years he probably lived in North Africa.
In his travels, R. Isaac encountered several intellectual and mystical schools, including the three major kabbalistic trends that flourished at the end of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century: The prophetic Kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia and his disciples (in a form influenced bySufism, which he probably encountered before leaving Palestine), Catalan Kabbalah of the disciples of Nahmanides, and Castilian Kabbalah, including the major work produced in that school, the Zohar.
R. Isaac developed an original hermeneutic scheme which he designated as the "four ways of NiSAN", being the acronym of Nistar (hidden), Sod (secret), 'Emet (truth), and 'Emet Nekhona (correct truth)
The four ways of NiSAN are used by R. Isaac only in his later works, Ozar Hayyim (found only im ms.), and his supercommentary to R. Judah Ibn Nisim Ibn Malkah`s commentary to Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer (published by J. Fenton, in Hebrew).The system is not found in R. Isaac better known Me'irat Einayyim (published in Hebrew by A. Goldreich)
R. Isaac's four categories of allegorical interpretation are classified according to their reference to ascending ontological strata. The interpretations according to the hidden way ('al derekh ha-nistar) refer usually to the realm of the intellectual forces, especially the discursive soul, the acquired and the divine intellect. The way of secret ('al derekh ha-sod) refers to the angelic world and especially to the angel Metatron. The way of truth ('al derekh ha-'emet), as well as the way of correct truth ('al derekh ha-'emet ha-nehona), refer to the realm of divine emanations, the Sefirot. The way of truth usually refers to the seven lower Sefirot and the way of correct truth to the upper three Sefirot. R. Isaac also uses other interpretative categories, which also have ontological correlations. For instance he offers interpretations by way of the Castilian kabbalists ('al derekh Mekubalei Sefarad) that refer to the demonic realm. R. Isaac offers interpretations according to the "universal," way (al-derekh ha-klalit) who refer to the Infinite (Ein Sof) - the emanator, which, according to R. Isaac, is distinct from the realm of the ten Sefirot.
I attach two passages from Otzar Hayyim, translated to English in which R. Isaac uses his interpretative scheme:
1. I the young Isaac of Acre saw fit to interpret the verse "The Lord is my light and my help" etc. (Psalms 27, 1), according to the four ways of NiSAN. "The Lord is my light and my help" refers to the acquired intellect that dwells in the discursive soul. "The Lord is the stronghold of my life" (ibid) refers to the divine intellect that dwells in the acquired intellect. And according to the way of secret ('al derekh ha-sod): "The Lord is my light and my help" refers to Metatron the prince of countenance (MoSHE), "The Lord is the stronghold of my life" to the Wreath ('A = Atarah, i.e., the last Sefirah (=Malkhut)) And according to the way of correct truth ('al derekh ha-'emet ha-nechona): "The Lord is my light and my help" to Wisdom (H = Hokhmah, i.e, the second Sefirah); "The Lord is the stronghold of my life" to Crown (K = Keter, the first Sefirah). And according to the general way ('al derekh ha-klalit) it refers to the unique Master blessed is the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever. (Otzar Hayyim, fols. 31a-b)2. I the young Isaac of Acre was dreaming in my sleep and whilst in my bed I recited in my bed: "This (Zeh) is the man that I told you would govern My People" (I Samuel 9, 17) "No stranger (ZaR) shall come to the shrine (there is no such verse. But seeLeviticus 22, 10.); "Let a stranger (ZaR) praise you, and not your own mouth" (Proverbs 27, 2) ... and I woke from my slumber for the second time and contemplated upon these two words which are "This" (ZeH) and "Stranger" (ZaR) and I saw their secret according to the four ways of NiSAN. And I saw that "Stranger" (ZaR) refers to the false imagination and to the bestial, desiring alien, cruel soul, on whom it is said "You shall have no foreign (ZaR) god and you shall bow not to a an alien god" (Psalms 81, 10). "Who is the foreign god within man ? that is the evil inclination" (TB Sabbath 105b). And "This" (ZeH) refers to the good inclination and to the intellect. This interpretation is according to the hidden way ('al derekh ha-nistar). And according to the way of secret ('al derekh ha-sod) "This" (ZeH) refers to Metatron the prince of countenance. And according to the way of truth to the Righteous (Z=Zadik, the ninth Sefiarh [Yesod]) and to the Wreath (A=Atarah, the last Sefirah), as we said above. And according to the way of correct truth ('al derekh ha-'emet ha-nekhona): "This" (ZeH) refers to Greatness (G=Gedullah, the fourth Sefirah [Hesed]) and Fear (P=Pahad, the fifth Sefirah [Gevurah]) and also to Wisdom (H=Hokhma, the second Sefirah) and Understanding (B=Binah, the third Sefirah) and according to all these ways Stranger (ZaR) refers to the head of the external levels, that is Samael.
(Ozar Hayyim, fols.122a-123a)
It seems to me that there are parallels between the NiSAN method, and the four ways of interpreting the Quran (which R. Isaac could have well been aware of).
posted on Donmeh forum
Wed, 7 Jul 1999
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