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Part 2: The Rosenberg Ilan and/as the History of Kabbalistic Trees (Ilanot)

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Lecture – The Rosenberg Ilan and/as the History of Kabbalistic Trees (Ilanot)- With Prof. Yossi Chajes, University of Haifa

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An Ilan, a Hebrew word for “tree,” is an arboreal diagram. Kabbalistic Ilanot (plural) were often arboreal, but the term was often used generically for any diagrammatic visualization of kabbalistic knowledge, regardless of the schemata deployed. Kabbalistic diagrams resembling Porphyrian trees have been known at least since the thirteenth century as “Ilanot.”

Most Ilanot are thought to be used as a mnemonic, study aid, and material for meditation. They were also probably considered to draw Divine energy as talismans. Dr. Chajes likened the Ilanot to medieval maps which were thought to enable a virtual pilgrimage to the place represented.

While Ilanot were primarily intended for contemplative kabbalah, they were also used for practical kabbalah. Ilanot were commonly fashioned into amulets meant to be apotropaic, to protect against harm. Usually the Ilanot that were intended to be used as amulets deleted the running commentary from the side. They were often miniaturized and worn around the neck. The use of Ilanot as amulets followed a long tradition of using text as image in magic. Earlier examples include using variations of Divine names in magic.

The Israel Science Foundation and Volkswagen Foundation-supported Ilanot Project is an ambitious and unprecedented attempt to catalogue and describe all kabbalistic cosmological diagrams and to prepare scientific editions of the greatest exemplars.

Prof. Yossi Chajes J. H. (Yossi) Chajes (Ph.D., Yale University 1999) is Sir Isaac Wolfson Professor of Jewish Thought in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa. A former recipient of Fulbright, Rothchild, Wexner, and Hartman Fellowships, Chajes has also been a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a three-time fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and a fellow at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem and the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften of Goethe University Frankfurt. He sits on the Executive Board of the World Union of Jewish Studies, representing the fields of rabbinics and Jewish thought.

He co-edited The Visualization of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (2020). Chajes’s first book, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (2003) was listed by the Wall Street Journal in 2013 as among the top five books ever written on spirit possession, alongside Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun.

For the past decade, Chajes has directed the Ilanot Project, an ambitious and unprecedented attempt to research the history of kabbalistic diagrams and the ilanot genre in particular.

In this lecture, Prof. Chajes will begin by surveying the Rosenberg scroll as a whole. He will then proceed to break it down into its constituent elements. In doing so, he will reveals its origins in the Lurianic ilanot of the seventeenth century, which, in their era, constituted a renewal of a genre that emerged in the fourteenth century. An appreciation of this lineage and its expression in the Rosenberg Scroll will reveal the centrality of such artifacts to the practice of Kabbalah.

This event is made possible with the generous support of the Dr. Michael D. Paul Rare Books Initiative.

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