May 18, 2022

LightDarkness: A Musical Composition & Graphic Rendering of a Kabbalistic Poem by Abulafia (with Commentary)

By Victoria Hanna & Avraham Leader

Victoria Hanna, photograph by David Adika

“Ohr Hoshech” by Victoria Hanna:

אור חשך, Ohr Hoshech, 2022

“Ohr Hoshech” by Avraham Abulafia:

Ohr Hoshech, ms. 5, Matzref ha-Sechel, folio 44b–45b, The Angelica Library, Rome, Italy
Ohr Hoshech, Hebrew Transcription
Ohr Hoshech, Latin Transliteration
Ohr Hoshech, English Translation
Ohr Hoshech, ms. 5, Matzref ha-Sechel, folio 44b–45b, The Angelica Library, Rome, Italy, Negative Image

Avraham Leader on Abulafia’s “LightDarkness”:

Rabbi Avraham Abulafia, a thirteenth-century mystic and philosopher, once said that he wrote two kinds of books: theoretical and prophetic. “LightDarkness” comes from one of the latter. This winding, mystical poem, which displays elements of both concrete and lettristic poetries, appears in Hotam ha-Haftarah (The Seal of the Haftarah), the final book of Abulafia’s great work, Matzref ha-Sechel (The Crucible of Consciousness). 

In what sense can the books of Matzref ha-Sechel be considered prophetic? For starters, they contain utterances in which the prophet Raziel—the name Abulafia uses to connote his higher, prophetic self, and which has the same numerical value as his own name Avraham—speaks in the voice of the Divine. However, in “LightDarkness,” and in other such texts from within his wider oeuvre, it is in fact Abulafia’s writing technique itself that simultaneously expresses and induces the prophetic state, what today we might call an “altered state of consciousness.” By deconstructing words into letters, emphasizing their purely sonic qualities, assembling them into idiosyncratic visual patterns, permuting their sequences, and translating them into numbers, Abulafia travels far beyond ordinary semantic borders. The constantly shifting significances of his words open a window for the patient and perceptive reader onto a strange, dynamic, and prophetic reality in which language is experienced as fluid rather than fixed.  

For example, Abulafia arranges words on the page like dashes of paint; he inscribes shapes in language, positions words at different points on lines (or in circles!), and swings text to the right, left, and center, according to his intricately coded design. Words placed on the same horizontal or vertical line mirror each other: the words keshirah (like song or poetry) and shehikir (that knows), anagrams in Hebrew, are aligned in the middle of their respective lines in a way that reflects their shared etymological root and vibrational resonance across textual space—referring back to each other and refracting a kaleidoscopic light throughout the construct of the poem.

Abulafia’s love of linguistic border crossing appears in his use of languages other than Hebrew, too, as when he pairs par Dios and paradiso. Such poetic “borrowings” from multiple languages occur throughout his texts, and were based on his belief that all languages share a common source and will ultimately return to oneness. As Abulafia points out in various texts,1 the letters in the words shivim leshonot (the seventy languages [of the world])2 have the same numerical value as the letters in zeruf otiyot (the permutation of letters)—a correspondence which suggests to him that all languages are just the same basic sounds, rearranged. This metalinguistic perspective led Abulafia to transliterate numerous words from other languages into Hebrew, poetically expanding the scope of what can be expressed in Lashon ha-Kodesh, the Holy Tongue. 

All these mirrorings, borrowings, and transformations are part of Abulafia’s prophetic vision of a paradoxical divinity. In his preamble to “LightDarkness,” written in more standard prose, Abulafia describes the ever-changing nature of the divine name and its many aspects, including “its modes, which separate between the holy and the secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the Nations, and between the Seventh Day and the Six Days of Action.” Then, in typical Abulafian fashion, he suddenly pivots and thrusts the reader into a concrete poetic text that tangles and untangles, meshes and divides, blurs and distinguishes between these sets of seeming opposites. Through his linguistic acrobatics, consciousness unfolds like a fan. Fixed definitions dissolve as something more inclusive, and less limited, gradually emerges from beneath, between, and beyond the words on the page. 

Structurally, “LightDarkness” is divided into three sections: “LightDarkness,” “IsraelNations,” and “The Seventh DayThe Six Days of Creation.” Each section begins with the appropriate dialectical pair, visually arranged like a mini-header in the midst of the poem, which is then deconstructed and synthesized throughout the text that follows. Additionally, Abulafia employs other means to effect a sense of cohesion throughout each individual section. For instance, all of the words, or pairs of words, in the “LightDarkness” section have the same numerical value of 535. Similarly, the “IsraelNations” and “The Seventh DayThe Six Days of Creation” sections also begin with a pattern of numerological consistency, but then branch out into other directions and permutations, all of which are too complex to explain in the present context. 

Suffice it to say that a full explication of the inner mechanisms, allusions, and associations at play throughout “LightDarkness” is outside the scope of this presentation. However, as you “read” Abulafia’s text or listen to Victoria Hanna’s stunning vocal rendition, I recommend that you attempt not to understand the words logically, but to hear them as ever-shifting representations of an ever-shifting reality. This was a cornerstone of Abulafia’s project: to lift the veil of language and reveal its inner essence by disassembling the rigid structures of meaning that we call words. 

And to hear their music. 

—Avraham Leader

Watch Avraham Leader’s video introduction to the work of Abulafia here

Musical Concept, Composition, Vocals: Victoria Hanna 
Drums: Haggai Fershtman 
Arranged and Produced by Yoav Romem 
Recorded at Hariton Studios, Jerusalem

Abulafia poem layouts by Aharon Varady
Abulafia poem translation and transliteration by Avraham Leader

Footnotes

  1. See, for example, Or ha-Sechel (The Light of Consciousness), Section 7.
  2. Throughout biblical and rabbinic literature, the number seventy is used to refer to the “root” languages and nations of the world, from which all languages and nations derive. See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88b and Sotah 32a.

Victoria Hanna is a world-renowned composer, creator, performer, researcher, and teacher of voice and language. Her work combines Jewish mysticism, Dada, surrealism, and spiky feminism, and her compositions are shaped by diverse vocal techniques—both sung and spoken. Part of a continuum of strong and edgy visionaries, like her idols Laurie Anderson and Björk, Hanna is pursuing an integral approach to  music using language and voice, creatively fusing ancient texts with contemporary sounds. 

A rabbi’s daughter, Hanna grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. As a child, she struggled with a stutter, but ultimately harnessed it as a mode of expression. Based on her immersive research into the origins of music around the world, Hanna has developed her own rigorous self-training approach using multidisciplinary vocal training and bodywork, and has taught at Yale University, Stanford University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and elsewhere. She has performed at music festivals around the world, and recently completed a twenty-minute composition for a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, which will be released in the summer of 2022.

Avraham Leader is an internationally acclaimed teacher of various schools of Kabbalah and the founder of Jerusalem’s Amiqa d’Bira prayer group (also known as the “Leader Minyan”), which meets monthly and on holidays for ecstatic, egalitarian, traditional prayer. He is also the founder of Matzref—The School for the Study of the Prophetic Consciousness Teachings of Rabbi Avraham Abulafia, as well as the board chairman of Wuste Tzega—The Center for Culturally Adapted Psychotherapy. Avraham has published new editions of foundational Kabbalistic texts in both Hebrew and Aramaic, and his students over the past thirty-five years have included teachers, researchers, rabbis, and beginners.

Aharon N. Varady directs the Open Siddur Project, an open-source and community-contributed archive of Jewish prayer and devotional practice. He moonlights as a book doula for Dimus Parrhesia Press, publisher of his Friday night siddur, Livnat HaSapir (2017), and other works of liturgy, theurgy, and fantasy smuggled from across the River Sambatyon. Besides editing and digital amanuensis, he facilitates group improvisational storytelling through Midbar Quest—exploring the landscape and lore of the Jewish imagination through tabletop adventure role-playing (the kind with funky dice). In his corporeal form, he can most often be found in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the vicinity of HUC-JIR’s Klau Library or in the company of one or more of his three cats, Henry, Effie, and Bob.