Well, the other day, I wrote about ancient Egypt. Well, I didn’t write about ancient Egypt. I wrote about how disappointed I was in a non-fiction book about ancient Egypt. And today, we have: ta-dah — ancient Israel. Which would actually be ancient Jerusalem. And ancient Jews. And no, I am not talking about my ex husband.
This is a jim dandy of a mystery set in modern day Israel, featuring Elijah, a scholar of ancient languages and texts. The written word. He doesn’t much care about the content. He is into scripts, and their wiggles and serifs and forms and handwriting styles of the ancients. He is also a student of the various conquests of Jerusalem, the history of this ancient city.
He is a modest guy, living a modest life, hoping to get tenure at the university where he teaches. He is called into the office of his superior and given a special assignment to assist an outside source in authenticating a manuscript which the person wishes to buy.
It turns out to be a manuscript of the Kabbalah, which is an esoteric method, discipline, and school of thought that originated in Judaism. Traditional practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date world religions, forming the primordial blueprint for Creation’s philosophies, religions, sciences, arts, and political systems. Twentieth-century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation. Basically, it is Jewish mysticism, occult and thoroughly fascinating.
As Elijah examines the manuscript, which is a photocopy, and declares the original to be authentic, the potential buyer sends him to look at another example in Hong Kong. There, he discovers a discrepancy in one line. He also is the target of attempted murder. Egad. This career of studying ancient scripts can be downright hazardous to your health!
After looking at a couple more manuscripts, and finding differences in that same line, Elijah figures out that these different lines make up a code. And that the guy who has hired him is out to change the world by occult and magic means, using the code found in the manuscripts.
“According to Sefer Yetzirah the world was created out of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is a known fact that words have tremendous power, no less than reality itself. The proof of this is that the world was created out of God’s utterances. God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. Certain combination of the Hebrew letters, certain word combinations – a secret code by God — are the formula for our redemption. Legend has it that Rabbi Akiba ordered the Sefer Yetzirah [the manuscript in question in the book] to be destroyed because the Kabbalists feared that any slight error in the formula would bring about the destruction of the world. That is why, during the Bar Kakhba revolt, it was decided to have it destroyed.
“However, Nehemiah of Peki’in was bribed to copy the work, and he produced seven copies on parchment.
We are introduced to Nash’s equilibrium point, which is a solution concept of a non-cooperative game involving two or more players, in which each player is assumed to know the equilibrium strategies of the other players, and no player has anything to gain by changing only his own strategy. How this applies to our rabid manuscript collector and the idea of the redemption of the world, is one of the great threads of this plot.
I love the way this book is written, its structure. Each chapter opens with a different conquest of Jerusalem, starting with the British conquest in 1917, and moving backward in time and in the history of the city. At the end of the book, we see the relevance of these to the entire story.
A fun thriller, if that is not a contradiction in terms, fast-paced and just packed with great material about the Kabbalah and Jerusalem. Looking forward to more from this author.
Oh, yeah, and props to the translator, Ora Cummings. Since the author was born and bred and still lives in Israel, I am assuming the original was written in Israeli. Or Hebrew. Or something. Amazon is mute on the subject.