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Category: Mishnah

The Pure Spirituality of the Future World

“But there are various attitudes with regard to prayer itself corresponding to the three principles of all reality, which Azriel borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle while giving them a mystical twist. These three principles are matter, form, and sieresis; this last notion is, however, influenced by the Hebrew translation and replaced by the principle of Nought.

The change of matter into ever-new forms takes place by means of this Nought, which can be made to refer on the one hand—and entirely in the sense of the genuine Aristotelian doctrine—to the privation of that which, in the transformations, is new each time, and, on the other hand—in the sense of the kabbalists—to the influence of the sefirotic principle of Stern Judgment. In either case this notion can link up with that of the mystical Nought, from which everything creative proceeds.

For Azriel, these principles present themselves essentially as follows: the Nought is that which is present in everything that arises as the medium of its transformation. The sefirah of Stern Judgment and delimitation is at the same time the power of transformation inherent in things.

Matter, on the other hand, persists in itself and is renewed without being transformed, like the living stream whose waters are renewed every minute but nevertheless are always the same. This power comes, according to Azriel, from the sefirah of Mercy, by means of which God renews and preserves at the same time, every day, his Creation.

However, according to him, form is a potency inherent in matter, by virtue of which matter receives an influx of ever-new forms. It is similar to the source from which the pool expands.

Accordingly there exist three degrees of prayer in which these three principles are reflected. The lowest is prayer without spirituality, the prayer that is not pervaded by the life of the soul flowing from the source of binah. This, according to Azriel, is the “fixed prayer” mentioned in and rejected by the Mishnah (Berakhoth 14:2), because it is like the stagnant water of a pool into which no life flows from any source.

Above it, there is the prayer that the Mishnah defines as the “imploring of grace,” tahanunim, in which the vitality of the source gushes forth with great force. This is the prayer of the “form.”

The highest prayer, however, is that of the devotee who casts off everything that impedes him and who leads the word whose origin is in the Nought back to its Nought. Here, we can easily follow the transformation of the concept of the Nought or Nothing into a mystical category.

This prayer is named tefillah, in the proper sense of the Hebrew term, which the author derives from pillul, “judgment.” So too must the prayer rise from the petition for the fulfillment of bodily needs to that of the needs of the soul, and from there to the pure spirituality of the life of the future world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 420-1.

Mysticism of Prophecy

“In this manner the ancients used to spend some time in meditation, before prayer, and to divert all other thoughts and to determine the paths of their kawwanah [during the subsequent prayer] and the power that was to be applied to its direction.

And similarly [also] some time during prayer, in order to realize the kawwanah in the articulated speech. And similarly some time after prayer, in order to meditate on how they could also direct the power of the kawwanah, which came to its conclusion in the speech, in the paths of visible action.

And since they were truly pious men, Hasidim, their Torah became action and their work was blessed. And this is the path among the paths of prophecy, upon which he who makes himself familiar with it will be capable of rising to the rank of prophecy.”

“The true kawwanah described in this text is therefore identical with the path of prophecy, which passes through the realization of the perfect debhequth with God, that is, the cleaving of human thought and will to the thought and will of God.

To this corresponds Azriel’s analysis of prayer in his commentary on the aggadoth, where the dietim of the Mishnah on the subject of the old Hasidim and their habits of prayer is interpreted in a similar manner, and a parallel is established with prophecy.

The illumination, which is to be obtained through debhequth, can therefore be distinguished from prophecy only by its degree and not by its nature. The prophet is here, as so often in medieval thought, none other than the perfect mystic.

Azriel’s views on mystical prayer, remarkable for their conciseness, are then applied to the statutory prayers, the prayer of the eighteen benedictions (the ‘Amidah), and the profession of unity (the Shema‘).

According to him the ‘Amidah contains three kinds of petitions: those that concern the well-being and needs of the body, those relating to the well-being and needs of the soul, and those dealing with the needs of the life of the soul, which is nothing other than the spiritual life of the future world itself. It is, of course, in this last stratum that the mystical meaning of the prayers is disclosed.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 419.

Magical Conformity of the Will in the Kawwanah

“This brief text gives a very precise and valuable description of what takes place in the kawwanah. The completeness and precision of expression are unrivaled in the literature of the Kabbalah; we doubtless owe these qualities to the fact that the author wished to describe the magic of the kawwanah—but at the same time also described, to a great extent, its mystical nature.

The relationship between these two attitudes of prayer emerges here, in fact, with a rare clarity and penetration. The mystical conformity of the will is visibly transformed into a magical one, the roots of which, it must not be forgotten, reach back further than the Kabbalah.

The magical nuance in the conformity of the will is already adumbrated in the famous dictum in the Mishnah tractate known as The Sayings of the Fathers. Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Yehudah ha-Nasi, used to say: “Make His will as your will in order that He make your will as His will. Abolish your will before His will, in order that He abolish the will of others before your will.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 416.

Echoes of the Nezirim

“In this generation in France and especially in its southern part we hear with increasing frequency of scholars called by the epithet ha-parush, the ascetic, or ha-nazir, the Nazirite. The exact definition of these terms is provided by a regulation that was undoubtedly composed in this region at the beginning of the thirteenth century, or at best a short time earlier. There it is said that …

“ … one should appoint scholars whose vocation it is to occupy themselves incessantly with the Torah, so that the community might fulfill the duty of the study of the Torah, and in order that the reign of heaven sustain no loss. Perushim [literally: those who are separated, detached] is the name given to scholars who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the Torah; they are called in the language of the Mishnah perushim and in the language of the Bible nezirim—and this detachment [from worldly affairs] leads to purity.”

From this definition it is evident that this institution in France has nothing in common with the ascetic movement of the “Mourners of Zion,” ‘abele siyon, that several centuries earlier had been widespread in the Near East, and above all in Palestine. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela still found remnants of it in Jerusalem in the twelfth century.

The origin of the perushim is, rather, connected with the religious enthusiasm that gripped France in the twelfth century, finding expression in the Jewish milieu as well as in the surrounding Christian world, including the reform movements and their religious heresies.

Naturally, the very choice of words already reflects the spirit of asceticism that characterized the period. These perushim took upon themselves the “yoke of the Torah” and completely detached their thoughts from the affairs of this world. They did not engage in commerce and sought to attain purity.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 229.

Halakhoth Concerning the Hekhaloth

” … We have no reason to believe that this gnostic theosophy still possessed any creative impulses of a decisive character after the third century. The productive development of these ideas evidently occurred on Palestinian soil, as the analysis of the Hekhaloth texts proves. At a later date in Palestine as well as in Babylonia, we still encounter literary elaborations of this old material, some of which underwent metamorphosis into edifying tracts. But we no longer find any new ideas.

The practical realization of these heavenly voyages of the soul and the “vision of the merkabah,” sefiyyath merkabah, maintained itself also in the post-talmudic period, and some scattered reports concerning practices of this kind, which are by no means to be regarded as mere legends, have come down to us from as late as the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries from France and Germany.

These old texts, augmented by all kinds of later additions, were known to the Middle Ages in the form given to them in the late talmudic and early post-talmudic periods as “Greater Hekhaloth,” “Lesser Hekhaloth,” Shi’ur Qomah, Book of the Merkabah and under other titles as well as in different versions. These texts were considered to be ancient, esoteric paragraphs of the Mishnah, and in the superscriptions of the oldest manuscripts they are here and there designated as “halakhoth concerning the Hekhaloth.”

They enjoyed great authority and were in no way suspected of heresy. Manuscripts of these texts and the related theurgical literature were known in the Orient, as is proven by many fragments in the Cairo Grenizah, but also in Italy, in Spain, in France, and in Germany. In the twelfth century, texts of this kind circulated precisely in learned circles, where they were considered authentic documents of the old esoteric doctrines. It was therefore only to be expected that the earliest kabbalists would seek to establish a relationship with the traditions that enjoyed such high esteem.”

–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 23-4.

More on Creation Through the Powers of the Alphabet.

“The Sefer Yezira (The Book of Creation) describes the process of creation mainly by the power of the letters of the alphabet. It dates to the 10th Century AD, though it was regarded as an ancient work. It was clearly developed and edited for several generations before it emerged into view. The exact date of its origin is unknown. Some assert that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, while others claim that it was written in the 9th century, with Islamic influences. The consensus seems to be that it dates to the third or fourth century, but there is no definitive evidence.

The concluding sentences state that Abraham knew the secrets of this work, so it is traditionally ascribed to Abraham the Patriarch.

The Book of Creation describes a system of cosmogony and cosmology different from Genesis, yet cites no authority and rarely refers to Bible verses.

“The universe was hewed, according to the first paragraph, by thirty-two “wondrous paths of wisdom,” and engraved in “three books.” The “paths” are described as ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These sefirot are not divine powers….” They are “described as the directions or dimensions of the cosmos, (north, south, east, west, up, down, beginning, end, good, and evil), as well as the holy beasts of Ezekiel’s chariot, the stages of the emergence of the three elements (divine spirit, air or wind, and water and fire), and other characteristics that are unclear.”

“Early commentators interpreted the sefirot as the ten basic numbers from one to ten.”

“The central concept … is harmonia mundi, (harmony of the universe). There are three layers of existence, the cosmic, that of time, and that of man. Each letter, or group of letters, is in charge of one aspect of each layer.”

“Thus … the Hebrew letters that can be pronounced in two different ways–whose number, according to this work, is seven–in the cosmos, are in charge of the seven planets; in “time,” are in charge of the seven days of the week; and, in man, are in charge of the seven orifices in the head (eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth).

“The twelve letters that the author describes as “simple” are in charge of the twelve zodiac signs, the twelve months, and the twelve principal limbs, and so on. This model was used by subsequent thinkers to develop the concept of human beings as microcosmos, reflecting the characteristics of the cosmos as a whole (especially by Shabbatai Donolo, who used it to interpret the the verse in Genesis 1:27, indicating that man was created in the image of God).”

“The concept that the universe was created by the power of divine speech is an ancient one in Judaism, and the Sefer Yezira developed this idea systematically. The guiding principle seems to have been that if creation is accomplished by language, then the laws of creation are the laws of language. Grammar thus was conceived as the basic law of nature. The author developed a Hebrew grammar based on 231 “roots”–the number of possible combinations of 22 letters. He explained the existence of good and evil in the universe as a grammatical process: if the letter ayin is added to the “root” ng as a prefix, it gives ong, great pleasure, but if it is added as a suffix, it means infliction, malady. The author also insisted that everything in the universe, following grammatical principles, has two aspects, parallel to the gender duality of masculine and feminine.”

“The kabbalists … positioned this work in the heart of Jewish sacred tradition, a source of divine wisdom parallel to that of the Hebrew Bible.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 16-18.

Origins of Jewish Esotericism.

The origins of Jewish esotericism derive from a talmudic statement made in the Mishnah (Hagiga 2:1), circa 1st century CE. It was forbidden to expound two particular sections of scripture in public, and hazardous to even study them in small groups. The sections are the chapters of the Book of Genesis, describing the creation of the cosmos, called ma’aseh bereshit (the work of genesis) in the Talmud

The second section was the first book of the Book of Ezekiel, called the ma’aseh merkavah (the work of the chariot), being the prophet Ezekiel’s description of the vision of the celestial chariot in Ezekiel 1 and 10. 

They were regarded as spiritually and even physically dangerous. 

—-Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pg. 11. 

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