Prayer in Medieval Jewish Mysticism

The masters of Kabbalah ascribed radically new meaning and importance to traditional practices of prayer.


Kabbalistic authors drew connections between prayer (and the fulfillment of other commandments as well) and the 10 sefirot, which are personal aspects of the one hidden God. These are often represented pictorially by a diagram resembling a human body, with the highest sefirah, Eyn Sof ("Infinite"), at the head. Reprinted with permission from The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, published by Jason Aronson Inc.

In prayer, the mystics differed from conventionally observant Jews in several important ways. They believed that the traditional liturgy of daily, Sabbath, and festival prayers contain hidden mystical meanings and references to dynamic processes within the sefirot. The mystical interpretation of the prayer Shema Yisrael as an evocative and theurgic wedding ceremony between Tiferet and Malkhut [the sefirot of "Beauty" and "Sovereignty"] is a classic illustration of this approach.

The mystics also believed that the words of the prayers themselves take on a life of their own. The words of prayer, once uttered, become entities unto themselves and ascend upward to the sefirot with which they unite and [which they] manipulate:

"All that which man thinks and every meditation of his heart is ineffective until his lips utter them out loud…. That very word which he utters splits the air, going, rising and flying through the world, until it becomes a voice. That voice is born by the winged creatures who raise it up to the King, who then hears it" (Zohar III:294a-b).

Mystics and Minyan

Daily prayer is understood to bring about the perfection (tikkun) of the Shekhinah [God’s presence or in-dwelling]. According to rabbinic law certain prayers can only be said when a prayer quorum [minyan] is assembled. The minimum number that defines a congregation is set at 10 adult males (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 21b [as traditionally interpreted]). This is based upon Moses’ designation of the 10 scouts who explored the land of Israel at his command as a congregation (edah, Numbers 14:27). Rabbinic legend maintains that the Shekhinah dwells in the midst of a congregation of 10 men who pray together (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 6a). In the same source God is depicted as being angry when he comes to a congregation and does not find a prayer quorum.

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Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.

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