Author Archives: Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel

About Dr. David S. Ariel

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.

The Messianic Age in Judaism

Classical Jewish texts depict a Messiah who will come to redeem the Jewish people, gather the exiled to the land of Israel, and rule over a prosperous nation, and relate other more detailed (and diverse) traditions about the Messiah’s arrival as well as the conditions of the messianic era. Excerpted and reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?

The Arrival of the Messiah

The rabbis speculated on the conditions under which the Messiah was likely to appear.afterlife messiah

He will not arrive on the Sabbath, since that would require people to violate the Sabbath in welcoming him [Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 13a]. [The prophet] Elijah [who is supposed to usher in the messianic age] will arrive no later in the week than Thursday, leaving room for the Messiah to arrive by Friday. Elijah will announce the arrival of the Messiah from Mount Carmel in the Land of Israel [Jerusalem Talmud Pesahim 3:6].

Many rabbis believed that the Messiah would arrive suddenly on the eve of Passover, the first redemption, which serves as a model of the final redemption [Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 14].

Corruption and Degradation Will Precede Redemption

One statement from the time of the rabbis describes the era leading up to the Messiah in the darkest terms of societal corruption:

“In the footsteps of the Messiah, arrogance [chutzpah] will increase; prices will rise; grapes will be abundant but wine will be costly; the government will turn into heresy; and there will be no reproach. The meeting place [of scholars] will become a bordello; the Galilee will be destroyed; the highland will lie desolate; the border people will wander from city to city and none will show them compassion; the wisdom of authors will stink; sin‑fearing people will be detested; truth will be missing; young men will humiliate the elderly; the elderly will stand while the young sit; sons will revile their fathers; daughters will strike their mothers, brides will strike their mothers‑in‑law; and a man’s enemies will take over his house. The face of the generation is like the face of a dog! Sons have no shame in front of their fathers; and on whom can one depend? Only upon our father in heaven [Sotah 9:15].”

Modern Jewish Messianism

Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?

In the decades before the Holocaust, the belief in the Messiah was the subject of considerable debate within the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.

Many young Jews rejected the Orthodoxy of their parents and turned to the great Jewish secular movements of Zionism, socialism, and Bundism [a Jewish labor movement founded in Eastern Europe in the 19th century]. They viewed their parents’ faith in the eventual coming of the Messiah as a dangerous passivity in the face of imminent danger to the Jewish people. They took their fate into their own hands and created new forms of secular Jewish messianic activity. Their concern for changing the world by rejecting their religious background shows how deeply they were immersed in the Jewish search for redemption.

Hasidism, the 18th‑century spiritual movement, also concerned itself with new approaches to redemption. After the [false messianic] Sabbatean debacle of the previous century, Hasidism abandoned active forms of messianism for a system of redemption within the individual. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that one need not look outside one’s own soul for redemption: “All our prayers for redemption are essentially bound to be prayers for the redemption of the individual.

He urged that we turn inward and seek redemption through seeking transcendence in all our actions and transactions. As Martin Buber, a leading interpreter of Hasidism said, “There is no definite magic action that is effective for redemption; only the hallowing of all actions without distinction possesses redemptive power. Only out of the redemption of the everyday does the Day of Redemption grow.”

Chabad Messianism

Even though it appeared that the idea of a Messiah had run its course, traditional Jewish messianism endures. The Chabad‑Lubavitch Hasidim, one of the largest of the remaining hasidic sects, believes that the messianic age is imminent.

Prayer in Medieval Jewish Mysticism

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.

Chosen People: Some Modern Views

Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?

The greatest challenge to chosenness as a central tenet of Judaism came with the opportunity for Jews to inte­grate as individuals within modern societies. It became difficult to reconcile Jewish uniqueness with the case for social and political accep­tance.non-jews 

Spreading Morality: A Jewish Mission

Reform Judaism was one of the first modern responses to this challenge.

In the eighteenth century, the founders of the Reform move­ment began to play down the role of the commandments and exalt the ethical dimensions of Judaism. The change in emphasis within Reform Judaism was evident in the renewed attention paid to the role of the Jewish people as “a light of nations” [Heb. le-or goyyim; cf. Isaiah 49:6].

In order to highlight this role, the expression was changed to “a light unto the nations [Heb. or le-goyyim]. ” Such a subtle shift stressed that Israel was not only to be a moral exemplar but to see its re­ligion as missionary, with morality as the Jewish mission.

Mission-People Rather than Chosen-People

Early Reform thinkers believed that Judaism is a set of universalistic teachings which have made great contributions to Western civilization. They introduced the “mission‑people” concept as a new twist on the chosen‑people concept. The mission‑people concept places the responsibility on Israel both to live up to the ethical demands of the covenant and to disseminate these ethical teachings to the world. In dropping the ethnic and ritual dimensions of Judaism, the proponents of the mission-people concept sought to turn Judaism into a universal ethical culture.

magnifying glassIsaac Mayer Wise, a leading [nineteenth‑century] American Reform rabbi, thought that Judaism had a real chance to become America’s religion of choice if it were recast as the purest form of ethical monotheism, without any ethnic component.

The Reform reinterpretation of the chosen‑people concept as the mission‑people concept has come to mean that the Jews are not chosen by God, but rather choose to embrace a social gospel‑-that Jews have a higher calling to solve the injustices in modern society.

The Kabbalistic Conception of God

Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?

The Kabbalists introduced a distinction between the hidden and revealed aspects of God. The hidden, infinite aspect of God is called “the Infinite” (Ein Sof, “without end”). This name was understood as the proper one for the hidden aspect of God. It suggests that God exists without implying anything about His character.

According to the Kabbalists, God should be called It rather than He, although there is no neuter gender in the Hebrew language. Actually, because of the great sublimity and transcendence of God, no name at all can be applied to “the Infinite.” The name Ein Sof conveys only that God is unlike anything we know. According to these mystics, Ein Sof is not the proper object of prayers, since Ein Sof has no relationship with His creatures. The personal aspect of the hidden God is mediated by the ten sefirot, ten knowable aspects of His being. There are, therefore, two natures of God, the infinite, unknowable essence and the ten discernible aspects.

mystical godThe word sefirot originally meant “numerals,” and was taken from the earliest Hebrew text on the nature of numbers and letters, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation). Sefirot is a generic term that means that the aspects of God’s being, or the instruments of God’s activity, can be counted. There are ten sefirot just as there are ten cardinal numbers. Some Kabbalists explain that the word comes from the Hebrew root sapper, “to tell,” implying that these aspects tell us about God. Others have suggested that it derives from the Hebrew word for sapphire, since the sefirot illuminate our knowledge of God like a precious and radiant gem.

There have been a variety of attempts to translate sefirot into English. They have often been called “spheres,” “radiances,” or other occult terms. The sefirot, however, are numerically identifiable symbols of the various aspects of God’s being or activities. A more faithful English rendition would be “calculi,” a word that signifies both a means of reckoning and the use of symbols. Since there is no good English translation of sefirot, the use of the original Hebrew term is still preferable.

God the Creator

In the final paragraph of the following article, the author discusses the connection between biblical theology and morality. While the connection is valid, the converse–that the theologies of other ancient Near Eastern peoples created immoral cultures–is not necessarily true. In fact, many ancient Near Eastern cultures had extensive moral and legal codes, and, in certain respects, some of them greatly resemble the Torah. This article is reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?

The Hebrew Bible begins with the self‑evident proposition that God exists, that there is no other God, and that He created the world and all that is in it. The opening passage presupposes the existence of God: “When God began to create the heaven and the earth…” There is no hint at God’s biography before He created the world. Only at the moment of creation is there any story to tell. The biblical God acts intentionally to create a good universe where moral behavior is expected and order prevails. The biblical creation account establishes an ironclad connection between ethical human behavior and divine action. If individuals act morally, they will be rewarded with prosperity, longevity, and happiness. If they act contrary to God’s law, which is the moral law, they, their families, their crops, and their property will suffer.

god the creatorThis assumption was not taken for granted by the other peoples in the Near East among whom the early monotheists lived. Around 1900 BCE, the age of biblical Abraham, the Babylonians believed that heaven was populated by many gods whose contentious, jealous tendencies brought conflict in heaven and suffering on earth. The gods were capricious beings whose immoral actions caused chaos for humanity.

In contrast, the biblical view introduced the idea that bounty, good harvests, and longevity were divine rewards for moral human behavior just as floods, disasters, crop failures, and death were God’s punishment of errant human behavior. Biblical monotheism was a significant departure from the Babylonian assumption that love, wars, strife, and treachery among the gods determined arbitrarily the course of human destiny. The Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, dating from this period, illustrates the difference between the prevailing religion and the Israelite religion, which takes the existence of God as a given. Enuma Elish begins with the creation and early biography of the gods. The mother and father gods of Babylonian religion, Tiamat and Apsu, gave birth to other gods:

Mystical Shabbat

Kabbalistic authors drew connections between Shabbat and some of the ten sefirot, which are personal aspects of the one hidden God, often represented pictorially by a diagram resembling a human body. Adapted from The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. © 1988, Jason Aronson Inc.

Most modern Sabbath observers are unaware of the extent to which Jewish mystics, particularly the kabbalists of Safed in the sixteenth century, introduced into Jewish practice new rituals that reflected their mystical view of the Sabbath. For example, it was their custom to go out into the fields to greet the Sabbath. They went out dressed in white ready to join the bride as her entourage in the wedding ceremony. They would face the west from where the Shekhinah would rise as the sun set. The order of prayers for the Friday evening service that accompanied this ritual was established by these mystics as a unitive and restorative ritual. Their order, including the mystical hymn Lekha Dodi, prevails even today. The Zohar included certain blessings such as “who extends a tent of peace” (ha-pores sukkat shalom) and excluded certain prayers such as “He is merciful and acquits transgression” (ve-hu rahum yikhapper avvon) from the Friday evening service, to illustrate the notion that unity prevails and severity is annulled on the Sabbath. 

spiritual womanIn many traditional Hasidic prayer books the following passage from the Zohar is to be recited on Friday night:

The mystery of Sabbath: Sabbath is unification through oneness, which causes the mystery of oneness to dwell upon it. Prayer, which the Sabbath raises up, unifies and perfects the holy and precious throne through the mystery of oneness so that the divine and holy King may sit upon it. When the Sabbath begins, she is made one and separates from the other side [i.e., evil] and all the forces of severity pass away. She remains unified with the holy light and is adorned with many crowns by the holy King. All the powers of ire and forces of severity are uprooted and there is no evil dominion upon the worlds. Her face is radiant with divine light and she is adorned below with the holy people.

Mitzvot & Jewish Mystics

Kabbalistic thinkers in the Middle Ages saw the performance of mitzvot in a new way. They believed that such acts actually influence the Divinity and the cosmos. To express this idea, they drew connections between the performance of mitzvot and the ten sefirot, 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.

The outward manifestations of religious observance among Jewish mystics [are] not essentially different from the practices of other Jews who followed the rabbinic tradition. Jewish mystics said the same prayers, prayed in the same synagogues, and observed the same rituals (mitzvot) as other Jews. Although they acted like their contemporaries, the Jewish mystics approached the meaning of their religious life differently.

The Purpose of Mitzvot, According to the Mystics

Jewish mystics believe that the two primary purposes of religious observance are to connect the soul to its source in the sefirot, and to restore the intrinsic unity within the sefirot through ritual actions. These two functions, the unitive and restorative, permeate every aspect of Jewish mystical approaches to religious life.

Since the mystics believe that the soul comes, indirectly, from the realm of the sefirot, it naturally yearns to return there. All forms of religious observance are vehicles that transport the human soul upward through the heavens and palaces of the upper world, through the chambers of the spiritual world, to the gate of the realm of the sefirot. Jewish mystics are extremely cautious on the question of how high up the soul can ascend on the chain of divine being. […] Only one appears to suggest that the soul can ascend to Eyn Sof itself. Isaac of Acre, of the fourteenth century, asserts that “the soul can cleave to Eyn Sof.”

With the exception of some of the modem Hasidic mystics, most Jewish mystics do not believe that the separate existence of the soul is annihilated or that the soul is absorbed into the sefirot at the moment of unity. Because the theistic strictures of Judaism are so fundamental, Jewish mysticism is constrained from pursuing absorptive and annihilative forms of mystical union. The soul may come to stand in the highest domains of the sefirot, but it never becomes a sefirah. Its separate identity remains, and the human never merges into the divine. Mystical union is called devekut (cleaving, or adhesion). It does not convey the same degree of oneness as does the Latin derivative union. It is a communion of two separate and distinct entities that retain their separateness.

The Importance of Intention

The mystics place special emphasis on attentiveness and directedness to each specific ritual action. Rabbinic Judaism has always stressed the importance of seriousness of purpose and willfulness while performing the mitzvot. This is expressed in the famous aphorism: “The commandments require intention (kavvanah).” The mystics go further in stressing that all ritual actions must be directed to the proper sefirah. They also maintain that knowledge of the specific effects of these actions is an indispensable feature of mystical consciousness.

Intention (kavvanah, also called re‘uta, willfulness, in the Zohar), involves the concentrated effort of the heart and body in the performance of the ritual.

One must direct his heart and will (re‘uta) in order to bring blessings above and below…. One who seeks to unite the holy name (i.e.., the sefirot) but does not direct his heart, will and awe, in order to grace above and below with blessings, will have his prayers thrown out and evil will be pronounced upon him…But for one who knows how to unite the Holy Name properly, the walls of darkness are split and the King’s countenance is revealed and seen by all. When this occurs, everything above and below is blessed. (Zohar II:57a)

Intentional action produces an ascent of the soul through the heavens and through the lower levels of the sefirot. […]Ritual action also causes the ascent of the Shekhinah, the last sefirah, which is also called Malkhut, to the sefirah Tiferet: “The Shekhinah dwells in his prayer and [through it] ascends to the Holy One, Blessed be He!” (Zohar II:57a) This union is necessary for the continued flow of divine blessing and providence upon the world.

Intentional prayer produces many positive results for the world, which are designated perfections (tikkunim):

The first perfection is self-fulfillment; the second is the perfection of this world; the third is the perfection of the upper world and all its heavenly hosts; and the fourth is the perfection of the divine Name. (Zohar II:215b)

There is a hierarchy of the levels of human accomplishment. Man must first cultivate and develop the faculties of his soul, especially the neshamah. Then he must work for the moral and religious improvement of society through observance of the mitzvot. Next he must perform the religious rituals that will bring about the elevation of his soul to the world of pure forms. Finally he should strive to unite Tiferet and Malkhut [as above] and achieve devekut with the Sefirot.

Affecting the Divine Self: Theurgy

The restorative approach to ritual is based on the belief in “theurgy.” Theurgy is the possibility of influencing God through ritual means without an act of will on God’s part. Rituals affect the sefirot because there exists a mystical nexus between human action and specific sefirot. It is as if Jewish rituals constitute a special language, a system of signs intelligible only to God that trigger responses in God that are incomprehensible to man. The mystic, however, is able to penetrate the causal connection between the theurgic act and the divine response.

The sefirot are conceived of as a series of dynamic forces that are susceptible to human manipulation. The proper alignment of the Sefirot is necessary in order for the divine essence to flow smoothly from Eyn Sof [the “highest” sefirah] to Malkhut [the “lowest” sefirah] and on through the lower worlds. In particular, this alignment is conditional upon human rituals that manipulate the sefirot properly or improperly. If the Sefirot are aligned properly, it will produce divine goodness. If the sefirot are misaligned, divine grace is withheld from the world. Therefore, ritual has a restorative function because it is the primary means by which the theurgic manipulation of the sefirot occurs.

Transforming Traditional Ritual

Jewish mystics attribute great power to religious ritual and took upon themselves the obligation to perform theurgic acts. Yet, Jewish mystics also lived within the norms of Jewish life and accommodated themselves to the routine of daily observance. Jewish mystics prior to the sixteenth century rarely created separate societies to practice special devotions contrary to the custom of the rest of the community. When special practices were introduced, especially in the sixteenth century, they did not replace traditional ritual but rather augmented it. Most Jewish mystics were indistinguishable from other Jews because they too believed in the primacy of Jewish ritual, but they viewed it as the means to union with, and restoration of, the sefirot. They did not dispense with conventional ritual in favor of other more individual and idiosyncratic paths to union and restoration.

Jewish mystics applied their own mystical interpretations to the meaning of individual religious actions just as they did to the general meaning of prayer and observance. The unitive and restorative approach to observance can be seen in the formula that Jewish mystics invoke:

In every ritual action, let your effort be directed toward uniting the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his Shekhinah through all camps above and below. (Zohar II: 119a)