Author Archives: Moshe Idel

Moshe Idel

About Moshe Idel

Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the foremost contemporary experts on kabbalah.

Body of Land

Medieval kabbalah (mysticism) in Spain is generally grouped in two broad categories: The “Gerona Circle” approached kabbalah philosophically, while “ecstatic” or “prophetic”  kabbalah sought a transformative spiritual experience. The following article examines the Land of Israel in the thought of the 13th-century ecstatic kabbalists. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (University of Notre Dame Press).

Alongside the theosophical brand of kabbalah, which is mainly con­cerned with the inner processes in the Godhead, there exists another type of Kabbalah, the prophetic, or ecstatic, one. This latter kabbalistic school was interested in techniques of reaching ecstatic experience rather than in influencing the divine powers.

land of israel The focus of discussion in the works of the representatives of prophetic kabbalah is the inner processes taking place within human consciousness. According to the theosophic kabbalah, the Land of Israel becomes symbolic of a supernal manifestation; the prophetic kabbalah perceives it as a metaphor for human status.

Prophecy, In & Out of the Land

According to R. Abraham Abulafia, the outstanding proponent of this brand of kabbalah, the true analogue of the Land of Israel is the human body. Commenting upon the rabbinic dictums which asserts that proph­ecy will not dwell (i.e., occur) outside the Land unless it dwells beforehand within the Land, Abulafia maintains that a simplistic, i.e., merely geo­graphical, understanding of the meaning of “Land of Israel” is untenable. He emphasizes the fact that the first prophecy reported in the Bible oc­curred in Ur Hasdim, when Abraham was told to leave his homeland for the Promised Land. In Abulafia’s opinion, the Land of Israel is the body of the righteous man, whereas the term “huts la-aretz“–outside the Land–points to the soul, which is different from the body. Therefore, the geographic meaning of the Land of Israel is irrelevant in the context of the gift of prophecy; the Divine Presence (i.e., the Shekhinah) dwells everywhere, although only in someone who is worthy to receive prophetic inspiration.

Passive vs. Active Immigration

Medieval kabbalah (mysticism) in Spain is generally grouped in two broad categories: The “Gerona Circle” approached kabbalah philosophically, while “ecstatic kabbalah” sought a transformative spiritual experience. The following article examines the Land of Israel in the thought of the 13th-century Gerona kabbalists. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (University of Notre Dame Press).

The conception of the Land of Israel as the center of the world was widespread in talmudic and midrashic literature; nevertheless, a new turn can be detected in kabbalistic comments upon this theme. In a letter written by R. Ezra b. Solomon (died c.1238), one of the kabbalists belonging to the school of Gerona, we read: 

“The inner line of the populated world is the Land of Israel, which is called the omphallus (i.e., the navel) of the world and around it there are 70 nations; so also regarding the Glorious Name (shem ha-nikhbad); the inner line and the heart (i.e., the center) are [the source of the] power of Israel… and around it there are 70 names, and all of them depend upon and are sustained by [the efflux] from the center.…

“This is the reason why the inhabitant of the Land of Israel [receives directly] from its [i.e., the Land’s] power and is under its [sphere of] influence and is similar to someone who has a God; whereas whoever dwells abroad actually must resort to [the efflux] he receives from the name which is appointed [i.e., has dominion] over him… But at the time of the resurrection, the souls, even of those who died in the Land of Israel, will return through its area, using the inner path, which ascends to the inner line of the Glorious Name, which is called ‘the bundle of life.'”Old City of Jerusalem

Center of Power

It is obvious that we face here a kabbalistjc version of the well-known al­chemical statement that asserts, “That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above.” Thus the Land of Israel corresponds to the center of the creative divine powers. This cor­respondence is no mere structural paradigm. According to the last statement in the passage, “an inner path” links the two centers by which the souls of the dead return to their bodies. This “path” seems to constitute an ontological nexus and may reflect the influence of the Islamic concept of the straight line that connects two centers and is used by souls in their ascent to their source.

False Messiahs

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

Messianic agitation was widespread among Spanish Jews even before the expulsion, and it certainly grew stronger in its aftermath. In the sixteenth century, many kabbalists, among them Abraham ben Eliezer ha‑Levi and Solomon Molkho, became obsessed with eschatological themes. With the approach of the year 5335 (1574 of the Christian Era), the Jewish world witnessed a new upsurge of messianic fervor. Some regarded Isaac Luria, the great Safed kabbalist, as the Messiah; while Hayyim Vital, Luria’s disciple, preferred to see himself as the hero of a messianic drama.

Eschatological tension apparently abated somewhat in the first half of the seven­teenth century, but in the second half of that century expectations for imminent redemption seemed to reach a new peak. Several historical developments account for this renewed wave of messianism: the intensification of eschatological tension among certain radical Protestant groups in Europe, particularly in Holland and Eng­land; the massacres of 1648‑1649 which destroyed hundreds of communities in Poland and the Ukraine; recent memories of Solomon Molkho’s messianic activity; and finally, the diffusion of kabbalist literature which was permeated with calcu­lations for the End of Days.

Shabbetai Zevi

Yet even within this context, the momentous success of Shabbateanism was a remarkable phenomenon. Born in Smyrna (Ismir), Shabbetai Zevi [1626-1676] moved to Jerusalem, then to Gaza where he met with an adept of Lurianic Kabbalah–Nathan Ashkenazi, called Nathan of Gaza. Nathan, receiving a revelation about the messianic role of his companion, became the prophet of the new Messiah.

The terminology he used was derived from Lurianic Kabbalah as well as from concepts of popular Jewish messianism. Although Shabbetai Zevi himself studied other kabbalistic trends and was averse to Lurianic theosophy, this did not affect the enormous success of Nathan’s propaganda. Within a very short time its impact was felt throughout the diaspora in processions of joy, acts of extreme mortification, and innumerable delegations who came to behold the Messiah.

Merkavah Mysticism in Rabbinic Literature

Heikhalot literature—texts which describe mystical travels into the palaces that house the Divine Throne—is usually thought of as the primary source of merkavah mysticism. These texts and the mysticism associated with them are esoteric. Their teachings and the mystical methods they endorse are distinct from the normative Jewish tradition and are only accessible to a select group of individuals. Traditional rabbinic literature—the Talmud and midrash—also contains texts which discuss the merkavah, but the rabbinic merkavah tradition is not as esoteric. Visions of the divine throne are accessible to anyone who studies the Torah and Talmud and, according to scholar Moshe Idel, may in fact be the goal of this study. In this article, Idel highlights and analyzes some of these rabbinic texts. It is reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Midrash Mishlei, Chapter 10:

“Said Rabbi Ishmael…If one appears [at Judgment Day], who possesses proficiency in the study of Talmud, the Holy One, Blessed be He, asks him, ‘My son, since you did occupy yourself with the study of the Talmud, did you gaze upon the merkavah? For in my world there is no real pleasure except when sages are sitting occupied with the words of Torah and gaze and look, behold and meditate upon this: The Throne of Glory, where does it stand? What is the function of the first leg [of the Divine body], what is the function of the second leg, and hashmal [silent speech], how does it function…Greater than these [questions] is the deep deliberation on the Throne of Glory: How is it constructed? What is the distance between one gate and the next?—And when I pass through what gate should I use?…Greater still: What is the measure from the nails of My toes to the top of My skull? How do I stand? What is the measure of My arm, what are the dimensions of the toes of My feet? Greater still: My Throne of Glory, how is it constructed? What [winds, spirits] does it use? What [winds, spirits] does it use on the third day of the week—or on the fourth? What [wind, spirit] carries it? Is this not what constitutes My Beauty? This is My Greatness. This is the splendor of My Beauty, when the sons of man recognize My Distinction…’ From here, Rabbi Ishmael used to say, ‘Happy is the scholar who is secure in his studies, so that he has an open mouth to answer the Holy One, Blessed be He, on the Day of Judgment.’”