Mystical Israel

Medieval kabbalah offers various approaches to the Land of Israel.

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Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The kabbahistic [mystical] literature, which reached its proper formulation at the beginning of the 13th century, exhibits three approaches to the land of Israel: (1) the theosophical, beginning with the works of the Provençal Isaac the Blind and the kabbalists of Gerona, Ezra and Azriel, which reflect, in the main, the symbolic development of the image of the land of Israel; (2) the theurgic, as expressed in the writings of Nahmanides; and (3) the personal, as in the ecstatic kab­balah of Abraham Abulafia.

The Land & Sefirot 

We begin with the theosophical approach. In the earliest stages of kabbalah, the Land of Israel in general and Jerusalem in particu­lar were assumed to represent the uppermost sefirot [different categories of divine emanations], particularly, Wisdom, Foundation, and Kingship. As the sefirot represent hid­den divine powers, the land of Israel itself becomes a manifestation of supernal, divine aspects. The kabbalists thus set the terres­trial land aside in favor of the celestial land of Israel, focusing attention on its inner, divine dimensions. At Leviticus, 84a, the Zohar, edited at the end of the 13th century, illustrates this approach. The text comments on a talmudic legend according to which the entire land of Israel was "rolled up" beneath Jacob as he slept on his flight from Beersheba to Haran (B. Hul. 91b):

mystical israel"How is it possible that the land of Israel, which measures 400 by 400 miles, was uprooted from its place to come beneath him? Nay, the Holy One, blessed be he, has another, supernal, Holy Land, also called the land of Israel, and it is beneath the level of Jacob on which he stands."

This "other land" of the mystic is the sefirah of Kingship, which stands beneath the sefirah of Glory, symbolized both by the term "the Holy One, blessed be he" and by the name "Jacob."


This fundamental symbolism of the land has further implications and ramifications. First, the land of Israel reflects the ineffable name of God, which is surrounded by other divine names (Ezra of Gerona). Second, the land of Israel and its cities also represent a sexual aspect. The first sin caused a split be­tween the masculine principle of the divine powers (symbolized by the sefirah of Glory or Foundation) and the feminine principle (symbolized by Kingship).

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Dov Schwartz

Dov Schwartz is a professor in the philosophy department at Bar Ilan University.