Mitzvot & Jewish Mystics

"Unitive" and "restorative" impulses propel the religious life of the Jewish mystic.

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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.

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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.