Mitzvot & Jewish Mystics

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

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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.

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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.