Mitzvot & Jewish Mystics

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

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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)

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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.