Kabbalah & Jewish Prayer

By adding new hymns, prayers, and meditations, medieval Jewish mystics reframed Jewish worship in their own esoteric terms.

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While wrapping oneself in the tallit one recites four biblical verses:

"How precious is Thy lovingkindness, O God!

And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Thy wings.

They are abundantly satisfied with the fatness of Thy house;

And Thou makest them drink of the river of Thy pleasures.

For with Thee is the fountain of life;

In Thy light do we see light.

O continue Thy lovingkindness unto them that know Thee;

And righteousness to the upright in heart." (Psalms 36:8-11)

And while putting on the tefillin [phylacteries] two biblical verses are recited;

"And I will betroth thee unto Me forever;

Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness and in justice,

And in lovingkindness, and in compassion.

And I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness;

And thou shalt know the Lord." (Hosea 2:21-22)

The selections are obviously not kabbalistic compositions. But the mystics saw in the biblical figures of speech kabbalistic hints, such as taking "refuge in the shadow of God's wings," "the fountain of life," "them that know Thee," and of course the obvious kabbalistic doctrine of the "betrothal" of God to his "bride," Israel. These verses were introduced into the ritual of putting on tallit and tefillin by a 17th-century kabbalist, Rabbi Nathan Shapira, and they are still part of the ritual.

Uniting the Holy One and the Shekhinah

Most of the introductory meditations initiated by the kabbalists do not rely on mystic hints. They speak clearly of the central goal of the prayer--"to effect the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah [God's presence--a feminine aspect of God, in the view of many kabbalists]." Thus the meditation read before putting on the tallitstarts off with this typical declaration:

"I am hereby ready to put on the fringed tallit in accordance with the halakhah [law] as the Lord our God commanded us in His holy Torah… in order to effect the union of the Holy One, blessed be he, and the Shekhinah in reverence and love… and to unite the first two letters and the last two letters of the Tetragrammaton [God's four-letter name] in a complete union."

Most modern prayer books have eliminated this meditation, along with most other mystic prayers. The Sephardim [Jews of Iberian ancestry], however, still use them. Indeed, no modern censorship has been applied to the Sephardic prayer book. It is therefore replete with mystic symbolism and kabbalistic prayers.

Kabbalistic meditations penetrated into the services of the entire prayer cycle. Thus we find a mystic meditation before the sounding of the shofar [ram's horn] during the Rosh Hashanah services. In addition to the usual formula indicating that the intention of the ritual is to "effect the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah," there is an allusion to the concept of a divine court with a celestial "district attorney" in the person of Satan. When the shofar is sounded, its shrill sounds ascend to heaven and confuse Satan, thus permitting God's attribute of mercy to prevail. This mystic concept is spelled out in the acrostic of the biblical verses recited on that occasion. The acrostic reads "k'ra satan" ("destroy Satan").

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Rabbi Abraham Ezra Millgram (1900-1998) served as a congregational rabbi, a Hillel director, and from 1945 to 1961, Educational Director of the Commission on Jewish Education of the United Synagogue of America. During several decades of active retirement in Jerusalem, he published a number of books, including Jerusalem Curiosities (Jewish Publication Society) and A Short History of Jerusalem (Jason Aronson).