Prayer in Medieval Jewish Mysticism

The masters of Kabbalah ascribed radically new meaning and importance to traditional practices of prayer.

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"How precious is Israel in the sight of the Holy One, Blessed is He! In every place they dwell, the Holy One, Blessed is He, is found among them because He never takes His love from them…. Blessed is the man who is among the first 10 to arrive at the synagogue. Among them is completed that which ought to be completed [i.e., the quorum and the reenactment of joining the 10 sefirot together]. These are sanctified by the Shekhinah before any others, as has been explained. Ten should arrive at the synagogue simultaneously rather than separately so as not to delay the completion of the limbs [of the ten sefirot] just as man was created by God all at once and all his limbs were perfected together" (Zohar III:126a).

Mysticism and Synagogue

The notion that there is a correspondence between human religious actions and divine processes is axiomatic in Jewish mysticism. This is evident in the mystical approach to the synagogue itself. The earliest synagogues were established during the Babylonian Exile following the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Later, synagogues, called the minor sanctuary in rabbinic parlance (mikdash me'at), replaced the Temple, and formal prayers replaced Temple sacrifices as the authorized form of worship (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 26a).

In mystical symbolism the destroyed Temple still exists within [the sefirah of] Malkhut as the divine prototype of the earthly Temple. The synagogue, therefore, corresponds to Malkhut:

"It is commanded to build a sanctuary below corresponding to the [heavenly] sanctuary above…. One should build a synagogue and should pray within it daily and worship the Holy One, Blessed be He, for prayer is called worship (Sifrei Deuteronomy 41). The synagogue should be constructed with great beauty and adorned with all manner of refinements because the synagogue below corresponds to the heavenly synagogue." (Zohar II:59b)

Because of the correspondence between the earthly synagogue and Malkhut, the Zohar [collection of mystical commentary] prefers conventional prayer said in a synagogue to prayer offered anywhere else. In fact, the Zohar introduced into the body of Jewish customs several new practices and rites based on mystical principles.

For example, the preference for synagogue prayer over prayers said elsewhere is based on the idea that since the Shekhinah can only be reached by a very narrow path, earthly prayers must be concentrated into a narrow channel to ascend. The very structure of a synagogue is preferable to an open field because the former would concentrate whereas the latter would diffuse the ascending channel of prayer.

The Zohar also introduces as law the notion that a synagogue must have windows so that the prayers can exit the synagogue and ascend through the narrow passage of the window (Zohar II:59b-60a).

The Zohar also states that congregational prayer is preferable to individual prayer because God scrutinizes critically the worthiness and actions of an individual who prays alone. His prayer can ascend only as far as his actions warrant. Congregational prayer, however, ascends easily because of the aggregate merit of those assembled (Zohar I:234; Yissakhar Baer of Prague, Sefer Yesh Sakhar [Warsaw, 1901], 13a). If, however, one cannot pray with a congregation, he should at least pray at the same time as the congregation.

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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.