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Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, [1939], at

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IN THE long pre-Freudian centuries, before the mystery of the dream was reduced to all too human terms, when men still listened for the voice of God in the still of the night, dreams played a greater rôle in shaping ideas and actions and careers than it is easy for us today to believe. If we have come to look upon these nocturnal visions as the products of experience, we have simply reversed the older, though not yet altogether discarded, view which made of them initiators of experience. The supernatural world communicated with man through the dream, and spoke words of counsel and command which he felt impelled to heed. Galen, in 148 C.E., at the age of seventeen, turned to the study of medicine because of a dream; in 1244 Ludwig IX took up the cross for a like compelling reason. How many such instances might be adduced to indicate the vital decisions that turned upon such a motive!

The dream was not less potent an incentive in Jewish life; for instance, at about the time of Ludwig's venture, Moses of Coucy wrote, "At the beginning of the sixth millennium [1240 C.E.] there came to me the command in a dream vision, 'Arise, compose a book of religious instruction in two parts!'" which was the genesis of his Semag. Two centuries later, a certain Gershon b. Hiskiya, who was in prison in France, was led by a dream to write a book on medicine. Two centuries later again a dream prompted the composition of Menasseh b. Israel's Nishmat Ḥayim.1

Even legal and ritual problems of some moment were decided at the instance of "the master of dreams." The very day on which the Tosafist, Efraim b. Isaac of Regensburg, permitted the consumption of sturgeon as a kosher fish he was obliged to reverse himself because in a dream "they" had made clear to him that he was in

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error. R. Meir of Rothenburg admitted that a dream had caused him to change his opinion in a matter affecting wages, despite contrary precedents, the rulings of his French colleagues, and his own previous decisions. In fact, there lived in the thirteenth century a man, Jacob Halevi of Marvège, who gathered in a volume a series of responsa which had been handed down to him in dreams, relative to such ritual issues as shaving the beard and cutting the hair, how and when tefillin should be worn, when certain blessings should be recited, whether milk foods may be eaten after meat, ritual slaughter, etc.—matters that can seem trivial only to those who are insensitive to the demands which an ardent piety makes upon devout people. He did not limit himself to these questions; sometimes his queries were in a lighter vein. It is reported that he once asked "the master of dreams" whether Jesus and Mary are hinted at in the Bible, and received the reply that the words "the foreign gods of the land" (Deut. 31:16) are mathematically equivalent to those two names. It is a pity that he didn't convey to us the reply to his question as to how soon the Messianic era may be expected. Others, too, merited heavenly edification. In the same century an anonymous writer asserted that dreams had cleared up many difficulties in Maimonides’ Guide for quite a few puzzled students, and Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, who was very much concerned about the correct spelling of the name "Akiba" had that too straightened out for him by the obliging "master of dreams." Heaven was more co-operative in those days than it is today.2

The dream thus constituted a very real factor in medieval life—even the line that separated physical reality from the more tenuous spirit world which was supposed to rule dreamland was not too precisely and permanently drawn. In Havre, in 1637, the city court declared a child legitimate when the mother swore that her husband, missing for four years, had embraced her in a dream. To such fantastic lengths Jewish belief did not go. Yet a vow or a decree of excommunication pronounced in a dream was held to be real and binding, even more so than one uttered during waking hours, for the latter could be voided before a court of three men, while the former required a full congregation of ten, the idea being that since the deity had somehow been involved in the dream action, only a minyan, over which the Shechinah presided, had the power to release the dreamer.3

But the greatest force that the dream exerted was as a prognostication

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of, and guide to, the future. In this conviction the leaders of Church and Synagogue were at one; Thomas Aquinas found himself in the company of the rabbis of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. "Dreams are a sixtieth part of prophecy" ran an old adage; the mathematics may have been correct once upon a time, but since the gift of prophecy had been withdrawn from the world, the proportion must be raised considerably to do justice to the medieval view. It was in dreams that the supernatural world communicated directly with the natural; its knowledge of the future could most readily be transmitted to men through this medium. "Not a thing transpires on earth," wrote one authority on the subject, "without having first been announced in a dream." Another wrote, "Nothing happens to a man, good or ill, before he has beheld some intimation of it in a dream." How seriously this dictum was taken we may judge from an anecdote: a man dreamed that he would marry a certain woman, but when he sought to fulfill his destiny, she refused him. Now he was in a dilemma; if he married someone else, which he was quite ready to do, it would be tantamount to dooming his wife to an untimely death, for his dream must undoubtedly come true. Though "the sage" whom he approached with his problem quoted Talmud to refute Talmud: "dreams neither raise nor lower," that is, "disregard them and follow your own inclination," it was no easy matter to convince him that he need not wait until his dream-mate changed her mind. Instances of this sort could be cited in great number. And the reports of dreams that came true are legion. After relating one such true dream which R. Israel Isserlein had, his biographer wrote, "And I know many more dreams of his that came to pass." There are still many people who can testify in a like vein concerning themselves or their friends. Solomon Almoli, in his Pitron Ḥalomot ("The Interpretation of Dreams"), proved logically that this was no superstition. Jews and Gentiles agree, he wrote, that portents occur during waking hours; there can be no doubting that they come from God, for they show themselves in time to be veracious intimations of the future. Nor can one for a moment question God's power to introduce them into our dreams. Indeed they can the more readily appear at night because "then our physical energies are weakened and the mental strengthened." After this compelling argument it was hardly necessary to adduce, as he did, "proofs" from Gentile literature and from Jewish, as well as on rational and sensational grounds.'

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Not all dreams were of supernatural origin nor possessed equal significance. Corresponding to a variety of causes, various types of dreams commanded respect in differing degrees.

It was recognized that many, if not most, dreams are produced by physical stimuli. Heavy, rich foods "cause a vapor to rise into the brain" which during the night disposes itself in fantastic images. Physical needs and desires, or sensations, such as heat and cold, experienced during sleep, similarly affect the mind, so that one's dreams bear a close relation to one's physical state. Menasseh b. Israel wrote, "When one is overheated at night he may dream that he is warming himself before a fire, or enjoying a hot bath; if he is cold, he dreams of ice and sleet and snow." Such dreams are unworthy of attention, they "speak folly" and are "vain and idle conceits."5

Another common source of dreams are man's thoughts during the day. "When a man concentrates on certain ideas for a long time, the power of thought to conjure up definite images remains active at night." Dreams that can be traced back to such a cause are no more credible than the first category. But another sort of dream, produced by "the vigor of the soul" (ḥozek hanefesh), merits consideration on the part of the dreamer, for it is a "prophecy in miniature." Menaḥem Ẓiyuni described the process thus: "The imaginative faculty refashions at night the perceptions which have been impressed upon one's fancy during the day; during sleep when the senses are idle, this faculty overpowers him so that the vision seems as real as though he were beholding it in actuality. Such a dream is reliable in proportion to the vividness of his powers of analogy; it comes to him without his having thought of its subject matter at all, which, in fact, is often quite unconventional. These dreams constitute the 'miniature prophecy' of which the rabbis said that it is bestowed particularly upon imbeciles and infants, because they are not graced with intelligence and their apperceptive powers are undeveloped. Therefore what the imagination makes of sense perceptions during waking hours is clearly visioned while asleep, for it conceives of things that are true and that come to pass."6 The psychology of dreams as expounded by Ẓiyuni has a modern ring; it was not his own, however, for he confessed that he had cribbed it from non-Jewish "theologians." Apparently the unexpressed theory behind this dissertation is one we have met before, namely, that the

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soul, untrammelled by the physical universe and left to its own resources, possesses the power to apprehend the future.

What is probably the most primitive and universal theory is also met with in Jewish dream-lore. While the body is asleep, the spirit, or soul, leaves its corporeal prison and wanders over the face of the earth, reporting back its experiences to the sleepless mind. When one dreams of meeting a friend who is far distant, it is the souls of the two, annihilating space, which have made contact. Some men, of a higher spiritual capacity, behold these visions clearly and well defined; for most men they are confused and obscure. We dream of the dead because their immortal souls are still capable of haunting the earth and meeting ours. "But animals have no soul, therefore a man cannot dream of an animal that has died or has been slaughtered." Reports of the dead appearing in dreams are numerous. The teacher and father-in-law of Eliezer b. Nathan, R. Eliakim b. Joseph, visited him one night to correct a misconception which had led to an erroneous ritual decision; R. Meir of Rothenburg once helped an earnest student, who had never met him in life, to unravel a badly snarled Talmudic passage; Rashi disclosed to his grandson Samuel the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton; according to the popular legend, on the third night after he had been tortured to death, R. Amnon of Mainz appeared in a dream to his teacher, R. Kalonymos b. Meshullam, and dictated the solemn Unetanneh Tokef hymn which he had composed while writhing in pain. These are a few of the more notable visitations. Visions of the lot that deceased ancestors are enjoying, whether in Paradise or Gehinnom, disclosures of hidden treasure, exhortations to repay debts contracted by the visitant, such is the burden of most dreams about the dead.7

Those dreams, then, that derive from natural causes, physical or mental, are not the stuff out of which the shape of time to come can be pre-constructed. Dreams that result from the peregrinations of the soul may or may not be thus useful, depending upon the presence of the one factor that stamps them as truly portentous, the supernatural. All really significant dreams come ultimately from God. (In practice, of course, the definition worked the other way around—those dreams which the expert branded as significant were ipso facto God-born.) A Talmudic sage quoted God's assurance, "Although I have hidden my face from Israel, I will communicate

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with him through dreams." Such direct communication was in effect during the Middle Ages, as well as in ancient times, according to some writers. Menasseh b. Israel distinguished two degrees of deistic dream inspiration: the first, vouchsafed to all men alike, he termed "providential," the product of God's solicitude for His creatures. Such dreams are devoted to the minor concerns of human existence; evil men are warned against the deeds they ponder during the day, good men receive mildly prophetic or admonitory visions. He testified that he himself had had such dreams foretelling the death of acquaintances, which came true. The imagery and symbolism of these dreams is usually beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man. The second degree is the "prophetic," in which direct communion with God is experienced only by rare, blessed spirits.8

Most of the medieval writers who discussed the subject, however, inclined toward the view that God-sent visions are transmitted through the intermediacy of angels. Sometimes we read of an angel especially appointed over this department, "the master" or "dispenser of dreams," sometimes it is the memuneh, man's deputy angel, who molds his sleeping thoughts to apprise him of the will of God. At times this angel does nothing more than direct the drama of man's waking thoughts on the stage of his dream, and "since not all thoughts are true, not all dreams are true." But when the angel introduces his own plot onto the stage, the vision assuredly has some peculiar and significant meaning.9

There is still a further possibility—the dream may be the work of a demon. As Sefer Ḥasidim says, "When a man suddenly beholds in his sleep a woman with whom he has never had relations, and whom he may not even have consciously desired, such a dream is caused by a demon or spirit. . . . The demon does not actually penetrate his thoughts but whispers into the depths of his aural cavity," The demons seem to be responsible mainly for dreams of passion, though there are cases in which it is impossible to determine whether an evil spirit or an angel is to be held accountable.10


The cardinal feature of portentous dreams, as we have observed, is obscurity. Graphically, "What is shown a man in a dream is as

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though he were to find himself in the midst of a strange people whose tongue he doesn't understand, so that they can only suggest things to each other in sign language, as one does with a deaf person." And just as today it requires a trained psychoanalyst to decode the dream cipher, so in the past the dream was taken to an expert to be read aright. The basic principle had been laid down in the Talmud: "All dreams follow their interpretation," that is, as the dream is interpreted, so will it come to pass. Indeed the Talmud went a step further to the logical corollary of this principle: "An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter," having neither good nor evil implication, as though it had never been experienced. The rabbis sought to give recognition in these statements to the psychological impact of a favorable or unfavorable prediction, and were subtly implying that it might be best not to seek the meaning of a dream. But, in Talmudic times and later, these words were taken literally. The wise followed the better counsel, and refrained from courting trouble—"One should not relate his dream to any man, and especially not his wife," Sefer Ḥasidim advised, for so long as it was his own secret its effect upon his career remained nil. Those who could contain their curiosity, however, were few. The Gemara tells a tale of one man who got several different interpretations of his dream—and all came true. But Maḥzor Vitry specified that the first interpretation is binding on the dream, and this became the generally accepted rule.11

The author of a widely read dream book, Solomon Almoli, refused to accept the Talmudic view, for, he argued, it would destroy the whole science of dream interpretation. If it were so, one need either not bother about dreams altogether, or secure only favorable interpretations. It is impossible that God's will, disclosed in a dream, can be nullified by such naïve methods. We may ascribe this denial of the traditional view to professional jealousy, but in effect the tradition did no harm to the interpreter's business.

There was some difference of opinion as to the qualifications of the dream expert. Some maintained that his skill must be innate—his star must have determined at his birth that this should be his forte. This was the reply that Jacob Halevi of Marvège received when he put the question to "the dispenser of dreams." But Almoli would have none of this. If it were a matter of fate, he wrote, some people would be infallible interpreters, and there were none such. Skill in this field is the result only of intensive training. Some interpreters

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rely upon dream books and can decipher particular dreams, but the true expert is one who has high intelligence, and an understanding of the principles of the science. He must know how to evaluate the circumstances and environment of the dreamer, and to differentiate the fine shades of meaning of dream symbolism, to reject the inconsequential elements of the dream and to single out those that are significant. Amateurs can only blunder upon the true meanings. A typical professional point of view!

Along with their reputed skill as magicians, Jews owned a high reputation as dream interpreters and were sought out by Christians for this purpose. Because of the tradition that "dreams follow the interpretation" it was feared that the Jewish expert might be held responsible in heaven if he translated the dream of his Christian client in terms of Christian worship—he might be the cause of his client's "sin" in pursuing Christian practices. For instance, if he told a priest that his dream signified that he was destined to become a bishop, the priest would apply himself more assiduously than ever to his clerical duties. But the ready rejoinder was to the effect that the Christian would continue in his error regardless of the dream, so the interpreter was really not accountable. "Even though the expert refuses to interpret the dream," it will come true, it was admitted, with the reservation, however, that if a Jew's dream points to some evil act the interpreter should not disclose it, for "one who tells a Jew that his dream signifies that he will sin is to be regarded as causing him to sin."12

The general public was acquainted with the professional methods through a host of dream books, many of them attributed to Joseph or Daniel. These books, popular among Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans, had much in common, and were in essence versions in different tongues of a common fund of tradition. One such book, already mentioned, the Pitron Ḥalomot of Solomon b. Jacob Almoli, first published in Salonica about 1515 (under the title Mefasher Ḥalmin), republished in Constantinople in 1518 and 1551, in Cracow in 1576, and many times after, was the outstanding Jewish work on the subject. Almoli was a Turkish Jew, who flourished at the beginning of the sixteenth century; he collated all the older Jewish material, and made extensive use of the non-Jewish, admitting his indebtedness to the Gemara, to Hai Gaon, to works ascribed to Rashi, Joseph, Daniel, as well as to translations from non-Jewish sources. Among those he quoted were Ibn Sinna, Ibn Roshd, Aristotle

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and Plato. Though his book was written toward the end of the period it represents the information current throughout the earlier centuries. Some of the passages on dreams in the German-Jewish literature, in Eleazar of Worms's Ḥochmat HaNefesh, for example, or in the manuscript work Eẓ Ḥayim, by Jacob b. Judah Hazan of London, both thirteenth-century writers, display a close affinity with Almoli's later compilation. We have no such extended work from Northern Europe, but there can be no doubt that German Jews were acquainted with most of the subject matter which Almoli presented. His book became very popular and in 1694 was translated into Yiddish, in which form it still has a wide circulation among the Jewish masses.13

Since this work contains the only systematic organization of the material, it may not be amiss to summarize it here. It is divided into three parts, the first dealing with the classification of dreams and the general principles of interpretation, the second constituting a full glossary of dream symbols, the third devoted to an elucidation of the methods of counteracting the effects of ominous dreams. Part I comprises eight "gates": 1. defining the dream and its various types; 2. whether or not to rely on dreams; 3. distinguishing between reliable and unreliable dreams; 4. describing the customary and the extraordinary elements of dreams; 5. three basic principles which the interpreter must follow; 6. the interpretation must take into account the client's profession or trade, and his circumstances; 7. whether or not the interpretation is the determining factor in the effect of a dream, containing a "great investigation" into this subject; 8. the time when dreams may be expected to materialize. Part II contains five "gates": 1. divided into five sections, on the symbolism of inanimate matter; 2. five sections, on flora; 3. six sections, on fauna; 4. four sections, on humans; 5. three sections, on "higher beings," such as "the planets and stars, thunder, and books"! A perusal of Part II leaves one wondering what natural phenomena Almoli could possibly have neglected; he was careful to include all the derivatives, such as objects made of wood and metals, etc., wine and oil, eggs and honey and cheese and milk, cooked dishes, clothing. Part III, consisting of three "gates," discusses the "dream-fast" and the ritual devices of "turning a dream to good" and "releasing" one from the effects of a dream. Almoli covered the field thoroughly; his erudition explains his scorn of those who would rely on the stars, or on a hastily digested smattering of data to qualify as experts.14

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The Bible offers several classic examples of dream interpretation, symbolical in the case of Pharaoh's dreams, allegorical in that of Nebuchadnezzar. In Talmudic times puns often provided the key, e.g., dreaming that something will occur in the month of Nisan means one will suffer no temptation (nissayon). If the dream could be brought into connection with some Biblical verse, that verse indicated its significance, e.g., to behold a camel (gamal) means that the dreamer's death has been decreed in heaven, but he will be delivered from his fate, because Gen. 46:4, in which the words gam ‘aloh occur, contains the reassuring promise, "I will go down with thee into Egypt, and I will also surely bring thee up again." During the Middle Ages these methods remained in use, but the most favored was to interpret by analogies, or by antitheses. Very often the association is obscure, though it no doubt derives from one of these methods or from an ancient, well-authenticated tradition. It is interesting to notice how frequently the interpretations of dreams in Christian sources correspond with the Jewish.15

The following excerpts from thirteenth-century Jewish works16 provide some idea of the manner of interpretation. From Eẓ Ḥayim: "All liquids are of good omen, except wine, if the dreamer is an uncultured person; all fruits are auspicious, except the date, and all vegetables, except turnip-heads, but the root indicates wealth; . . . wheat signifies peace; barley, atonement for sins; laden vines, his wife will not miscarry; white grapes are a good omen; black grapes in season are good, but out of season they indicate he will soon be praying for mercy; . . . a white horse is a good omen; a red horse is bad, he will be hounded and pursued; a donkey, he may be confident of salvation; . . . if he dreams he has lost his property, an inheritance will soon come his way; . . . if he is on a roof he will achieve greatness; if he is descending, he will be humbled"; etc. Eleazar of Worms offers these: if a man dreams he has a pain in one eye, a brother will fall ill; in both eyes, two brothers will be ill; if a tooth falls out, a son or some relative will die; if he sees a king, or a groom, or a wedding ceremony, or any celebration, he will soon be a mourner; dividing meat indicates a quarrel; fire in an oven signifies evil events; snow in summer, a fire; a vineyard, his wife is or will be pregnant; grapes, he will be blessed with a child; carrying a bird or a fish in his bosom means his wife will bear a child; if an

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unmarried person has this dream, he will soon be wedded; a group of people partaking of delicacies indicates they will all have cause to weep; an angel in the moon means war; a snake-bite indicates prosperity; and so on.

It will be more instructive, however, to examine the principles by which the interpreter made his decisions.17 It was first necessary to evaluate the credibility of the dream, which required a study of the stars, of the dreamer's character, of the foods he had consumed before retiring, both in their planetary relationships and their potentiality for inducing spiritus in the body, and his thoughts on the preceding days. The day of the month and the week, the hour, the land in which the dream was beheld also help to determine the degree of reliance which is to be placed upon it. Similarly, if the dream images are clear and vivid and leave the dreamer moved or agitated, the dream is trustworthy. If the dream leaves little impression, it may be disregarded. One of the rules frequently advanced is that a dream which occurs in the early night, before the process of digestion has started, either has no significance or concerns the past; a dream which comes in the middle of the night, while the food is being digested, may or may not have importance; but most dreams that occur in the early morning, when the process of digestion has been completed, come true.

Similar criteria were employed to determine how long a period may elapse before the dream comes to pass. A man's character, for instance, helps decide this, for the righteous person is forewarned long before an event is to occur so that he may have ample time to prepare for it, while the wicked are not given much warning. The general rule is that most dreams are speedily realized, usually on the same or the next day; occasionally realization of a dream may be delayed, but never longer than twenty-two years (this is based on a Talmudic remark) .

As to the actual process of interpretation, there is no substitute for a knowledge of the dream language, Almoli writes, but there is one rule that must constantly be kept in mind, namely, that the same symbol may have different connotations for different men. As an example he cites the case of a man who dreamed that his horse was able to negotiate a turbulent stream only with great effort. If the dreamer is a scholar, then the horse signifies wisdom, and the dream indicates that his learning will carry him successfully through some very difficult situations; if he is not a scholar, the horse means

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strength, and the dream implies that he will be engaged in a physical struggle from which he will emerge victorious. Quick-wittedness has always been the fortune-teller's most precious endowment.


The gold that the fates pour into a man's lap serves only to whet his greed. The effort to induce divinatory dreams succeeded upon the realization that dreams could be put to such a use. Saul tried, and failed. If countless others failed too, inevitably there were some who could claim success, and "nothing succeeds like success," especially in the field of magic. In Talmudic and Geonic times the techniques of asking a "dream question" were familiar to everyone. During the Middle Ages this proved a popular form of divination, though it hardly met with the approval of the religious authorities. Sefer Ḥasidim contains the statement, "If a man decides, I will put a 'dream question' to find out which good wife I shall take, he will never be successful," yet the same work tells of a pious Jew who asked the prince of dreams "who will sit beside him in Paradise? And they showed him a young man in a distant land." An interesting anecdote concerns a man who inquired how long he would live and received the reply in French, mil ans, which he interpreted literally, but his life was ended at eighty, for mil in Hebrew transliteration equals eighty. One of the questions put by Jacob Halevi of Marvège was whether it is proper "to invoke, by means of the 42-letter name of God, the angels who are appointed over learning and wealth and victory and favor," and the reply came, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, and He Himself will provide all your needs." As we have seen, Jacob Halevi solved many ritual and legal problems in this way, and the fourteenth-century R. Jacob b. Moses Mölln (Maharil), or his father, resorted to the same device to resolve at least one ritual question.18

In consonance with the prevailing conception of the origin of dreams, two agencies were mainly invoked to serve divinatory purposes: the dead, and the spirits generally or the genius of dreams in particular. As we have noted, one way of ensuring a nocturnal visit from the beyond was to make a dying man take an oath that after his death he would return and answer any questions put to him. Or two friends might make a mutual vow that the first to die would come back in a dream to paint for the other a picture of the next

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world. Such practices were common among Christians as well as among Jews, as this verse from Hans Vintler's Blumen der Tugend (1411) discloses:19

So send denn ettliche
wenn sy sechend ain liche
so raunent sy dem totten zu
und sprechend 'kum morgen fru
und sag mir, wie es dir dort gee

Another course was to stretch oneself on the grave of a pious man and beseech him to answer one's questions in a dream. There is a story of a young student who adopted this procedure to learn whether certain ascetic practices he wished to adopt would be considered sinful or meritorious in heaven; that night the deceased came to him and carried him off to Paradise where he beheld the rewards that would be showered on him for his piety.20

The dead, however, were not always willing to obey the summons of the living, and in such a case force could be applied. This required the services of a professional sorcerer. A woman who was on bad terms with her son died without leaving a will disclosing the hiding place of her money. The son employed a sorceress to wring her secret from her. The woman "performed her sorceries with a knife" and then went to sleep, whereupon a demon appeared to her in a dream with the knife piercing his heart. She refused to be moved by his entreaties and extract the blade until he produced the information she sought. He returned with the mother and forced her to reveal her secret. The son got the money, but a few nights later his mother came to him in a dream and apprised him of the price he would have to pay: "In proportion to the suffering you brought upon me by your vile act will reverses and torments be heaped upon you."21

On the other hand, angels and spirits could be invoked to appear in dreams by the usual methods. Jacob Halevi who, it is reported, induced his divinatory dreams by putting himself in a trance, used a simple request: "Oh, supreme king, great, mighty and revered God, guardian of the covenant and fount of grace for Thy followers, preserve Thy covenant and Thy grace for us, and command Thy holy angels who are appointed over the replies to 'dream questions' to give a true and a proper answer, unqualified and specific, to the question which I shall ask before Thy glory," etc. It is interesting that sometimes the answer came that in heaven itself there was a

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division of opinion, which, by a strange coincidence, usually corresponded with a like division among the rabbis here on earth; and sometimes the first reply that Jacob received was unsatisfactory, so that he had to repeat his question two and three times, insisting upon a clearer response. Certain Biblical selections were also useful toward this end. Ps. 23 and 42, each recited seven times with its "names," were guaranteed to produce dream replies. If one writes Deut. 29:28 and its "names" on his hand and sleeps with that hand under his head the angel of dreams will favor him.22

Direct invocation of angels was also resorted to, with the usual preliminary rites of ritual cleansing and fasting. One simple invocation runs as follows: "'I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question. And when you wish to indicate good or evil, show me for evil: priests and churches, wells, cisterns, caves and graves; but for a favorable sign show me: schools, synagogues, open books and scholars studying them; and let me not forget the apparition.' Then go to sleep. But speak to no man concerning this. It should be done only on Sunday night, and only in urgent matters. Do not make sport of this!" Sefer Raziel has a much longer charm, heavily weighted with angel names, which concludes with a series of Biblical quotations. The same work contains other prescriptions for a "dream question"; one advises writing a name upon "ruled parchment" and placing it under one's head after reciting a spell; another, "tested and tried," suggests washing the hands thoroughly and anointing the left hand with "water of lilies," after which an invocation is to be written on it, then, "sleep on your right side, and you will see and be astounded!" Still another prescribes a more complicated procedure: secure two white doves and slaughter them with a two-edged copper knife, one edge for each dove, extract their viscera, knead them together with three shekels of wine, some fine frankincense and some pure honey into a thick paste, and cut it into small cakes; on the three days preceding the new moon, before sunrise, perform the prescribed purificatory rites, put on a white garment but no shoes, and burn some of these cakes on the hearth, while reciting the names of the angels who are in charge of the new month; on the third day let the house fill with smoke, lie down on the floor, recite the angel names and then sleep. "And the angels will appear and tell and reveal everything you may ask, in a clear vision, not in parables. You need have no fear."23

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Since unfavorable as well as favorable dreams come true, and the event therefore came to be regarded as the consequence of the dream, it was believed that if one could somehow nullify the dream itself in advance its effects would be obviated. Thus, in the prayers to be recited at night before retiring there is a specific request to "save us from evil dreams," while some writers make it a point to note that some of the Biblical verses included in these prayers, such as Cant. 3:7-8, and Nu. 6:24.-26, "have the property of counteracting evil dreams" (the first because it speaks of "threescore mighty men" gathered about a bed, the second because it contains sixty letters—and a dream is "one sixtieth part of prophecy"), and that Ps. 128, also part of these prayers, contains references to vines and olives, which, according to the Talmud, are favorable dream symbols. Indeed there arose toward the end of the medieval period the custom of boldly announcing before going to bed, in the manner of "to whom it may concern," "I hereby proclaim that whatever unpropitious dream I may have this night, I shall not tomorrow observe the customary fast," which declaration, we are assured, "is a preventive of evil dreams, but, God forbid! should one nevertheless behold such a dream, he must on no account fast, or the angels of dreams will be very much provoked."24

Once the dream has been experienced, however, other means must be adopted to forestall its consequences. As in the case of an illness, a dream may be sold and its effect transferred to the purchaser. An instance of such a transaction is recounted in Sefer Ḥasidim, with perhaps a sly dig at the interpreter who had no faith in his own interpretation; a certain Gentile who had dreamt he was riding a red horse was overwhelmed with despair when the interpreter told him this presaged his imminent death. The interpreter offered to purchase the dream "for the price of a drink," a proposal which his client accepted with alacrity. The next day the interpreter was dead—though the narrator does not consider that the drink rather than the dream may have been responsible for his sudden demise. Again we learn that a literal acting out of the dream may destroy its symbolic significance. When a person who is married dreams he is carrying a bird in his bosom, this signifies the birth of a child, but if the bird flies away it portends disaster. To save himself he should fast and distribute charity among the poor, the customary procedure, but he

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should also place a fowl in his bosom, a cock if the dreamer is a man, a hen for a woman, and then permit it to fly off. Now that the dream has been scrupulously enacted, the apprehensive dreamer may breathe easily again. Still a third method is to recite, immediately upon waking, a Biblical verse suggested by the dream, which contains a promise of good. If one dreams of a well, he should say, "And there Isaac's servants digged a well" (Gen. 26:25); of a river, "Behold I will extend peace to her like a river" (Is. 66:12); of a bird, "As birds flying so will the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem" (Is. 31:5); of a dog, "Against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog whet his tongue" (Ex. 11:7); of a mountain, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings" (Is. 52:7); of a shofar, "In that day a great shofar shall be blown" (Is. 27:13); of a bullock, "His firstling bullock, majesty is his" (Deut. 33:17); of a lion, "The lion hath roared, who will not fear?" (Amos 3:8); of shaving, "Joseph shaved himself and changed his raiment and came in unto Pharaoh" (Gen. 41:14); and so on.25

The most widely used methods of counteracting the effect of a bad dream, the "dream fast" and the rite of "turning a dream to good," were instituted in Talmudic times. These, coupled with the usual expiatory acts of prayer, charity and repentance, were held to be effective devices, and were observed not alone by the common people but also by some of the outstanding rabbis of the Middle Ages, such as Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg and Israel Isserlein. Indeed they came to be regarded as the inevitable sequel of every bad dream, and of every dream whose significance was in doubt, so that their observance became almost automatic, though their true purpose was never lost sight of. They are observed by some pious Jews even in this day. A third device, the "release" from an obligation incurred in a dream, such as a vow or an excommunication, has already been described.

The Talmudic basis of the Ta‘anit Ḥalom, the "dream fast," is the following passage: "Rab said, 'Fasting is as effective against evil dreams as fire against shavings;' R. Ḥisda added, 'One must fast on the same day on which the dream occurred;' and R. Joseph added, 'Even on the Sabbath.'" These dicta raised three issues, concerning the first and second of which there was fairly general agreement. Fasting, the accepted rite of penitence and expiation, was believed to carry great weight with the heavenly council. The dream constitutes not a final and irrevocable judgment, but rather a warning of impending doom, which may be postponed and perhaps altogether negated by

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pious deeds and a righteous life, of which the fast was the first instalment. "It seems to me," wrote Almoli, "that this fast is to be regarded practically as an obligation upon the dreamer, and not as a voluntary act which he need not observe if he so pleases." We may judge how important it was considered by the fact that even on those occasions when fasts were forbidden an exception was made in favor of the Ta‘anit Ḥalom. During the month of Nisan, for instance, when even the Jahrzeit fast in commemoration of the death of a father or mother was not permitted, this "dream fast" was the only one allowed. And not only the dreamer felt bound to observe this fast, but if his dream seemed to carry an ominous message for a second party, that person too observed it.28

The requirement that the fast must follow the dream on the same day was explained on the ground that the adverse decree might be intended for immediate execution; or, as one writer put it, each day has its own angels who are charged with carrying out the heavenly decisions. A delay of even one day may make the fast ineffective. Any other voluntary fast but the Ta‘anit Ḥalom may be postponed.27

The only difficulty was with regard to the observance of this fast on the Sabbath and on holidays. Some medieval rabbis felt that R. Joseph had gone too far in his endorsement of what was essentially a superstitious practice, though it had introduced a religious element into the belief concerning dreams. They did not state their objection, originally voiced by R. Kalonymos (in the twelfth century) and often repeated, in so many words, but got around the Talmudist's opinion with the qualification that "nowadays one should not observe the Ta‘anit Ḥalom on the Sabbath, because we are no longer expert in the interpretation of dreams." The subterfuge was no more successful than if they had roundly denounced the institution or expressly forbidden it on the Sabbath without apologies. As it was they left a convenient breach through which the more superstitious could clamber. Obviously Jews were still dream experts, so far as the masses were concerned. Maharil wisely wrote, "It is better that a man fast on the Sabbath because of a dream, than that his heart be troubled; he'll derive more pleasure from the fast than from his food." Others tried to soften the objection to the Sabbath fast by offering minor concessions. R. Meir permitted it if the same dream had been repeated three nights in succession, while some harked back to a tradition associated with the name of Hai Gaon, who had allowed it after three particularly ominous dreams, namely, if one beheld a Torah scroll

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burning, or the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service, or his teeth or the beams of his house falling. The list was, as may be expected, extended; dreaming of any part of the Yom Kippur service, of reading in the Torah, of getting married, of being kissed by a deceased person, equally warranted a fast on any occasion. But Isaiah Horowitz, the sixteenth-century Polish mystic, who himself "usually advised people not to fast on the Sabbath," admitted, "I have known many people to make light of these restrictions, and fast on the Sabbath whenever their spirits were depressed by a dream."28

To appreciate the full moment of this dream fast we must further consider that it entailed a second day's fast immediately after, to atone for the desecration of the holyday—two days of fasting in succession! This duplicate fast was scrupulously kept. True, sometimes permission was granted to infirm or sick people to postpone it, if a double fast might prove too arduous for them. But otherwise there were no slackers. And to bring home more sharply the high regard in which this remedy for ill-omened dreams was held by the people, they did not refrain from observing it even on Rosh Hashanah, if necessary, when a Ta‘anit Ḥalom on the first day of the holyday entailed not only fasting on the next day also, but on both days of Rosh Hashanah in every succeeding year! (If, however, occasion for fasting arose on the second day, then only that day's fast was repeated annually.) Nor did they hesitate to keep this fast on the eve of Yom Kippur, the most trying day in the Jewish calendar. It required great faith, indeed, to produce such stanch devotion!29

When the fast was completed, the final remedy was resorted to, the Hatavat Ḥalom, the rite of transforming an ominous dream into a favorable one. As recorded in the Talmud, it was performed as follows: The dreamer gathered three friends and said to them, "I have beheld a good dream!" and they responded, "Verily, it is good, and may it be good, and may God make it good." This was repeated seven times (but, following the precedent attributed to the twelfth-century rabbi Isaac b. Samuel the Elder, the number of repetitions was reduced to three, "the usual number of times an incantation is recited," as later writers explained) . Then the dreamer recited three verses in which the word "to overturn" appears (Ps. 30:12, Jer. 31:12, Deut. 23:6), three verses containing the word "redeem" (Ps. 55:19, Is. 35:10, I Sam. 14:45), and three which speak of "peace" (Is. 57:19, I Chr. 12:18, I Sam. 25:6) . This prescription was followed in the Middle Ages, and was extended to include Hab. 3:2,

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[paragraph continues] Ps. 121, Nu. 6:22-27, Ps. 16: 11, concluding with the words of Ecc. 9:7, "Go thy way, eat thy bread in peace." To avoid the slightest unlucky intimation, moreover, the order of these last words was altered, for their initials spell the word avel, "mourner." If the purport of the dream had been forgotten, the Talmud provided a prayer which was warranted to ensure that no harm would befall the dreamer.30 Thus fortified he could throw off the oppressive weight of his dream and "eat his bread in peace"—until another night visited another evil vision upon him.

Next: 16. Astrology

Mystical Thought and Values

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Mystical Thought and Values
By Yechezkel Gold
The notion of eternal reward for good deeds permeates Torah thought, both in the Talmud and on a grass-roots level. Children are educated to live according to the commandments with promise of an exalted place in heaven for positive acts and threat of suffering and damnation for transgressions.
Modern man rebels against this concept, doubting its veracity and eschewing such egoistical motivations for moral conduct. Over eight hundred years ago, Rambam wrote that such considerations are useful for directing actions of children and simple uneducated adults, but improper for anyone with more spiritual aspirations. Rather, one should do good simply because it is right.
Nonetheless, Rambam did not doubt the reality of eternal life. Indeed, he considered the bliss deserving souls achieve after separation from the body the pinnacle to which a human can aspire. At first glance, this seems contradictory.
While Rambam considered heaven accessible only after death separates the soul from the body, Kabbalists regard heaven as the abode of the souls even during life. In particular, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, conceived that bodily acts immediately elevate or lower the soul's heavenly position.
Heavenly cosmology is an elaborately developed mystical topic which the uninitiated may regard with disdain and a sense of moral superiority. Let us bear in mind, however, that some of the finest minds of the ages were occupied with these ideas. It just might be that obtuseness born of our cultural limitations closes this world to us.
Let us endeavor to approach these ideas which, if true, have tremendous significance, with an open mind. Rather than commencing in the unfamiliar realm of mystical cosmology, however, let us explore territory in which intuition guides us more readily: our own moral sense.

Ethics and Spirituality

Most people have an ethical sense. On a low spiritual level, we may ask what renders an act morally laudable or reprehensible. Strictly, unless one accepts there being an explicit, absolute Divine law, there seems to be no real standard. Logically, there can be no true ideals unless God renders them absolute. Ethics, otherwise, reduce to personal preferences. For instance, some people morally disapprove of murder while others do not.
Purely practical, societal considerations as in Rousseau's social contract are not really morals. This does not prevent one from supporting or opposing certain acts, but one should be aware that one's position is one of self interest, not of conviction. Logically, all morality is premised on the existence of Divine law.
This argument, though logical, does not prevent people who profess no religion from having a conscience. They rely on an intuitive ethical sense. If aware of a contradiction, they feel little need for total rational consistency. Besides, conscience acts on us mainly from above. We do not choose to have pangs of compunction. Rather, they descend upon on spontaneously, arising from an implicit spiritual sensitivity, which individuals have to varying degrees. (Whether this sensitivity is natural, nurtured, or a synthesis of both, is moot, for us.)

The Basis of Spiritual Knowledge

This intuitive spiritual sense, independent of logic, derives from the realm of the soul. This does not imply that reason does not affect it, but even for those whose rational sense does not extend beyond questions of self-interest, the soul still often imposes an altruistic perspective.
Having understood that the moral sense functions from above, with rules and considerations different from the rational ego, we can now investigate the nature of the soul as a spiritual entity in its own right.

Objectivity and the Soul's Reality

Objectivity is the basis of the soul's reality. Indeed, the ego, too, knows how to be realistic and objective, but it adopts this perspective merely as a strategy for subjective success. Subjectivity is the true foundation of the ego's existence.
The soul's objectivity, though, is fundamental. It regards matters in terms of pure good and bad, without distorting that perspective with personal interest.
This is not to say that the moral sense is indifferent to self. Rather, the soul objectively weighs claims of ego against the claims of others, to arrive at the proper ethical verdict.
Nor is this objectivity a state of indifference. Rather, the soul's reality is a deep concern for the common good. The soul struggles mightily to promote and express its views against the often recalcitrant ego.

Utilizing the Soul's upper window

For mystics, the soul is a window to upper, spiritual worlds. Inhabiting that realm, it naturally reflects a perspective above our reality.
For example, through investigating the soul's nature, we develop the ultimate realism, becoming aware of reality independent of the material world, Then, we realize that our world does not exist intrinsically. Rather, it is created. Thereby, we become aware of God's kindness in creating each of us, since we did not have to exist.
Further contemplation reveals other attributes which whatever Force generates the world must employ. We see the impartiality of the Creator in consistently giving existence to all creatures, "deserving or not". True, He chose a creation where all that lives must eventually die, but that pattern, too, is impartially applied. The whole universe functions according to impartially applied laws.
Such ideas are also accessible to rational reason. However, the soul's knowledge of such matters is spontaneous, clear and sure, while our conscious mind must cogitate long and hard, and still remains unclear about these matters.

Soul Knowledge and the Rational Mind

Moreover, the soul knows things the rational mind can not grasp. Let us illustrate this with a graphic example. The reader can substitute a personal experience for this one:
One is sitting on a bus, weary, busy with important reading, and middle aged. pregnant woman enters, carrying a baby and several packages. All seats are occupied, mostly by lively, idly chatting high school students. They all look up and see the pregnant woman, but nobody stands to give her a seat. One feels that, surely, one of them will do the proper thing, but after a minute of glaring insinuatingly, one realizes that they will not. Adamant, one resolves not to surrender the seat, when many others have conspicuously less excuse to retain theirs. After a moment, though, one is propelled from the seat by a mysterious, inexorable force of conscience.
Focusing on the inner process by which the conscience imposes its will, one sees that immediately preceding one's reaction, the soul revealed something of its hidden reality. For an instant, without verbalizing it, one knows that nothing really exists except God, that nothing is important except to further the good of the world, and therefore, that one has no choice but to comply. Rising above time, space and circumstance, the soul ascends to transcendent reality. The rational mind is unable to comprehend these perceptions, integral to Chassidic mystical theory, but they speak cogently to the soul.
The irresistible character of the experience demands that one takes it seriously. Two conditions are necessary to connect with this level of reality. One must make oneself consciously, even verbally aware of it, and trust it. It is somewhat frightening to break with the norms of material existence. Besides, we are not used to trusting our feelings; too often, they are inappropriate. However, a brief incursion into the upper realms like the one described will not harm. Clearly, effects of constructively reconnecting the rational mind to its unconscious roots are salutory, restoring zest, insight, confidence, and genuine purposefulness. Yielding to doubts and fears of a limited rational mind, however, undermines one's inner being and leaves one empty and confused.
Through episodes like the one described, the soul glimpses the nexus of mysticism and ethics:

Radiation of Divine Influx

In Kabbalistic , the unknowable God radiates an Infinite Light, the Or Ein Sof, transcending yet subsuming all of existence, spiritual and physical, potential and actual. Though it is beyond ability to grasp, this Light is reflected in all that is holy. It is reflected in Divine attributes which give rise to creation, in the impartiality of Divine law, and in the kindness which God extends to each individual creature. It is reflected in the objective caring of the soul, and in its resolve to do good. It is the ultimate good, the ultimate purpose, and all that matters.
Kabbala describes the process of reflections which gave rise to creation. There are different levels of reality, with varying abilities to grasp even a reflection of the Or Ein Sof. Mind, for example, is capable of objectivity, but emotions are not. However, a reflection of the mind's objectivity can be expressed through emotions. If one loves what is objectively good and fears what is objectively bad, these emotions reflect the mind's state, which ultimately connects them to the Or Ein Sof. Actions are still less capable of objectivity, but when actions reflect emotion or attitudes grounded in the objective perceptions of the soul, the body and faculties leading to those actions connect to the Or Ein Sof.
Differences between lofty levels of soul and the mundane faculties only regard their level of grasping the reflection of Or Ein Sof. The significance of a good deed, though it is a mere physical act, often far surpasses profound insights by exalted levels of soul.
Thus, by radiating and re-radiating progressive reflections of the Infinite Light, God did a great kindness to the creation. Although insignificant by itself, each creature can come to really matter, to have true significance, by expressing something of the Or Ein Sof.
Attitudes flowing out of transcendent objectivity reflecting the Infinite Light are called ethics. As experience confirms, though we are free to act morally or not, ethically, we are not free; we are obligated to do what is right. True to this, Torah presents ethical attitudes as imperatives: the commandments. Experientially, the main differences between our ethical sense and the commandments is that our moral sense is general and intuitive, whereas the commandments are explicit, and not always intuitive. According to Kabbala, though, explicitness only makes conscious what is implicit in the Infinite Light, and lacking intuitive understanding of a commandment merely signifies spiritual insensitivity in that area.

Connecting to the Source

As Rambam pointed out, serving God out of conviction, that is, having outer behavior reflect genuine connection to the Infinite Light, is superior to acting for selfish motives.
Let us remark, though, that not everyone is capable of exalted connection with God, and few people can maintain that state continually. Often, we act morally quite matter of factly, with little inner conviction. God's kindness extends down to even those levels of creation, enabling them to connect to Him. Only a general belief in Torah and desire to do God's will are required.
There may be a limit, though. If an act is moral but the intent selfish, it seems not to connect with the Or Ein Sof. Modern man, too, may decry this element of Torah practice, which encourages good deeds even for selfish motives.
However, this is a point of contention in the Talmud. Some authorities, such a Rambam, hold that an act is considered fulfillment of a commandment only when there is altruistic intent, to perform it because it is a commandment. If one intends to gain social approval, or even an exalted place in heaven, but without altruistic intent, it is not considered fulfilling a commandment. As the Talmud states: if one hears the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, but did not intend to fulfill one's obligation, it does not suffice. We can deduce from this that without altruistic intent, this act is unacceptable
If one intends to fulfill the commandment, but also with selfish considerations, the obligation is fulfilled, but marred by external motivations.
Other authorities, both in the Talmud and among the medieval authorities, think otherwise, however. They say that fulfillment of a commandment requires no altruistic intent.
In view of the idea of ethics emerging as a reflection of the Or Ein Sof, this idea may seem puzzling. If an act does not reflect the mystical Source, it appears even evil. Evil hides and contradicts the mystical truth that the basis of reality is good. Similarly, if an act is really a sham, inconsistent with its intent, it is false, and seems evil.

Case in Action

The Talmud, however, discusses the commandment of forgotten sheaves. If reapers or harvesters forget a small amount of grain in the field, it becomes the property of the poor. We see, states the Talmud, that one can perform a commandment without intent. Thus, if someone drops a coin and a pauper finds and uses it, it is considered fulfillment of a commandment.
To understand this opinion, we must return to our discussion of the psyche's organization. The selfless, spiritual soul occupies upper spiritual realms, and an egoistic element occupies the body. Most of the time, the inspired, selfless component is dormant, and ego holds sway over our being. If we always acted true to our inner state, the vast majority of our acts would not fulfill commandments. While this is the case, anyway, for most of mankind, there is a better approach.
To understand this better approach, we must first study one of the Talmud's discussions about eternal reward in heaven, paying close attention to our own perceptions and feelings. The Talmud states: "Regarding those murdered by the (oppressive) authorities: no creature can stand within their boundaries." That is, their place in heaven is so exalted as to be (virtually) unattainable. The Talmud then queries: To whom is this referring? If it refers to Rabbi Akiva and his friends, why single out only that they were murdered by evil authorities? After all, the value of their Torah learning already earns them an awesome position in heaven. Rather, the text refers to Lulianus and Papus from the city of Lod.
Rashi explains that the daughter of the Roman emperor was riding in her carriage on the outskirts of Lod when she was ambushed and killed. All investigations to discover her murderers failed so the Roman authorities demanded that the city of Lod itself turn the killers over to them. They threatened to annihilate the entire city if they failed to do so by a certain day. As the deadline approached and the murderers were not found, the threat of doom hung over the city. At the last moment two brothers, Lulianus and Papus, stepped forward and admitted guilt. The Romans killed them brutally and painfully. The sages knew, however, that Lulianus and Papus were innocent and had stepped forward only to save the city.
This inspiring story reveals more to us than the sages' concept of eternal reward. We actually glimpse the reality of Lulianus' and Papus' afterlife. Reacting to this story, our souls ascend to view eternity and glean intuitive spiritual knowledge that their act, even if largely forgotten by history, has eternal significance. Truly, few can approach their level of merit! Perhaps a cynical ego will deny the experience, but really, the awareness is there: each soul has a place in eternity determined by its actions in this life, there are very different levels, and those who achieve a sublime place are truly privileged!

Actions and NOT Words, Count

With this perspective, let us inquire about meritorious acts in which the agent did not have altruistic intentions. It is a rare privilege for someone to save an entire populace even inadvertently. The Rabbis say one must have considerable merits for such a great privilege to come one's way. In fact, even if the intentions were selfish, such an act exalts the soul to a transcendent level. The selfish motivations fade, leaving the act's eternal significance.
Thus, even if one acts meritoriously because of aspirations for an exalted position in the afterlife,it is eternally worthwhile. Certainly, purely altruistic motivations are preferable, but if ulterior motives lead to meritorious acts, the ulterior motives are justified.
In fact, on a deeper level, the soul's demand for an altruistic act comes from its knowledge of eternal reality and desire to participate in it more fully, as we discussed above. Therefore, the motivation for an exalted place in the afterlife is quite proper, strictly.
Even for individuals for whom awareness of the soul's considerations is hidden, the sages are justified in using other means to induce them to perform the commandments, which will bring them, nevertheless, to their rightful eternal status. Moreover, the Jewish people function as a single entity, and these acts add to the greatness of our people.

Self Knowledge

Another factor in our analysis also comes through self-knowledge. By perusing our inner functioning, we become aware of how rarely we perform a good deed selflessly. This happens only when the soul takes charge. When ego is involved, as it generally is, there are selfish motives. Even altruistic ideology usually derives from covert personal considerations. This egoistic level exists, not because of its own merit, like the soul does, but because of God's kindness, which extends to it the privilege of serving what is truly, eternally worthwhile. Serving as an indirect vehicle for the Infinite Light does not convert the ego to a state of intrinsic good, but it does justify its existence.
Moreover, there are advantages in ego involvement. Whereas the soul acts sporadically, so that truly moral acts are rare, the ego is almost always present and consistent, going beyond sensitivity to ethical imperatives to a more absolute state: good deeds are obligatory whether or not one is inspired.
Besides, as the Talmud points out, if someone gives charity so that his son shall live, he is considered perfectly righteous because really, his inner intent is altruistic. When we do a good deed, even with explicitly selfish motivation, we are considered perfectly righteous, because more profoundly, the soul's intent springs from connection with the ultimate good of the Infinite Light.

Historical Periods of Jewish Mysticism


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by Prof. Elliot R. Wolfson

Biblical Precursors
The Hebrew Bible is a primary source of reflection and inspiration for virtually all branches of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism. While we must be careful not to conflate the religion of the ancient Israelites with later periods of Jewish history, it remains clear that certain elements of continuity remain throughout. One of the most important ideas of biblical religion to impact Jewish mysticism is the phenomenon of prophecy and revelatory experience. The texts relating the revelations to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the people of Israel as a whole at Sinai, and the prophetic inspirations and visions of Ezekiel, Daniel and other prominent personalities in the Bible serve as the foundation for much of the esoteric and mystical traditions of Judaism. The Zohar, for example, is organized as a commentary on the Torah, and contains many descriptions of experience of the Divine that approximate descriptions of prophetic revelation found throughout the Bible.

1st – 7th centuries: Early Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism
The earliest stages of post-biblical Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism begin in the ancient Near East with a number of important texts that draw upon biblical images, such as Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot or merkavah, and the ascension of Enoch. The Rabbinic literature of the Talmud and Midrash also contains many images and ideas about the mysteries of the divine realm, the nature of prophecy, the origins of the cosmos, the nature of the human soul, and other matters that went on to have a significant influence on Jewish mysticism.

Important Texts

Sefer Yesirah (2nd – 7th centuries CE)
Sefer Yesirah or “The Book of Creation” is a short treatise of less than 2,000 words that discusses the creation of the universe by means of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the “ten ineffable sefirot.” It is unclear what the ten sefirot exactly are in this context, but it would seem that they refer to entities in the divine realm that are incomprehensible by the human mind, yet nonetheless represent the mysterious nature of God and serve as his tools in the creative process. The focus on the symbolism of the ten sefirot and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Sefer Yesirah had a major impact on later Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah. The symbolism of the ten sefirot is re-emphasized in an innovative and powerful way in the kabbalistic texts that begin to emerge in Southern France in the late 12th century.

Rabbinic Literature
Esoteric speculation can be found in many places in Rabbinic literature. In one famous example in Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 we read, “forbidden sexual relations may not be expounded before three [or more] people, nor the account of creation [ma’aseh bereishit] before two [or more], nor the account of the Chariot [ma’aseh merkavah] before one, unless he is a sage who understand through his own knowledge.” These categories of forbidden or restricted speculation indicate a tradition, already active in the first few centuries of the Common Era among the rabbinic elite, of secret knowledge regarding God, the creation of the universe, and human sexuality. In one cryptic passage in the Talmud, Sanhedrine 65b, we read, “Rav Haninia and Rav Oshaya used to sit the entire day before the commencement of the Sabbath and study the Sefer Yesirah. They created a calf one third the normal size and ate it.” While it remains unclear whether the Sefer Yesirah referred to in this Talmudic text is connected to the Sefer Yesirah mentioned above, it is yet another example of esoteric traditions among the scholars of the Rabbinic period.

Heikhalot/Merkavah Literature
Another group of Jewish mystical texts from the first centuries of the Common Era is the Heikhalot “Chamber” and Merkavah “Chariot” literature. These texts discuss the means of traversing the seven chambers that surround the divine throne or chariot. Each stage of the journey involves entering through the gateways between the courtyards, which are guarded by angels. Only those who are fully adept in the proper recitation of the angelic names can enter and exit unharmed. These visions of the courtyards and throne room of God are reported in the name of famous personalities from the Rabbinic schools, such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. The precise connections between this body of literature and the Rabbinc authors is difficult to determine, but most scholars agree that the traditions related in the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature, especially those texts from the Heikhalot Rabbati and Heikhalot Zutarti collections, date to the Rabbinic period.

Shiur Komah
One of the most arcane texts from the ancient period of Jewish mysticism and esotericism is the unusual collection of passages referred to as the Shiur Komah, or “Measure of the Stature.” These texts describe the Glory of God in the form of a supernal human body of enormous proportions with names associated with each of the limbs. In later periods of Jewish Mysticism anthropomorphic representations of God plays an important role.

7th – 11th centuries: Mysticism in the Geonic period
Much of what we find from the 7th – 11th centuries reflects a strong influence from the rabbinic and Heikhalot/Merkavah sources. A number of important ideas that developed during this period that had a key impact on later Jewish mysticism. The first major idea that took shape during this period is the re-conceptualization of the Shekhinah “Divine Presence” as more than a name for the presence of God in the world, but rather a kind of hypostasis or entity that can interact with God.
Furthermore, it is during the Geonic period that the Shekhinah is associated with the kenesset yisrael, “the community of Israel,” the idea of gilgul or reincarnation finds its first appearance in Judaism, and the technique of employing gematria “numerology” to the values of Hebrew letters and words in order to uncover sodot or “secrets” hidden within biblical texts becomes widespread.
Two important commentaries on Sefer Yesirah were composed during this period, one by Shabbtai ben Abraham Donnolo (913 – ca. 982), and another by Judah ben Barsillai al Barceloni (late 11th – early 12th). Other important figures from this period included Eleazar Kallir (ca. 6th-8th century), Saadiah ben Joseph Gaon (882-942), Hai Gaon (939 – 1038), Hananel ben Hushiel (d. 1055-56), Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome (d. 1110), Ahima’az of Oria (11th century), and Aaron of Bagdad (mid 9th century).
During the early part of the Geonic period most of the important authors were centered in Babylonia, but toward the end of the period, many of these ideas begin to spread to the Jewish communities of Europe.

12th – 13th centuries: Medieval Jewish Mysticism and the Rise of Kabbalah

Hasidei Ashkenaz
A significant development in the promulgation of mystical and esoteric ideas in the Jewish Communities of Western Christendom was the emergence of a group in the Rhineland known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz or German Pietists. This movement was active from roughly 1250-1350 and had a profound impact on the kabbalistic circles in Spain in the latter part of the 13th century. The three main figures of this group come from the Kalonymide family, starting with Samuel the Hasid (mid 12th century), son of Rabbi Kalonymus of Speyer; Judah the Hasid of Worms (d. 1217), and Eleazar ben Yehudah of Worms, who died between 1223 and 1232. While little of the literary activity of Samuel the Hasid remains, many associate the Sefer Hasidim “Book of the Pious” with the teachings of Judah the Hasid. Eleazar of worms composed numerous works – some of considerable length – that have survived and serve as the most important evidence of the mystical, theological and theosophical speculations of this group.
The Hasidei Ashkenaz placed particular emphasis on ascetic renunciation and ethical discipline. Fasts, abstinence, physical pain and discomfort, and even valorization of martyrdom were all regarded as vehicles to enable mystical illumination, especially in the form of the visualization of the Shekhinah or Divine Presence. God, according to the Hasidei Ashkenaz, is unknowable in his essence, yet he fills all reality and suffuses all being. By practicing ascetic renunciation and contemplating the traditional teachings of the divine mysteries regarding creation, revelation, and the meaning of the Torah, members of this school believed that they could attain the pure love of God in an encounter that was often described in ways that indicate a strong influence from the Heikhalot and Merkavah literature, as well as the Sefer Yesirah. Many scholars believe that the tribulations of the Crusades and the ascetic practices of the surrounding Christian monastic communities had an impact on the particular form of religious and mystical piety of the Hasidei Ashkenaz.

Kabbalah in Provence and the Sefer ha-Bahir
In the 1180’s a text emerged in Provence region of southern France that has come to serve as a defining moment in the history of Jewish mysticism and esotericism. This text, known as the Sefer ha-Bahir or “The Book of Brightness,” is written in the style of an ancient rabbinic midrash. The book has a complex origin and contains at least some elements that are believed to reflect ancient Near Eastern Jewish traditions. Determining exactly what proportion of the Bahir derives from ancient tradition and what was the innovation of authors living in 12th century Europe remains a question in the scholarship. The most significant feature of the Sefer ha-Bahir is its focus on the ten sefirot as the ten luminous emanations of God that symbolically reveal the realm of inner divine life. The sefirot thus become living and dynamic symbols that represent the unknowable and ineffable secrets of God. By embracing the paradox of a symbolic system of ten divine emanations that represent that which is impossible to represent, the Bahir takes a decisive step that permanently changes the history of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah refers to those texts that employ the theosophic symbolism of the ten sefirot, while Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism is a broader term includes the earlier texts that do not discuss the sefirot in exactly this manner.
Around this time we also find traditions that associate esoteric speculation with a number of important rabbis in southern France. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne (1110-1179), Abraham ben David of Posquiers (1125-1198), also know as Rabad, and Jacob Nazir of Lunel (d. late 12th century) are known to have endorsed kabbalistic and mystical teachings, though little more than a few scattered hints to that affect have been preserved in their own writings. Isaac the Blind (d. ca. 1235), son of Abraham ben David, lived in Narbonne and was the first major rabbi in Europe to specialize in Kabbalah. Most of Isaac the Blind’s teaching were disseminated orally to his students, and only one text, a commentary on Sefer Yesirah, is regarded as his own composition. This commentary is a notoriously difficult text that discusses the sefirot mentioned in Sefer Yesirah in a theosophical manner. One important contribution found in Isaac the Blind’s commentary is the development of the idea that the sefirot emanate from an absolutely unknowable and recondite aspect of God known as ein sof, or “without end.”

Kabbalah in Gerona
In the beginning of the 13th century Kabbalah spread to Spain when the students of Isaac the Blind began moved to Gerona, in the region of Catalonia. Here for the first time books were composed on Kabbalah that were designed to bring these ideas to a wider audience. Some of the most important individuals from this period are Judah ibn Yakar (Nahmanides’ teacher), Ezra ben Shlomo (d. 1238 or 1245), Azriel of Gerona (early 13th century), Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides (1194-1270), Abraham ben Isaac Gerundi (mid 13th century), Asher ben David (first half of the 13th century), and Jacob ben Sheshet (mid 13th century). In an intriguing letter sent to his students in Gerona, Isaac the blind urges them to stop composing books on Kabbalah, for fear that these ideas could be spread to individuals who would not take them seriously, making them “the subject of jokes in the marketplace.” Despite Isaac the Blind’s criticisms of the literary activities of the Gerona kabbalists, treatises on Kabbalah continued to circulate, and soon spread to other communities in Spain. The influence of Nahmanides at this time was undoubtedly essential for the legitimization of Kabbalah in the Spanish Jewish communities of Catalonia, Aragon and Castile.

Kabbalah in Castile
In the middle of the 13th century Kabbalah spread to Jewish communities living in the cities and towns of Castile. Jacob ben Jacob ha-kohen (mid 13th century) and Isaac ben Jacob ha-Kohen (Mid 13th century) became known for their Gnostic teaching of a demonic realm within God from which evil in the world originates, composed of a set of “sefirot of impurity” that parallel the pure sefirot of God. Their pupil, Moses of Burgos (c.1230/1225 – c. 1300), as well as Todros ben Joseph Abulafia (1220-1298), were significant rabbinic and political leaders of the Castilian Jewish community who wrote important works of Kabbalah. Moses of Burgos was the teacher of Isaac ibn Sahula (b. 1244), author of the famous poetic fable Meshal ha-Kadmoni (1281), as well as a kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs. Also active in Castile at this time was Jacob ha-Kohen (mid 13th century), who wrote a kind of Kabbalah that he claimed to be based upon his own visions, and Isaac ibn Latif (ca. 1210-1280), whose writings strike a very delicate balance between kabbalistic symbolism and philosophical speculation.
From the 1270’s through the 1290’s a number of important and lengthy kabbalistic books were written by Joseph Gikatilla (1248-1325) and Moses de Leon (1240-1305). These two figures were among the most prolific of the medieval kabbalists, and many of their compositions, such as Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah “Gates of Light,” went on to become seminal works in the history of Kabbalah. This period of remarkable kabbalistic literary productivity took place during the controversy over the study of Aristotelian philosophy, especially as it took shape in the philosophical works of Moses Maimonides, and the pronounced increase in Christian anti-Jewish proselytizing in western Europe. Both of these may have been a factor in the development of Kabbalah during this decisive moment in its history.

Abraham Abulafia
Abraham Abulafia was born in Spain in 1240 and died some time after 1292. He propounded a kind of Kabbalah that, in addition to many of the typical theosophical motifs, focused on meditative techniques and recitation of divine names, letter permutation, numerical symbolism of Hebrew letters known as gematria, and acrostics, designed to bring one to a state of ecstatic union with God and to attain prophetic illumination. The goal of this mystical and prophetic experience is to untie the “knots” binding the soul to the body and the world. According to his own testimony, Abulafia wrote 26 books of prophecy based on his mystical experiences. Abulafia traveled widely and may have had messianic pretensions. He attempted to have an audience with Pope Nicholas III in 1280 possibly in order to declare himself the messiah. In the 1280’s Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret of Barcelona (c. 1235-1310) led an attack against him and had Abulafia and his works banned because of his claims that his writings were on a par with those of the biblical prophets. Abulafia was a prolific writer who in addition to his prophetic works – of which only one, sefer ha-Ot, has survived – wrote many books on topics such as Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, commentaries on Sefer Yesirah, and descriptions of meditative techniques.

The Zohar
During the 1290’s in Castile a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah began to circulate that would go on to have a monumental and transformative impact on Judaism and the West. This commentary was written in Aramaic in the name of important Rabbis from the time of the Mishnah in the second century CE. The most prominent Rabbi mentioned in this collection of Kabbalistic writings is Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. By the end of the 13th century, these texts came to be known by a number of names, but the one that stood the test of time was Sefer ha-Zohar, or “The Book of Splendor.”
A careful reading of the text of the Zohar – which, in its printed form, is almost two thousand pages in length – reveals a pronounced influence of Heikhalot and Merkavah imagery, the writings of the Hasidei Ashkenz, the kabbalists of Provence, Gerona and Castile, as well as some important medieval Jewish thinkers and philosophers such as Judah Ha-Levi and Moses Maimonides. Moreover, a number of foreign words of Spanish origin are found in the text. This has lead scholars to the conclusion that most if not all of the Zohar was composed in Castile toward the end of the 13th century. The earliest citation of a passage from the Zohar literature is found in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-Kadmoni from a part of the Zohar called the Midrash ha-Ne’elam. It is only in the later 1290’s and early 1300’s that we find Jewish scholars citing the Zohar with any consistency.
Gershom Scholem argued that the Zohar was written in its entirety by Moses de Leon. This position has been revised by Yehuda Liebes, who has argued that the Zohar is in fact the product of a group of Spanish kabbalists from the late 13th century in which Moses de Leon is a prominent or perhaps even leading member, but which also includes Yoseph Gikatilla, Todros Abulafia, Isaac ibn Abu Sahula, Yoseph ha-ba mi-Shushan ha-Birah, David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, Yospeh Angelet, Yoseph Shalom Ashkenazi, and Bahya ben Asher.
The Zohar represents in many ways the culmination of a century of tremendous kabbalistic creativity and productivity that began in Provence in the late 12th century and ended in Castile in the late 13th century. The long and rambling poetic discourse of the Zohar engages with everything from the emergence of the ten sefirot from the inner reaches of God and ein sof, the mysteries of creation, the process of revelation, the mystical meaning of the mitzvoth or commandments of Jewish law, meditations on the gendered and highly erotic interactions of the sefirot, expressed in particular in the desire for the Shekhinah, the tenth and lowest of the ten sefirot, to return to her male counterpart and be re-assimilated into God. The authorship of the Zohar argues, in keeping with trends in Kabbalah from earlier in the 13th century, that it is by means of the actions of Jews in the physical world – especially though the performance of commandment and the study of Torah – that the sefirot can be unified and the upper and lower realms can be perfected. These ideas are delivered in a highly cryptic style that presumes that the reader is familiar with many of the main principles of Kabbalah, as well as the biblical and rabbinic literatures. The Zohar encodes its kabbalistic message in a highly complex set of symbols that are in turn said to be only the uncovering of mysteries that are all contained within the words and even the letters of the Torah.

14th – 16th centuries: From the Spanish Expulsion to the Safed Community
By the 14th century Kabbalah began to spread throughout Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Treatises such as Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut written by an anonymous author in the early 14th century, along with the commentary on the Torah by Bahya ben Asher and the sermons or Drashot of Joshua ibn Shu’aib (first half of the 14th century), served to spread Kabbalah to wider audiences. Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Gaon of Soria (13th – 14th centuries) and Elhanan ben Abraham ibn Eskira (13th – 14th centuries) became important kabbalists in Palestine, along with Isaac ben Samuel of Acre (late 13th – mid 14th century), whose Me’irat Einaim became a seminal exposition of the kabbalistic meaning behind the hints and allusions to secret teachings in the works of Nahmanides. Kabbalah began to spread to Italy in the early 14th century through the works of Menahem Recanati, who wrote a popular Kabbalistic commentary on the Torah and a book on the mystical meaning of the commandments. Menahen Ziyyoni of Cologne and Avigdor Kara became important kabbalistic authorities in Germany, while Isaiah ben Joseph of Tabriz spread Kabbalah to Persia and Nathan ben Moses Kilkis wrote his Even Sappir in Constantinople. Two important works written some time in the second half of the 14th century, Sefer ha-Peli’ah, a commentary on the first section of the Torah, and Sefer ha-Kanah, concerning the kabbalistic meaning of the commandments, argue that Jewish law and tradition can only be properly understood according to the Kabbalah, and that both the philosophical and literalist interpretations of Judaism are misguided. A similar sentiment is expressed in the writings of Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov, who attacked the philosophical teachings of Maimonides and blamed them for the growing trend of Jewish conversion to Christianity in Spain in the late 14th century.
Kabbalistic literary activity began to decline in Spain during the 15th century leading up to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Though there were important kabbalists still living in Spain during the mid to late 15th century, such as Joseph Alcastiel, Judah Hayat, Joshua ben Samuel ibn Nehmias, Shalom ben Saadiah ibn Saytun and others, many began to migrate even before the expulsion.
The exile of the Spanish Jewish community facilitated the spread of Kabbalah to many centers around the Mediterranean. In Italy there were active schools of kabbalists in the late 15th century including Reuben Zarfati, Jonathan Alemano and Judah Messer Leon, who undoubtedly had an impact on the development of Christian Kabbalah by Giovanni Picco della Mirandola. In North Africa during the late 15th and early to mid 16th centuries, Abraham Sabba, Joseph Alashkar, Mordecai Buzaglo and Shimon ibn Lavi were active teachers and writers.
By the late 1530’s, Safed had become the most important center in the world for kabbalists. Joseph Karo, a Spanish exile who grew up in the vibrant Jewish communities of Adrinopol and Salonika in Greece and became one of the most prominent rabbinic figures of all time, moved to Safed in 1536. There he composed his legal code, the Shulkhan Arukh, and served as the head of the Beit Din, or Jewish court. Karo was also a accomplished kabbalist who recorded a series of visions and revelation that he received from a maggid or angelic voice in a work entitled Maggid Meisharim. Solomon ben Moses Alkebetz, the author of the famous Jewish liturgical poem Lekha Dodi, sung on Friday nights during the Kabbalat Shabbat service, along with his son-in-law and pupil Moses ben Jacob Cordevero, also moved from Greece to Safed around this time. Cordevero, who studied with Karo, went on to have an enormously productive career as both a teacher and a writer. He composed extensive systematic presentations of kabbalistic ideas, such as his Pardes Rimmonim, a multi-volume commentary on the Torah entitled Or Yakar, and many other books. He also attracted as his students a number of individuals who would go on to have a tremendous impact on the spread of Kabbalistic ideas to the broader Jewish public, including Abraham ha-Levi Berukhim, Abraham Galante, Smauel Gallico, Mordechai Dato, Eliezer Asikri, and Elijah de Vidas.

Isaac Luria
Though he spent only a few years in the city of Safed before his death at a young age in 1572, Isaac Luria had an enormous impact on the community of Safed kabbalists that permanently transformed the history of Jewish mysticism. Luria studied briefly with Cordevero when he arrived in Safed in 1570, but after the latter’s death about six months later, Luria quickly became the preeminent kabbalist of the community. Luria’s meteoric rise was not by virtue of his impressive literary production, since Luria seems to have written little if anything on Kabbalah at that time. Rather, the force of his impact on the kabbalists of Safed was through his charismatic personality and the depth and creativity of his ideas, which he taught orally. Not long after Luria’s death, hundreds of stories of his spiritual powers, his ability to perform magical wonders, to determine the origin of a person’s soul or “soul root,” to read a persons fate by the lines on their forehead and other such miraculous tales began to circulate, testifying to the kind of impression Luria made on the imagination of the community. Despite the fact that Luria wrote very little, his teachings were quickly spread to the broader Jewish community through the writings of his disciples who studied with him during the time he was in Safed. Luria’s students, especially Hayim Vital, went on to write voluminous compositions based on their master’s teachings. These writings quickly spread Lurianic Kabbalah throughout the Jewish communities of North Africa and Europe.
Luria’s kabbalistic teachings were often presented as interpretations of the Zohar, though his symbolism of the ten sefirot becomes significantly more complex with multiple levels and permutations. Luria expanded upon a number of important elements already present in one form or another in Zoharic Kabbalah, such as the coming of the Messiah, the process of creation through tzimtzum or divine self-contraction, shevirat ha-kelim or the “shattering of the vessels” that took place at certain stage in the process of creation, the tikkun or restoration of divine light or “sparks” through Jewish actions and religious practice, and kavvanah or mystical intention necessary for the proper practice of mitzvoth and prayer. Like the Zohar itself, Luria’s Kabbalah contains bold and complex imagery regarding the inner dynamics of the divine realm of the sefirot, and the potential for Jewish actions to rectify – or destroy – the order of the universe in its relation to God.

Shabbtai Zvi
By the middle of the 17th century, Kabbalah, especially in the form spread the disciples of Isaac Luria, was widely disseminated throughout the Jewish world. The strong messianic inclination of Lurianic thinking, coupled with a number of traumatic political events – most notably the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648, which destroyed hundreds of Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe and killed many thousands – contributed to the vast popularity of the messianic movement that developed around the charismatic figure Shabbetai Zevi. Born in Ismir to a wealthy merchant family in 1626, Zevi distinguished himself early in life as a gifted student. He was also an avid kabbalist known for his bold tendency to pronounce the divine name, the Tetragrammaton, aloud. He also, according to the historical accounts, seems to have been afflicted with severe manic depression, and during his manic phases he would engage in bizarre deliberate violations of the commandments, including in one instance, marrying himself to a Torah scroll. In the spring of 1665 Shabbetai Zevi arrived in Gaza, where he met Nathan of Gaza, a charismatic kabbalist and renowned healer of the soul. Both quickly became convinced that Zevi was the messiah, and soon won over many of the local rabbis in Palestine and Jerusalem. Letter and writings by Nathan of Gaza, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, and other quickly began to circulate, in which they employed kabbalistic symbolism to argue that the Messiah had arrived in the person of Shabbetai Zevi. As the news spread to the Jewish communities of Europe traumatized by disaster and primed for messianic redemption in the form of a grand kabbalistic tiqqun, the Sabbatian movement gained many adherents, including a number of highly respected rabbis. In the summer of 1666 Zevi was brought before the Turkish Sultan. The historical accounts of what exactly happened in that meeting are unclear, but the result is certain: Shabbtai Zevi converted to Islam. This devastating disappointment brought the movement to a catastrophic end, with most of Zevi’s followers abandoning the hopes they had placed in him. For some, however, the conversion of their Messiah was regarded as a profound kabbalistic mystery that simply needed time to unfold. The followers of Shabbtai Zevi who continued to believe in his messianic identity generally held their belief in secret, and are referred to as crypto Sabbatians. This group developed a complex system of kabbalistic explanation of the life and actions of Shabbetai Zevi. Adherents to the Sabbatian doctrine persisted for several generations, and some exist until today in small numbers. Another small group of Jews at the time of Zevi’s conversion converted to Islam themselves, creating a secret sect known as the Donmeh, who outwardly practiced Islam, but secretly preserved a form of Sabbatian kabbalah.

18th Century Kabbalah and The Rise of Hasidism
After the Sabbatian debacle in the late 17th century, kabbalists became more conservative in the way they discussed and wrote about their mystical ideas, in particular with regard to messianic speculation. Most focused their attention on reconciling the details of Lurianic Kabbalah with the Zohar, and the interpretation of works by earlier authorities. 18th century kabbalistic circles in Ashkenazi lands included Bezalel b. Solomon of Slutsk, Berachiah Berakh Spira, Hayyim b. Menahem Zanzer (d. 1783), and Moses b. Hillel Ostrer (from Ostrog; d. 1785). In Lithuania, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna, also known as the Vilna Gaon, was a towering rabbinic authority and Kabbalist. In the Sephardic Jewish communities, Hayyim ha-Kohen of Aleppo and Elijah ha-Kohen ha-Itamari of Smyrna and many others were active kabbalists who wrote extensively. Kabbalah played an important role in the religious life of Jewish communities in Yemen and Kurdistan through the works of such figures as Shalom b. Joseph Shabasi and Joseph Zalah.
An intriguing school of kabbalists developed in Jerusalem in the mid 18th century at the Beit El yeshiva under the leadership of the Yemenite kabbalist Shalom Mizrahi Sharabi, who focused on Lurianic Kabbalah, with a particular emphasis on contemplative prayer. Members of the Bei El yeshiva, which continued to be active for two hundred years until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1927, dedicated themselves to rigorous regimens of prayer and study. Sharabi and his school came to be recognized as the main authorities of Kabbalah for Jews living in the Muslim world, and Sharabi himself acquired a reputation as a kabbalist almost on a par with Isaac Luria. Some of the most important kabbalists from the Beit El yeshiva include Abraham Azulai of Marrakesh (d. 1741), Abraham Tobiana of Algiers (d. 1793), Shalom Buzaglo of Marrakesh (d. 1780), Joseph Sadboon of Tunis (18th century), Jacob Abi-Hasira (d. 1880); Sasson b. Mordecai Shandookh (1747–1830) Joseph Hayyim b. Elijah (d. 1909).

Israel Baal Shem Tov and the Rise of Hasidism
In the middle of the 18th century a new social phenomenon in the Jewish world began to take root in Poland-Lithuania, centered around the kabbalistic traditions and teaching of Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov, also know as the Besht. The Hasidic movement, as it came to be called, emphasized a democratic religious ideal wherein spiritual achievement is attainable through sincerity, piety and joyful worship. That is not to say that the movement did not have an intellectual component was well – thousands of Hasidic books and treatises were composed in the first few generations of the movement, most of which are infused with kabbalistic motifs and images. As the Hasidic movement gained wide popularity in eastern Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many elements of the Kabbalah became widely known to the general Jewish public, and Hasidic masters would often incorporate kabbalistic symbols into their sermons and teachings for their communities.
Starting in Podolye, the Besht became famous as a magical healer and wonder-worker – the name “Baal Shem Tov” means “Master of the Good Name” and related to the kabbalistic notion of the power of divine names. Some of his most influential students included Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye, who wrote Toledot Ya'akov Yosef in1780 which was the first written articulation of Hasidism, and Dov Baer of Mezhirech, who became the leader of the second generation of Hasidic Rabbis after the death of the Besht in 1760. Dov Ber’s followers included some who would go on to become renowned leaders of Hasidic communities and authors of important Hasidic works, such as Shneur Zalman of Lyady, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, Aaron (the Great) of Karlin, and Samuel Shmelke Horowitz. Some Hasidic Rabbis became the heads of dynasties that grew over time to include thousands of followers. Some groups still active today, such as Chabad Lubavitch and Breslov, continue to spread their kabbalistically infused teachings to broader Jewish audiences.

Kabbalah in the 20th and 21 Centuries
In addition to the many Hasidic Rabbis and desciples of the Beit El yeshiva who remained active into the 20th century, individuals such as Yehudah Ashlag and his disciple and brother-in-law Yehudah Zevi Brandwein continued to develop and spread knowledge about kabbalistic texts and ideas. Ashlag, who was born in Warsaw but moved to Jerusalem in 1920, composed many important texts and commentaries on the works of earlier kabbalists, including the famous Ma’alot ha-Sullam (1945–60) commentary and translation of the Zohar in 22 volumes, completed by his brother-in-law after his death. Brandwein also wrote commentaries on the works of Moses Cordevero and Isaac Luria, as well as a complete library of Lurianic Kabbalah in 14 volumes. Abraham Isaac Kook, the founding thinker of religious Zionism, was also and avid kabbalists who sought to apply his mystical teaching in social and political action.
In the late 1960’s Philip Berg, born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn, New York, traveled to Jerusalem where he studied with Yehudah Zevi Brandwein. Berg began to open institutes for the study and teaching of Kabbalah, first in Tel Aviv, followed by many more branches throughout the United States and Europe. The branches of Berg’s institute came to be known as The Kabbalah Center, with its main headquarters in Los Angeles, where a number of American celebrities, most notably Madonna, have become associated with the movement. Bergs’ main goal in developing The Kabbalah Center is to spread kabbalistic ideas in ways that are comprehensible and practical in everyone’s daily life. Critics of The Kabbalah Center have argued that Berg’s movement is nothing more than a cynical ploy to profit financially by selling a form of New Age spirituality under the guise of genuine historical Kabbalah to an unsuspecting public. Sales in books, classes, online tutorials, “Kabbalah water,” and red string bracelets bring are a multi-million dollar money maker for The Kabbalah Center. Today the center is co-directed by Berg’s sons, Yehudah and Michael Berg.