Mystics and prayers

Part one

By Israel Drazin

The following two-part description of mystical notions and an explanation of the prayer Lecha Dodi is adapted from my book Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.


The Sefirot

The Zohar is one of the most important books of Jewish mysticism. Mystics claim that it was composed during the second century CE by the sage Shimon bar Yochai. However, the book contains multiple references to events and documents of later periods and scholars show more than a hundred proofs that it was composed around 1290. Its basic teaching is the doctrine of the Sefirot, a word meaning “numbers,” introduced for the first time in a simple form in the mystical work Sefer yetzirah in the ninth century.

The Sefirot are the ten divine elements that emanated from God. These emanations carried out the divine will to create the world. Many mystics see them as parts of God. According to mystics, they still exist and function in different ways. They are not figures of speech, but actual divine entities.[1]

The lowest level of the Sefirot is the Shekhinah, which is also called Malkhut (literally “kinghood,” “kingdom,” or “royal dignity”), seen by the mystics as the feminine aspect of God. Just as the mystics appropriated other ancient names, they took the term shekhinah, which was first used in the beginning of the Common Era to express a human feeling of God’s presence being either in heaven or on earth, and used it to express their somewhat anthropomorphic notion of a feminine part of God interacting with humans.

The mystics felt that the ten parts of God are not combined together and that humans have a duty to help God become one with all his ten parts reassembled.[2] When this is accomplished, the true and ultimate Sabbath, the messianic age, will arrive.[3]


Mystical Notions in the Friday Night Prayers

Though many people do not realize it, the hymn Lecha Dodi, recited during the Friday night services, was composed by a mystic in Safed in the sixteenth century. It was written to express the hope that God will be reunified, that the feminine part of God will combine with the central part of the ten Sefirot, called Tipheret. When the song’s refrain, for example, speaks of one calling to another to come to bring about the Sabbath, the mystic who composed the song, Solomon Alkabetz, was saying that one Sefirah (part of God, the Sefirah called Tipheret) was calling to another part (the second being the kallah, literally “bride,” but meaning the feminine Shekhinah, also called Malkhut), to rejoin another part (Tipheret) of God and bring about the ultimate Shabbat, the messianic age.

When the final paragraph of the song, to cite another example, mentions, “come in peace, crown of your husband,” a phrase that literally pictures a wife, as a crown, becoming attached to her husband in a sexual union, it denotes the joining of the male and female parts of the Sefirot, the two parts Tipheret and Malkhut, thereby creating “peace,” the messianic age.


Meaning of Ayshet Chayil

Another example of mystics attempting through prayers and acts to join of the Sefirot is the reciting of Ayshet Chayil, “A Woman of Valor,” from Proverbs 31:10-31. Once people are aware that the mystics sometimes visualized part of God as feminine and the Sabbath as symbols of the messianic age, and once people understand that the mystic’s goal was to help produce this age, they can understand the real reason for the mystics’ initiation of the practice of reading Ayshet Chayil on Friday nights. Mystics understand that the woman in Proverbs is the Shekhinah (Malkhut) who they pray will reunite with Tipheret and bring about the ultimate Sabbath, the messianic age.[4]

[1] Many scholars charge that this is polytheism.

[2] Mystics strive daily to combine God. For example they introduce many religious acts by saying Leshem yicud kudsha berukh hu u’shekhintei, which is translated “For the sake of the unification of the Holy one, blessed be He, and His Shekhinah,” meaning,  we are fulfilling this command in the hope that it will help reunify God’s two parts, one called Tipheret and one called Shekhinah. Many Jews say these words without realizing their intent.  

[3] Mystics recognized that this unusual key teaching of the Sefirot is not even hinted at in the Torah. Since they insisted that mysticism was very ancient, going back according to some views to the revelation at Sinai, this absence of their fundamental principle from the Torah was problematic. They resolved this problem by stating that the Torah does refer to the Sefirot as well as the other esoteric teachings of the kabbalists – however, it does not do so openly. The initiate who masters the secrets of mysticism and the Torah, according to the understandings of the mystics, can find the secrets hidden in the words and letters of the Torah.

[4] Why is this done on Friday night? If we recall that the mystics borrowed ancient ideas and reinterpreted them to suit their views, the answer is obvious. The Talmud advises that married couples enjoy the Shabbat by having relations on Friday night. This practical and natural idea was reinterpreted by the mystics who stated that Friday night was an appropriate time to supernaturally reunite the masculine and feminine parts of God and bring about the ultimate Shabbat, the messianic age. This is what is known as Sympathetic Magic, performing a deed on earth that causes a similar deed to occur in heaven; it is what the American Indians did when they danced the rain dance, jumping up and down, to cause rain to fall.


In part two, I will give some of the explanations of Lecha Dodi showing that mystics consider it a prayer for the unification of God.