Kabbalah & Jewish Prayer

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

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Rabbi Millgram's thorough but critical survey of the influences of the Kabbalah (mysticism) of the Zohar and later Lurianic Kabbalah on Jewish liturgy is reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

In addition to enriching the siddur [prayer book] with prayers and hymns of superb quality, the kabbalists took the ultimate step of transforming all prayer into an esoteric exercise and the whole siddur into a kabbalistic tract. The central objective of prayer was to effect the union of the Shekhinah [God's presence or indwelling, understood as a feminine aspect of the divine] and the Holy One, blessed be He, or to restore the divine perfection that was damaged by sin.

The process of prayer consisted of concentration, or kavannah, on the esoteric significance of each prayer and especially on the divine names in it. This kind of kavannah, said the kabbalists, can bring unity into the divine essence and thus achieve the redemption of Israel.

In order that the mystic may be ever aware of this central aim and properly apply mystic kavannah to his prayers, each prayer was preceded by preparatory introductions. From the point of view of religious inwardness and piety, this kabbalistic use of kavannah represents a considerable decline in the concept as used in the Talmud and in the Jewish philosophical and ethical literature of the Middle Ages. Instead of being a pious concentration on prayer, a pouring out of one's heart before God, kavannah was turned into a concentration of mystic intentions aimed at affecting the cosmic order and thus insuring divine aid.

Mystical Meanings and Meditations

The kabbalists not only transformed their own prayer into a mystic ritual requiring deep concentration on various aspects of their esoteric system, but also influenced the official liturgy of the synagogue. Although they did not alter traditional prayers, they read into them many esoteric doctrines. These new mystic meanings gained wide acceptance even among the uninitiated. They penetrated the liturgy with hardly any resistance.

In order to direct the worshiper's thoughts to the "real" meaning of the prayers, the kabbalists provided introductory meditations, especially before the various rituals of the liturgy. Thus we find an introductory prayer which is still recited before putting on the prayer shawl [tallit] for the morning service: "Even as I cover myself with the tallit in this world, so may my soul deserve to be clothed with a beautiful tallit in the world to come in the Garden of Eden. Amen."

The kabbalistic content of this prayer is unmistakable. Its mystical symbolism of the soul wrapped in a tallit in the world to come survived even after the modernists had applied their fine comb to the prayer book and eliminated almost all the kabbalistic elements.

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