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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Still another example of the kabbalistic penetration into the yearly cycle of the synagogue prayers is the practice of reciting the 13 Divine Attributes [Exodus 34:6-7a] before taking the Torah from the ark during the major festivals. This is followed by a silent prayer: "O Lord of the universe, fulfill for good the desires of our heart." Both the recital of the 13 Divine Attributes and the prayer after it are of kabbalistic origin. Their source is a 17th-century kabbalistic work, entitled Sha'arei Tziyyon ("The Gates of Zion"), by Nathan Hannover. Because the prayer aroused opposition on the part of the modernists, some modern prayer books omit the prayer, though they retain the 13 Divine Attributes. The Sephardic prayer books, of course, contain the full prayer with all its kabbalistic formulas.

Kabbalistic Prayers

"The mystics," says Israel Abrahams [in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, p. 29], "were the best prayer writers of the Middle Ages, and one would seek in vain for a Jewish Thomas a Kempis [medieval Catholic priest and writer] outside the ranks of the mystics." The prayers composed by the kabbalists are often not recognized as mystic prayers, because the mystical ideas contained in them are usually stated in simple liturgic style, without recourse to the esoteric terminology of the Kabbalah.

To be sure, this rendered their doctrines somewhat inexact. But the prayers benefited from the avoidance of controversy. They easily lent themselves to reinterpretation and thus became acceptable to all elements of the community.

A good example is the kabbalistic prayer recited before the Torah is removed from the ark. This prayer is known by its initial words as B'rikh Sh'mei ("Blessed be the name"). The prayer is taken verbatim from the Zohar and was introduced into the liturgy by [the 16th century mystic] Rabbi Isaac Luria. Its wide acceptance in modern synagogues, despite its kabbalistic origin, is due to its genuine liturgical quality, which is evident even in translation:

"Blessed be the name of the Sovereign of the universe. Blessed be Thy crown and Thy abiding-place. Let Thy favor rest with Thy people Israel forever: show them the redemption of Thy right hand in Thy holy temple…. Thou art He that feedeth and sustaineth all; Thou art He that ruleth over kings, for dominion is Thine.

"I am the servant of the Holy One, blessed be He, before whom and before whose glorious Torah I prostrate myself at all times: not in man do I put my trust, nor upon any angel do I rely, but upon the God of heaven, who is the God of truth, and whose Torah is truth, and whose prophets are prophets of truth, and who aboundeth in deeds of goodness and truth. In Him do I put my trust, and unto His holy and glorious name do I utter praises.

"May it be Thy will to open my heart unto Thy Torah, and to fulfill the wishes of my heart and of the hearts of Thy people Israel for good, for life, and for peace. Amen."

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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).