Perhaps the most significant innovation of medieval kabbalistic thought was
the reintroduction of mythic thought into Jewish theology. The monotheistic
revolution of the Bible, which was a reaction to the mythic world of the
ancient Near East, was thought to have eliminated mythic categories from
Jewish consciousness. The few vestiges of mythic thought which found their
way into biblical literature (1) could be explained away as metaphors.
The founders of modern Jewish scholarship in the nineteenth century sought
to perpetuate and propagate the view of Judaism as ethical monotheism for
political and polemical reasons (2). Data which challenged this stereotype
were suppressed or dismissed as abberations of folk religion. It was only
in the twentieth century, through the pioneering efforts of Gershom Scholem,
that the rich mythic literature of the Kabbalah was acknowledged as an authentic
expression of the Jewish spirit.
The mythic world view of the kabbalists must be seen in the context of the
Medieval Jewish attempt to shape a coherent and consistent Jewish theology,
which was stimulated by the challenge of Islamic philosophy and, at a later
date, Christian scholasticism (3). A prime concern of the Jewish philosophic
tradition which developed in response to these stimuli was the concept of
the purity of the idea of God. Jewish philosophers sought to divest this
concept of all anthropomorphic and mythic elements which still remained in
Jewish literature. The result of purifying the concept of God was the diminution
of the living reality of God for the believer. Without anthropomorphism and
mythic imagery one can only speak of God by means of negative attributes
(4), leaving a concept of God which is philosophically pure but devoid of
living reality. The God of the philosophers was suitable as a subject for
philosophic speculation, but hardly accessible as a God to whom one could
Not all theologically concerned Jews were attracted to the sterile God of
the philosophers. They longed for the living reality of God, even at the
expense of diluting the purity of their monotheism with admixtures of
anthropomorphism and myth. The development of Kabbalah is the unfolding of
the quest for forms to describe the divine and its interaction with the human
world (5). The kabbalists placed the need for a living God above the need
for theological purity and created a mythic theology which integrated Jewish
theology and ritual.
One of the important foci of both kabbalistic and philosophic theology is
the role of the mizvot (commandments) in the theological framework
and the reasons for the commandments. This article will deal with the kabbalistic
response to the problem of ta'amei hamizvot, the reasons
for the commandments. It will attempt to trace the theoretical understanding
of ta'amei hamizvot rather than deal with reasons for specific mizvot.
Though this problem is important for understanding kabbalistic theology,
it was not dealt with by kabbalists until Menachem Recanati's Sefer
Ta'amei Hamizvot, where the first significant theoretical explanation
is found. This issue has not as yet been dealt with by the modern students
of Kabbalah. Therefore, this article will attempt to trace the dominant motifs
of ta'amei hamizvot in the development of' kabbalistic thought
as a preliminary to more intensive investigations.
Ta'amei hamizvot is not a major theme in rabbinic literature. While
it is possible to find statements which anticipate both the kabbalistic and
philosophic positions (6), the dominant trend of rabbinic thought was not
to look for reasons for mizvot beyond the ethical or moral (7). For
those commandments which have no apparent rational it was sufficient that
they had been commanded by God and no further reason was necessary. The classic
example is the law concerning the red heifer. The midrash (8) tells that
one day a heathen came and asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai about the reason for
the red heifer. R. Yohanan gave the heathen an answer which satisfied him
and left. His disciples, however, were not satisfied.
Now when the heathen left, R. Yohanan's disciples said: "Our master, you
put off that heathen with a mere reed of an answer, but what answer will
you give us?" R. Yohanan answered: "By your lives. I swear: the corpse does
not have the power by itself to defile, nor does the mixture of ash and water
have the power by itself to cleanse. The truth is that the purifying power
of the red heifer is a decree of the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One
said: I have set it down as a statute, I have issued it as a decree. You
are not permitted to transgress my decree (9).
In the medieval period R. Yohanan ben Zakkai's answer was no longer sufficient.
Judaism was confronted by sophisticated theological systems of religions
which also claimed to be divine revelation. Both philosophers and kabbalists
had to explain not only the red heifer, but all of the commandments in a
manner which could serve as both internal and external apologetics.
The philosophers found the mizvot to be problematic and devoted much
time and effort to explaining them (10). Common to all philosophic explanations
of the mizvot was the axiom that the mizvot have no cosmic
effect. There is no suprahuman effect which results from the performance
of a mizvah. Building on this axiom, which posits an unbridgeable
gap between the human and divine realms, the philosophers explain the reasons
for the mizvot, each following his own system. The details of' the
various philosophic explanations are beyond the concerns of this article.
In contrast to the philosophers, the kabbalists, working in a mythic framework,
see the mizvot as the link which unites the divine and human realms.
The performance of mizvot is integrated into the kabbalistic mythic
schema through the concept of zorekh gavoha (11) (divine need). This
concept teaches that man, through the performance of mizvot, affects
the divine realm - the sefirotic world. The interaction of human and divine
realms is seen by the kabbalists as a reciprocal relationship, each contributing
to and influencing the other. The contribution of the human to the divine
realm, is through the performance of mizvot.
The concept of zorekh gavoha is mediated in the Kabbalah through two
motifs, those of adam kadmon (primordial man, microcosm/macrocosm)
and yihud (unification). The adam kadmon motif identifies man
as the microcosm which is a reflection of the macrocosm, the sefirotic world,
represented in kabbalistic literature as primordial man, adam kadmon.
The conjunction of the human form and sefirot is first
found in the Sefer ha-Bahir, the oldest medieval kabbalistic
text. Explaining the verse (Gen. 9:6) "For in the image of God made He man,"
the Sefer ha-Bahir (para. 55, ed. Scholem) sees in the seven limbs
of man an image of the seven lower sefirot. Later, kabbalists expand
this concept to see the figure of man in the image of all ten sefirot
The microcosm/macrocosm relationship has several implications. First, because
the human form is in the image of the divine it is possible to reach a mystical
understanding of the divine from the mystical study of the human. Additionally,
and more significantly for our purpose, because of this identification the
actions of the microcosm, man, can affect the macrocosm, the divine
(sefirot). As a result, the performance of mizvot assumes cosmic
The second motif, that of yihud (unification), is concerned with the
relation of malkhut, the lowest sefirah, with the upper nine
sefirot. Malkhut is the link between the sefirotic and human
worlds and is the conduit through which the divine shefa (flow) reaches
the lower, human world. In mythic terms, it is the feminine aspect of the
divine which unites with the male aspect, the upper nine sefirot. The
unity of the male and female aspects of the divine is, however, threatened
by the disruptive activities of the forces of evil, the sitra ahra (evil
side), which try to "capture" malkhut and interrupt the flow
of shefa to the lower world. Man is a participant in this cosmic struggle.
By performing mizvot properly, he adds strength to the forces of holiness
trying to maintain the unity of the sefirotic world. When the sefirotic world
is properly unified, the shefa comes down to the lower, human, world
and makes life possible. The transgression of mizvot has the opposite
effect, strengthening the forces of evil, the sitra ahra, and weakening
the unity of the sefirotic world. The application of these concepts in more
specific ways will be seen below.
The motifs which form the basis of zorekh gavoha can already be found
in the Sefer ha-Bahir. The underlying concept, that man can affect
the divine, is mentioned in connection with the study of Torah,
How does he [man] act piously [hesed] with regard to his God?
Through the Study of Torah: for everyone who learns Torah does hesed to
his God, as it is written (Deuteronomy 33:26) "who rides the heavens with
your help (13)."
R. Berachia expounds: What is the meaning of the verse (Exodus 25:2) "And
you shall take art offering [terumah] for me." God said to Israel:
Raise me as an offering with your prayers (14).
These two passages speak only in general terms and do not directly relate
the "aid" that man gives the divine to the sefirotic world.
The only passage which indicates human influence on a sefirah is a
piece which breaks in the middle (15), but which later kabbalists (16) joined
to the next paragraph to create a unified statement.
R. Rechumai said: Were it not for the righteous and pious of lsrael
who raise me over the whole world with their merits... and from them the
heart (17) is nourished and the heart nourishes them (18).
This passage as later understood adumbrates the yihud aspect of
zorekh gavoha which places the greatest importance on the union of
malkhut with the upper sefirot, particularly tiferet. When
malkhut is properly nourished from below it can unite with the upper
sefirot and will in turn sustain the lower world. The outline of this
concept can be found in this passage, but it is fully developed only in the
The second aspect of zorekh gavoha, the adam kadmon motif,
is found with regard to the parts of a ritual, the four species used ritually
on the festival of sukkot (cf. Lev. 23:40) (19). The four constituent
elements, the lulav, etrog, hadasim, and aravot, symbolize
the seven lower sefirot, but the ritual of using the four species
does not yet affect the sefirotic world. This next step is taken by the
Gerona (Spain, thirteenth century) school of kabbalists.
In the Gerona school, "the primary function of' ritual was to establish a
connection between man as a microcosm and the great world or 'great man,'
that is, adam kadmon." (20). This connection was made possible by
the identification of the mizvot with the sefirot. According
to Azriel of Gerona, "The totality of mizvot are the kavod (the
sefirotic world)" (21). Ezra of Gerona delimits the identification of mizvot
and sefirot to the seven lower sefirot (22). The
link between mizvot and sefirot is effected by the performance
The performance of the mizvah is the vital light (or hayym) [of
the sefirah] and the one who performs [the mizvah] below makes
possible and establishes the power lot' the sefirah (23).
The Gerona kabbalists do not systematically explain the sefirotic relation
of each mizvah, though these connections are occasionally found in
their literature (24).
Connecting the mizvah to its sefirotic source is part of the process
of reunification of the Mystic's soul with its divine source. For the Gerona
kabbalists the unification of the soul with its divine source through
devekut is the climax of the spiritual life (25). Ezra of Gerona describes
the role of the mizvah in devekut.
When the soul leaves the body the light (of the mizvah) acts like
a magnet for the soul... that sefirah (which is related to the
mizvah) draws it tip (Ps. 112: 10). "His horn will be exalted in honor."
That is to say, the splendor of the soul will be raised up and will stand
in a high and inner place in the kavod of God (26).
The relation of the Gerona kabbalists to the transgression of mizvot is
not clear. The doctrine of sitra ah hra, the evil side which is
the mirror image of the sefirotic world that is strengthened by the transgression
of mizvot, appears first in the Zohar, a generation later,
according to Tishby.21 The one passage he cites from Gerona literature which
mentions transgression says,
"And if a person transgresses mizvot, he walks in the paths of darkness
and gloom... in this world and in the next he will take that path" (28).
The statement is ambiguous and can be understood in the normative rabbinic
sense of reward and punishment. While there may be some kabbalistic concept
underlying this concept it cannot be elucidated from this passage alone.
In Gerona the performance of mizvot has a twofold purpose, to sustain
the sefirotic world and to serve as a vehicle for the attainment of devekut
of the soul with the sefirotic world. The first purpose, to sustain the
upper world, is developed in later kabalistic literature. The second, however,
is not found in later literature. The Gerona kabbalists are unique in openly
describing the spiritual life of the mystic and its relation to the mizvot.
This is not to say that later kabbalists were not concerned with the
life of the mystic, but rather the Gerona kabbalists make their concern manifest
and discuss it openly while in later works, with very rare exceptions, the
personal concerns of the author can only be guessed. Why this is so can only
be speculated on at the present and is an important issue which needs further
File primary concern of the Zohar, the classic work of Spanish Kabbalah,
written in the late thirteenth Century, is the life of the sefirotic world.
Man's acts are important insofar as they affect the sefirotic realm, but
the reciprocal part of the interaction between the upper and lower worlds,
the effect of the awakening of the forces above on the world below, is only
discussed in general terms. The flow of' the divine shefa is necessary
for the existence of the lower world and is brought down by ail awakening
from below. However, this is not related to the spiritual life of the mystic.
One result of the emphasis on the upper world in the Zohar is the development
of the idea that man's worship and service of God is purely for the sake
of' the sefirotic world.
The primary task of man in the performance of the mizvot is the theurgic
assignment of maintaining the regular and harmonious functioning of the divine
forces. In every context the Zohar repeats and reiterates that (lie awakening
by it person below through a holy word or deed calls forth ail awakening
in the sefirotic world (29).
There are two aspects to the "regular and harmonious functioning of' the
divine forces.- The first, and the one which is "the central motif in the
descriptions of the workings of the mizvot in the upper worlds" (30),
is yihud the union of malkhut the last sefirah, with
the rest of' the sefirotic world. Malkhut is the link between
the sefirotic and human worlds and acts as the channel through which the
divine shefa reaches the human world. This sefirah is, in the
mythic scheme of the Zohar, the object of contention between the forces of
holiness and the forces of evil. The cosmic struggle is directly affected
by man's actions through the performance or transgression of mizvot.
The performance of mizvot strengthens the forces of holiness, making
possible (lie unification of malkhut with the rest of the sefirotic
world, which in turn allows the divine shefa to reach the lower
world. One of the things for which the "faithful shepherd'' (Moses) is praised
in the Zohar is that "with every mizvah he tried to unite the Blessed
One (tiferet) with the Shekhinah (malkhut) in all assemblies,
above and below" (31).
The performance of some mizvot can have a purpose other than the
strengthening and sustaining of the forces of holiness. A number of
mizvot, including the scapegoat (cf. Lev. 16:7-10) which is sent to
Azazel (32), the heifer whose neck is broken - the eglah arufah (cf.
Deut. 21:6), and washing the hands before grace after meals, are acts intended
solely for the sitra ahra as a form of bribery. There are also
mizvot where the bulk of the act is intended for the side of holiness
but a portion is set aside for the sitra ahra.
The sacrifices are a case where the Zohar takes the expression "to the devil
his clue" literally. Part of every sacrifice, with the exception of the
olah which is dedicated solely to the side of holiness, is earmarked
for the sitra ahra (33). The reason for Job's affliction, according
to the Zohar (34), was that he angered the sitra ahra by offering
only ahra which are entirely for the side of holiness, thereby depriving
the sitra ahra of what it viewed as its rightful share of the sacrifices.
The sitra ahra is appeased in order that it not interfere with
the ascent of the rest of the sacrifice to the side of holiness. It is not
meant to strengthen the sitra ahra, only to bribe it and in that way
neutralize its harmful influence.
The sitra ahra is strengthened not by the mizvot intended to
appease it but by the transgression of mizvot.
Just as the performance of a mizvah is an act of building, so their
violation is an act of destruction in the realm of the divine. Through his
transgressions a person blocks the sources and channels and disrupts the
flow of shefa (35).
Strengthened by the transgression of mizvot, the sitra ahra tries
to disrupt the unity of' the sefirolic world. The sitra ahra, according
to the Zohar, is the mirror image of the sefirotic realm containing
ten "lower levels" which correspond to the ten sefirot. The difference
between the two sides, those of holiness and those of evil, is that the
sitra ahra is seen as a unified entity while the side of holiness
is composed of the upper nine sefirot which comprise one entity and
malkhut, the last sefirah, connected to the upper nine, yet
which can be separated or "captured" by the sitra ahra. The
"capture" of malkhut means that the shefa which is channeled
through malkhut does not reach its intended beneficiary, the lower
world, but is diverted to the realm of the sitra ahra enabling evil,
rather than holiness, to dominate the lower world (36).
The second aspect of the "regular and harmonious functioning of the divine
forces" found in the Zohar is the adam kadmon, primordial man,
macrocosm/microcosm motif, which sees man, the microcosm, as the reflection
of' the sefirotic world, the macrocosm.
All the mizvot of the Torah are connected to the Holy Supernal King,
some to the head of the King, some to the body, some to the hands of the
King and some to his feet (37).
This motif is used primarily in the mystical interpretation of aspects of
a specific mizvah. One kabbalistic explanation of the four species
used ritually on the festival of Sukkot is an example of this concept. When
all four species, with the proper number of each species, are taken together
the whole sefirotic world is symbolically united. The etrog, citron,
represents malkhut, the tenth sefirah. The lulav, the
palm, is yesod, the ninth sefirah The aravot, willow,
of which two branches are used, represent the seventh and eighth sefirot,
nezah and hod. And finally, the hadasim, myrtle, of which
three branches are used, represent the fourth, fifth, and sixth sefirot
hesed, din, and tiferet. The three uppermost sefirot, keter,
hokhmah, and binah are above human influence and therefore not
Like yihud the adam kadmon motif has a negative component.
Whoever omits even one mizvah of the Torah, it is as if he
diminished the image of the faith (the sefirotic world). For all (mizvot)
are sections and limbs of the (supernal) adam and therefore all
are included in the secret of the unity [of the sefirotic world] (39).
In the adam kadmon motif the sefirot are links in the chain which
connects the lower world with the source of sustenance (shefa). By
transgressing commandments one weakens the chain; the specific place
of weakening is determined by which mizvah is being transgressed
and which sefirah it is related to. It is possible to see in the
adam kadmon motif an emanationist, neoplatonic framework,
while the yihud motif is closer to the gnostic mythic scheme.
The Sefer Ta'amei Hamizvot by Menachem Recanati, early fourteenth
century Italian kabbalist, is the most important compendium on the
reasons for the commandments. It is an eclectic work drawing on the
Zohar and other sources with some original material included. Recanati
explains his theoretical formulation of ta'amei hamizvot in the
introduction. His basic premise is that "man is made in the image of the
supernal. The ten sefirot are described in him" (40). The
identification of man with the supernal world explains man's effect on the
sefirot through the performance of mizvot. The mizvot
are related to specific sefirot and the performance of a given
mizvah affects a particular sefirah.
The kabbalistic sages said that all the mizvot of the Torah are
divided into right and left, front and rear above and below, profound good
and profound evil and white and red (hesed and din).
I have explained this in the two mizvot mentioned, the libations
of wine and water on the altar. Whoever performs a mizvah
influences [the flow of] energy to that mizvah above (the appropriate
sefirah) from the Negation of Thought (41) and it sustains
a part, so to speak, of God literally (42).
Recanati emphasizes that although man initiates the influx of divine energy
into the sefirotic world, the source of the energy is the unknowable essence
of God, the realm which cannot be comprehended by thought.
What appears to be new in Recanati are hints of it popularization of the
mystical understanding of the mizvot. He tells the reader that
it is not necessary to know the full kabbalistic explanation of a
mizvah in order to affect the flow of shefa. At the same time,
however, he cautions his reader that in understanding the Torah mystically
one should not lose sight of the plain meaning of the text. He says,
Understand this which I will tell you. That is, in every
place in the Torah you are able to raise the story or mizvah to a
higher level. Raise it and it will be good for you, even though
you did not receive the reason for it from a kabbalist or did not even see
[a reason] in one of the books of the wise, provided you do not
say that the matter is not like the simple meaning, but hints at higher
It is possible to conjecture, from this passage, that one reason Recanati
wrote the Sefer Ta'amei Hamizvot was to provide a convenient compendium
of the kabbalistic ta'amei hamizvot for the reader not well versed
in kabbalistic literature. Recanati's has remained a basic compendium on
the kabbalistic ta'amei hamizvot.
Meir ibn Gabbai's Avodat Hakodesh is the last important formulation
of kabbalistic thought prior to the major innovations of Moshe Cordovero
and Isaac Luria, in the sixteenth century. The work was written as a systematic
presentation of kabbalistic theology for the nonkabbalist. More specifically,
the Avodat Hakodesh is intended for the reader who has been trained
in medieval Jewish philosophy. The two themes which run through all of ibn
Gabbai's discussions, an antiphilosophic polemic coupled with an apologetic
of Kabbalah, are integral parts of his attempt to reach the philosophically
oriented, but uncommitted, reader.
Speaking to a reader unfamiliar with kabbalistic thought, ibn Gabbai begins
with principles and proceeds systematically. He begins by stating the basic
principles that the lower world can affect the upper through prayer and worship
(avodah). lbn Gabbai cites both adam kadmon and yihud
motifs as examples of zorekh gavoha.
The performance of a mizvah below has an effect above. The supernal
paradigm is awakened to repair, through man's deeds, the divine glory (44).
The prophets and the righteous with their worship and prayer strengthen [the
upper world] in the secret of the last heh (malkhut), for they convey
to her the light and the might from the pinnacle of faith (keter) and
unite her with her beloved (tiferet) (45).
Writing for a philosophically oriented reader, ibn Gabbai devotes a chapter
to a refutation of the philosophical critique of the concept of zorekh
gavoha. The basic philosophic position would argue that man's actions
can in no way affect the divine. Ibn Gabbai attempts to show that the
philosophers are wrong in this assertion and tries to show where they made
Ibn Gabbai first turns to the rabbinic texts which are cited by the philosophers
in support of their position. Ibn Gabbai addresses himself directly to the
most commonly cited rabbinic proof text.
The mizvot were given only for the purpose of refining (testing) the
people through them. For of what concern is it to the Blessed One whether
one slaughters at the neck or the nape? (46)
Ibn Gabbai resolves the apparent difficulty by applying the kabbalistic
distinction between ein sof, the unknowable essence of the
divine and the sefirot, the emanations of the divine will. This rabbinic
passage is correct in that it refers to the effect of man's actions on ein
sof However, the sefirot are directly affected by human actions.
To support his position, ibn Gabbai quotes another rabbinic passage (47)
which implies that the divine is indeed affected by man's deeds or misdeeds.
This second passage, ibn Gabbai argues, refers to the sefirot while
the first refers only to ein sof, which is above all interaction and
The second issue which ibn Gabbai discusses is the place of negative commandments
in the kabbalistic system. He explains that the negative commandments relate
to the negative side of divinity, the sitra ahra. He says:
The commandments which we were warned not to contaminate ourselves with,
i.e., not to transgress, also fulfill a divine need. For when one contaminates
himself below (by transgressing a negative commandment) his impurity reaches
up to the temple (malkhut)... The one who transgresses a commandment
awakens the external things (sitra ahra). (49)
We have been commanded not to arouse the side which is the dross that comes
out of the silver: rather, to remove it so that it does not enter the inner
sanctum. The silver should be clean and pure, without any dross, according
to the secret of (Prov. 25:4) "Take away the dross from the silver. Etc."
and (Prov. 25:5) "Take away the wicked from before the king." This is the
intention of the Torah in warning us not to transgress the negative commandments.
Ibn Gabbai does not develop his understanding of the concept of sitra
ahra nor does he venture any explanations beyond the above cited passages.
Having explained the "why" of zorekh gavoha, ibn Gabbai proceeds to
discuss the "how" of worship which is for zorekh gavoha. Up to
this point ibn Gabbai has stayed within the mainstream of kabbalistic thought.
In this discussion, however, particularly in his emphasis on kavvanah,
proper intent, he diverges from the mainstream.
Through his interpretation of kavvanah, ibn Gabbai has added a new
dimension to the concept of zorekh gavoha. In earlier kabbalistic
literature, zorekh gavoha meant that there was an aspect of man's
worship which was directed to the needs of the sefirotic world. Man could
affect the unity of the upper world which in turn would have an effect on
the lower world. In Gerona the mystical life of the individual was involved.
In the Zohar and in post-Zoharic literature the reciprocal relationship
was discussed in broader terms, the relationship of upper and lower worlds.
The needs of the individual were subsumed in cosmic needs of both divine
and mundane worlds. In all of this literature, as far as is possible to
determine, the reciprocal nature of zorekh gavoha is readily acknowledged,
to the extent that Scholem and Tishby discern a theurgic of magical element
in this phenomenon. (51) Ibn Gabbai, however, draws back from this relationship
and tries to emphasize only one side of this reciprocal relationship, the
aspect which teaches that man's purpose in worship is to sustain the sefirotic
world. The second part of zorekh gavoha, the benefits which accrue
to this world when the upper world is properly awakened, are downplayed by
ibn Gabbai. He does not deny that this aspect of zorekh gavoha is
operative, but he does want to divorce it from worship, which should be for
the benefit of the sefirotic world exclusively. He achieves his aim by
emphasizing "worship with the proper kavvanah." (52)
For ibn Gabbai, "worship with the proper kavvanah" means worship
which has as its only purpose the unification of the sefirotic world.
All requests and needs are from the profane (hol) side, as is known
to the wise of heart. The one who concentrates on them and mentions them
in his prayer, which is the time of unifying (the sefirotic world), is like
one who brings profane things (hulin) into the Temple court and
contaminates the holy sanctuary (53).
While the Temple existed the task of awakening and sustaining the upper worlds
was accomplished by the daily offerings in the temple. After the destruction
of the Temple "Israel was left with the Great Name and the righteous, pious
contemplatives who unite the Great Name (the sefirotic world). " (54)
The concept of zorekh gavoha is also applicable to the study of Torah,
but for ibn Gabbai, prayer is the highest form of worship. After quoting
the story of how God asks Ishmael the high priest, in the holy of holies,
to bless him (B. Ber. 7a) ibn Gabbai says that this story "teaches
that prayer in the manner and with the kavvanah which we have described
is superior to all other forms of worship (avodah)" (55).
Ibn Gabbai cannot say that forms of worship (avodah) other than
contemplative prayer are not for zorekh gavoha, though from his discussion
of avodah one might conclude that contemplative prayer is certainly
the most desirable form of avodah for zorekh gavoha. The
kabbalistic tradition that all acts of worship and mizvot affect the
upper world is too strongly implanted for ibn Gabbai to negate. Instead,
he chooses to ignore the other dimensions of zorekh gavoha and emphasize
the primacy of contemplative prayer. His position must be contrasted with
that of Recanati who attempted to broaden the concept of zorekh gavoha
to include mizvot and forms of worship regardless of whether the
person is cognizant of the fact that he is doing the act for zorekh gavoha.
The difference in approach is at least partially dictated by the audience
each is addressing. Recanati is not concerned with the possibility that what
he is saying may be construed as a form of theurgy by his reader. But ibn
Gabbai, who is writing for philosophically sophisticated readers who are
very concerned with the problems of' anthropomorphism and theurgy, must present
Kabbalah in a manner acceptable to such a reader.
Ibn Gabbai is the first to introduce a note of self-consciousness with regard
to this issue. The misinterpretation of mizvot in terms of theurgy
is already hinted at in Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai's response to his disciples
when they questioned him about the red heifer. As long as kabbalistic teachings
were limited to a small mystical elite, theurgy was not an issue. It only
became a problem with the dissemination and popularization of kabbalistic
ideas which were becoming widespread in ibn Gabbai's day.
In addition. ibn Gabbai, in trying to win over readers who are steeped in
the philosophical tradition, presents his ideas in a philosophically congenial
manner. In this context, both his apologetic with regard to theurgy and the
restriction of zorekh gavoha to contemplative prayer, becomes clearer.
It would appeal that he is trying to relate his conception of zorekh gavoha
to philosophic contemplation. The problem of theurgy is clarified when
one realizes that any discussion of zorekh gavoha directed to an audience
which does not accept the basic mythic poslulates of Kabbalah, must be aware
of the possibility that this concept will be seen as a form of magic, as
indeed it is seen by modern scholars.
The basic innovation which distinguishes the kabbalistic treatment of mizvot
from that of the earlier rabbinic and contemporaneous philosophic attitudes
was the former's assignment of cosmic significance to the mizvot. Among
the rabbis, the prevailing attitude was that one performed mizvot
because they were commanded by God. They had an effect on the individual
in the form of reward and punishment in the afterlife. The medieval philosophers
saw in the mizvot a means of bringing man closer to a purer understanding
of the divine than might otherwise be possible. However, both the rabbis
and philosophers accept the ultimate transcendance of the divine.
The kabbalists, through their remythicization of Judaism, were able to bridge
the gap created by the idea of a transcendant God. The mizvot play
a central role in bridging this gap through the concept of zorekh gavoha,
the doctrine which teaches that man through his actions can affect the
sefirotic world which in turn is the source of life for the human world.
This concept is a fundamental aspect of the mythic cosmos of the kabbalists
and its basic elements are to be found in the earliest medieval kabbalistic
text, the Sefer ha-Bahir. The Gerona school of kabbalists added a
personal element to the cosmic aspects of zorekh gavoha. In addition
to affecting the sefirotic world, the performance of mizvot played
an important role in the mystical life of the individual. A mizvah would
sustain the sefirah to which it was related, but in addition it was
a means by which the mystic's soul could adhere (davek) to that
The personal element which is so important in Gerona is missing in the Zohar
and later kabbalistic literature, where zorekh gavoha is
depersonalized. These works speak only in categories; the righteous who do
the mizvot and the evil who transgress commandments. The
Zohar's focus has shifted to the sefirotic world and the effect
of man's actions on the divine. The primary concern of the Zohar is
the mythic drama which takes place on the divine plane, the world of
the sefirot. The human actors play only a supporting role.
The "canonization" of the Zohar also makes its understanding and
interpretation of zorekh gavoha authoritative. The concept is understood
by later authors purely in its cosmic sense and the personal aspects found
in Gerona are not revived until the eighteenth century in early basidism
(56). Meir ibn Gabbai's understanding of worship as being solely for the
needs of the sefirotic world and any interjection of human concerns as a
form of contamination is taking the Zohar's concept to its
One important aspect of zorekh gavoha not discussed in the Zohar,
about which later authors differed, is the issue of whose mizvot
contribute to zorekh gavoha. Is this concept applicable only
to the deeds of a small elite whose worship has the proper kavvanah and
is directed solely to the sefirotic world for the purpose of zorekh gavoha,
or can anyone who performs a mizvah properly contribute to zorekh
gavoha even though he does not fully understand the kabbalistic basis
of his act. In medieval Kabbalah, prior to Cordovero and Luria, in the sixteenth
century, the issue remained unresolved.
There are a number of questions and issues which have been mentioned in the
course of this article but have not been extensively analyzed or discussed.
One notable example of this phenomenon are the two motifs which are used
in discussing zorekh gavoha, the adam kadmon and yihud.
The origins and use of these motifs is an important element in understanding
zorekh gavoha. This and a number of other examples which are scattered
throughout this article have not been sufficiently analyzed because the data
necessary for such an analysis has yet to be collected.
1. E.g., the references to Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 and other similar references.
2. The Wissenschaft des Judentums school, which founded the modern scholarly
study of Judaism, wanted to show Judaism in a light which would gain favor
in the eyes of the liberal Protestants who were seen as the main allies in
the Jewish struggle for emancipation. The opponents of emancipation argued
that the Jews were a backward, unenlightened people not deserving the rights
of citizenship. Jewish scholarship of the nineteenth century tried to demonstrate
the high ethical ideals and intellectual attainments of medieval Jewish
philosophy and used these as proof that the opponents of emancipation were
3. Cf. J. Guttman, Philosophies of Judaism (London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1961 pp. 47-56).
4. The classic formulation of this concept can be found in Maimonides Guide
for the Perplexed, I, edited by S. Pines, University of Chicago
5. Gershom Scholem, "Kabbalah and Myth," On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism
(New York: Schocken, 1965), pp. 88-89.
6. The following aggadah from Gen. R. 44.1 adumbrates the philosophic position:
"The mitzvot were given only for the purpose of refining (testing)
the people through them. What concern is it to the Blessed One whether one
slaughters at the neck or the nape?" The kabbalistic position is illustrated
in the following aggadah from Lam. R. 1.33: "R. Judah ben R. Simon
said in the name of R. Levi ben R. Tarfon: When Israel performs the will
of the Blessed One they add strength to the heavenly power, as it says (Num.
14:17) "And now may the strength of God be increased." When, however, Israel
does not perform the will of the Blessed One, if it is possible to say, they
weaken the power of Him who is above."
7. For a fuller discussion of the rabbinic attitude towards mizvot
see, I. Heinemann, Taamei ha-Mizvot Besifrut Yisrael (Jerusalern:
Jewish Agency, 1966), Vol, I, pp. 22-35,
8. Pesikta de Rav Kahana 4.7, ed. Mandelbaum, (New York: Jewish
Theological Seminary. 1962).
9. Ibid. Translation from W. G. Braude and I. J. Kapstein, Pesikta
de Rab Kahana (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1975).
10. For a survey of philosophic thought of the mizvot see, Heinemann,
11. The phrase zorekh gavoha is found in the Talmud (See C. Y. Kassowski,
0zar-Lashon Hatalmud (Jerusalem, 1974), vol. 32. p. 206, for a list
of occurrences of this phrase) where it means "for the need of the cult (or
Temple)." The word gavoha is used by the rabbis as a name of God.
The kabbalists, however, used the phrase in its most literal sense. The first
Kabbalistic usage of zorekh gavoha is found in Nachmanides' commentary
on the Torah, on Ex. 29:46.
12. A. Altmann, "The Delphic Maxim in Medieval Islam and Judaism," Biblical
and other Studies, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1963) pp. 208-210.
13. Sefer ha-Bahir, ed. and trans. into German by G. Scholem
(Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesselschaft, 1910), para. 128. All references
to the Sefer ha-Bahir are to this edition unless otherwise
14, Sefer ha-Bahir, para. 66.
15. Ibid. note 3.
16. See Meir ibn Gabbai, Avodat Hakodesh (Jerusalem:
Lewin-Epstein, 1973), II, p. 6.
17, The term "heart" ref'crs to the sefirah malkhut. See Sefer
ha-Bahir, para. 64, note 10.
18, Sefer ha-Bahir, para. 66-67. The three dots indicate the break
19. Ibid. para. 117-120.
20. G. Scholem, "Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists,"
On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965),
21. Azriel of Gerona, Perush Aggadot, ed. I, Tishby (Jerusalem: Mossad
Harav Kook, 1945), p. 38.
22. I. Tishby, Mishnat Hazohar (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1961), II,
23. Ibid., II. 432.
24. G. Scholem, Hakabballah BeGerona (Jerusalem: Akademon, 1969),
25. Mishnat Hazohar, II, 433.
26. Ibid., II. 433-4.
31. Zohar, II, 119a.
32. Which is identified with the sitra ahra, the evil side, in the
33. Mishnat Hazohar, I, 290-291.
34. Zohar, II, 181b-182a.
35. Mishnat Hazohar, II, 435.
36. This is the "gnostic" conceptualization of sitra ahra which is
related to the yihud aspect of zorekh gavoha. It is one of
several ways in which the Zohar understands sitra ahra and
deals with the problem of evil. For a fuller discussion of the various ways
in which sitra ahra is understood in the Zohar, see Mishnat
Hazohar, I, 295-307.
37. Zohar, II, 85b.
38. Ibid., I, 220a-221a.
39. Ibid., II, 162b.
40. Menachem Recanati, Sefer Taamei Hamizvot (Basel, 1581 ),
41. Hebrew - Afisat haMahshavah, a kabbalistic designation
for keter, the first sefirah.
42. Recanati, 3b.
44. Avodat Hakodesh,II. 1.
46. Gen. R. 44. 1.
47. Lam. R. 1.33, see above note 6.
48. Avodat Hakodesh, II, 3.
51. Tradition and New Creation, p. 124, and above, p. 10.
52. The concept that divine worship needs kavvanah is of rabbinic
origin. For a discussion of kavvanah in rabbinic literature see A.
J. Heschel, Torah min HaShammayim BeAspeklaria shel HaDorot (London:
Sonsino, 1962), I, 168-9. For kavvanah in early kabbalah see G. Scholem,
"Der Begriff der Kawwana in der alten Kabbala" MGWJ 78 (1934),
53. Avodat Hakodesh, II, 6.
54. Ibid. Ibn Gabbai is quoting earlier kabbalists whom he does not identify.
55. Ibid., II, 7.
56. G. Scholern, "Devekut or Communion with God," The Messianic
Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971), 203-226.