Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Friday, January 18, 2008
The Sound of Sheer Silence: Silent Meditation in Judaism
Elie Wiesel once alluded to the discipline of silence in Jewish tradition during an interview. The interviewer was surprised, noting that Jews love words so much, and asking why so few people have ever heard of Jewish silent practices. Wiesel simply replied, "Well, we don't like to talk about it."
Since words are God’s first creation ("Let there be light" even precedes light itself) and it is from words that diversity (known as the Olam ha-Dibur, literally "the universe of speech") unfolds (Sh'nei Luachot ha-Brit), it follows that silence, which preceded the divine speech, is more primal, more akin in nature to the higher reality of divine oneness.
Given that we know that sacrifices performed by the pagan peoples that surrounded Israel were accompanied with incantations and prayers, the absence of any verbal formulae for the sacrifices (Psalms were sung in the outer precincts) of the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) suggests that the priests made their offerings to God in silence .
The Psalms teach "Silence is praise to You" (62:2). Talmud repeatedly elevates the spiritual discipline of maintaining quiet: "Words are worth a perutah, silence is worth two" (Tractate Megillah) and "What should a man's pursuit be in this world? He should be silent" (Chullin 89a). So too the mystical tradition: "Silence is the means of building the sanctuary above [the godhead] and the sanctuary below [the soul]" (Zohar 2a). "It is often more effective to fast with words than with food. As fast of words, a struggle with silence, can teach us how often we misuse words" (Vilna Gaon). The great Maggid, the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, even declared “It is best to serve God by silence.” All praise silence as an appropriate way to worship God. Thus, silence as a Jewish spiritual practice appears both as a distinctive meditation technique and as a daily discipline of reticence.
I explored the Jewish meaning of silence in detail in an article, "Building the Sanctuary of the Heart," that now appears in the book The Inner Journey: A Jewish View, published in 2007 by the Parabola Anthology Series and edited by Jack Bemporad.
Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050
1. Tishby, the Wisdom of the Zohar, vol. 2, pp. 271-272.
2. Letter of Aristeas, 95.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism Honored
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism
Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
has been selected as a runner-up in the
2007 NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD
Saturday, January 05, 2008
The Secret Language of Jewish Spells II: The Music of God
Some weeks ago I outlined how abbreviations function in Jewish amulets. More recently I've been asked about the seemingly endless permutations of the four-letter name of of God (Tetragrammaton in Greek, Shem ha-Meforash, Shem ha-Yah, Shem ha-Miuchud in Hebrew) that appear in all forms of Hebrew spells, talimans, and rituals of power.
The name, four letters, yud-hay-vav-hay (without vowels), which appears frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, was already considered a topic of occult concern by the time of the Talmud, which states the proper pronunciation should only be transmitted orally, between master and disciple (B.T. Kiddushin 71b). That it has constructive power has been construed from the wording of Ps. 33.6, which literally reads, "By the word 'YHVH' were the heavens made." So the Name is a potent thing.
What really inspired the use of permutations of the Name was probably, as Naomi Janowitz notes, a merging of this ideology of the Name of power with a Greek belief in the divine meaning of vowels! As the Greek philosopher Nicomachus wrote, "And the tones [vowel sounds] of the seven spheres, each of which by nature produces a particular sound [seven vowel sounds in Greek, corresponding the the seven heavens] are the source of the nomenclature of the vowels. These are described as unpronounceable in themselves and in all their combinations by wise men...However, when they are combined with the materiality of the consonants...they have potencies which are efficacious and perfective of divine things. Thus theurgists...make invocation symbolically with hissing, clucking, and discordant sounds" 
The Church father Eusebius also recorded a teaching that the Four Letter Name was actually the seven vowels reduced to four (Preparation for the Gospels 11.6). Once there was circulating this ideology that the Four-Letter Name was really compounded of all vowels (yud is a dipthong - 'y', 'i', 'ee'; vav can serve double duty as an holam - 'oh,' 'oo'; and hay, which can also do double duty in Hebrew as a marker for 'ah'), then all these ideas (the power of the Name, the divinity of vowel sounds, the Name as divine expression of the cosmic vowels) came together so that the theurgic and ritual power possibilities of the Tetragrammaton began to be fully exploited. In Hebrew rituals of power, combining the divine letters with cycles of vowel sounds harmonizes the material and celestial spheres and activates divine forces to respond to the earthly adept. A dangerous venture, but one that promises access to power and wisdom.
Think of this in light of the tonal series used to communicate with the aliens in Close Encounters. Spielberg was taping into this very ancient belief in universal sounds and musicality, a process that (like magic) invites disintegration (how distressing was it from those who initially experienced it?) but, when done with the right intention, ends in harmony, initiation, and enlightenment!
Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050
1. As quoted in Janowitz, Icons of Power