Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mystical Jewish Prayer: The Angelic Astrologic Esotericism of Shabbat Morning

[Jewish mosaic with zodiac and angels]

The Reform movement to which I belong got its start out of a desire among Western Jews to reform the siddur (Jewish prayer book). Our efforts to streamline Jewish worship led to many a piyyut [1] getting the boot. One prayer recited on Shabbat mornings that was eliminated was El Adon, a praise of God’s celestial power that came from the circle of Jewish ecstatics known as the Merkavah mystics [Bar Ilan, Sitrei Tefillah v' Hekhalot, 1987, pp. 115-120]. Well, it's back. The new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, has returned El Adon to its place on Shabbat mornings (p. 314), though slightly edited. This provides us an occasion to examine its esoteric theology. Like Shir ha-Kavod, which I discuss in another entry, this is an alphabetic acrostic poem. This prayer, however, focuses not on the theology of the Glory (though it does mention it), but on the angelic hosts and their equivalences to the celestial bodies. The association of angels with stars and planets was common in late antiquity. It is, for example, a major feature of the Hebrew magical text known as Sefer ha-Razim. This idea provides a monotheistic rationale for the otherwise pagan astrological belief that the stars influence the mortal realms – the stars and constellations, these writers are saying, are actually angels and messengers of divine will. The Merkavah adepts were obsessed with angels, their titles, and their powers. Texts associated with them (often dubbed Hekhalot texts) focus on how the angels praise God and how the initiate can both imitate and manipulate God's angelic agents. It is also interesting that there are carefully crafted numerological [gematria] features to this prayer. Verses have 10, 8, or 12 words. The first two stiches of five words, making a verse of ten equals the number of utterances that God made to form creation (Avot 5.1). The nine lines in the middle consist of 8 words, adding up to 72, a number signifying the most powerful of God’s names. The final two stiches are six words each, the complete verse of 12 represents the total houses of the zodiac, summarizing the 'celestial' theme of the poem. God, Master of all creation

Blessed and praised is He by all that breaths

His greatness and goodness fill the universe

knowledge and wisdom surround him (Prov. 3:19)

He is exalted above the holy beasts [2],

And adorned in glory above the chariot [3]

Merit and Justice stand before His throne

Love and Mercy are before His glory (Ps. 89:15) [4] Goodly are the luminaries which our God created,

made with Knowledge, Wisdom and Insight

He gave them power and energy

To have dominion over the world

Full of splendor they radiate brightness;

beautiful is their brilliance throughout the world

They rejoice in their rising and exult in their setting (Ps. 19:6)

performing with reverence the will of their Creator (Ps. 103:21)[5]

Glory and honor do they give to His name,

And joyous song to his majestic fame

He called forth the sun, and it shone;

He saw fit to regulate the form of the moon

All the hosts of heaven give him praise (Ps. 148:2-3);

Splendor and Greatness, the Seraphim and Ofanim and Holy Beasts [6].
[1] Liturgical poems, many of them post-Biblical, post-Talmudic compositions. The Reform movement gave Biblical and Talmudic works priority in their editing of the liturgy. [2] Hayyot are beasts that attend upon God’s throne. Mentioned in Ezekiel chapter 1, they may or may not be synonymous with cherubs. [3] The Merkavah is God’s chariot-throne, also mentioned in Ez. 1. Standing [or sitting] in the divine presence before the throne was the major visionary goal of the Merkavah mystics. [4] The reified figures of these abstract values (wisdom, insight, merit, justice, love, and mercy) are sometimes described as arrayed around the throne, and some writers have treated them as if they are angelic beings. [5] It is not uncommon to find an element of animism/spiritism in Jewish religious thought. The Psalms speak of mountains, rivers, and other geographic features as sentient beings. Here the sun and the moon are conscious of their roles and as consciously offering praise to their creator. Personification is, of course, a common literary technique, but I think this goes beyond rhetoric. A more philosophically oriented reading would call such language poetic panentheism. [6] The last line of praises and angels is awkward, linguistically speaking. That’s because the key words - Shevach notnim...kol tz'va marom... were selected so each word starts with the initial of one of the five planets visible to the ancients: SHabbatai, Nogah, Kokhav, TZedek, and Mo’odam were the Hebrew names for Saturn, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Mars. The string of angelic titles at the end adds three non-astrological angelic entities to the mix. Lists of angels, seemingly thrown into a line for no clear purpose, is actually a mark of authorship by the merkavah mystics. Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Blogger Sara said...

Thanks again for an interesting piece. I did get a copy of Mishkan Tfila, but didn't notice this, nor know the history.

10:17 AM  
Blogger lightworker said...

Thank you for posting this, I found it so interesting and fascinating!


9:47 AM  

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