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Another important mystical school was headed by Rabbi
Nehuniah ben Hakaneh, a mysterious personality about whose life
virtually nothing is known. A contemporary of Rabbi Yochanan ben
Zakkai, he flourished in the First Century, living to extreme old age. In
one Talmudical account, we find him in the presence of Rabbi
Yochanan ben Zakkai when the latter was asking his disciples to
interpret a certain Biblical passage. When Rabbi Nehunia gave his
opinion, Rabbi Yochanan declared that it was better than his own.37
The true stature of Rabbi Nehuniah becomes evident in the Hekhalot,
where we find the greatest sages of that generation sitting at his feet as
disciples. It is quite evident that he was the greatest esoteric master of
It is from Rabbi Nehuniah that we have the Bahir, one of the oldest
of all Kabbalistic texts. It is in this book that we find the earliest
discussion of the Sefirot, as well as the doctrine of reincarnation.
Although no details are given as to how they are to be used, a number
of esoteric Names are discussed, as well as the general concept of
"descending to the Merkava."
The Bahir states that it is impossible to become involved in the
Merkava without falling into error, but that one should pursue it
nonetheless, since it leads to the "way of life." 38 The reason why the
mystics call it "descending to the Merkava" is because one's vantage
point is the highest level of thought, from which one must actually
descend to visualize the mysteries of the Merkava.39
The most important disciple of Rabbi Nehuniah was Rabbi
Ishmael ben Elisha, who served as High Priest in the last days of the
Second Temple. The Talmud relates how Rabbi Ishmael learned from
Rabbi Nehuniah how to derive lessons from every word in the Torah,
no matter how insignificant.40
But most important, Rabbi Ishmael was
36 I MEDITATION AND KABBALAH
the prime disciple in areas of mystical meditation, and it is from him
that most sources have survived.
In one place, the Talmud provides us with an example of Rabbi
Ishmael's mystical experience, where he sees "Akhteriel Yah the Lord
of Hosts sitting on a high and exalted throne." The association of an
angel, Akhteriel ('~')N~),
with God's name is somewhat difficult to
understand. This is a very important point, however, since similar
expressions occur many times in the early mystical writings,
particulary in the Hekhalol.
In the commentaries, there appears to be some confusion as to
whether Akhteriel is the name of an angeL or an appelation of the
Glory itself. This can be understood, however, in terms of the
teaching that prophecy and vision must always come through an
Ispllklarill (N~~1zi?~tj)I:t) which is translated to mean a mirror or a lens.
Although the initiate actually perceives God's Glory, it is not seen
directly, but must be reflected through the Ispaklllrill. The Ispaklllrill can
be an angel or some other transcendental being, and in this case, it
was the angel Akhteriel.41
The same is true whenever an angel's name precedes that of God in
mystical literature. This merely means that the angel is serving as the
lens or mirror for the vision, or as God's spokesman. In many places in
the Bible we find that an angel speaks in God's name, and this is the
inner meaning of what God said regarding an angel, "My Name is in
him" (Exodus 23:11).42 This angel is usually identified as Metatron
(T"9~1?), and regarding this angel, the Talmud says, "his name is like
that of his Master." 43
Elsewhere, the Talmud relates that Rabbi Ishmael said, "Suriel,
Prince of the Face, spoke to me." 44 The name of the angel Suriel or
Suriah occurs many times in the Hekhalot, and this angel is seen to be a
spokesman for the "Face." From all these sources, it is obvious that
Rabbi Ishmael was ilccustomed to such visions.
From these earlier generations, the esoteric tradition was given
over to Rabbi Judah the Prince (120-189), who is best known as the
redactor of the Mishnah, the earliest part of the Talmud.45
From him it
was given over to Rabbi Yochanan, redactor of the Jerusalem Talmud,
and then to his disciple, Rabbi Assi. The tradition finally reached Rav
Joseph and Rav Zeira, both of whom were versed in the mysteries of the
Merkava. The mysteries were therefore in the hand of the Talmudic
sages, and were in use until the middle of the Fifth Century.46
Rabbi Chaim Vital points out that many practices involving the
use of Divine Names cannot be successful unless the initiate has been
purified with the ashes of the Red Heifer. This is an important teaching
Talmudic Mystics I 37
of the Ari, mentioned a number of times in his writings. The Red Heifer
was a special sacrifice, discussed in detail in Numbers 19, and it is the
only means through which defilement resulting from contact with a
dead body can be removed.
The main need for the Red Heifer arose because one was not
permitted to enter the Temple grounds while in a defiled state. If a
person had ever come in contact with the dead, he would have to be
purified with the ashes of the Red Heifer before he could enter the
sanctuary. Similarly, those engaged in the esoteric practices could not
recite the Divine Names unless they were first purified in this manner.
The Red Heifer was a type of sacrifice, however, and sacrifice
could only be offered when the Temple stood. When the Temple was
destroyed in the year 70, only a small quantity of the ashes remained,
and as long as these were still available, such purification was possible.
The last of these ashes were used up in the Fifth Century, and after
that, the method of Divine Names outlined in the Hekhalot could no
longer be used.
This is verified by an account in the Hekhalot itself, where Rabbi
Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba wished to bring Rabbi Nehuniah out of his
mystical state. They did so by touching him with a cloth that had come
in contact with a menstruous woman, and immediately upon touching
this cloth, he was dismissed from before the Throne of Glory. Similarly,
an individual who has not cleansed himself of all spiritual and ritual
defilement, including the purification of the Red Heifer, cannot enter
into these mysteries. The Hekhalot clearly spells out the dangers
waiting for those who are not properly prepared and attempt to enter
Rabbi Ishmael said: I once entered the innermost chamber [of the
Holy of Holies] to burn incense [on Yom Kippur] I saw Akhteriel Yah
the Lord of Hosts (mI(1~ ;";" i'I~
7~'''N~) sitting on a high and exalted
throne. He said to me, "IshmaeL My son, bless Me."
I replied, "May it be Your will that You withhold Your anger, and
let Your mercy be revealed over Your attributes. May You deal with
Your children with the attribute of Mercy, and enter with them beyond
the call of the Law."
He then nodded His head.
38 I MEDITATION AND KABBALAH
Rabbi Ishmael said: I was thirteen years old when I went to study
with Rabbi Nehuniah ben Hakanah. I asked him, "Who is the Prince of
the Torah," and he replied, "His name is Yofiel (?!p!;li')."
I was already fasting, but I decided to increase my mortification. I
separated myself from all enjoyment for an additional forty days,
beyond my previous fasts. At the end of the forty days, I pronounced
the Great Name and brought down [the angel Yofiel]. He descended in
a flaming fire, and his face was like a flash of lightning. When I saw
him, I trembled and was confounded. My limbs seemed to dismember
themselves, and I fell over backward.
He said to me, "Son of man, how dare you agitate the great
Assembly on high?"
I fortified myself and replied, "It is known and revealed before the
One who spoke and brought the world into being that I did not bring
you down to earth for my own honor, but only to do the will of your
He immediately said to me, "Son of man, you putrid drop, you
worm, you maggot! Even if your soul has begun [to purify itself], you
are still attached to a defiled body. If you wish that I reveal myself to
you, fast for forty days, and immerse yourself twenty-four times each
day. Do not taste anything that causes an odor, nor eat any kind of
beans or vegetables. Sit in a dark room and do not look at any woman.
After I had done this, he taught me a Divine Name, with which I
would ascend and descend.
Rabbi Akiba related that he asked Rabbi Eliezer the Great, "How
does one bind the Angel of the Face (Sar HaPanim) by an oath so that
he should come down to earth and reveal the mysteries of things above
He replied to me, "My son, I once brought him down, and he
wanted to destroy the world. He is a mighty prince, greater than any in
the Family on high. He constantly stands and serves the King of the
universe in cleanliness, abstinence and purity, in terror and fear for the
glory of his Master, since the Divine Presence is with him in every
I said to him, "I will oblige him with an oath. Through the
knowledge that he will reveal to me, I will oblige him and learn from
Talmudic Mystics I 39
He replied, "If one wishes to oblige himself, he should sit fasting
for the entire day when he brings him down. Before that day, he should
purify himself for seven days [with the ashes of the Red Heifer]. He
should immerse himself in a stream of water, and not speak any idle
"At the end of these days of fasting and purification, he should sit
in water up to his neck. Before binding [the angel] with an oath, he
should say, 'I bind you by an oath, princes of pride and terror, who are
appointed to strike down one who is not pure and clean and who dares
to reach out to make use of the servants on high. I do this through the
glorious and fearsome Name ... .' "
Razo Shel Sandelfon.49
[There are four universes, Atzilut (Nearness), the universe of the
Sefirot, Beriyah (Creation), the universe of the Throne, Yetzirah
(Formation), the universe of angels, and Asiyah (Making), the universe
The prophets were able to see into Atzilut, although it was
completely clothed in the lights of Beriyah when they saw it. Ezekiel
lived after the destruction [of Solomon's Temple], and he therefore only
received prophecy from Atzilut after it was clothed in Beriyah, with
Beriyah itself clothed entirely in Yetzirah.
After this, the lights of Atzilut and Beriyah were no longer
revealed at all. This is the meaning of the teaching that after Hagai,
Zechariah and Malachi, prophecy ended completely, and only Ruach
HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) remained.so
[This Ruach HaKodesh] consists of a transmission of the lights of
Yetzirah itself, as well as lower levels. Attaining this level is called
"Ascending to the Orchard (Pardes)." 51 This refers to Yetzirah, which
is called "the Universe of [the angel] Metatron."
There are give,n techniques through which one can open the gates
of the physical world so as to enter Asiyah and Yetzirah. These consist
of Unifications (Yechudim) and prayers pertaining to the Universe of
Yetzirah and its Ten Sefirot. It is these techniques that are taught in the
Chapters of Hekhalot, and these practices were used by Rabbi
Nehuniah, Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Ishmael, and the members of the Great
These techniques were then forgotten. Besides this, the ashes of
the Red Heifer were lost in the period of the later Talmudic sages
40 I MEDITATION AND KABBALAH
(Amaraim), during the generation of Abaya and Rava [who lived in the
Fifth Century], as mentioned in the Talmud.52
After this, they no
longer made use of these techniques to ascend to the Orchard.
From then on, people only made use of techniques involving the
universe of Asiyah. Since this is the lowest of the universes, its angels
have only a little good, and are mostly evil. Besides this, this is a level
where good and evil are closely intertwined [and it is very difficult to
separate them]. This does not bring any enlightenment, since it is
impossible to perceive good alone, and one's perception is therefore a
combination of good and evil, truth and falsehood.
This is the significance of the Practical Kabbalah. I t is forbidden to
make use of it, since evil necessarily attaches itself to the good. One
may actually intend to cleanse his soul, but as a result of the evil, he
actually defiles it.
Even if one does gain some perception, it is truth intermingled
with falsehood. This is especially true today, since the ashes of the Red
Heifer no longer exist. [Since one cannot purify himself,] the
uncleanliness of the Husks (Klipot) attaches itself to the individual who
attempts to gain enlightenment through the Practical Kabbalah.
Therefore, "he who watches his soul should keep far from
them." 53 For besides polluting his soul, he will also be punished in
purgatory (Gehinom). We also have a tradition that such an individual
will be punished in this world. Either he or his children will become
sick, will be impoverished, or will become apostates. Learn a lesson
from Joseph Della Reina and Rabbi Shlomo Molcho, who made use of
the Practical Kabbalah and were destroyed from the world.
All this is because of the above-mentioned reason. This involves a
realm where there is no good devoid of evil. Besides this, it involves
coercing angels with oaths against their will. These angels retaliate by
enticing this individuaL drawing him into evil ways until his soul is
Beyond this, the methods involving these oaths were concealed by
earlier generations, and we are not well-versed in the proper techniques.
One must therefore keep himself far from these things.
Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620}.54
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