The Power of Your Great Right: Ana B’Khoach and the Forty-Two Letter Name of God in Rabbinic

and Mystical Thought
by Michaella Matt

A prayer whose origin is unknown but whose legacy is laden with power and mystique, ana b’khoach has proliferated in siddurim in recent years, piquing new interest in the poem’s multifaceted significance. This paper traces various traditions associated with ana b’khoach, from the forty-two-letter name of God (shem mem-bet) in rabbinic and medieval thought, to Kabbalistic applications of the poem in prayer, and finally with a modern interpretation of the poem by the 20th-century mystic Abraham Isaac Kook. In rabbinic thought, the forty-two-letter name was a powerful, dangerous tool whose content was largely kept secret. In medieval times, the name became a subject of extensive mystical and symbolic contemplation. Ana b’khoach, probably written when Kabbalah began to spread to Israel, became known for its power in warding off internal and external evil forces, in hopes of bolstering the spiritual ascent of the individual, community or lower worlds. Kook’s commentary, which returns to the words of the prayer themselves, but infuses them with mystical understanding, may offer the modern reader a window into the enduring power of ana b’khoach. Although traditionally attributed to the 1st-century Tannaitic sage Nechuniyah ben-Hakana (c. 1st century), ana b’khoach was probably written when Kabbalah began to spread to Israel, around the 16th or 17th century. According to one theory, it was composed as a prayer for the shaliach tzibbur to say before beginning to pray, asking for God to hear the prayer of the congregation.1 The seven-line, rhyming poem makes a plea to God to accept the prayers of a people needing strength, protection, compassion and purification. The deity is referred to not by the more common names YHVH or Elohim, but instead by seven phrases indicative of God’s great strength: Awesome One, Mighty One, Invulnerable One, Holy One, Unique One, Exalted One, and Knower of Secrets. 2 The people, in contrast, are characterized by their great need and dependence upon God, characterized by a state of being “bound,” perhaps referring to the now 1500-year exile. The poet asks that God remember Israel’s essence—a people who seek God’s unity and remember His holiness—and thus watch over then intimately, like the “apple of an eye.” Like other Kabbalistic piyyutim, ana b’khoach is an acrostic for a name of God. Each of the seven lines of the piyyut is comprised of exactly six words each, and the first letters of each word spell out a forty-two-letter phrase, which is cited elsewhere in rabbinic literature as the “forty-two-letter name of God” (shem mem-bet). The prayer is usually concluded by the six words baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed, traditionally recited after the High Priests’ pronouncement of the “Ineffable Name” (shem hamefurash), recited once a year on Yom Kippur.3 Although the origin of ana b’khoach is largely unknown, most scholars agree that the forty-two-letter name preceded the poem, and that the poem was written as an
1 2

Siddur Otzar ha-Tefilot, Ashkenaz (New York: Hebraica Press, 1966), pp. 170-171 Macy Nulman, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1993) ‘Ana BeKho’ah,’ p. 29-30 3 In some versions, the last line read baruch shem k’vod malchuto le’olamot so as to rhyme with the line before.


acrostic of the name. In the Talmud, the forty-two-letter name of God is referred to, but not explicitly given. In Kiddushin 71a, after discussing the corruption of the twelve-letter name, Rabbi Judah relates in the name of Rab the conditions around the transmission of the forty-two-letter name:
"The forty-two-letter Name is entrusted only to one who is modest, humble, middle-aged, free from bad temper, sober, and not insistent on his own qualities. And anyone who knows it and is careful with it and who keeps it pure, such a person is beloved above and pleasing below, and feared by others, and will inherit two worlds, this world and the world to come."

On this name, Rashi (1040-1105) states: “It is not known to us.” Assuming Rashi’s transparency, this may indicate that in his time, the name was not widely known.4 Nonetheless Rashi was clearly aware of the power associated with the name and the danger of its improper use. In BT Avoda Zara 17b, the Talmud explains the rationale for the sentence given to Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion: “The punishment of being burnt came upon him because he pronounced the Name in its full spelling.5” On the meaning of “in its full spelling,” Rashi explains: “[He pronounced the Name] in forty-two letters, and he did with it whatever he pleased.” Thus in Rashi’s view, the offense was utilizing the theurgic power of the forty-two-letter name for indiscriminate personal wishes, a danger alluded to by the stipulations given in Kiddushin. The first known source to list the forty-two-letter name is another Talmudic commentator, who lived before Rashi, but in a different continent. The Hai Gaon (9391038), writing from Pumbedita in modern-day Iraq, reveals the letters of the forty-twoletter name, which are identical to the first letters of the words of ana b’khoach. While Hai reveals the name, he maintains a degree of secrecy around its pronunciation:
As to the forty-two-letter name, even though its letters are known, it was not handed down by the tradition with its reading and pronunciation. But there are some who say its beginning avagitatz and some say avigitatz; and at its end some say shakvatzit and some say shikutzit…

Elsewhere, the Hai Gaon indicates, as alluded to by the Talmud, that the fortytwo-letter name was precisely the Ineffable Name declared by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. In a responsum on the name of God used in the Priestly Benediction, the Hai Gaon refers to “the ineffable name (shem hamefurash), which is the forty-two-letter name which is still found in the academy (ba-yeshiva) in the tradition (ba-kabala) and is known to the scholars (la-chachamim).6” This is further supported by Maimonedes (1135-1204), who explains that the forty-two-letter name was introduced in the Temple after the four- and twelve-letter names of God were corrupted by becoming widely known. From the sources thusfar, a history of the name can be pieced together: The fortytwo-letter was probably established during the time of the First or Second Temple, as a remedy for the corruption of other names of God. With the destruction of the Temple, the name fell into disuse, which may explain the secrecy around it in the Talmud and Rashi’s

Larry Schiffman, “The forty-two letter name in Aramaic magic bowls,” Bulletin of the Institute of Jewish Studies, Vol I (1973), p. 101 5 “in its full spelling”, in Heb. be’otiotav, lit. ‘in its letters’ 6 Otzar Ha-Geonim, Yoma, p. 18f.


commentary. Nonetheless, it appears to have been preserved in consonantal form in some Gaonic academies, such as that of the Hai Gaon.7 In Rashi’s France, where apparently the abgytz… form of the name was largely unknown, however, a different tradition surfaced regarding the content of the name. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbenu Tam (c. 1100-c. 1171), one of the Ba’alei haTosafot, brings to light a tradition linking the forty-two-letter name to the opening verses of the Torah. Regarding the prohibition in Chagigah 12b on studying the work of creation (ma’ase bereshit) in the presence of only two people, Rabbenu Tam explains: "[Ma’ase bereshit] is the forty-two letter name of God which issues from the very first verse of Genesis and its immediately succeeding verse." Later readings of Rabbenu Tam understand this to mean that the name derives from the first forty-two letters of the Torah, from the bet of ‘bereshit’ to the vet of ‘tohu va’vohu.’ While Rabbenu Tam may have believed that the name is precisely these verses, the phrasing “issues from” probably indicates that he held a somewhat mystical belief that the verses encode a more concealed name. Thus although, like his grandfather, Rabbenu Tam seems to be “out of the loop” of those who know the name, he apparently was aware of a proto-Kabbalistic tradition on its origin. In the Zohar, the relationship between the forty-two-letter name and creation is taken to new imaginative heights. The name of forty-two is referred to in multiple passages in the Zohar, although its alphabetical content is not explicitly given, as it is with the seventy-two-letter name. For the Zohar, the forty-two-letter name is the means by which the world was created:8
"Observe that the world has been made and established by an engraving of forty-two letters, all of which are the adornment of the Divine Name. These letters combined and soared aloft and dived downwards, forming themselves into crowns in the four directions of the world, so that it might endure. They then went forth and created the upper world and the lower, the world of unification and the world of division…” (Zohar 2:234a)

The Zohar thus takes the rabbinic notion of a powerful name embedded in a verse hyper-literally: The letters of the Torah not only describe creation through the meaning of the words; the letters themselves, and all their possible permutations, are themselves the power through which the world was brought into being. Creation through letters, in which the letters of the Hebrew alphabet arranged themselves into words that give things their vitality, is a theme throughout the Jewish mystical tradition. Here, however, it is an engraving of a precise (but undisclosed) combination of forty-two letters that served as the foundation from which all other permutations derived. In the same passage, a parallel is drawn between creation and the work of the Tabernacle, which must be constructed by the very same name:
“…Now, the same letters were the instruments used in the building of the Tabernacle. This work was carried out by Bezalel for…he had a knowledge of the various permutations of the letters, by the power of which heaven and earth were created. Without such knowledge Bezalel could not have accomplished the work of the Tabernacle; for, inasmuch as the celestial Tabernacle was made in all its parts by the mystical power of those letters,
7 8

L. Schiffman, ibid., p. 98 Soncino translation


the lower Tabernacle could only be prepared by the power of the same letters. Bezalel was skilled in the various permutations of the Divine Name, and for each several part he employed the appropriate permutation of the letters."

Thus in the Zohar, the forty-two-letter name is characterized by its creative power both on the human and divine level. The absence of the name’s content, and the strong association of the name with creation, may suggest that the author of the Zohar was aware of the traditions of Ba’alei ha-Tosafot, but not of the Pumbedita academy. It is only with two 15th-century Kabbalistic works that the traditions of the Tosafot and the Hai Gaon are synthesized, and that the development of the name reaches its climax of interpretation. Regarding “the secret of the forty-two letter name,” Sefer haKana gives the name as it appears in the Hai Gaon, along with the names of the forty-two angels represented by each letter of the name. Then, by employing either one or two of six possible letter permutation codes (such as atbash), the author demonstrates how it is possible to arrive at the letters of the forty-two-letter name (alef, bet, gimmel, yud and so on) from the first forty-two letters of the Torah (bet, resh, alef, shin etc). Sefer ha-Pliah, citing the same system of permutations, also associates each six-letter word of the name with a planet, a day of the week, a body part, an attribute, and pages and pages of equivalent gematriot. The book, modeled on discussions between a master and student, relates one instance in which the master and student are struggling to understand the secret of the forty-two-letter name: 9
While they were speaking, the Holy Blessed One said to the greatest in the House of Study: “Go and enlighten their faces about this question by responding to their question and clarifying their difficulty (kushiya).’ And when the great one illuminated the face10, one arose from the Heavenly House of Study (metivta d’rakiya) and came to them and found them standing, praying and bowing, and he said: “My master sent me to you; tell me your question, and what is difficult for you.” He said to him: “I will tell you: What is abgytz?” He said to them, “About this I was not permitted to say, however I know that the Holy Blessed One would not conceal it from you, so let us come and proceed, the three of us, until the Will arrives.” As they were walking, a bull came towards them, and a lion was riding on top of it, and he said to them: “Do you see what comes before you?” And they said, “No.” And he said to them: “Lift your eyes and see.” And they lifted their eyes and saw the bull and the lion riding on top of it coming towards them, and they feared, and the angel said to them: “That is the soul that came down from the Heavenly House of Study. Do not fear because God loves you, for you are worthy before Him, and He shows you deep secrets hidden from the eyes of all living creatures. And the Holy Blessed One revealed to you that the world was created through loving-kindness – this is the lion – ‘And I said, the world will be built on loving-kindness’ (Ps. 89), but it was created with judgment – ‘In the Beginning Elohim created’ – therefore it says ‘On the day that YHVH Elohim made earth and heaven’ (Genesis 2:4).”

The story as a whole communicates the enduring mystery surrounding the name, and the enormity of the question of its meaning. Earlier in the passage, when the student

This is my best attempt at a translation of the passage from Sefer ha-Pliah, s.v. v’ata tzaref shem Elohim, 10 Meaning of Hebrew uncertain (‘kshe-heir ha-gadol et ha-panim’)


asks his master the same question, the master responds: “The measure of this question is longer than the earth and broader than the ocean.” Here, as an answer to the meaning of the name, the two are shown a lion riding on top of a bull. The lion, according to the angel’s explanation, represents the side of compassion (chesed), as in the verse: “A world will be built on loving-kindness” (Psalm 89:3), while the bull supposedly represents the side of judgement (din); just as the lion is riding atop the bull, so chesed should overpower din. The same desired victory of chesed, the angel explains, is reflected in the switch in God’s name from Gen 1:1, “In the beginning Elohim created,” where Elohim represents judgment, to the name YHVH Elohim in Gen 2:4: “On the day that YHVH Elohim made earth and heaven,” where the name YHVH, representing compassion, takes precedence over Elohim. 11 In showing this bizarre, startling image of a lion atop a bull, the angel offers a clue to the power of the forty-twoletter name of God: this name can tip the scale so that God’s compassion overcomes His judgments. According to most scholars, ana b’khoach was written when these traditions spread to Israel, around the 16th century. The addition of ana b’khoach before lekha dodi appears as early as 1647 in a manuscript of Isaac Vana.12 Predictably, many of the rationales for including the prayer at various parts of the service draw on the traditions around the forty-two-letter name. The relationship of the forty-two-letter name to Kabbalat Shabbat dates back to Tikkunei Zohar (13th century). In Tikkun 21 (47a), a connection is drawn between the seven mentions of the word kol in Psalm 29 and the seven six-letter combinations that make up the forty-two-letter name.13 In fact, based on this tradition, the siddur Pri Etz Hayyim (Dubrovno, 1848) prints Psalm 29 interspersed with the lines of ana b’khoach. In other explanations connecting ana b’khoach and Shabbat, notions of the power of the name to ward off evil are fused with the theme of the holiness of Shabbat. According to a rare book called Tikkun Shabbat Malkata, ana b’khoach neutralizes the evil side so that one may benefit from the additional Shabbat soul:
Following Psalm 29, one should say the prayer of Nechunia ben ha-Kana, which is mentioned above, Ana b'Khoach, and with this prayer all of the klippot (shells) and all of the sitra achra (evil side) will be severed, and they will have no more power or authority to form a barrier separating one from the brilliant influx of an additional soul coming from the chambers of the King of the World to each and every one of Israel according to one's origin, one's light, and one's service, one's earthly and heavenly work.14

The author of this passage most likely has in mind the second line of ana b’khoach, whose first letters (roshei teivot) spell out the only syntactically meaningful Hebrew phrase among the seven six-letter combinations: kra satan, literally meaning ‘rip satan’, or ‘destroy the evil force’. More generally too, the notion of invulnerability to the forces of judgment invokes the explanation in Sefer Ha-Pliah that the forty-two-letter name gives compassion precedence over judgment. Here, the prayer is characterized by its power to effect change in the individual during the auspicious time of Friday night,
11 12

Cf. Rashi on Genesis 2:4 Moshe Halamish, Hanhagot Qabaliot B’Shabbat (Jerusalem: Orchot, 1996) 13 This is Rabbi Hayyim Palache’s view, cited by Halamish, p. 222 14 Tikkun Shabbat Malkata, Krakow (1650), 2b, cited in Halamish, p. 222


eliminating the barriers between a person and the benefits of Shabbat. Two other sources associated with Sabbateanism elaborate on the relevance of ana b’khoach to the dynamics of the Four Worlds on a Friday eve.15 Chemdat Yamim, a Sabbatean-influenced anthology of Kabbalistic customs, comments that ana b’khoach is said on Friday night in order to raise olam ha’asiyah, the world of action. Nathan of Azza, a key Sabbatean figure, further explained that on Friday night, the four worlds are ascending, and ana b’khoach gives them the power to do so. Apparently, ana b’khoach was a popular Sabbatean practice, associated with the elevation of the worlds on Shabbat. Ana b’khoach appears in several other places in the daily and festival liturgy of various communities. Isaac Luria (16th century) established that one should also say ana b’khoach in the morning service during the order of the sacrifices. According to Seder ha-Yom, a 16th-cenury commentary on the siddur, it was inserted here to symbolically (or radically) include the High Priests’ declaration of the Ineffable Name, an element of the Temple Service that the recounting otherwise neglects.16 Ana b’khoach is also included in Sefardic communities in the Counting of the Omer, possibly in relation to the forty-two days between the end of Pesach and Shavuot.17 Reishit Chochma (16th century) instructs one to say ana b’khoach during the nighttime sh’ma, after viddui, in order to usher the soul back to its place of origin. Breslov and other Chassidic communities also recite ana b’khoach seven times during the lighting of the Chanukah candles. While the rationales for saying ana b’khoach throughout the liturgy draw heavily on traditions around the power of the forty-two-letter-name, they tend to neglect the simple meaning of the words of the prayer. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a modern philosopher and mystic, and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, composed a line-by-line, word-for-word commentary on ana b’khoach, which his son later edited into a larger commentary on the siddur, Olat Ra’ayah. While Rav Kook makes no mention of the forty-two-letter name, his commentary does echo themes surrounding the power of the name, especially Sefer ha-Pliah’s notion that the name gives precedence to chesed. In fact, in the opening sentence of Kook’s commentary, he quotes the same Pslams verse that appeared in Sefer ha-Pliah to prove the primordial preeminence of chesed. For Kook, the first line of the prayer, “ana b’khoach gedulat yemincha”, “Please with the Power of Your Great Right,” is calling upon the Right side, which in Kabbalah refers to chesed:
“The exalted Right of God -- The stronghold of chesed that cycles through the world, and the fundamental trajectory of all of existence, For “a world will be built on loving-kindness (chesed).”

Thus in opening the prayer by calling on God’s Right, we are calling upon the ultimate source of chesed in the world, and in doing so, invoking the fundamental purpose of this world—the desire to bestow good upon an Other. For Kook, invoking God’s Right and the original intent of creation are key, since the world, “which emerged contracted and degraded,” is characterized, in contrast, by boundaries. While absolute loving-kindness may have been the initial impulse of creation, the means to dispensing this goodness was limitations
15 16 17

Both cited by Halamish, ibid., p. 222-223. Seder HaYom, under Seder Amirat Korbanot, p. 98 Likk Mah, vol. 1, p. 47b, cited in Nulman, ibid.


(gevurah). In the words of Chagigah 12b, “When God said ‘Let there be a firmament’, the world kept stretching and expanding, until God said, ‘Enough!’ and it came to a standstill.” Our very existence as independent autonomous beings seems to be predicated on a degree of separateness from God, on the concealment of His light from some places. Just as water requires a vessel to be useful, so goodness requires boundaries in order to be fully appreciated. Yet although limitations may be necessary for our separate existence, we open the prayer by invoking the original impulse to create the world, and the goal of existence, which is and always was loving-kindness. Kook continues to delineate three levels of chesed: yemin, gedulat hayamin, and koach gedulat hayamin (the Right, the Great Right, and the Power of the Great Right), the third of which is the most precise address of this prayer. In the first distinction, Kook explains the difference between koten hayamin, the Lesser Right, and gedulat hayamin, the Greater Right:
Indeed, the Right has both Great and Small: The Lesser Right, is when goodness is allotted according to the limited capacity of the receiver, to the extent that one can bear. But the Greater Right, is the aspect of goodness that gives love greater than the capacity of the receiver, and if one cannot bear the excess of love, then the love is so great, that it gives over from its love also the ability and strength to hold the receiving of the good and the love.

Whereas the Lesser Right gives according to what a person can bear, and no more, the Greater Right gives in such a way that lifts up the receiver so that he or she can receive even more than their capacity. The lesser chesed may correspond to the notion of middah k’neged middah, giving based on what a person deserves, or more broadly, giving according to what a person can appreciate. The greater chesed blurs the boundaries between giver and receiver, by refusing to take the receiver’s qualities as a given, and withholding nothing from the act of giving. In the human realm, the greater chesed may correspond to the love of a parent to a child, or a lover to a beloved, in which one gives of the deepest part of oneself to the other, and changes the receiver in the process. Thus we pray not only to the Right, but to the Greater Right, to lift us up to a place where we can receive even more, as it says in Kiddushin 100a: “The Blessed Holy One gives strength to the Righteous to receive their portion.” Yet for Kook, the greater chesed is still limited in some way: no matter how grand the love may be, all chesed, once actualized and applied to our reality, becomes inherently limited, marred somewhat by the “characteristic limitations and constrictions of the world.” For Kook, it is only chesed in Potentiality, the koach of gedulat yemincha, that carries within it the full range of possibilities and the most potent potential of God’s desire to give. Only potential chesed will be free of the inherent restraints of reality, and will offer a truly satisfactory resolution to boundedness. If the world was initially created with the


goal of chesed, but boundaries and limitations accumulated in the process, we are praying to renew the world with its original intent: that chesed flow uncompromisingly into this world. Thus, we pray: With the Power of Your Great Right, Release the Bound. Can ultimate chesed penetrate a world defined by limitations, or egos predicated on separateness? In praying to “release the bound,” are we asking to undo the very nature of reality? In his commentary on the prayer’s closing line, Kook describes the final goal:

And when the Power of the Great Right releases the binds, then everything will be drenched in complete freedom, with absolutely no limitations and constrictions. And life will ascend to the exalted heights to be reunited with the body of the king (l’ishta’ava begufa d’malka), and to be illuminated with the light of all life. Then all hindrances, which at some instance could impede the flow of holiness and the upper wholeness from appearing, will be subdued. And forever and ever blessing will abound, and all of existence will sparkle in God's light.”

Apparently, while this world may be inherently limited, existence in general is not inherently limited. According to some schools of Kabbalistic thought, this “contracted and degraded world” was not the only possibility for existence, nor was it the original intent. Rather, because of a cosmic accident (the shattering of the vessels) or human error (eating from the tree), the world in its perfect, ideal state became severely contracted. Thus, in looking ahead to the future, we can yearn for a world that both allows our individuality and existence as others, and at the same time, one that openly demonstrates the unity of the world with its source, and enables Benevolence to emanate unobstructed. As in Sefer Ha-Pliah, the world began with ‘A world will be built on loving-kindness,’ (chesed) progressed to ‘In the Beginning Elohim created’ (din), and reached a resolution with ‘“On the day that YHVH Elohim made earth and heaven.” The power of this prayer is to ask that God overcome the very limitations that currently restrict reality, so that this world itself can become a container for God’s infinite chesed,: “And the light of Shechinah (the indwelling Presence) will be illuminated by the light of Ein Sof (the Infinite), without any limitations.” While Kook’s interpretation is devoid of the secrecy, magic and mystique around the forty-two-letter name, his interpretation, in calling for God to renew the world with its original intent, returns to theme of the creative power of the name, and Sefer ha-Pliah’s notion of chesed as prior to all. Kook’s interpretation may also serve as a model for a modern perspective on the poem and its theurgic legacy. How do we as 21stcentury Jews inherit a name that created the world, and a name that can bring about miracles? Perhaps, Kook’s interpretation can offer us some inspiration: Our psychological, personal and communal yearnings for transformation are fundamentally connected an eternal, collective yearning to break the boundaries that limit the flow of goodness into the world. Moreover, in finding the Source of Good to whom to direct 8

our prayers, we learn that the Source yearns for the same thing – for the wealth of good with for which the world was created to spread unimpeded. What may be left is an impassioned request: Please, with the Power of your Great Right, Release the Bound…Accept our prayers and hear our cries, Knower of Secrets.


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