November 10, 2009


From Allen Afterman, “Kabbalah and Consciousness” (The Sheep Meadow Press 2005), pp. 71-75. A kabbalistic diagram and the author’s explanatory notes have been omitted from this online version, except where we restored several source references to the text. The late poet and mystic Allen Afterman studied with Rabbi Yitzchok Ginsburg of Chabad and Rabbi Gedaliah Fleer of Breslov, among others. One remark below calls for modification, however. Although it is true that the Chassidim put more stress on devekut (mystical cleaving) than their predecessors, at least in writing, the concept is found in several scriptural verses and is discussed by Rishonim (early medieval authorities) such as Ibn Ezra, Ramban and Radak, as well as in pre-Chassidic kabbalistic works such as those of the Maharal of Prague and Peleh Yo’etz. The method of hitbonenut (contemplation) he describes recalls the classic contemplative practice of Chabad Chassidism, although the author hastens to add that reflection in Torah study in general may be considered a sort of intellectual meditation.


The innate desire of the soul is to reunify with the infinite. This is the root of every wanting; no other object, idea, or love can satisfy its desire. It is not only what the soul wants but what all of existence wants.' In the moment of union a person experiences all of existence uniting in himselfand all of its suffering, all of its yearning. This moment, as well as lower levels of mystical experience, is usually referred to as devekut. (being bound to, clinging, or cleaving to God) but also as “prophecy” and ahdut (becoming united, unification). The experience of devekut, however, is seldom elaborated upon in pre-Chassidic Kabbalah. The famous Talmudic story of the “four Sages who entered Paradise” expresses the dangers involved in the highest levels of transcendent experience. We read that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma became insane, Elisha Ben Abuyah renounced his faith, and only Rabbi Akiva “entered in [the state of] shalom and went out in shalom” (Chagigah 14a). In Chassidism, it is taught that while the other Sages did not commit themselves to return before the onset of their ascent towards God, Rabbi Akiva did. So that upon achieving union he naturally (unconsciously) returned. This is interpreted to reflect his commitment to the rectification of reality, which is the enduring value and purpose of union.

As the story of the four Talmudic Sages illustrates, mystical experience is inherently unstable, and is as potentially dangerous to the psyche as is its power of illumination. The process of “running towards God” is inevitably followed by a fall into ordinary consciousness. Falling is part of the natural spiritual rhythm in which transcendent experience is integrated into the routine of daily life. In order to achieve this integration, it is best that a person be committed to the spiritual path with its structure and collective experience, and if possible, to a teacher. If not, he may draw conclusions in isolation which lead into extreme asceticism, or egoism (most commonly in the form of messianism), or into psychosis. The ambivalent attitude of the Sages towards mystical experience is reflected in the teaching:

“Better is one hour of tshuvah (returning to God) and good actions in this world than the whole of life in the world to come; and better is one hour of the bliss of the spirit in the world to come than all the life in this world” (Sayings of the Fathers 4:17).

For such reasons the writings of Kabbalah are coded; its language and imagery is designed both to reveal and to conceal. Nevertheless, mystical union is the hidden core of Kabbalah, and is at the root of its total understanding.


The traditional practices used by kabbalists to achieve devekut often involved Hebrew letter combinations and the recitation and permutation of divine names. These techniques are principally associated with the 13th century kabbalist Rabbi Abraham Abulafia and his school which in turn drew upon ancient sources. Letter combination and meditation on the names of God are still used by kabbalists and their students today. The intention of these meditations is explained by the Italian kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:

“God decreed . . . that when one would utter His Name, divine illumination and influence would be bestowed upon him. This is what God means when he says (Exodus 20:21), ‘In every place where I allow My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.’ When a particular name of God is uttered and used to call upon Him, it will result in the emanation of an influence (hashpa'ah) associated with that Name . . . God decreed that inspiration and prophecy should be attained in this manner . . . This occurs when one repeats one of these Names mentally, utters it verbally, or combines it with other words, and at the same time fulfills all the other conditions . . .”

Prayer, singing, meditation, secluded and silent communion with God, and speaking directly to God are the main paths to devekut. In prayer, the kabbalist concentrates his mind on the inner mystical intentions (kavvanot) and specific rectifications associated with each word or phrase. In meditation (hitbonenut), which may involve concentration upon spiritual ideas for many hours, the meditator reaches out through the intellect and then beyond. Such contemplation, although in a less concentrated form, is the essence of Torah study. The happiness which accompanies contemplation of the Torah (associated with Binah), underlies the great Jewish emphasis upon learning. The phenomenon of Jewish study for its own sake, of men spending the greatest part of their lives “learning,” is that of lifelong meditation. Nevertheless, no matter how much is gained in this way, it is not considered comparable to knowledge gained through direct spiritual inspiration.

“Turning one's face to God” is the direct and most uniquely Jewish approach to union. As is described by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, one is “... imploring and entreating Him and being heard and listened to by the Blessed One in the same way that a man, speaking to his friend, is heard and listened to by him.”

Direct communion usually develops in the mind before being overtly spoken. One’s inner conversation is the continuation of Abraham’s and Sarah’s conversation. In the Jewish tradition, this right can be considered the inheritance and entitlement from the ancestors (z'chut avot); an inheritance which includes the right to argue with God and to question his providence and justice. When communion involves actual speaking or spontaneous speech, it may be called sichah. Sichah (conversation) is simply intimate speaking out loud to God. (The daily practice of sichah, which is strongly emphasized by Rabbi Nachman, is nevertheless called hitbodedut in his writings.) In general, Jewish prayer or communion begins with praise. But each person begins at his own beginning; one with silence, another with singing, another by speaking of the difficulty of speaking, etc. This opening is called “the arousal from below,” the creation of an opening in oneself in which the infinite may “dwell.” Eventually, perhaps after many periods of silence and deadness, a person’s speaking will be answered by the experience of the divine presence.

Song Meditation

Song always implies pleasure; even a song of pain is a song longing for life’s pleasure. Each and every part of the Creation sings to its Creator. In terms of the sefirot, both the root of song and of primordial pleasure arc in the second head of Keter, the Head of Nothingness (Resha d'ayin), which is also the root of primordial pleasure. The Head of Nothingness is also the root of the Torah; thus Torah itself is called song, and is sung out. Singing is pure speech; the union of air, water, and fire. Thus chassidim often begin the study of Torah with the singing of several niggunim (wordless songs) which open the learning with their rhythms and transcendent structures.

Song meditation is known from the time of the prophets and their schools. Music is both an analogy for the movement towards mystical experience, and also an actual technique used to achieve devekut. In meditation, the singer sings with God's presence before his eyes. [According to an interpretation of Rabbi Elijah de Vidas,] “ ‘Sing, tzadikkim, to the Name’ . . . so that this name is before you, in order that you unify in such a way that the song is the complete devekut. . .”

Singing is the dark path, the blind search of the lover. When a person enters into singing, he is searching for the Beloved One. Thus the Song of Songs (called the “Holy of the Holies” of the Torah) is the allegory of the love between the bride and groom, between the soul and God.

Poetry and song are the same word in Hebrew, shir. The song is intense being that disappears, whereas the poem is engraved or perhaps coarsens into words. The song that is sung expresses the upward motion, the stripping away of words. Poetry is the downward motion of enclothement, of capturing. Thus poetry is related to the concept in Torah of catching light, of catching arrows in midair; ultimately, of catching the expanding universe. Poetry is a power to catch something that is about to disappear. This power of the soul to catch comes from the Higher Mother, Binah. The power to catch the arrow is greater than the shooting itself. The poet hears singing and somehow tries to catch it. The poem expresses the outer limit and beyond what he has words for. His desire to preserve and to express it must be stronger than the experience itself. Form must be stronger than inspiration. The female must be stronger than the male. If experience is stronger, if there are no words, it disappears into being.