Thursday, 28 July 2011

High Priest Bell Discovered (Not Verified Yet)

Jim Davila of Paleojudaica has posted about the discovery of a golden bell which may have been worn by the High Priest in the second Temple during the first century common era.

Using Paleojudaica's links,  here is the the youtube video of the sound of the bell. Plus some other interesting background information.

Difference between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah

Recently Jacobus Swart posted on his blog and via an email group about what he considered to be practical Kabbalah. I responded with the following argument for what I believe is the difference between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah.

Jacobus posted that the practical application of Kabbalistic doctrines should be labelled "Practical Kabbalah". However, I'd like to ask whether you distinguish between "Meditative Kabbalah" and "Practical Kabbalah"? If so, what is the distinctive characteristics of each?

In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Meditation and Kabbalah" he describes them as follows on pp2. (after introducing theoretical Kabbalah):

    "The practical Kabbalah, on the other hand, was a kind of white magic, dealing with the use of techniques that could evoke supernatural powers. It involved the use of divine names and incantations, amulets and talismans, as well as chiromancy, physiognomy and astrology...."

    "The meditative Kabbalah stands between these two extremes. Some of the earliest meditative methods border on the practical Kabbalah, and their use is discouraged by the latter masters, especially those of the Ari's school..."
As someone who considers himself to practice Meditative Kabbalah, my current small amount of knowledge and experience leads me to believe that the transition from meditative to practical is the use of Divine names. Now you could argue that any prayer in Hebrew which has in it Divine names is Practical Kabbalah and this argument would be backed by the following quote from the Overview section of the Artscroll siddur (prayer book), 2nd edition published by Mesorah Publications Ltd, pp XVI:
    "...By referring to the primal sanctity of the Aleph-Beis, Chida answers a perplexing question. Why is it necessary to articulate the prescribed text of the prayers - doesn't God know what is in our hearts? Wouldn't it be a greater sanctification of His Name if He were to fulfill unspoken human desire? Chida explains that the combinations of letters - as formulated by the masters who composed the prayers - have the power to arouse forces beyond our imagination. Thereby new spiritual lights can be created through the agency of human beings. To accomplish this, we must articulate the prayers. This causes the sacred letters to arouse their spiritual roots; it brings about a totally unprecedented combination: The interaction of the Aleph-Beis is combined in the respective prayer and the particular set of circumstances prevailing on earth at the instant the words are uttered (Shem HaGedolim, entry on R' Yitchak of Acco)..."
However, the prayers of a simple and unlearned person can be as powerful as those of a learned person - at least according to numerous tales by the Chassidim (followers of the Baal Shem Tov). Which means that the new spiritual lights can be created even if the person praying is not aware of this information.

Hence I'd like to put forward the argument that Practical Kabbalah in prayer occurs when the person praying has (or are attempting to achieve) knowledge and experience of the spiritual realities that their use of the Divine names and Aleph-Beis are having.

By the way, I'm more than happy to be corrected in my current understanding. I'm just trying to feel for where the line is between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah if such a line is meaningful. Perhaps that distinction only exists in going from the main section to the last part of Shaarei Kedushah: The Gates of Holiness by Rabbi Chaim Vital...

In the end we agreed that the distinction between Meditative and Practical Kabbalah is not one that is easy to define, since use of Divine Names is done in both Meditative and Practical Kabbalah. Which means I need to go back to the drawing board and see if a meaningful distinction can be made or if this is a wild goose chase.

Monday, 25 July 2011

This is Not a Review: The Hidden and Manifest God

This post is inspired by and draws its information from the excellent book: “The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism” by Peter Schafer (Translated by Aubrey Pomerance).

In the book the author describes each of the major works in early Jewish mysticism. This is the Hekhalot, also known as Ma'aseh Merkavah mysticism, which focuses on the mystical lore and practices by Jewish mystics in the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans. Merkavah mysticism is based on the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah. The works in Merkavah mysticism focus on Heavenly ascent and angelic adjuration.

The Merkavah works include what the author refers to as macro-forms and micro-forms. There are numerous versions of the manuscript. Those that are similar and can be described as defined “works” are referred to as macro-forms. The individual instances of each text are referred to as micro-forms.

The list of macro-forms includes:
  • Hekhalot Rabbati (“The Greater Palaces”)
  • Hekhalot Zutarti (“The Lesser Palaces”)
  • Ma'aseh Merkavah (“the Working of the Chariot”)
  • Ma'aseh Rabbah (“the Great Chariot”)
  • third book of Enoch

There is a significant difference in emphasis in each of the works, depending on whether the main focus of the work is on Heavenly ascent or angelic adjuration. This has also led to different interpretations and comments on the works by various academics, but that will not be discussed in this post.

What is interesting to me is how diverse the works (macro-forms) are. .

Here is a brief description that shows the differences in emphasis between the works with regards to God:

  • Hekhalot Rabbati (“The Greater Palaces”) - God is central and angels play an important role, particular attention is paid to Sar HaTorah (Prince of the Torah)
  • Hekhalot Zutarti (“The Lesser Palaces”) - God is central and focus is on Divine names. It also asks the question 'Can one see God?'
  • Ma'aseh Merkavah (“the Working of the Chariot”) - Marginal focus on God, mainly on Divine names and Shi'ur Komah.
  • Ma'aseh Rabbah (“the Great Chariot”) - Marginal focus on God, mainly on Divine names, the essence of God consists of names.
  • third book of Enoch – God is of great importance in this text, although it substitutes the Shekhinah on the throne.

Here is a brief description that shows the differences in emphasis between the works with regards to angels:

  • Hekhalot Rabbati (“The Greater Palaces”) - Very important, in particular Sar HaTorah.
  • Hekhalot Zutarti (“The Lesser Palaces”) - Refers to two sets,Hayot (living ones) that sing praises and guardian angels.
  • Ma'aseh Merkavah (“the Working of the Chariot”) - Only angels that sing praises, no guardian angels mentioned. Angels transmit revelation of the Torah.
  • Ma'aseh Rabbah (“the Great Chariot”) - Only angels that sing praises, no guardian angels mentioned. Angels transmit revelation of the Torah.
  • third book of Enoch – Central role and has a systematized angelology

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

From the Books: What the Kabbalists Assume You Know and Do

Following on from my previous post on morality, I’d like to mention a bit more assumed knowledge and practice.

This is something that came out of a post Treadwells event chat with Frater Acher. He highlighted to me the following: that in the Hermetic and Western Esoteric traditions there are gaps in knowledge about what that the Jewish Kabbalists assumed their readers would know and practice.

For example, the Jewish prayer said three times per day was instituted by the men of the Great Assembly so that Jews in whatever part of the world would pray the same in Hebrew, previously when the Temple stood aside from the sacrifices people would pray when they wanted and in the language that they knew best.

To these prayers (18 blessings) others were added and such as the Shema, the declaration of faith in the Torah, the psalms, laws of the sacrifices and other prayers. In fact the order of prayer is structured in such a way that the person goes up and up in levels of consciousness according to the four “worlds” Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriyha and Atzilut.

Never Assume
 In a nutshell the Kabbalists assumed that their readers:
  • Were thoroughly familiar with Hebrew
  • Had studied all of the Tanach (5 Books of Moses, Prophets & Writings)
  • Had studied of the Talmud (Oral law in Mishnah and Gemmara)
  • Had studied Midrash (Homiletical tales meant to teach a deeper meaning)
  • Had studied all of Halachah (Jewish laws and customs)

Then there are also specific Kabbalistic techniques such as Gemmatria, Notarikon, etc.

The reason that I am pointing this out is not to make you feel ignorant. Of the above list I only know bits and pieces. My point is that without this assumed knowledge, if you’re trying to make use of the techniques and information in these books then you are pretty much guaranteed to lose something in translation.

The techniques will work but you should bear in mind that you're using them based in incomplete understanding. As a project manager I need to point out this risk, personally speaking I’m mitigating it by slowly learning all of the assumed knowledge.

Beyond Morality: Please Send Me a Post Card

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting Frater Acher in person after a talk at Treadwell bookshop in London. During our chat Frater Acher and I touched upon the difference in approach to morality between mystics and magicians. Unfortunately I cannot remember the exact wording, but if I remember correctly it was that mystics seek to refine their sense of morality and magicians seek transcend their morality.

OK, that’s a bit of a sweeping statement and does not apply to all mystics and magicians by a long shot. However, it’s a trend that I’ve noticed from what little I’ve read up in books and online.

One example of a blogger discussing the possibility of transcending concepts of morality and social mores is Robert in his post: “Gods are perfect can be we as well” . Another example of someone arguing in the different direction is the Dionysian Atavism blogger in his post: “Give a Shit: It’s Important”.

Awhile ago on a mailing list about Kabbalah that I’m on a discussion arose about whether Kabbalah and morality are linked. From my understanding in the area of esoteric Judaism they are very tightly linked.

For example, the book “Sefer HaSidim” (Book of the Pious) by Samuel the Ḥasid, Judah the Ḥasid of Regensburg (his son), and Eleazar ben Judah of Worms – is a book about mysticism, magical techniques, asceticism, humility, serenity, altruism, and strict ethical behavior.

Although you may find other works on Kabbalah that don’t touch in any great depth about morality and ethics – the authors of these works of esoteric Judaism, Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism assume that their readers are grounded in the practice and understanding of ethical behavior as outlined in Jewish Law (such as for example: Ethics of the Fathers).

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Bless Your Children

In a recent posting was described some of the reasoning for why it is important to pray. It’s supposed to be a daily activity to take stock of one’s life and judge what the things we need as opposed to the things that we want. Are we on the path of spiritual growth and if the way is becoming unclear, what choices can we make to steer us back on course?

The next question that sprung to my mind was, can one human being bless another or does it all come from the Divine?

The simple answer is yes.

There are many channels of blessing and sustenance through spiritual and then physical means. However, as people through our free choice we can influence the flow of that blessing whether to channel it for good of creation or for selfish ends.

Theurgy, according to my understanding, is the means by which humans take more direct action in order to influence that Divine flow of blessing and sustenance. However, we don’t all need to be theurgists knowledgeable in how the spiritual worlds link us back to the source to give a blessing. Anyone can give a blessing.

Here is the Wikipedia link to the main Jewish blessing that the families of priestly descent give, which is the same blessing that parents give to their children. This is that same blessing sung to a slightly larger audience.

How priests (and Vulcans) hold their hands during the priestly blessing

If you love your children and you love your spiritual practices, then please bless your children** at least each week. I grew up with this and the weekly blessing is amongst my fondest memories.

** - of course feel free to bless other family members and loved ones too.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Prayer's Function

For a theurgist, prayer is one of the main tools of the trade. Here is an extract from a prayer book that describes the basics of prayer's function. In later posts I'll cover the origins of why Jews pray three times per day and the four levels of ascent in prayer.

A new translation and anthologised commentary by Rabbi Nosson Scherman
Published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, Second edition (first impression February 1987)

Its Hebrew name is tefillah, a word that gives us an insight into the Torah's concept of prayer. The root of tefillah is [the letters] Peh-Lamed-Lamed, to judge, to differentiate, to clarify, to decide. In life, we constantly sort out evidence from rumour, valid options from wild speculations, fact from fancy.

The exercise of such judgement is called Puhliah. Indeed the word Pehlilim (from Peh-Lamed-Lamed) is used for a court of law (Exodus 21:22), and what is the function of a court if not to sift evidence and make a decision?

A logical extension of Peh-Lamed-Lamed is the related root Peh-Lamed-Heh, meaning a clear separation between two things. Thus, prayer is the soul's yearning to define what truly matters and to ignore the trivialities that often masquerade as essential (Siddur Avodas HaLev).

People always question the need for prayer – does not God know our requirements without being reminded? Of course He does, He knows them better than we do. If prayer was intended only to inform God of our desires and deficiencies, it would be unnecessary. Its true purpose is to raise the level of supplicants by helping them develop their true perceptions of life so that they can become worthy of His blessing.

This is the function of the evaluation, decision-making process of Tefillah, prayer. The Hebrew verb for prayer is mitpahlel; it is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgement; a process of removing oneself from the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie one to the purpose of life.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Treadwell Lecture Attendance Guide

Welcome to Treadwells, this guide has been put together by a Treadwells lecture regular to explain the ins and outs of what to expect at a lecture for anyone thinking of attending for the first time.

Here are the steps involved in Treadwells lecture attendance:
  1. Decide on what lecture to attend
  2. Book a ticket for the event & directions to Treadwells bookshop
  3. Going inside
  4. Browsing and other pre-lecture socializing
  5. Listening to the Lecture and Questions & Answers
  6. Post-lecture chat
  7. Treadwells mailing list
Treadwells: 33 Store Street, London WC1E 7BS

 1. Decide on what lecture to attend
 The up to date Treadwells lecture and events list can be found here:

2. Book a ticket for the event & directions to Treadwells bookshop
To book a ticket, simply call the shop and ask if a place is available on the lecture(s) that you are interested in attending. The earlier you book the better your chances of getting a seat.

You’ll need to provide a Visa or Electron credit or debit card to make a payment as well as a contact telephone number. The shop details can be found here.

Opening Times: 12 noon to 7pm daily, including Sundays
Phone: 020 7419 8507 (new number!)
Address: 33 Store Street
London WC1E 7BS
Map and Directions
3. Going inside
The big day has arrived and it’s time to go in to the shop listen to the lecture. It’s recommended that you turn up around 7pm and if you arrive after the lecture starts at 7:30pm you will not be allowed inside.

The lecture registration desk is on the right as you come in to the shop. The people who work in the shop are very friendly and welcoming so feel free to ask any questions.

4. Browsing and other pre-lecture socializing
Before the lecture people generally browse, chat with other attendees, and buy a glass of wine (£2 per glass) although not necessarily in that order.

5. Listening to the Lecture and Questions & Answers
The lecture starts at 7:30pm. Christina introduces the speaker, point out where the facilities are and requests that questions be saved for the end of the lecture. The talks usually last until 8:30pm followed by up to 30 minutes of questions and answers. Just raise your hand to ask a question and wait to get the go ahead to speak.

From personal experience the Q&A sessions are often the highlight of the lecture. The background, knowledge and experience of the people attending lectures is very eclectic ranging from academics, practitioners of magic, to people who turned up purely out of a sense of curiosity. “You’ll find some of the most interesting people in London at Treadwells lectures,” is how one mainstream newspaper described Treadwells talks.

6. Post-lecture chat
After the lecture more wine and nibbles are available. Some people head off after the lecture but if you’re not in a rush to leave - I recommend staying and striking up or joining in some of the stimulating post-lecture conversations.

7. Treadwells mailing list
To sign up to future Treadwells lectures, courses, book launches and other events – you can subscribe using this link: Treadwells mailing list

Edit: Correct some broken links.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Legality of Magic

In some blog posts by Rufus Opus there has been a questions raised about whether “EnlightenmentBombing” someone can be considered black magic or not.

This got me thinking about what is considered to be black magic in my tradition, namely Judaism. Maimonides spells it out clearly in his work Mishneh Torah: Sefer HaMada (“Book of Knowledge”):

  1. Not to act as a soothsayer
  2. Not to practice black magic
  3. Not to practice divination
  4. Not to cast spells
  5. Not to seek information from the dead
  6. Not to consult an ov
  7. No to consult a yid'oni
  8. Not to practice sorcery

However, when we dig a bit deeper it gets a little murkier as to what is considered licit and illicit rituals of power. To help me get a better understand of this I like to consult the excellent “Encyclopedia of Jewish Magic, Myth andMysticism”by Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis.

The entry is rather long, so here are the highlights:
  • A distinction is made between sorcery and shamanism, i.e. between scholarly and folk magic.
  • “Magic” can be labelled use of ritual power that is self-serving whilst theurgy is for a “religious purpose”, however there are texts that describe rituals of power that are both religious and self-serving.
  • Sir George Fraser's The Golden Bough (1922) distinguishes between prayer and magic / theurgy. The former being one of supplication whilst the latter is one of adjuration.
  • Jewish authorities differ in their attitudes about whether magic is illusionist trickery or magical powers are real.
  • In the Talmud (Shabbat 66a) an attempt to answer the question of what forms of magic are forbidden by labelling those as alien to the Torah (Ways of the Amorites) as forbidden. But (in Sanhedrin 17a) the Rabbis are permitted to study the theory of magic.
  • Jewish law, unlike Roman law does not include a tort for damages done by sorcery.
  • Medieval Rabbis rules that “word magic” was permitted but those using ritual objects were forbidden (Amulets are excluded from this distinction). However there is a blurry line between what is alien and not in verbal and performative rituals.
  • Rabbi Jehudah Leow of Prague (B'er ha-Golah 2) considers all sorcery invoking divine names as for all intents and purposed the same as prayer.
  • There is a recurring theme of Jewish magic in the form of shaman-like practices. The Baal Shem (masters of divine names or folk-magic adepts) arose in the Middle Ages. They are reminiscent of the Talmudic wonder workers such as Choni ha-Ma'agel.

In summary there are differences of opinion amongst the Rabbis of what can be labelled as magic. There are also varying opinions of what forms of magic are permitted or not. However, all of these discussions sit within the wider framework of Jewish law derived from the written and oral law.

Within the restrictions of the law (as spelled out by for example Maimonides) there has none the less been a rich tradition of esoteric Jewish works that could be labelled as books of magic. Such as Sefer Raziel HaMalach (Book of the Angel Raziel), Charvah de Moshe (Sword of Moses) and Havdalah de-Rabbi Akiva (a theurgic work containing angel invoking anti-demon spells).

Friday, 1 July 2011

Early Kabbalah and Back to Basics

Early Kabbalah

Two of the tags that I use on this blog are Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereishit. These are the main areas of Kabbalah that I am interested in, aside from the teachings of Abraham Abulafia.

In terms of rough definitions Ma’aseh Merkavah is the school of Jewish mysticism is based on the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah. The practices focuses on heavenly ascent and angelic adjuration as contained in the Heichalot (Heavenly Halls) and Merkavah literature.

The school of Ma’aseh Bereishit focuses on the mysteries of creation in the book of Genesis and its primary text is Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation).

Sefer Yetzirah is quite easy to get a copy off. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan did an excellent translation and commentary in to English. I’ve also got a copy with numerous commentaries in Hebrew that I hope to start studying once my knowledge of Hebrew improves. Sefer Yetzirah is a manual of meditation that is said to take three years to master and some of the meditative techniques are similar to the ones employed in the Ma’aseh Merkavah school.

However, I’ve not had much luck getting hold of the Heichalot (Heavenly Halls) and Merkavah literature in Hebrew. There are copies available for scholars but since they’re priced in the region of several hundred dollars it’s out of my price range. It’d be great to try out one or two of the simpler techniques but that may have to wait for a couple of years.

Hence aside from creating a lecture for the end of this year based on the academic books that I read from October 2010 to June 2011, my quest to gain further knowledge in this is currently stalled.

I’m also quite interested in the works of later Kabbalists such as Chasidei Ashkenaz (German Pietists) and Abraham Abulafia. Their works are heavily influence by the previous schools of Jewish mysticism and Abraham Abulafia wrote a lot of explicit details on how to use Jewish meditative techniques.

On the other hand, the more speculative schools of Kabalistic thought as can be found in the works of the Zohar (revealed in 13th century) currently do not have much interest to me. That is in part because I don’t have enough time to study them and also in part because I feel a stronger pull to these other schools of thought and practice in Jewish mysticism.

Back to Basics

Whilst this blog has focused to some extent on posting about how Project Management techniques can be used to improve the focus and rigour of a practitioner – for the latter half of this year I’ll mostly be focusing on Kabbalah, mysticism and magic rather than Project Management.