The mystic drama of Passover

Fundamental concepts in Jewish mysticism
In order to understood the theurgic functions (the effecting of supernatural or divine intervention in human affairs) of ritual Passover acts as understood by the mystics, we must first review a few fundamental concepts in Jewish mysticism. According to the mystics, God has two natures: He is the Eyn Sof — the Infinite essence which is unlike anything we know, and which cannot be the object of prayers, since Eyn Sof has no relationship with his creatures. Eyn Sof has also ten identifiable, non-infinite aspects or instruments of activity, to His being, the Eser Sefirot; each sefirah reflects another aspect of God's nature, or essence.

In Jewish mysticism, the function of the last sefirah (Malkhut or Kingdom) is Shekhinah, the term used to describe the human perception of God's presence on earth; Shekhinah is a synonym for God's nearness, for the personification of His presence among practitioners of Jewish rituals of study, and for the feminine aspect of God (or God's daughter).

The Kabbalists often resort to explicitly sexual metaphors to portray the emanation of the sefirot and to the relationships between them. The perfection and unification of the divine world (which influences the fate of God and therefore of man) depends on the harmonious balance between individual sefirot as well as harmonious interrelationships between all the sefirot. When there is an absence of harmony above, it is a reflection of disharmony in the world, and the tension above in turn exacerbates the situation of the world. The mystic is one who attempts to perform the necessary steps that will preserve the unit of the divine realm. His work begins with the Shekhinah but affects the rest of the sefirot. The holy marriage of Tiferet (a "masculine" sefirah) and Shekhinah (a "feminine" sefirah) is the most important task that the mystic assumes in his quest; while human sinfulness prevents their permanent union, human action can likewise reunite them and restore harmony to the world.

The Jewish holidays
The Jewish holidays are unitive and restorative sacraments to devotees of Jewish mystics. The specific rituals of each holiday serve as theurgic sacraments that have the power to realign and reunite the configuration of the sefirot. Since the observance of the festivals brings about perfection in the divine realm, it influences the fate of God; while God is not understood as directly answering man's prayer or rewarding him for his actions, the religious actions of man can cause involuntary reactions within God, which then produce reverberations that rebound from God to man....

Pesah (Passover) is seen as a theurgic drama of vanquishing evil and demonic forces. The Pesah festival celebrates the divine deliverance and exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery...and is observed through strict prohibitions against eating any bread or other leavened products, the injunction to eat matzah (unleavened bread), and the telling of the narrative of the Exodus at an elaborate table ritual, the seder, on the first night in Israel and on the first two nights in the Diaspora.

Jewish mystics invested the holiday with special significance. For them it symbolizes a victory over the demonic forces that prevail in the world as a result of the separation of Malkhut and Tiferet. The absence of unity in the divine realm produces an abundance of Din and converts the sefirah Malkhut to a source of suffering that is radiated upon the world. Only the reunification of the Shekhinah with Tiferet can correct this dreadful state of affairs. The enslavement in Egypt and the eventual deliverance is both the result of and symbolic of this process.

According to rabbinic legend, wherever the Israelites went in their exile, the Shekhinah accompanied them to provide protection. According to another interpretation, which stresses the idea that exile is a punishment for the religious and moral failures of the people, the Shekhinah itself goes into exile along with the Israelites. For Jewish mystics, the Exodus from Egypt symbolizes the redemption of the Shekhinah from exile and the beginning of her restoration to unity with Tiferet.

Egypt is transformed from a historical place to a symbol for all the evil that plagues humanity whenever the sefirot are not aligned harmoniously. Egypt is described as the abode of the "husks" or "shells" (kelipot) that entrap the Shekhinah and prevent her from achieving unity.

The many rituals of Pesah are linked to the symbolism of redemption from evil. The pascal lamb was slaughtered in ancient times and eaten on the holiday. A vestige of this practice, which was abandoned after the destruction of the second Temple, can be found in the roasted shankbone that is placed on a special plate at the seder table. Jewish mystics describe this is a theurgic ritual that destroys the power of evil. They explain that the Egyptians worshipped lambs as deities. Thus, the sacrifice or burning of a slaughtered lamb is an act of destruction in which the demonic power of the Egyptian deities is annihilated. It is interesting to note that Jewish mystics acknowledged the reality of other deities, yet they viewed them as satanic and evil powers that threaten and attack the holiness of the sefirot. The slaughter of the lamb is the first ritual performed on the holiday and indicates that the "husks" must be destroyed in order for the sefirot to escape from their dominion. The lamb is eaten at night, the time when the evil power is ascendant, to vanquish is at the moment of its greatest strength.

Matzah, which is described in the seder ritual as the bread of poverty (lehem oni, usually translated as the bread of affliction) refers to the bread that was prepared hurriedly in the last hours of the Israelites' enslavement as they hastened to depart. In Jewish mysticism, the bread of poverty refers to the Shekhinah in exile, which is impoverished due to her separation from Tiferet.

Leavened break (hametz), which is absolutely forbidden on Pesah, symbolizes the powers of evil. The mystics explain that leavened bread is an allegory for the power of demonic forces over good. Even a small amount of leavening resembles fermentation and causes the food to lose its original flavor. Likewise, even a little evil can cause the total corruption of a good person. Leaven is outlawed because just as it causes the breakdown of the natural essence of food products, it connotes the destruction of divine goodness.

Although leavened foods are prohibited on Pesah, they are permitted throughout the rest of the year. If they connote evil, should not leavened foods be outlawed entirely? The mystics' response is that leaven serves as a reminder of the defeat of the forces of evil. Without such a reminder, the consciousness of redemption might fade. Therefore, the use of leaven during the rest of the year is, paradoxically, a reminder of the holiness of the Sefirot to which all religious actions are directed. This notion also implies that evil exists as a reminder of goodness, for without it there is no awareness of its opposite.

The mystics find another positive use for leaven in particular and for evil powers in general. They recognize that actions that begin as a result of impure instincts or drives can lead to pure and positive results. For example, they recognize that human sexual urges and lust may derive from evil and demonic impulses. But these instincts, when channeled properly, may lead to pure and holy consequences of sexual union which, in the mystics' view, is a theurgic act of divine reunification. As one mystic, the author of the Lekhah Dodi explains: "The evil inclination is vital to the world for the purpose of [proper] sexual union."

The seder is a theurgic ritual designed to reunite the Shekhinah with Tiferet. It is customary to perform the seder while leaning to the left. This symbolizes Binah, which appears on the left in all diagrams of the sefirot, and which is the sefirah called freedom. The entire seder is associated with the sefirah Binah, which is ascendant on this holiday. The three matzot which are placed on the table symbolize Tiferet, Malkhut, and Yesod. The middle matzah, symbolizing Malkhut, is broken in half to suggest that Malkhut is divided between the two male sefirotTiferet and Yesod — until she is finally united with her mate, Tiferet, in the ultimate unity. One of the halves is hidden as the afikomen, which is recovered after the meal and eaten. Because it is hidden, it is linked with Binah, the hidden source of freedom.

The four cups of wine that are consumed during the seder are associated with the four sefirotHokhmah, Binah, Tiferet and Malkhut, and symbolize the stages in the process of uniting Tiferet and Malkhut. The bitter herbs (maror) suggest the bitterness that plagues Tiferet while it is separated from Malkhut. The mixture of apples, nuts and wine (haroset) symbolizes the sweetness of the redemption that occurs on this evening. The seder ritual culminates in the temporary reunion of Tiferet and Malkhut and the liberation from the dominion of evil.

excerpted From: The Mystic Quest by David Ariel, Schocken Books, 1992. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher.
author David S. Ariel is president of the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies.




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