Voice, Angel or Spirit: Maggid as Heavenly Agent

The name and institution of the maggid is known to have existed as far back as the 11th century in France and Germany, but with another meaning. The maggid was a popular preacher, a characteristic feature of the Russian and Polish communities. From the 17th century on, the rabbis preached only twice a year; preaching for purposes of instruction and repentance was left to the maggid. While most of the maggidim from this period were associated with the Mitnagdim (opponents to Hasidism), it was mainly by means of wandering preachers that Hasidism was spread in the 18th century.

The 16th century kabbalists of Safed used the term maggid (lit. "one who relates") to refer to heavenly messengers that visited human beings. The maggid acted as an advisor, but sometimes provided incorrect or misguiding instruction. (In his discussion of maggidim, the Safed kabbalist Moses Cordovero actually included dybbuk-like demons and evil spirits within the category.) A maggid could present itself to a person in the shape of a vision, the well-known examples being manifestations of Elijah or Metatron. Maggidim appeared in dreams, or they communicated with individuals through automatic writing. A maggid could also manifest itself in a person's voice, a phenomenon termed "automatic speech." Maggidism was considered one of the normal forms of charismatic life.

breathing fireOne of the practices the 16th century Safed kabbalists employed to attain communion with the divine was to repeat or meditate upon lines of a Jewish sacred text until a maggid emerged. Joseph Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulkhan Arukh, possessed a maggid that identified itself as the voice of the Mishnah and of the Shekhinah (feminine manifestation of God's presence). Karo's maggid revealed kabbalistic mysteries, as well as providing him with personal advice. Fully conscious while receiving its communications, Karo would then write down what he had heard. The Maggid Mesharim, a fragment of which exists today, is Karo's diary of the maggid's counsel.

A fellow kabbalist and member of Karo's circle, Solomon Alkabez, describes one of the maggid's visits during an all-night prayer and study vigil he attended at Karo's house:

No sooner had we studied two tractates of the Mishnah then our Creator smote us so that we heard a voice speaking out of the mouth of the saint [Karo], may his light shine. It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. All the companions heard the voice but were unable to understand what was said. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong. We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him because of our great dread and awe. [1]

Apparently, at other times the gathering could understand the words spoken by Karo's maggid.

An extended and technical discussion of the maggidic voice is included in the "The Eight Gates" by Hayyim Vital, chief disciple of the great kabbalist Isaac Luria and a contemporary of Karo. Writes Vital, "When a person studies Torah, the words and breath that emanate from his mouth become a vehicle for the souls of the early saints. These can descend and teach that person mysteries . . . "

According to Vital, the truth and value of a maggid's instruction depended upon the intentions of the person it visited. If these were pure, and the person performed good deeds and studied Torah, his maggid would be holy and speak the truth. However, if the person was false and operated with ulterior motives, the maggid would speak falsely.

Vital continues:

My master the Ari [Isaac Luria] gave a sign [through which one can recognize a reliable maggid]. It must constantly speak the truth, motivate one to do good deeds, and not err in a single prediction. If it can explain the secrets and mysteries of the Torah, it is certainly reliable. From its words, one can recognize its level.

The mystery of ruach ha-kodesh [divine inspiration] is this: It is a voice sent from on high to speak to a prophet or to one worthy of ruach ha-kodesh. But such a voice is purely spiritual, and such a voice cannot enter the prophet's ear until it clothes itself in a physical voice.

The physical voice in which it clothes itself is the voice of the prophet himself, when he is involved in prayer or Torah study. This voice clothes itself in his voice and is attached to it. It then enters the prophet's ear so that he can hear it. Without the physical voice of the individual himself, this could not possibly take place. [2]

Later, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Shabbetaean movement sparked the appearance of many maggidim. Among them was that of Moses Hayim Luzzatto, which spoke through his mouth in a voice that could not be heard by anyone else. A disciple of Luzzatto reports,

He was visited by a maggid, a holy and awe-inspiring angel, who revealed to him marvelous mysteries . . . and this is the [unusual] procedure: this angel speaks out of his mouth, though we, his disciples, do not hear anything.[3]

By Luzzatto's time, Hayyim Vital's intricate descriptions of maggidim had been canonized together with the teachings of Luria, and were being employed to judge the purity of maggidic manifestations. It was used to condemn Luzzatto's maggid as a heretical product of Shabbetaeanism.


[1] Louis Jacobs' translation in The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies. New York: Schocken Books, 1977 (reprint edition 1998) p. 24. Back
[2] Vital's "The Gate of the Holy Sprit," in The Eight Gates, translated by Aryeh Kaplan in Meditation and Kabbalah. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1982, pp. 223-224. Back
[3] R. J. Zwi Werblowsky's translation of the writing of Luzzatto's disciple Yequthiel Gordon in Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1977, p. 23. Back


Barnes & Nobles linkJacobs, Louis. Jewish Mystical Testimonies. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

Encyclopedia Judaica, "Joseph Karo" and "Maggid." Israel: Keter Publishing Company.

Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi. Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1977, p. 23.

Kaplan, Aryeh. Meditation and Kabbalah. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1982.

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