Thursday, December 2, 2010

Seven Branches of the Menorah


A Kabbalistic Meditation on Psalm 67
Dovid Sears

Although this essay was first written in connection with the Omer Counting between Pesach and Shavuos, it is relevant to Chanukah, as well. Many recite this psalm either before or after lighting the Chanukah candles.

The relative lack of iconography in Judaism reflects an aversion toward avodah zarah (idolatry) and anything that might lead to it. The cornerstone of Judaism is that God is a simple Unity, transcending all form and limitation. However, there is a kabbalistic tradition by which various Divine Names serve as legitimate objects of contemplation. These mandala-like constructions represent mystical concepts, providing roadmaps for the Jewish spiritual traveler. They include the arcane pictures found in medieval kabbalistic texts and the complex arrays of Divine Names that make up the siddurim for kabbalistic initiates, such as that of the holy Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (known as the "RaSHaSH," 1702-1777).

Many common siddurim include what is probably the most familiar and accessible mystical diagram. [1] It depicts the seven verses of Psalm 67 arranged like the seven-branched Menorah in the Holy Temple. Contemplating this Menorah is meant to put one into the proper frame of mind for prayer - although some use it immediately following the silent Amidah / Standing Prayer, as a way of "coming down" from the high point of the service. [2] It also serves as a focusing device to free one from mental distractions, and purifies the mind of all evil thoughts. [3]. In fact, several sources state that reciting the verses of Psalm 67 in the form of the Menorah has a spiritual effect similar to lighting the Menorah in the Holy Temple. [4] Therefore, it drives away one's inner darkness and mitigates all harsh judgments.

The Menorah is a fitting symbol for such purposes in that it points to the divine core of existence. As Reb Noson writes (Likutey Halakhot, Hil. Beheimah vi-Chayah Tehorah 4:30):

The Menorah was absolutely one, all of a piece, because truth is one. Although ornamented with numerous buds, flowers, and cups, the entire object was formed from a single piece of gold. By analogy, from the core of truth emerge the Torah and commandments, as well as all 'worlds,' both spiritual and physical, which possess colors and variations beyond number; nevertheless, in their source, all things are absolutely one . . . The Menorah was one because the diversity of existence is one. This is the essence of truth, which is one.

Just as the Menorah stood in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple, so we find it "standing" in the beginning of Shacharis in the form of the seven verses of Psalm 67. (Perhaps this is because the prayer service recapitulates the Temple service.) [5] My teacher, Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig of Tzefat, once mentioned that it is a tradition of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples to arrange the verses so that they are read from right to left. Others read them in the reverse order. [6] However, whatever custom one follows, the first verse corresponds to the sefirah of Chesed and the last verse to Malkhus. This depiction of the sefirot as branches of the Menorah indicates the mystery of which the Tikkuney Zohar (Hakdamah) speaks:

Master of the Universe . . . There is none who can know You at all! Without You, there is no unity in the higher or lower realms, and You are known as the Cause of All and Master of All. Each sefirah has a distinct Name, and by it the angels are similarly called. You, however, have no knowable Name, for You permeate all Names and You are the perfection of them all. When You remove Yourself from them, all Names remain as a body without a soul. You are wise, but not with a knowable attribute of wisdom (Chokhmah); You are understanding, but without a knowable attribute of understanding (Binah)…

The Tikkuney Zohar goes on to enumerate all of the sefiros, concluding that their multiplicity is apparent only from the standpoint of creation - but, in truth, God permeates the sefiros and, at the same time, transcends the sefiros absolutely. By meditating upon the Psalm 67 Menorah, this may be vividly sensed.

Moreover, we should continue to be aware of this paradox as we go about the business of everyday life: that everything we experience is unique in its individual character - and simultaneously an expression of the Divine Oneness. Thus, the light shining through the dining room window borrows its radiance from the Menorah. The light shining through the leaves of the trees borrows its radiance from the Menorah.

Kavanah / Intention

The most basic practice is simply to read the seven verses of Psalm 67 in the form of the Menorah, contemplating their meaning as described above. One should gaze at the words and read them slowly and thoughtfully. When one does so independently of the prayer service, one may contemplate the Menorah in silence.

Beginning with the words "Elokim yechanenu . . . May God favor us," the seven verses form the seven branches of the Menorah, which correspond to the seven lower sefirot and the seven days of creation. (The correlation between the sefiros and verses is shown in the chart below.) One should bear these correspondences in mind while reading or contemplating the words of the psalm. It is also beneficial to gaze upon the form as a whole, to see how the words of the Menorah make up one unit.

Together, the seven verses represent the perception of "oneness in multiplicity" that the Menorah in the Holy Temple radiated to the world. Thus, Psalm 67 speaks of divine illumination extending to all Israel, and from Israel to all humanity. While reciting the psalm, it is fitting to silently pray that this light be revealed anew, driving away all spiritual darkness. Indeed, the kabbalists state that doing so redeems the world.

Notes

[1] For example, the popular Sefardic Siddur Tefilas Yesharim arranged by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad presents this Menorah facing the "Baruch she-amar" prayer. Among the editions of the Siddur ha-ARI, in the 1972 reprint of the Siddur Kol Ya'akov (Slavita 1804) it appears immediately following the Author's Introduction, while in the 18th century ms. Siddur ha-ARI of Rabbi Avraham Shimshon of Rashkov (facsimile ed. Bnei Brak 1995), it follows the passage of Ketores. It is also discussed in Rabbi El'azer Rokeach of Worms, Sefer Yiras E-l; Rabbi Shlomo Luria, Menorat Zahav Tahor; Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta and Medzhibuzh, Seder Ketores, 5b, et al. A kabbalistic explanation of Psalm 67 in the form of the Menorah was written by Chasidic master Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik of Stretin, Sefer Kan Tzippor. The Menorah is often combined with the Divine Name YHVH and placed above the reader's stand in the synagogue as a reminder to keep one's thoughts focused on God. This is known as a "Sheviti," short for the verse, "Shevisi Hashem le-negdi tamid . . . I have placed God before me constantly" (Psalms 16:8).

[2] Some are accustomed to silently meditate upon Psalm 67 in the form of the Menorah prior to departing on a journey, and subsequently to recite the psalm seven times while traveling in order to invoke heavenly protection and success; see the recent edition of Sha'arey Zion (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, n.d., reprint of Premsyl ed. with additions) by sixteenth century kabbalist Rabbi Noson Nota Ashkenazi (Hanover), p. 416. The editor of Sha’arey Zion cites this custom in the name of Rabbi Elijah Hakohen of Izmir, Shevet Mussar, chap. 31, and Sefer Pischey Olam, 16; also see Rabbi Ya'akov Chaim Sofer, Kaf ha-Chaim, 36, and Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (CHIDA), Sefer Kaf Achas, 26. CHIDA mentions the custom of reciting the Psalm 67 Menorah handwritten on parchment following the Amidah prayer. My teacher, Rabbi Elazar Mordechai Kenig, once told me that it is beneficial to read both the Psalm 67 Menorah and "Ana bi-Ko'ach" at some point during each meal, in order to elevate of the "holy sparks" in the food. This was the custom of his father, Rabbi Gedaliah Aharon Kenig.

[3] Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Halevy of Zorowitz, Yesod Yitzchak al Hilchos Milah (Pshemyshl: 1910), 35b. The author mentions that it is customary for the mohel to recite Psalm 67 in order to spiritually prepare himself before performing the mitzvah of circumcision. He also cites a kabbalistic tradition that reciting this psalm hastens the Redemption.

[4] Rabbi El'azar Roke'ach of Worms, Sefer Yiras E-l, as cited in "Sod Lamenatze'ach bi-Tzuras ha-Menorah" (Beis Stretin, 2001).

[5] Berakhos 26b; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Tefillah 1:5.

[6] In support of this view, Rabbi Yitzchak Eisik of Stretin, idem, cites Levushei Mikhlol 18:56, adding that this is consistent with the view of the ARI that the Menorah in the Holy Temple was lit from left to right.

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