Meditative Kabbalah

By :  Eitan Fishbane Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On May 7, 2024 / 5784

Kabbalah is not limited to the sefirot and the mystical knowledge of the Divine inner self. In this episode, we examine two other focuses of Kabbalah—Prophetic Kabbalah and the Kabbalah of Names. The Kabbalah of Names derives from a form in which different combinations of divine names can be employed to achieve an altered state of consciousness. This consciousness could be employed to find a prophetic mindset.  


Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.  

Kabbalistic Leaders 

  • Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291): a prophetic kabbalist known for his meditative practice using the ineffable Divine Name 
  • Rabbi Natan ben Sa’adya Harar: Student of Abraham Abulafia who wrote Sha’arei Tzedek (The Gates of Righteousness) 
  • Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Akko (late 13th and early 14th centuries): A student of Nachmanides, he combined the Kabbalah of names and prophetic Kabbalah 

Connections to Seeing the Unseeable: Kabbalistic Imagery from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Commentary on Sefer Yetsirah (Abulafia):  

This text is an excerpt of a commentary that Abraham Abulafia  composed to the Sefer Yetzirah, in which he expounded on the numerological significance of the Hebrew alphabet. This passage was preserved in a collection of Abulafia’s writing that was copied by an Ashkenazi scribe four centuries after his death.  


Announcer: Welcome to Exploring Kabbalah—a JTS podcast with Dr. Eitan Fishbane, professor of Jewish Thought. Throughout this seven-part series, we’ll trace the evolution of Jewish mysticism—from Biblical and Rabbinic times, to the explosive creativity of the Medieval period, to the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe. Join us for a tour through time and space in which Professor Fishbane provides insight into the thinkers, texts, and concepts that became central not only to the Jewish mystical tradition but to the fabric of Judaism itself. In this episode, our fifth of the series, we take a deep dive into Meditative Kabbalah.

The Kabbalah of 13th century Spain—from the fascinating figures and rich texts of Catalonian Kabbalah to the magisterial myth and lyrical theology of the Castilian Zohar—was filled not only with speculations on the nature of Divine Being, but also reflections, direct and indirect, about the nature of mystical experience. This facet of Catalonian and Castilian Kabbalah, often downplayed by earlier generations of academic scholars, has received a surge in attention and exposition by modern Kabbalah scholars since the 1980s.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that alongside “theosophic” Kabbalah”—that is, kabbalistic thought that focused on the mystical knowledge of the hidden inner realms of Divine Being and the mythic dynamism of the sefirot—there also developed an equally fascinating stream of thought and writing that was far more explicitly concerned with the practices and experiences of mystical contemplation and meditation. This was described by the kabbalists themselves as the distinction between Kabbalat ha-sefirot (The Kabbalah of the sefirot) and Kabbalah Nevu’it (Prophetic Kabbalah), the latter also often referred to as Kabbalat ha-Sheimot (The Kabbalah of Names). The terms Prophetic Kabbalah and The Kabbalah of Names derive from a form of Kabbalah in which variations, combinations and permutations of the divine names were understood to be practical techniques whereby the devotee employing them might achieve a transformed state of consciousness, characterized as Nevu’it (Prophetic) in mind.

This didn’t necessarily imply the foretelling of events (as is often associated with prophecy), nor did it indicate a host of other characteristics associated with ancient prophecy (such as social critique and so on), but rather depicted a para-normal, heightened state of awareness that was understood to be a revelatory encounter with Divinity. One of the most prominent and prolific kabbalists of the “prophetic” school was one Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (not to be confused with Todros Abulafia who appeared in our last episode) who lived from 1240-1291—dwelling, traveling, and teaching in Spain, Land of Israel, Italy and elsewhere. Abulafia was a highly creative mystic whose confessional and prescriptive practice emphasized the meditation upon, visualization of, and recitation of the enunciated (vocalized) letters and vowels of the ineffable Divine Name. This included various practices of controlled breathing and head movements that bear striking comparison to the Yogic practices of Hindu religious tradition.

One of Abulafia’s disciples (or so it would seem), Rabbi Natan ben Sa’adya Harar, in an autobiographical work known as, Sha’arei Tzedek (the Gates of Righteousness) reflects on this approach. Rabbi Natan describes his lengthy spiritual quest for knowledge and meaning through varied ways of learning, teachers, and physical locations, until he received mentorship from a particularly revered kabbalist (seemingly none other than Abraham Abulafia himself), who gradually taught Natan the secrets of manipulating the sacred divine names through written permutation as techniques to achieve a revelatory state of consciousness. Rabbi Natan ben Sa’adya describes one of these experiences (which he boldly and somewhat irreverently undertakes against the warnings of his mentor) as an event in which the entire room in which he dwelled appeared to be filled and animated by an otherworldly light as a direct causal result of engaging in the powerful meditative practice of extensively writing out the permutations and variations of the names of God with a quill and parchment.

 Another kabbalist who wrote evocatively of the contemplative and experiential dimensions of Kabbalah—and in all probability had direct or indirect contact with Abulafia or his disciples—is especially worth mentioning here, the kabbalist Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Akko (late 13th and early 14th centuries). The formative years of Isaac of Akko were spent in the northern Land of Israel (in the port city of Akko!). In that relatively cosmopolitan city (the primary gateway for trade, pilgrimage, and the exchange of ideas of Christian Europeans traveling to the Levant), he was influenced by a number of kabbalistic and other spiritual forces, including Nahmanides and his disciples. One of Isaac’s most important works was actually part of that genre known as beurei sodot ha-Ramban (Clarifications or Meta-commentary on the Commentary on the Torah of the Ramban), which I mentioned in Episode 3. But he also seems to have been shaped by the presence of Islamic and Jewish Sufi mystics and philosophers who were present in Akko at that time, along with others.

After the catastrophic and violent fall of Christian Crusader rule in 1291, Isaac of Akko became a Jewish refugee who wandered from the Levant (the Mediterranean east) through the Jewish centers of Europe, focusing his time learning and adapting traditions in both Catalonia and Castile. While Rabbi Isaac reflected upon having heard mystical teachings from the prominent halakhist Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret in Barcelona, a disciple of the Ramban himself. In his pursuit of mystical truth, Rabbi Isaac went on a quest to encounter the “newly discovered” manuscript of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, the Zohar itself.

For our purposes, what is most remarkable about Isaac of Akko is the way which he merged elements of both The Kabbalah of the Sefirot and The Kabbalah of Names to develop a highly contemplative and meditative approach to the sefirot.  This approach centered on prayer, as well as  the uncovering of the divine meaning of sefirotic symbols. For Isaac, these meanings were embedded in the natural world as reflections of the mysteries of the universe. Infinity, itself, opened up to him through the liminality between sleep and waking consciousness. Isaac often reports, in a notable first-person voice no less, his experiences waking from sleep into moments of extraordinary revelation (in one potent case, he describes—not unlike the anecdote described by Natan ben Saadya Harar—waking several times during the night, floating in consciousness in that liminal space of mind between sleep and waking. He was first stirred by the sensory pleasure of a sweet otherworldly light filling his house. This light was mysteriously different from that of the sun, contrasted by his physical awakening at dawn to a climactic awareness of the metaphysical meaning of the Hebrew letter alef, a representation of the stunning and elusive power of Ein-Sof (Infinity) itself.

Other times, clearly in his journeys out of doors, he would pause at the edge of a beautiful garden to reflect on the petals of the wondrous flowers he beheld therein and to interpret these forms as symbolic allusions to the meta-physical realities of the inner-divine sefirot beyond the world. Or he would pause on his outdoor journeys to behold a mountain bathed in twilight blue, tekheilet, leading him to think about the mysteries of the Shekhinah—the lowest of the ten sefirot and the one closest to the human world—who is often referred to by kabbalistic thinkers as tekhelet, blue like the color of the Great Sea into which all the rivers of divine life flow and ultimately converge, in poetic homage to the famous verse from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 1:7):  kol ha nahalim holkhim el ha yam ve ha-yam eineinu malei—“All the rivers run to the sea, and yet the sea is never full.”

Tekhelet, Isaac said in this passage, is also known as Takhlit, Perfection or Completion. This is yet another symbolic name used to refer to the Shekhinah as She gathers in all the energies of upper divine life and overflows like a well of living waters to nourish the worlds below Her. In its Hebrew form, the word Takhlit is only different from the word Tekhelet in its inclusion of the letter yod—תכלית—a playful interpretive correlation that Isaac all but explicitly states indicates the ten sefirot (represented numerologically by the Hebrew letter yod) that flow as the upper divine rivers reaching their completion and perfection in the blue Tekhelet that is Shekhinah, the tenth sefirah that is the Great Ocean of Existence, the convergence point of all the ten sefirot into Oneness, the streaming together of the purest and most ultimate Divine Unity. For the kabbalists, everything in this world is a symbolic allusion to the heavenly realm; the physical is a reflection of the metaphysical.

Throughout this series, we continue to see the ways in which kabbalists engage with ideas and innovate across time and space. In this episode, we explored the personal reflections of those mystics using meditation upon God’s names to create a “prophetic” state of mind. Next time, we will move eastward and jump two hundred years into the future to Tzfat where an extraordinary spiritual and mystical revival took place, one that is still even reflected in our Shabbat liturgy today.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to Exploring Kabbalah with Professor Eitan Fishbane, a JTS podcast. It was recorded and produced by Ellie Gettinger, with editing assistance from Sarah Brown. I’m Rabbi Julia Andelman, JTS’s Director of Community Engagement. The music for this series is Yah Notein Binah by sixteenth-century Kabbalist Israel Najara, from the album Seeds of Song, produced by JTS. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. For those who want to dig deeper, visit, where you’ll find sources, archival material, and more in the Exploring Kabbalah show notes—along with the complete library of JTS podcasts.