The Amidah - A Kabbalistic Meditation
The Amidah, along with the She’ma, is one of the two most important prayers in Judaism. It is recited three times a day and is generally believed to have been written sometime in the early period of the Second Temple – around 500 BCE.
It is recited silently while standing and its name derives from the Hebrew word meaning “to stand.”
The Amidah originally consisted of eighteen paragraphs (to which a nineteenth was subsequently added) and can be interpreted in different ways.
For the student of Kabbalah, the first paragraph is of particular interest as each of the various words and phrases can be clearly assigned to a specific Sefirah of Jacob’s Ladder, the diagram of the interconnected Trees of Life which represent the four worlds. This means that the prayer can be spoken with an additional level of awareness and devotion beyond the external meaning of the blessing.
This is particularly the case if the words are said slowly, pausing on each utterance to appreciate it fully and connecting it to a precise place on the Tree of life before moving to the next word. Additional insights may also be gained by having an image of the Jacob’s Ladder in front of you while saying the prayer.
The full English text of the first paragraph of the Amidah reads as follows:
Figure 1. Jacob's Ladder with the names of the Sefirot of each world. In some cases there will be an overlap e.g. the Malkut of Azilut/Tiferet of Beriah and Keter of Yetzirah - known as the place of the three higher worlds (fifth circle from top on central column.
“Blessed art Thou O Lord our God and God of our Fathers; God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob. Great God, mighty and revered, Most High God. Who bestows lovingkindness and possesses everything and remembers the righteous deeds of the Patriarchs. And Who will bring a Redeemer to their children’s children for the sake of His Name in love. King, Helper, and Saviour and Shield. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Shield of Abraham.”
Here is the Hebrew on the left and a transliteration on the right.
The first paragraph of the Amidah contains exactly 42 words which symbolises the name of God which contains 42 letters.
Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, Elo-heinu ve’Elo-hei av-vo-teinu; Elo-hei Av-ra-ham, Elo-hei Yitz-chak ve-Elo-hei Ya-ak-ov; ha-Eil ha-ga-dol, ha-gi-boer ve-ha-no-rah Eil el-yon. Go-meil ha-sah-dim toe-vim ve’ko-nei hah-kol; ve-zo-che-ir has-dei ah-vot oo-mei-vee go-eil liv-nei ve’nei-hem le-mah-ahn she’moh be’a-hav-ah. Melech oh-zeir oo-moshi-ah oo-ma-gein. Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai ma-gein Av-ra-ham.
The first paragraph of the Amidah connects all four worlds of Atzilut, Beriah Yetzirah and Assiyah. So exact are the references, that it invites the question of whether the Rabbis who wrote the prayer deliberately embedded these references in the text, offering an opportunity to access the hidden wisdom in addition to simply uttering a daily prayer, important though that is.
We begin with a step by step descent from the middle of the highest world – the Tiferet of Atzilut (Figure 2). This corresponds with the Keter of Beriah which is where the world begins to be created according to the book of Genesis so it is this place which is blessed.
Yesod is the Sefirah which connects conscious intention (Tiferet) with manifestation (Malkut) in the same way, “Art Thou” connects the verb “blessed” with the object “Lord.” “Art Thou” is therefore placed at the Yesod of Atzilut and “Lord” at the Malkut of Atzilut. This is the same Sefirah
Figure 2. Descent through the three upper worlds
where “Lord” (Adonai) is placed when the names of God are set on the Tree of Atzilut (p 18 A Kabbalistic Universe, Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, Rider Books ISBN 0091285712).
The Malkut of Atzilut corresponds with the Tiferet of Beriah and the Keter of Yetzirah and is known as the place of the three higher worlds.
The prayer then move through the world of Beriah, the middle of these three higher worlds, into the world of Yetzirah. This represents the world of the psyche and Eloheinu (our God) would naturally be placed at Keter – the highest point in the human psychological body.
The essence of this paragraph of the Amidah is the blessing of ancestors, stretching back to the three Biblical archetypes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When the major figures of the Torah are placed on the Tree of Life these three characters sit at Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet based on major incidents in their lives. (p. 49, World of Kabbalah, Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi) “God of our Fathers” can therefore be placed at the soul triad (Hesed-Gevurah-Tiferet) of Yetzirah (Figure 3).
Abraham is considered to have loved God so much (Hesed) that he was willing to sacrifice his favoured son, Isaac, although this story can also be read in a Kabbalistic context beyond the external meaning. It should also be noted that, while Isaac is a central part of this story according to Jewish tradition, Muslims identify Ishmael as the son of Abraham who was intended to be sacrificed.
Isaac signifies Gevurah through his fear of being sacrificed. Gevurah is best translated as “strength” although this Sefirah was once known as “Pechad” (fear).
Jacob’s resonance with Tiferet stems from the awe with which he recalled his dream at Beth El (Genesis 28:11-22) where he saw a ladder stretching between heaven and earth on which angels ascended and descended. The path between Tiferet and Keter on the Tree of Life is known as the Path of Awe and Tiferet, translated as beauty, is another aspect of the same quality.
Figure 3: The three Patriarchs placed at the soul triad of Yetzirah, the psychological world.
Figure 4: The qualities of the Patriarchs associated with each Sefirah of the soul triad of the Yetziratic world.
The components of the next phrase “Great God, mighty and revered” are further expressions of Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet respectively (Figure 4).“Great” signifies the largeness and expansive qualities of Hesed - the Hebrew word in the prayer (Ga-dol) is from the same route as “Gedulah” which was the name used for this Sefirah before Hesed.
“Gi-bor” the Hebrew word translated as “mighty” is from the same root as “Gevurah” meaning “strength” while “revered” can also be translated as “aweful” (full of awe) which describes Jacob’s response to his dream at Bet El.
From the soul triad of Yetzirah the next phrase “Most High God” takes us back to the beginning of the paragraph and effectively marks the end of the first part of the first paragraph of the Amidah. Most High God is the Creator God placed at the Tiferet of Azilut which corresponds with the Keter of Beriah.
The first part of the first paragraph of the Amidah stated Who or What God is, the second part describes His actions as we are taken down Jacob’s Ladder again to revisit the soul triad of Yetzirah (Figure 5).
The next phrase “Who bestows lovingkindness” clearly corresponds with Hesed (lovingkindness) and this is balanced at Gevurah by the words “who possesses all things.” This phrase is often translated as “creator of all” but “possesses” is a more accurate translation of the Hebrew word “ve-ko-nei” which comes from the root meaning “to buy or acquire.”
One reading of this phrase is that possession is the reverse of distribution – something which I have described in Kabbalah and Money. Gevurah is static (where everything is stored) whereas Hesed is
movement - where lovingkindness is distributed.
Figure 5. The second half of this paragraph of the Amidah describes the actions of God rather than His nature.
Since all of Creation is stored at Gevurah it hints at the idea that evil is also part of creation – if this were not the case then it would destroy the concept of a single Deity which is the core of Judaism.
The next part of this phrase is “And remembers the pious deeds of the Fathers” which once again embraces the whole of the soul triad (Hesed-Gevurah-Tiferet).
The entire world of Yetzirah is encapsulated in the next phrase “And will bring a redeemer to their children’s children (Figure 6).
The redeemer (or saviour) is known as the Messianic Presence on earth and is represented by the Malkut of Atzilut. According to Halevi this means that there is always a Messiah present on the earth and this role can pass from one person to another with the length of tenure varying from a few minutes to many years.
The popularly conception of the Messiah refers to the “Final Messiah” who will come at the End of Days.
From the Keter of Yetzirah (which is the same place as the Malkut of Azilut) we pass through this entire world to the Malkut of Yetzirah which is signified by the “children’s children” of the Patriarchs i.e. it is two levels removed from them. If Tiferet, the Sefirah on the central column in the triad of the soul represents
Figure 6. Bringing a Redeemer to the descendants of the Patriarchs encompasses the whole of the world of Yetzirah.
the Patriarchs then the Yesod of Yetzirah would be their children and Malkut is their children’s children.
Why is the redeemer being brought? According to the next phrase is it is “for the sake of His Name in love.” “His Name” takes us back us to the place where we started – the Tiferet of Atzilut/Keter of Beriah.
The final word “in love” shows we can see and understand that Love is at the root of the idea of One God, a central tenet of Judaism. To understand this allusion we need to use Gematria.
Gematria is a system where a numerical value is assigned to each of the Hebrew letters and when these values are added together they provide a value for the whole word.
Words which have the same total are understood to have a semantic connection.
The numerical value for each Hebrew letter is shown below:
In this case, the value of the Hebrew word for Love (אהבה - Ah-ha-vah) is 13 (1+ 5+2+5) which is the same value as the word for One ( אחד - Ech-ad = 1+8+4).
The letter B at the beginning of B’ah-ha-vah (באהבה) is not part of the root of the word but a prefix meaning “in.”
It can thus be inferred that the quality of Love is synonymous with the word “one” or “unity” which is the prime quality of God as stated in the “She-ma” “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
The next four words each evoke one of the four worlds. “King” corresponds to the material world of Assiyah over which kings may rule even though God is sometimes referred to as King.
The next four words each evoke one of the four worlds. (Figure7).“
King” corresponds to the material world of Assiyah over which kings may rule even though God is sometimes referred to as King.
Helper represents the quality of assistance each of us is given in our psychological journey while Saviour refers to the world of Beriah. As explained earlier, the Tiferet of Beriah is the third component of the place of the three higher worlds, another of which is the Malkut of Atzilut which corresponds to the place of the Messiah as noted above.
While King, Helper and Saviour all indicate active roles which can be assumed by human beings the final word “Shield” suggests passivity. It is therefore used in this context to symbolise Atzilut which is the world where everything is held in potential before creation begins.
Atzilut is therefore different from the three lower worlds in the same way as Shield is different from King, Helper and Saviour.
Figure 7. Four consecutive words signify an ascent through the four worlds – King, Helper, Saviour and Shield corresponding to the physical, psychological, spiritual and divine worlds.
The first paragraph of the Amidah concludes with a blessing expressing the connection between God at the highest level and his people signified by Abraham as the founder of Judaism (Figure 8).
“Blessed art Thou” is placed on the lower three Sefirot of the central column of Atzilut in the same way as the first three words of the paragraph. “Shield” corresponds to the highest of the four worlds as mentioned earlier while Abraham, in this case, refers not just to the Hesed of Yetzirah but to all those who come after him – “his children’s children” – and to the ground on which the worshipper is standing – the Malkut of Assiyah. Since the Amidah was written at the time of the Second Temple the ground on which the worshipper is standing was, naturally, part of the Promised Land to which reference is made in Deuteronomy 1:8.
Many Progressive Jewish communities amend the first paragraph of the Amidah so that reference is
Figure 8. Heaven is brought to earth in the blessing at the end of the first paragraph of the Amidah – the blessing is made in Heaven and passed to the descendants of Abraham in the land which was sworn to them.
also made to the matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah - to balance the masculinity of the original language.
Although these have strong resonances with the Sefirot of Tiferet, Yesod, Netzach and Hod respectively the insertion of these additional words increases the number of words in the paragraph from 42 to 46. This means that the possible allusion to the 42 letter name of God is lost.
Reciting the first paragraph of the Amidah slowly and meaningfully may not always be possible in a communal context where prayers are spoken or chanted together although congregational leaders who are interested in exploring the prayers in depth may choose to slow the usual pace at which they are articulated.
Using the 42 words of the paragraph for private devotion or as part of a small group working consciously may be the most fruitful way of penetrating its full meaning – especially by referring to the Jacob’s Ladder which can be placed withing easy sight of the group.
© Jonathon Clark 2023