Vigilant | Joshua Schwartz | The Hypocrite Reader

Joshua Schwartz



It is quiet and dark in your sixteenth century home, situated on a slope in the upper Galilean city of Safed. Picking at the fraying edges of your sleepful state, a raw, urgent voice tugs at your consciousness and will not let go. It calls you to attention; it calls you to action.

“Get up for the sake of the Glory of the Holy Blessed One, for the Shekhinah1 is in exile, our holy house has been burnt to ash, and Israel are in great pain!”
As reported by the pietist Gisi and transmitted by the seventeenth-century chronicler R. Solomon Shlimel, these words were shouted by the great Kabbalist R. Abraham ha-Levi Berukhim, who is described as waking every night at midnight and circumambulating the streets of Safed, knocking on windows and pleading with bitterness for each house-holder to wake and join him in lamenting the sorrowful state of the Jewish people, the world, and the presence of G?d on earth. Berukhim would not leave until each person he woke up rose from his bed and joined him in lament. It is surely not an accident that many of his contemporaries saw Berukhim as a reincarnation of that great lamenter, the prophet Jeremiah.

During the sixteenth century, following the expulsions of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Palestinian city of Safed became the home of a major revival of Jewish mysticism and pietism. The hills of the Upper Galilee were littered with the names of rabbis who would change the course of Jewish law, liturgy, and thought forever: R. Joseph Karo, R. Solomon Alkabets, R. Moses Cordovero, and R. Isaac Luria, commonly called the Arizal. The Kabbalah of sixteenth-century Safed was struck through with vitality and creativity; new theories and mythological frameworks were developed. Plus, mystics invented and instituted scores of innovative esoteric rituals, which were adopted by the conventicles of mystic-practioners about the city.

To each of these rabbis, the sole most pressing concern of their religious lives was redemption. Mysticism, in the common parlance, is conventionally associated with a perspective of radical transcendence, a vantage point of pure spirit that, at best, abandons or, at worst, rejects the material world of rupture and rot. The metaphysics of Kabbalah, at least, complicate that oh-so-familiar picture. Kabbalah is deeply indebted to Neoplatonism, which posited the emergence of the physical world as the final result of a great chain of being emanating from a single source. Kabbalah, too, revisioned the biblical story of creation as a process of emanation from the Infinite/Nothing (Ein Sof/Ayin). While it would be incorrect to describe Kabbalah, at least in the sixteenth century, as pantheistic, since the physical cosmos itself was the product of creation rather than emanation, Jewish mysticism still held fast to the Zoharic principle, “As above, so below.” While the material world was not the same as the realm of the Divine, it was similar. There is a deep intimacy between the physical and spiritual realms, as the emanative flow makes itself known in the world of appearance. The expulsion of the Jewish community from the Iberian peninsula, what was once a land of coexistence and prosperity, was not experienced as mere happenstance but was rather taken as a telling indication of the inherent brokenness of reality. It was exile that most properly described what it meant to live in this world, and there was thus exile above as well, and it was the mission of the mystic to bring healing to the breach in the cosmos.

The primordial myth of the Kabbalah of the Arizal is the tale of a world born from a wound. In the origin, before the beginning, all there was was G?d, infinite and complete. Since Divinity was the sum total of existence, there was nothing lacking, or rather: nothing was lacking, or rather: it was nothing that was lacking. All that was missing was lack. Thus, in order to allow for there to be difference, G?d contracted G?dself (called tsimtsum), creating an empty void. Creation is born of alienation. Into the void, G?d emitted a ray, which energized the traces of Divnity that remained in the void (R. Hayyim Vital, primary student of Luria, describes these traces as the dregs of a liquid that remain stuck to the sides after it has been poured from a cup) such that they cohered, consolidated, and began to form a structure. To adequately describe the process of emanation within this system would take the rest of this issue, so, for our purposes, all one needs to know is that this Divine edifice could not hold itself together, resulting in a shattering of the formed vessels and a scattering of the sparks of G?dstuff into the lowest planes of existence; this is the Shekhinah cast into the world.2 What began in alienation ends in exile.

For the Kabbalists of sixteenth-century Safed, the entirety of Judaism, all its commandments and rituals, was geared towards effecting a redemption of the deserted Divine. One of the most prominent mystical rituals that aimed to rescue the Shekhinah and return Her to Her source was Tikkun Hatzot, Midnight's Rectification. Vigils replete with keening, prayer, and Torah study were common amidst the pietistic communities living in Palestine, especially in the holy city of Jerusalem. During this period, especially, the Shekhinah appeared to a number of visionaries, garbed in black, Her face smeared with ashes and tears. Prayerful vigils were only translated to the midnight hour from the advent of Safedian Kabbalah on.

The same Berukhim as above describes Tikkun Hatzot accordingly: "Most of the Torah scholars, upon arising at midnight to study, sit on the ground clothed in black and mourn and weep over the destruction of the Temple. Thus does also the society of penitents on the day of the vigil." Weeping and mourning over the state of the Shekhinah was consonant with grief over the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews (both ancient and contemporary). As with the layering in Kabbalistic metaphysics, each symbol and node expressed each other, layered one on top of another. The state of the Temple, and the state of the Jewish people was referred not only to the political state of the people but also signified the condition of the heavenly realms. As above, so below.

To the Kabbalists, the very cycle of the day was an earthly expression of the rhythms and tides regularly occurring within the superstructure of the Divine. Generally speaking, the theosophical structure of G?d, which, in Hebrew, is called the sefirot (enumerations), is a balance between right and left, masculine and feminine, love and law. In many Kabbalistic systems, Luria's included, apposite the sefirotic structure of the Divine was a mirror structure of the Other Side, the demonic, which comprise the forces of evil. The dimming of sunlight at dusk, the darkness that sweeps over the horizon, these regular events expressed within the framework of nature, the empowerment of the demonic forces of judgment. In the first chapter of his book The Gate of Intention, which seeks to systematize the liturgical rituals of his teacher the Arizal, in the section that describes what one should do at night-fall, Vital warns the reader that one should not even mention the name of Sama'el, the demonic correlate of the central aspect of the sefirot, even in another language. “Do not, as some do, even utter the words, il diablo. The Arizal forbids the study of Torah during the first half of the night, when the demonic forces are strongest. The only fitting activity is passivity, sleep, taking shelter in unconsciousness, awaiting the midnight hour, when the tides begin to turn. We will touch on that very turning below.

While earlier iterations of the prayerful vigil of mourning occurred following the afternoon prayers, the notion of carving out a special time for G?d at midnight was also not new.3 In the Zohar, a sincerely unique book in the history of religious (and general) literature, midnight was seen as a propitious time for the righteous to rhapsodize with the Divine. A key text that describes this happening reads,

At midnight, the Holy One, blessed be He, enters the Garden of Eden to take delight with the righteous. At that time one must rise to study Torah. Thus it is said that the Holy One, blessed be He, and all the righteous in the Garden of Eden listen to their voice, as it is written, 'O you who linger in the garden, lovers are listening; let me hear your voice.' (Cant. 8:13). The one who lingers in the garden, i.e., the Community of Israel, for She praises him before the Holy One, blessed be he, by virtue of the praise of Torah at night. Happy is the lot who joins Her to praise the Holy One, blessed be he, by means of the praise of Torah. (Zohar 2:46a)4

For the rabbis of the Zohar, midnight was a time fitting for a nocturnal rendezvous with the Divine, replete with song and even union. Within Zoharic literature, the taking of “delight” has a specifically erotic resonance, which accords with the romance described within the cited verse from the Song of Songs, a favored trove of reference for the Zohar. For the medieval mystics who composed the Zohar, night time afforded great intimacy and intensity for the relation with the Divine. Awaking at midnight to study erotic teachings facilitated the ascent of the soul to unite with G?d in paradisiacal pleasure. The union of the heaven-bound Kabbalists matches the way their studied Torah helps the Shekhinah to rejoin Her consort within the sefirot. Ultimately, the righteous themselves are apotheosized, transformed into a member of the holy pleroma himself, a son of the Holy One. Crowned with the light of divine gnosis, adorned with the thread of mercy, inspiring awe in all who see him.

As described above, midnight, for the medieval Kabbalists, was a time in which both the Shekhinah as well as righteous humans were able to reconstitute a more perfect unity, saturated with eros and pleasure. For the Kabbalists of Safed, midnight remained a singular time that afforded the opportunity to spend special time with the Divine, but the ultimate objective of reunion was not available, at least for the mystics themselves. While the Tikkun Hatzot of the Safedian Kabbalists did enact the reunification of the exiled Shekhinah with Her heavenly partner, the mystics remained on the earth below, restricted to the role of escorts rather than playmates.

The shift that occurred within the texture of the night, from a romantic midnight rendezvous to a vigil suffused with lament and weeping, itself drew on Rabbinic precedent, which described G?d as waking at each of the three night-watches and crying out, "Woe unto me who have destroyed my house and burned my temple and sent my children into exile!” While the vast majority of the Zohar's midnight texts described similar scenes as the erotic union cited above, there is precedent therein for a more tragic nocturne as well.

Rabbi Elazar wept, and said, 'Come and see: Until now the blessed Holy One has shaken 390 firmaments and kicked them, and wept over the destruction of the Temple, and shed two tears into the Great Sea, and remembered His children through weeping. (Zohar II:195b)

G?d wakes each night and wails in empathy with His suffering people. Indeed, in the text, it is specifically G?d's weeping that helps keep the children of Israel in mind. G?d cannot sit back in repose and tolerate the pitiful state of Israel; he rages along with them. In the Zohar, however, there is comfort. The next page reads,

The blessed Holy One finds no comfort until He enters the Garden of Eden to delight with the souls of the righteous… When the blessed Holy One enters the Garden of Eden, all those trees of the garden and all those souls of the righteous open… (Ibid., 196b)
Within the Zoharic imaginary, the suffering of the Divine, suffering the suffering of the people, has a limited extension, as relief comes along with the midnight study of the righteous. Within this context, the learning of esoteric Torah gains an especially magical significance, causing G?d solace and even joy, as the righteous join Him (and His Bride) in the Garden of Eden. For the Kabbalists of Safed, while their study, too, effected comfort, their own satisfaction was restricted to the knowledge of the kindness they have enacted.

While the Zohar did describe G?d as expressing pain for the sake of Israel’s suffering, the mystics’ midnight vigil was still one of great joy and pleasure, which brought comfort to the G?d in pain. For the Kabbalists of sixteenth century Safed, living within an exile made fresh, a rapturous midnight rendezvous with the Divine no longer made sense. In a sense, it is a question of affect. While previously, in the idealized past depicted in the Zohar, the joy and pleasure of Torah study served as a consonant bridge to rejoin G?d in heaven, for the Jewish mystics of Safed, suffering and pain were the feelings fitting to partake of the Divine. The nocturne was a daily re-occurrence of the long dark night of the World Soul, and it was the heroic and tragic task of the Kabbalist to make sure that G?d did not have to suffer it alone.

The rite of Tikkun Hatzot begins with awakening at the midnight hour, dressing, and abluting. The mystic walks to the doorpost, where he removes his shoes and places a veil on his head. Bare feet can symbolize both treading on holy ground and likening oneself to the dead. After removing his shoes, the mystic takes ashes from the hearth and rubs them into his forehead, where, in the morning, he would place the tefillin (phylacteries) for his head. He then bows down to the earth and rubs dirt and dust into his eyes. Soiling and blinding himself aligns his body with the state of the Shekhinah, Who is darkened with dirt and is described in the Zohar as the “Beautiful Maiden Without Eyes.” Through these acts, the Kabbalist fashions his body to be similar to that of the Shekhinah in exile. Surely rubbing dirt into his eyes causes tearing, which is then taken advantage of, as the first liturgical selection is Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept...” It is specifically in the experience of suffering, sadness, and pain that union with the Divine is effected.

Rites of weeping proliferated in this period, and it was always associated with a principle of sympathy. Just as the earthly mystic wept below, so should his tears induce weeping above, ameliorating the forces of judgment, shifting the weight of G?d back to the throne of mercy, and encouraging the downward efflux of blessing from the sefirot into the world. Contemporary scholar of Kabbalah Elliot Wolfson notes the erotic significance of weeping within these practices, as the discharge of tears from the eyes parallels the discharge of the phallus. The correlation between sight and sex is widespread throughout world culture (e.g. Oedipus, et al.). Weeping for G?d at night displaces the need for the male mystic to emit seed and thus, in a sense, serves as a replacement for his ejaculation. While the mystics of the Zohar were rewarded with their midnight rendezvous, the Kabbalists of Safed were not granted that happy resolution. They instead exchanged the flow of pleasure for tears of pain. The world they lived in was one of ex-tension unresolved. The state of the Shekhinah was defined as being exiled from Her proper place; how righteous would it be to join the Divine in Her stead. No, their proper place was on earth, effecting rites and rituals that could bring healing to others, though not for themselves.

Self-denial and askesis was foundational to the rituals of the Safedian Kabbalists, which, again, matched the state of the world and thus the state of the Shekhinah. In a world in pain, the way to join with G?d could not be found on a path that did not match the world in which they lived, since the world was merely the final iteration of the inner workings-out of the Divine. To the Lurianic Kabbalists, the eros of mysticism was no longer found in rapturous night-time conjunction but rather in reconstituting the exiled Feminine and facilitating Her reunion with Her partner, one step removed. This was the heroism of Safed, to forsake all for Her sake. This self-abandon ranged from the grandness of direct union with the Divine to the mundane loss of sleep, waking each night at an ungodly hour, for the sake of the Divine. The Kabbalists of Safed gave up their rest, surely bringing more stress and tension to their lives, sacrificing their well-being for the sole objective of bringing comfort to the suffering Shekhinah.

As noted above, a Kabbalistic ontology views the material world as the ultimate echo of the tidal rhythms within the Divine. Thus, it is surely important to cast an eye to the material conditions that undergirded the ideological activity in full bloom, as previously described.5 To the pre-modern mind (and body), the occurrence of the night demarcated the cessation of one's period of activity. In the pre-electric world, lighting sources were scarce and needed to be conserved. It was specifically the introduction of coffee, and its miraculous powers of stimulation, that transformed the very substance of the night. The introduction of coffee, its socialization, and effects all served to change night-time from a period of repose and relaxation to a time of social gathering and activity. The proliferation of coffeehouses, with the attendant stimulant effects of the treasured liquid it vended, transformed the very nature of what night-time meant for those in their vicinity. Shaking off the last vestiges of the rural, agricultural life, the urbanites of sixteenth century Palestine were able to retake the night, empowered with the jangling nerves of caffeine. The desperation that bleeds at the edge of a coffee-fueled night surely resonated with the thrill and danger of delving into the dark to save the abandoned aspect of G?d.

In many ways, the Kabbalists of Safed in the sixteenth century were groping in the dark, trying to find their way in a broken and dangerous world. Their predecessors, in the Zohar, possessed a relation to the fall of night in which the nocturne was a time of intimacy and intensity. For the Safedian mystics, the darkness of the night reflected the dimming of hope that lie in their hearts. While the Zoharic mystics rhapsodized in erotic delight, the Kabbalists of Safed were sexually frustrated, wandering with the Shekhinah in exile. According to the Zoharic midnight tradition, while the righteous joined G?d in paradise, upon sleep, the souls of the sinful flit about, wandering the earth. The Kabbalists of Safed joined their lot with the flawed, with the lost, which aligned them with the state of this troubled world. Their self-denial does not deny the desire that persisted in sixteenth-century Kabbalah, which, perhaps, even intensified. Making the ultimate sacrifice, the Kabbalists remained on earth, constantly vigilant for opportunities to bring comfort to the Divine. Like the Shekhinah, all they could do was yearn; the only release available was in tears. The rhythms of the nocturne provided an opportunity for the mystics of Safed to delve deep into the substance of what makes the night dark, frightening, isolating, alienating, precarious; to touch it, to let it touch them, and not only bear the long dark night of the soul but even bring to it healing and comfort.

1Shekhinah is a technical, rabbinic term meaning “G?d's presence.” From the medieval kabbalistic material onward, the Shekhinah is seen as the feminine aspect of the Divine, Who is immanent and manifests close to the sublunar sphere.

2In this way, Lurianic Kabbalah betrays a sense of the gnostic, since the Divine is depicted as trapped within the physical world. However, unlike other gnostic cosmologies and ontologies, Kabbalah maintains a sense of likeness, rather than radical difference, between the material and the spiritual. True, the world is broken and in pain, but so is G?d.

3Apparently, there is precedent for such vigils found amidst eastern Christian monks of the fifth century. The Zohar even makes mention of this! See the comment of R. Judah in Zohar 3:119a.

4A related text reads: "…the one who rises and studies Torah [at midnight] it is as if that river pours forth upon his head and waters him from those plants of the Garden of Eden." (Zohar 1:92b) In this context, the rushing and gushing also signify erotic union.

5In this light, through my reading of the Kabbalistic sources, I propose a material history of piety, an extension of a mystical historicism, in which the very stuff of the material (space and time) propagate the possibility of expanding and exercising religious rituals. To suggest that the introduction of coffee to the Jewish middle east caused the dissemination and expansion of mystical night-time rituals does not reduce the religious to the vicissitudes of history, as a mystical perspective allows the practitioner to interpret the movements of history as being the necessary conditions that allows adherents of the faith, now with material advancement, to attain a more perfect version of what it means to practice their religion. The stimulant nature of caffeine does not erase the mystical advances made by the kabbalists but was rather the material conditions of necessity to allow for that expansion to take place.