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Shalom Shar'abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El$

Pinchas Giller

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195328806

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195328806.001.0001

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(p.131) Appendix: Nesirah— The Development of a Kavvanah

(p.131) Appendix: Nesirah— The Development of a Kavvanah

Shalom Shar'abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El

Pinchas Giller

Oxford University Press

To better understand the kavvanot, it is instructive to examine the archaeology of a given practice. The Beit El kabbalists “lived the kabbalistic myth” in its most developed form. Their aggregate practice was based on Sharʾabi's reading of Luria. Luria's tradition was a selective adaptation of the ideas current in Safed in the sixteenth century, most of which were derived from the Zohar, which in turn had adapted them from the rabbinic mythologies of late antiquity. Thus, the mythos of the Beit El kabbalists originated in antiquity but was refined as kabbalistic theosophy evolved over the centuries.1 Many kavvanot are based on arcane traditions that originate in antiquity.

One meaningful and widespread body of kavvanot centers on a cosmic phenomenon known as the nesirah, or “slicing away.” The “slicing away” in question refers to the separation of the male and female aspects of the Divine infrastructure, a phenomenon that occurs on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. The term “nesirah” is usually associated with one rite in particular, specific the Days of Awe. During this period, between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, Beit El and European kabbalists contemplate specific permutations of God's name. This contemplation takes place during the refrain of the silent devotion for these festivals: Remember us for life, King who desires life, and write us in the Book of Life, for your sake, living God. The soteric purpose of this specific kavvanah is to dispose of the harsh judgments that have accrued to the Jewish people during the year (p.132) by “off‐loading” them onto the feminine aspect of God, the Shekhinah, or, more specifically, to her incarnation in the Lurianic system as Nukvah. On the Day of Atonement, at the end of the ten days of repentance, Nukvah is jettisoned from the Divine structure. By separating from the Divine infrastructure, she carries away all of the judgments that would have fallen upon the people of Israel, just as the scapegoat of the Temple‐period atonement rite was sent into the desert bearing the communal sins.

Basic Themes

To understand the practice of a mystical intention, such as the nesirah, one must be cognizant of a whole body of underlying and prior traditions. The history of the nesirah follows the classic developmental arc of a kabbalistic symbol. The original tradition was a cross‐cultural archetype that was appropriated by the Midrash as a response to a textual problem in the Bible. Later, the Zohar interpreted the midrashic theme in mythic terms, retaining the central tropes and exegetical formulae that the Midrash introduced. Finally, the Zohar's mythic narrative of the nesirah was adapted by Lurianic Kabbalah, which incorporated the myth into its mystical ritual. The Polish and the Beit El schools then incorporated the nesirah into their respective rituals.2

In this case, the kavvanot of the nesirah developed around a number of mythic themes. The most essential of these themes are the separation of Adam and Eve and Adam's postcoital slumber. In the Lurianic system, these themes evolved into a proactive rite to nullify the forces of Divine judgment and to reconcile the Divine parents.

The rabbinic ur‐text of the nesirah is Genesis Rabbah (8:1):3

R. Yoḥanan began [Psalms 139:5] back and front you formed me. … R. Yirmiya ben Elazar taught that when the Holy Blessed One created Adam, He created him as androgynous. As it is written [Gen. 1:27] male and female He created them. R. Shmuel bar Nahman observed, when the Holy Blessed One created Adam, He created him with two faces.4 He separated5 him [Heb. nasro] and made him into two backs, a back here and a back there. They asked him, isn't it written [Gen. 2:21] he took one of his ribs [Heb. ẓela]? He answered, from his side, as it is written: [Ex. 26: 20] And to the ẓela [side] of the Tabernacle. R. Tanḥuma in the name of R. Benayah and R. Berekhiah in the name of R. Elazar said, “The Holy Blessed One created Adam as a golem. And he was stretched from one end of the Earth to the other.”

(p.133) Most of the salient themes of the nesirah are present in this text. Adam was originally androgynous. The stealing of Adam's rib, described in Genesis, was his separation into two separate beings. A second rendering of this account, in the tractate Eruvin, introduces the theme of du parẓufim, “two countenances,” which would remain central to the tradition:

R. Yirmiya ben Eliezer said, Adam had a two countenanced face, as it is written back and front you formed me. … In the beginning, it arose in [the Divine] thought to create two and in the end, only one was created … and God built up the rib, teaching that God braided Eve's hair and brought her to Adam.6

The Zohar develops a number of themes from these initial readings. Some texts explore the image of Eve's creation from Adam's ẓelaʾ, which is interpreted as either “rib” or “side,” in that Adam “was whole from all of his sides, even though the female cleaved to his side.”7 Later zoharic interpretations equate the “side” with the two “faces” of Adam, a metaphor for his original androgyny,8 as evidenced by the statement that “Adam existed as both male and female, as it is written, and the Lord said let us make Adam in our form and image,”9 as well as the reference to “Adam, male and female, female contained in male … female born of male.”10 When the term ẓelaʾ is read as “side,” then the mythic image of the division of the original anthropos may be derived from the Genesis account. In this ancient cross‐cultural myth, the original female was conceived as secondary to the male.11

The later sections of the Zohar examined the esoteric meaning of the midrashic image of du parẓufim, or “two faces.” A number of authors made use of the pyrotechnics of concrete poetry to extract the name D”U (two) from the letter YU”D, the transliterated first letter of the name of God as written in its full consonantal explication, or milui.12 This idea appears in the zoharic text Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta, which states: “Outside are hidden the Adam, the man and woman who are two [D”U].”13 Internally, the letter dalet, with its numerical coefficient of four, signifies the name YHVH, while the letter va”v stands for the number six, representing the middle sefirot unified under the banner of Tiferet.14

A number of the midrashic themes of the nesirah survive from the rabbinic literature into the Zohar. These include a play on the use of the word aḥat (one), which signifies the presence of the Shekhinah.15 Discussions of the verse back and front you formed me (Psalms 139:5) continue throughout the Zohar literature.16 Pivotal exegeses are triggered by discrepancies in the language of the creation story, such as the observation that it is not good that Adam should be alone, as well as the oblique Male and female he created them.17 Finally, Psalm (p.134) 44, “Awake, why does God slumber?,” is invoked in these original accounts of Adam's sleep and is retained in the nesirah rite in the Rashkover prayer book.

Divine Marriage

The earlier Talmudic passage introduced the idea that God presented Eve to Adam, braiding her hair and adorning her like a bride. A related rabbinical tradition links the formation of Adam, and by implication the nesirah, to the wedding ceremony. This ceremony contains two blessings that address the theme of formation, “he who formed man in his image” and “Blessed art thou, who forms man.” The sages speculate that the two blessings of formation in the wedding service reflect two acts of formation in the creation of Adam, that is, the formation of the undivided Adam and his division into male and female:

Levi visited the house of Rabbi on the wedding celebration of R. Shimon, his son, and he blessed five blessings. R. Assi visited the house of R. Ashi on the wedding celebration of Mar, his son, and he blessed six blessings. Perhaps they differ on this point: one maintains that there were two formings and one maintains that there was one forming? No, everyone is of the opinion that there was one forming. One is of the opinion that we follow the intention and one is of the opinion that we follow the act. This is as that [statement] of R. Yehudah who points to a contradiction. It is written [in one verse] God created Adam in His image, and it is written Male and Female He created them? How so? In the beginning, it arose in [the Divine] thought to create two and in the end he created one.18

The repetition of the image of formation begs the explanation that, at the creation of humankind, there were “two formations,” the initial creation of the androgyne, followed by the separation of the male and female aspects. The Zohar echoes the rabbinic tradition that God brought Eve to Adam and blessed them, “as the cantor blesses the bride and the groom.”19 Therefore, as early as the rabbinic period, both the mythos of the Garden of Eden and its Platonic subtext were reflected in religious ritual, namely the wedding service. The expression “nesirah,” or “slicing away” is not invoked here, as it is in the passage in Eruvin. However, the physical nesirah, the “two formations” and the “two countenances” (du parẓufim), are all aspects of this tradition, according to the reading of classical Kabbalah.

The wedding service contains two blessings of “formation” because, at the creation of humankind, there were “two formations,” the initial creation of the (p.135) androgyne, followed by the separation. The Zohar repeatedly portrays God “transforming” the woman into a bride through the act of ornamentation, which is also, tellingly, referred to as an act of fixing, or tiqqun, with all of the implications inherent in the use of the term.20 The Idra Rabbah, one of the penultimate sections of the Zohar literature, also invokes the Divine marriage. The Idra Rabbah introduces the idea that the goal of the nesirah is to expedite the face‐to‐face embrace of the various aspects of the Divine:

And in her place was left mercy and loving‐kindness as it says (Gen 2:21) he closed up the flesh beneath it and elsewhere it is written (Ezekiel 36:26) I will take away your heart of stone from your flesh and give you heart of flesh. … When the Matronita dwells with the King and they embrace, face to face, who will come between them, who will draw near to them? When they embrace, they perfume each other and everything. They perfume each other's judgments [dinnim]; all above and below receive their tiqqun.21

The Idra Rabbah stresses that the nesirah is a prelude to Divine marriage. Moreover, this phenomenon did not just happen once in history to a limited number of individuals but continues to unfold, daily and yearly. The relocation of a creation myth to the ongoing present is evident elsewhere in the Zohar literature.22 In the case of the nesirah, its yearly recurrence is the basis for its inclusion in the Lurianic rite.

In one of his early teachings, Isaac Luria interpreted the nesirah passages as referring to sefirotic unions.23 In an early composition, Luria portrays the vicissitudes of Jewish history in images of familial dysfunction. The Jewish exile is referred to as the “divorce” of the transformative feminine “Matronita.” In this, as in other teachings, Luria equates the vicissitudes of exile with the trauma of familial upheaval. The separation of the nesirah is the separation of exile, and the role of the adept is to reconcile the celestial family and therefore end the social upheaval of the Diaspora. In subsequent kabbalistic practice, acts of repentance and mythical self‐immolation are required in order to heal and rectify the upheavals mentioned in the midrashic and zoharic sources, such as the broken family, the fractured world, and the dispersed nation.

Initially, Luria understood the nesirah as the remedy for the Jewish people's exile. This would come about through the “bequeathing of crowns,” an early and euphemistic metaphor for the processes of the emanation. The “bequeathing of crowns” means to dowry children, to bequeath crowns to the children to “unify them that they may unify.”24 This giving of the dowry restores the children's essential natures and repairs the upheaval of the historical exile.

(p.136) Neglect

Luria adopted another zoharic theme, one that is also a poignant reflection of the upheavals of his own upbringing. This is the Zohar's motif of Eve's neglect by Adam, as evinced in this remark:

Adam was created with two faces. … He did not service25 his wife, and she was not a help‐meet to him. … [Eve] was on his side and they were united back‐to‐back and so, the man was alone. … What did the Holy Blessed One do? He separated them and took the woman from him.26

The “back‐to‐back” embrace is described as a source of sexual dysfunction, as a result of which Adam could not “service” [ishtadel] his wife.27 Later Lurianic interpretation would clarify that it was not the case that Adam wouldn't service his wife; rather, he couldn't do so, because both Adam and Eve were too preoccupied with defending the family from the detritus of the breaking of the vessels, the animating cosmic catastrophe in the Lurianic mythos. The Lurianic tradition emphasized the original embrace of the female and male aspects of the original androgyne. For the Lurianic reading, the most important aspect of the nesirah is its movement from a “back‐to‐back” to a “face‐to‐face” embrace. Only when Abba and Imma, the cosmic parents of the Divine superstructure, move their embrace from back‐to‐back to face‐to‐face could the conception and growth of Zeir Anpin, the wonder child, be expedited. According to Luria's formulation, the back‐to‐back embrace is part of the basic dilemma of the breaking of the vessels (shevirat ha‐kelim), as evidenced from this passage in his Zohar commentaries. Speaking of the creation of Adam, Luria retells the account of the nesirah with particular poignancy:

In Adam, He placed and set forth the essence of male and female. When He had completed them, he left it between his two arms. According to the Zohar (II 254b), they were initially created back to back. He was compelled to separate them and to return them face to face … because all of the extraneous aspects were attached to the upper rearmost parts to receive the Divine flow from there. So initially there was no Adam on the Earth to till the soil, to guard it from the extraneous elements.28

The impetus for the creation was the unredeemed nature of the Divine embraces. The back‐to‐back embrace is necessary because of the dangerous, broken state of the world. Elsewhere, a Lurianic source portrays the dangers of the Divine couple attempting to embrace in the broken state of the cosmos: (p.137)

Therefore, had they been created face to face, their backs would have been exposed, and the extraneous forces would have adhered to them, for the backs are the sources of the dinnim, therefore the kelipot would have adhered there. Therefore, they were initially created back‐to‐back, the rear parts were covered this one in that, and there was no place for the extraneous forces to adhere. Afterward, when he separated them, these rearmost parts were sweetened in the secret of the ḥasadim, in the secret of the closed up the flesh beneath it … so that there would be not adhesion by the extraneous forces.29

The cosmic parents, the progenitors of existence, have to stand back‐to‐back to protect the children from the shards of the shattered vessels. Hence, the gender dysfunctions in the Divine realm originate from the general dystopia in present reality. The nesirah kavvanot were intended to expedite the turning of the countenances, the better to drive away the forces of judgment.30

The adaptation of the nesirah by Luria also follows a number of rules of his hermeneutic, particularly the reading of the Idra Rabbah and the Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta. Luria disagreed, in classical terms, with Moshe Cordovero, who portrayed the nesirah in terms of the play of sefirot.31 Luria's interpretation led, in turn, to his student Ḥayyim Vital's emphasis on the Divine union and impregnation. In all cases, the nesirah is interpreted as a metaphor for different metaphysical interplays. In the late Lurianic recension Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim,32 the nesirah is presented as the turning or reconciliation of the Divine couple from their back‐to‐back position to a face‐to‐face union. The late editions also present the nesirah in purely theoretical terms, outside the context of religious practice, in such documents as the Shaʾar ha‐Nesirah (“Gate of the Nesirah”) in the late, and authoritative, work Eẓ Ḥayyim.33


The culminating texts of the Zohar are the Idrot, a group of compositions including the “Great Idra” (Idra Rabbah), the “Lesser Idra” (Idra Zuta), and the “Hidden Book” (Sifra De‐Ẓeniuta). These works advance a kabbalistic theory from that in the earlier sections, namely the theory of the Divine countenances, or parẓufim. This theory would become the animating myth of Lurianic Kabbalah.34 Accordingly, the Idrot recast the nesirah account in terms of the doctrine of the countenances. In the version to be found in the Idra Rabbah, which was influential in subsequent Lurianic doctrine, the countenance Zeir Anpin, a (p.138) heroic masculine archetype, takes the place of the biblical Adam as the one who falls asleep:

The Ancient of Ancients, the most hidden One separated this one from that one and joined them to be fragrant, and unified. When he separated them, he caused slumber to fall upon Zeir Anpin and separated the female from the anterior side and he made her tiqqun and hid her away for her day, to bring her to the male, as it is written (Gen 2:21) the Lord caused a slumber to fall on Adam and he slept. What does it mean: and he slept? As it is written, (Psalms 44:24) Awake, why does God sleep?35

In two Idra accounts, the references to the nesirah are preceded by a strange prelude. Lurianic interpreters36 considered these passages as part of the nesirah tradition, and they form the basis for many of the subsequent kavvanot. Both of these texts describe a preponderance of Din, the sefirah of harsh judgment, in the Divine superstructure. These forces of judgment are linked to the feminine aspects of the Divine. When they depart during the nesirah, the male aspect of the Divine is left as an entity of pure loving‐kindness. The first allusion to this theme is found in the Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta, which makes a mysterious and cryptic reference to an act of mischief prior to the nesirah, based on Zeir Anpin's postcoital slumber:

The male extended and set forth its tiqqunim like a mother in the mouth of a maidservant … the dinnim of the male are mighty at the beginning and rest at the end, while the reverse is true of the female.37

God's stealing of Adam's ẓelaʾ while he was asleep derives from the natural disparity of male and female excitation and the trickery of the feminine “sheath,” which steals the Divine seed during postcoital slumber. According to another Idra text, the Idra Rabbah, the womb of Imma, the Divine mother, euphemized as the “mouth,” sheathes the extended phallus of Ḥokhmah and in turn “sweetens” the aspects of Din that are inherent in the receptive sexual nature of the feminine:

We learn in the Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta that “the male extended and set forth its tiqqunim,” the tiqqun of pure covering. … Everything is contingent on the mouth of that Imma who is called yu”d. When this yu”d is revealed in Imma's mouth, the higher Ḥesed is revealed. This Imma is called Ḥesed. It is contingent on that Imma's mouth. It is not called Ḥesed until it is revealed in the mouth of Imma. … Whoever uncovers this yu”d is protected and will never go the yu”d of the other (p.139) realm. He is assured of the world to come, bound in the knot of life. When this mother extends, the realm of Gevurah extends from the gevurot of the left side of Nukvah. It takes root in one place in Nukvah. These are called the hidden places [ʿarayot] of everything, the hidden place of Imma that is called Ḥesed, Ḥesed in the right and Gevurah is the left, and they are scented, this one in the other and called Adam, made up of two sides, Ḥesed and Gevurah. All the sefirot have right and left, Din and Raḥamim.38

According to this dense and difficult passage, which immediately precedes a nesirah account, the letter yu”d, transliterated according to the system of the miluyyim,39 evokes the power of Divine loving‐kindness, the sefirah Ḥesed. This is the esoteric meaning of the “revelation of yu”d in the mouth of this great mother.” The womb/mouth of the sefirah Nukvah appropriates the seed of the letter yu”d in order to conceive. During the course of this process, the Idrot also portray the nesirah as an outpouring of ḥasadim, Divine loving‐kindness. When this wave of loving‐kindness recedes, it provokes an irruption of dinnim, or judgments, from the realm of the feminine, which only exacerbates the separation and rupture in the cosmic structure.

These references to the beginning of the nesirah evoke the give and take of sexual intercourse. The male extends and, upon withdrawing, provokes an irruption of judgment from the feminine side. The implication of these texts that precede the nesirah accounts is that the nesirah is preceded by a stormy act of Divine sexual congress, which leaves the masculine countenance Zeir exhausted and spent, as the renegade feminine makes her escape bearing the “seed” in her mouth.40

Luria on Sleep

Isaac Luria conflated the doctrine of the uncovered yu”d and the perfuming of the dinnim into one concept.41 The “uncovering” of the yu”d is a euphemism for the enclosing of the male member in the womb, or “mouth,” of the female. Subsequent interpreters called this the “tiqqun of the pure garment,” in that the womb of Imma serves as a sheath for the engendering phallus, whose tumescence is signified by the extension, or milui, of yu”d.42 The yu”d is “uncovered” at its tumescence, as well as at the moment of circumcision. According to this tradition, the transliterated yu”d is symbolic of the moment when Imma carries the seed of Ḥokhmah, thereby conceiving the seed and carrying it into the Divine embrace.43

(p.140) Luria also expanded upon the image of the transfer of powers of judgment, which he defined in the plural as dinnim or gevurot. These noxious elements are transferred from the highest sefirot into the lowest, namely the feminine Nukvah, who is then summarily jettisoned. Nukvah is forced into a position analogous to the scapegoat of the Temple's Yom Kippur rite, carrying off the accumulated impurities of the sefirotic system.

The motif of Adam's slumber also leads the nesirah to be associated with the daily passing of day into night and vice versa.44 According to Luria's reading, Zeir Anpin, the central countenance, was the “sleeper,” so that Zeir took over the myth from the primordial Adam. When Zeir was asleep, his souls and consciousness ascended and thereby “sweetened” a number of the harsh judgments [dinnim].45 In classical Judaism, as well as in Kabbalah, a sense of dread is commonly associated with the coming of the night, as is reflected in the blessing “lay us down” in the evening service, as well as in the blessing of the night prayer itself. The first part of the night is the time when the kelipot, or demonic forces, are ascendant. In the mystical rite, the dread of the night is equated with the dread of exile.46 This situation changes at midnight, which is considered a time for Divine favor and arousal. Shaul Magid47 has pointed out that the slumber, tardemah, imposed on the primordial man during creation is replicated isomorphically in human sleep.48 According to the Zohar, Adam's sleep (the Latin dormita) is associated with all sleep, so that every act of sleep recreates the conditions of the original creation myth. Sleep also reflects the experience of the exile and the mythos of the Shekhinah in exile. In Vital's words, “We are asleep because we are the children of the Shekhinah, our mother Rachel!”49 In terms of the kabbalistic rite, sleep exists so that the adherent may rise to perform his work at midnight. Hence, it was standard practice among Lurianic kabbalists to sleep the early part of the night.50

One nightly rite that assumed great significance in kabbalistic ritual was the midnight vigil, Tiqqun Ḥaẓot.51 This ritual consisted of the adherent's rising at midnight, smearing ashes on his forehead, and bemoaning the exile of the Torah. The ashes on the face reflect the burning of the Torah, or the theft of is secrets among the nations, a possible reference to Christian Kabbalah.52 The Tiqqun Ḥaẓot ritual is divided into two sections, or “orders,” which are recited at different times. One order is devoted to the Matriarch Leah, the paradigm of the sefirah Binah. The other order is devoted to the Matriarch Rachel, paradigm of the lowest sefirah, Malkhut, and equivalent to the Shekhinah. Natan Netaʾ Hanover, in Shaʾarei Ẓiyyon, provides for a third section in which one's body becomes “a chariot for the Shekhinah.”53 Needless to say, Shalom Sharʾabi also left specific kavvanot for this midnight vigil.54

(p.141) Much as in the midnight vigil, the night nesirah reflects the vicissitudes of the Shekhinah, in her split incarnations as Rachel and Leah, as reflected in Tiqqun Ḥaẓot. The multiple significations for the sefirot as presented in the Zohar are interpreted as discrete and unique figures in the Lurianic interpretation of the cosmic structure. Therefore, the figure of Jacob, who signifies the sefirah Tiferet in the plainest meaning of the term, “splits” into two alter egos, Jacob and Israel. Nukvah becomes Rachel, who is then shadowed by her biblical sister Leah.55 This set of extra gradations in the relationships of the countenances complicates the dynamics of the nesirah as it is explained in its later passages. Every night, therefore, is a rite of hieros gamos, sacred marriage, albeit a ménage à trois. The early part of the night is devoted to the union of Jacob and Leah, the countenance Zeir Anpin with the countenance Binah. Leah then grows to full size, appropriating, at that moment, some of the properties of Rachel, the countenance Nukvah, equivalent to the Shekhinah of the sefirotic system. In the course of her vicissitudes, according to the Lurianic system, the Shekhinah shrinks to a tiny point and then reinflates. This loss of mass is a result of the Shekhinah's experience of exile. Diminished thus, the Shekhinah is really Nukvah, the faceless “orifice.” Hence, one function of the Lurianic reading of the ritual is to resolve the distinction between the colorless Nukvah of the countenance tradition of the Idrot with the fully realized Shekhinah as portrayed in the general sections of the Zohar.56

The evening prayer brings about the conjunction of Zeir Anpin and Leah. However, the early part of the night is demonic, and that precludes any further tiqqun. Hence, the adherent had better sleep during the early part of the night.57 Leah has to grow in order to bring about the union with Jacob. In order to grow in this way, she borrows from the light of her sister countenance, Rachel.58 The countenance Rachel inflates after the countenance Leah. This process takes place during her ascent through the heavenly palaces.59

The role of the adept in both Tiqqun Ḥaẓot and the nesirah rite is to help expedite the Shekhinah's union with Jacob in order to expedite her eventual expansion. Rachel, the Shekhinah, has to be positioned into the face‐to‐face embrace with Jacob. This requires that Leah be pushed to the side. Eventually, Leah is absorbed in Rachel, the true consort of Zeir Anpin.60 In expediting the Shekhinah's union, the adept sees himself as being in a moment of intimacy with her. Rachel, the Shekhinah, is not in exile; her status has merely been reduced. It is the darkness of the night that is the reason for Rachel's “diminishment in size and power.”61 After the face‐to‐face embrace has been achieved, Rachel falls to the feet of Zeir, at the corona of the Divine phallus.62

(p.142) The Morning Nesirah

The nesirah myth is “lived out” in another body of liturgy, the rituals attending waking in the morning. One would think that the activity attendant on getting up in the morning would be devoted to isomorphically awakening Zeir, as in the ancient nesirah myth. In fact, the purpose of the morning nesirah is to excite or raise the “feminine waters,” the impulse on the part of the lower, feminine sefirot to rise to the upper, masculine forces. The morning nesirah is not concerned with waking Zeir. Rather, it is devoted to expediting the face‐to‐face union of Abba and Imma, the celestial parents.63 At the beginning of the process, Imma relinquishes union with Zeir Anpin and unifies with Abba. The Amidah prayer brings about the union of the celestial parents and their excitation and the conception of Zeir Anpin as the child of Abba and Imma.

Imma's “weaning” Zeir leads to another central Lurianic theme incorporated into the nesirah narratives. This theme concerns the development of the moḥin, or nervous system, in the newly conceived embryo of Zeir Anpin. Many mystical practices are devoted to the development of these networks of inner consciousness. In terms of Lurianic metaphysics, it is during the slumber that the moḥin enter the feminine, with all of the overtones of mischief inherent in the original accounts in the Idrot and the Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta.64 According to this interpretation, Zeir does not lose the moḥin but gives them away to Nukvah and gets new, better ones. The moḥin develop through the powers of the lower sefirot Neẓah, Hod, and Yesod. These sefirot bring about tumescence as the various moḥin of Zeir “load” through them. As a consequence of this process, Zeir Anpin becomes identical with the biblical Adam. When Nukvah was behind Zeir, the light of his moḥin did not flow directly into her but rather was filtered through him, so that she could not directly receive his light. After the morning nesirah, when God, as it were, presented Nukvah to Zeir as the celestial bride, she became an independent countenance, nurtured directly by Abba and Imma.65

Nesirah on the Days of Awe

Lurianic analysis of the nesirah passages in the Zohar, particularly the Idrot, gel in a passage in the Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot that deals with the mysteries of the New Year.66 This drush is elsewhere described as the ur‐text of the nesirah tradition.67 The central premise of this homily is that since the rites of the Days of Awe originated in the Temple service, the nesirah belongs in the New Year, (p.143) because the New Year resembles the creation of the world in that all of the accounts have been turned back to their status at the beginning of time.68 Thus, the nesirah reoccurs every year, reflecting certain existential changes in the condition of the world since the destruction of the Temple. In liturgical time, the nesirah occurs during the ten days of repentance and the Days of Awe.

The position of classical Judaism is that petitional prayer was developed to compensate for the loss of the soteric powers of the Temple rite. This is particularly the case in the Days of Awe, which literally replace the passion of the High Priest in the Temple with the petitions of the synagogue congregation. Luria's presentation extends this understanding. Ḥayyim Vital, in the late recension Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim, implies that, before the destruction of the Temple, people did not even need to pray.69 At that time, prayer had the power to elevate both the inner and the outer nature of the cosmic structure, but only at the celebration of the New Year. Since the destruction of the Temple, however, mere prayer is no longer efficacious. Now, it has the power to lift the soul of the adherents to God but not to fulfill their desires. Hence, prayer no longer “works” for the purposes that it claims to rectify, namely the fulfillment of the concrete needs of the Jewish people.

The loss of this idealized situation is reflected in the nesirah. In the idealized past, the Temple rite and petitional prayer were enough to expunge harsh judgment from the world. Today, all that remains of the process is the mystical rite. The liturgical refrain that recurs on the Days of Awe, Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and write us in the book of life, is an explicit reference to the nesirah. The adherent beseeches God to return the people Israel to the condition that they enjoyed before the destruction.70

Ḥayyim Vital echoed the theme, so present in the Idrot, that prayer is the instrument to counter the harsh judgment that is present on the first day of the New Year. The process is especially pronounced on the first day of Rosh ha‐Shanah because of the severity of the Din, the “harshest, most unsweetened” form of judgment. On the second day of the holiday, the effects of the Din are already alleviated or “softened somewhat.71

Other accounts present this process in terms of the interactions of the countenances, according to which, the action of the nesirah draws down the dinnim, forces of judgment from the countenances Zeir to the countenance Nukvah.72 Over the course of the ten days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, the dinnim pass though the sefirot and the countenances. The process ends with the dinnim loaded into the feminine countenance, Nukvah, which is then jettisoned from the system. According to the Lurianic view, the off‐loading of judgment onto Nukvah, the empty receptacle of the feminine, is literally the separation of male and female depicted in the first nesirah (p.144) accounts. This process is concentrated into the ten days of repentance and coincides with the descent through the ten sefirot. Eventually the dinnim are transferred into Nukvah from Zeir until Nukvah is finally jettisoned on the Day of Atonement.

Each day of the ten days of repentance is characterized by the aura of sefirah or countenance that is being stripped of its dinnim. The first two days are marked by the conditions of the apex of the Godhead.73 These days were considered the essential holiday from late antiquity, an “extended day.”74 One the third day of the ten days of repentance, the dinnim move from the countenance Zeir and begin to fill up Nukvah. The third day is traditionally a fast day, the Fast of Gedaliah. That day is still beset by the forces of judgment, but it doesn't have the blowing of the shofar to neutralize them, as was the case on the first two days. It is the day that Gedaliah, the Babylonian governor in the first Temple period, was killed, thereby hastening the destruction of the first Temple. Having disposed of the dinnim by off‐loading them into Nukvah, the nesirah begins the central process of the Lurianic system, the conception and regeneration of the countenance Zeir Anpin.75

The dynamics of the nesirah provide the metaphysical underpinnings for some of the halakhic nuances of the New Year observance. On Rosh ha‐Shanah, the blowing of the shofar is thought of as awakening Zeir from his slumber.76 The five forms of self‐affliction that are practiced on Yom Kippur reflect the function of the sweetening of five “judgments” (gevurot), exemplified in the five acts of penance or abstention associated with that day.77 The adepts practice the kavvanot in the silent amidah, but not for its repetition. However, one does practice the kavvanot for the repetition in on the Days of Awe.78 Transpersonally, the one who prays has to sweeten the judgments (dinnim) that are rife in the phenomenal world.79


The nesirah is a strong presence in such sources as Vital's Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim and was retained in the Polish traditions, particularly deriving from the traditions of Shabbatai of Rashkov,80 the kloiz in Brod, and the first published Lurianic prayer book in Zolkava.81 It is also a theme in Moshe of Dolena's Seraf Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim, an influential analysis of the kavvanot.82 An emphasis on slumber and the nesirah is also evident in the influential prayer book commentary by the Shabbatean Jacob Koppel Lifschuetz, Kol Yaʾakov.83 The nesirah rite was so widespread that Ḥayyim Vital wondered why it wasn't mentioned in the exoteric prayer service!84 His son Shmuel Vital's prayer book commentary contains (p.145) an explication of the nesirah that parallels the entry in Shaʾar ha‐ kavvanot: Rosh ha‐Shanah, although this composition might not be original.85

Surprisingly, the compilers of kavvanot did not universally embrace the theme of the nesirah. Among the manuscript prayer books that lack a nesirah rite for the New Year are the manuscript editions of Yom Tov Lippman Heller II (the grandson of the author of Tosafot Yom Tov),86 Yisrael of Satanov,87 and Moshe Yosef of Lubmila.88 Shalom Sharʾabi acknowledged the nesirah but did not build the entire structure of his kavvanot around the phenomenon. According to Sharʾabi, the kavvanot attached to the shofar are not primarily intended to awaken Zeir from his slumber but are meant for other soteric purposes attendant upon the nature of the day.89 However, the nesirah rite is an important part of the kabbalistic practice of the Jerusalem circles, and the Nahar Shalom community in Jerusalem has prepared an extensive nesirah rite.90

The nesirah emerged from pagan myth, was adapted into rabbinic tradition, and blossomed into kabbalistic practice, finally finding expression in the Lurianic kavvanot. The high profile of the nesirah in the Lurianic prayer rite recovers the original myth of antiquity.91 Like other such motifs, it then entered the liturgy through the Lurianic system of kavvanot, which functioned as an open canon for later kabbalists. The midrashic origins of the myth lent it weight and authenticity and further expedited its incorporation into the mystical rite.

The nesirah account posits an ancient Jewish myth, which speaks of a flaw in the original relationship of man and woman. In this case, the flawed relationship is secondary to a prior ideal relation, which is androgynous. Lurianic tradition attempted to unite the flawed couple and to repair the celestial relationship and, with it, the whole Divine family. The flaw was not intrinsic; the Divine couple was compelled by catastrophe to stand back‐to‐back in order to confront the kelipot that assailed them as a result of the breaking of the vessels. In addition to this poignant portrayal of the family beset by stresses from without, a negative view of the elementary feminine survives from the original Eden account. In this case, Nukvah, the spouse, is viewed as a mere receptacle for the discarded powers of judgment.

The persistence of the image of the nesirah, from aggadic motif to kabbalistic rite, is also a by‐product of the formal similarity between the various expressions of the androgynous anthropos. Male and female are created in a static union in the original midrashic accounts. Similarly, the hypostatic structures of the sefirot and the countenances as portrayed in the Zohar and adapted by Cordovero and Luria contain similar static relationships of union between male and female sefirot and countenances. The unions are constant (p.146) and yet ever shifting and evolving, through the liturgical day and into the rhythms of the year. In the aggadic narratives, God is the trickster, as well as the matchmaker, expediting the separation and the reunion of the genders. In the mystical rite, the kabbalist is the catalyst for the union, as well as for the rebirth of the central figure in the system, Zeir Anpin.

Every prayer rite that was adopted by Kabbalah has its own archaeology and career through history. For whatever reason, the image of the reconciliation of the countenances has proven very resilient among mystics from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, remaining the focus of the mystical rite and undergoing revival particularly in this generation. In the case of the nesirah, different mystics in varying locales agreed that the primordial Man was always fated to lose his consciousness, fall asleep, and require the efforts of humankind in order to be reborn. The process of evolution that has been herein detailed for the nesirah was repeated for the various climactic moments of the daily, weekly, and yearly prayer service. The night vigil of Tiqqun Ḥaẓot, the counting of the Omer, and the priestly blessing all originated with one set of cultic assumptions and then began the long process of evolution through halakhic, magical, philosophical, and eventually, in these cases, kabbalistic interpretations of Lurianic and non‐Lurianic provenances.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion reached by Scholem that the Lurianic system is a psychological projection of a historical reality. The flaw in the relationship of the countenances came about as the result of deleterious influences in the cosmos. In one respect, seeing the Divine family as a metaphor for Luria's own sundered family lends credence to Scholem's famous thesis that Luria's teaching reflected the vicissitudes of the Spanish expulsion. Martin Cohen (n a monograph, unpublished) has recently theorized that Luria made the countenance system of the Idrot central to his own mystical system because the images of an extended family under stress from the vicissitudes of history mirrored his own life experience. Cohen has argued that Luria's teaching is related to familial trauma. In the mind of a young child rendered fatherless and exiled to Egypt with his widowed mother under the protection of an ambiguously benevolent patriarch, the world offers mostly catastrophe. The terrors inherent in the nesirah account, such as the dread of night, the breakup of the family structure, and the anxieties attending the wellbeing of the celestial parents, reflect a child's anxiety and the hope that Abba is not gone forever but is only sleeping. The lachrymose aspects of Lurianic teaching certainly indicate great emotional pain on the part of the author. Whether engendered by external or familial factors, Luria was, indeed, a perennial orphan, whether of his family or of history.


(1.)  See pp. 46–47.

(2.)  Avivi, Binyan Ariel, p. 292.

(3.)  Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel, pp. 44–46. See Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: Their Beliefs and Opinions, pp. 228, 231, 787 notes 39–40; Wolfson, Abraham Abulafia: Kabbalist and Prophet, p. 15. The Greek parallel to this tradition, of course, may be found in Plato's Symposium, in Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., Plato: Collected Dialogues, pp. 189–193.

(4.)  See Berakhot, 61a.

(5.)  Boyarin translates this as “sawed him apart,” which agrees with other instances of the Semitic root NSR.

(6.)   Eruvin, 18a.

(7.)   Zohar III, 117a; see also Zohar III, 19a, 44b.

(8.)   Zohar I, 165a; II, 55a, 231a; III, 44b; Tiqqunei ha‐Zohar, 39a, 78a. See also Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta, Zohar II, 178b, although this passage is excised from the Gaon of Vilna's text.

(9.)   Zohar II, 55a; III, 44b.

(10.)   Zohar III, 19a, Zohar III, 117a; see also Zohar III, 19a, 44b.

(11.)  Some Talmudic traditions describe the ẓelaʾ not as the hindmost side of the original androgyne but as Adam's tail. This echoes a theme explored by Elliot Wolfson, namely that the feminine is often viewed as a subsidiary crown on the phallocentric structure of the cosmos. See, in particular, Wolfson, “Woman—The Feminine as Other in Theosophic Kabbalah: Some Philosophical Observations on the Divine Androgyne.”

(12.)  See pp. 42–45.

(13.)   Zohar II, 178b.

(14.)   Zohar II, 178b; III, 10b.

(15.)   Zohar I, 34b; III, 19a.

(16.)   Zohar II, 55a.

(17.)   Zohar III, 44b.

(18.)   Ketubot, 8a.

(19.)   Zohar II, 55a.

(20.)   Zohar I 34b; II, 55a; III, 19a, 44b, 83b.

(21.)   Zohar III, 142b–143a.

(22.)  See Giller, The Enlightened Will Shine, pp. 33–58.

(23.)   Eẓ Ḥayyim, Ashlag 1: 22–23; Warsaw 10a–b.

(24.)  See Giller, Reading the Zohar, pp. 156–157; Liebes, “Two Young Roes of a Doe,” in Liebes and Elior, The Kabbalah of the AR”I: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought (p.175) 10, pp. 117–118, 126–127, 144; Ẓeviyah Rubin, “The Zohar Commentaries of Yosef Ibn Tabul,” in Liebes and Elior, The Kabbalah of the AR”I: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 10, pp. 363.

(25.)  The term ishtadel, a Tibbonism, is one of the most widely mutable terms in the Zohar, meaning literally to “strive” or “exert oneself” but also to “quest.”

(26.)   Zohar III, 44b.

(27.)   Zohar III, 44b.

(28.)   Eẓ Ḥayyim I, p. 22.

(29.)   Shaʾar Maamarei RaShB”Y, pp. 164, 221.

(30.)  Shabbatai Rashkover, Siddur R. Shabbatai, 52a–65a.

(31.)  This approach survives to Vital's drush for Rosh ha‐Shanah (Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 228).

(32.)   Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim II Rosh ha‐Shanah, 2–5, pp. 446–465; Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 206.

(33.)   Eẓ Ḥayyim II, pp. 69–87. The emergence of the nesirah from the Idra texts into Lurianic doctrine is also clear in Yaʾakov Ẓemakh's commentary to the Idra Rabbah, Kol be‐Ramah (pp. 377–381).

(34.)  See Giller, Reading the Zohar, pp. 139–157.

(35.)   Zohar III, 142b.

(36.)  See Yaʾakov Ẓemakh, Kol be‐Ramah, p. 377.

(37.)   Zohar II, 178a.

(38.)   Zohar III, 142a.

(39.)  See p. 42–45.

(40.)  This idea may be linked to earlier zoharic passages that portray the tradition with the startling departure that the woman in the account is not Eve but the demoness Lillit. According to such a thesis, the nesirah took place only in the first creation account, in the first chapter of Genesis, to which the Lillit traditions are appended (Zohar I, 34b; see Zohar III, 19a; Zohar Ḥadash, 16c).

(41.)  In Luria's dense presentation:

The higher yu”d is crowned in the knot of ʿAttika, [it is] the gleaming higher closed membrane. “The higher yu”d is Abba, while the lower yu”d is Zeir Anpin, as it says in the Idra Zuta [289a], “in the hidden book we learn of the higher and lower yu”d.” And it says that the higher yu”d is crowned and influenced in the knot [kitur] of ʿAttika, that is the incense [kitur] that goes out of ʿAttika through the purifying membrane. (Shaʾar Maamarei RaShB”Y p. 108)

(42.)  See p. 70

(43.)  The nuances of “revelation” at the moment of circumcision are extensively addressed in Elliot Wolfson's Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism, pp. 357–368; Wolfson, “Circumcision and the Divine Name: A Study in the Transmission of an Esoteric Doctrine,” Jewish Quarterly Review 78, nos. 1–2. (July–October 1987): 77–112; Wolfson, “Circumcision, Vision of God and Textual Interpretation, from Midrashic Trope to Mystical Symbol,” pp. 198–215; (p.176) Wolfson, “From Sealed Book to Open Text,” p. 149, 169 note 23. Wolfson points out the valorization of the feminine according to the interpretations of the Gaon of Vilna; see Sifra de‐Ẓeniuta ʿim Biur ha‐GR”A., 6a; Yahel Or, 6a–b, 23a; Tiqqunei ha‐Zohar ʿim Biur ha‐GR”A, 19b; Sefer Yeẓirah ʿim Perush ha‐GR”A, 3c, 7b.

(44.)  Abulafia, Kinyan Perot, p. 8; Sharʾabi, Nahar Shalom, 55a, Emendations to Eẓ Ḥayyim, 100a.

(45.)  See Kallus, “The Theurgy of Prayer in the Lurianic Kabbalah,” p. 81 note 26.

(46.)  Fine, Safed Spirituality, pp. 17–18; Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Ḥaẓot,” xxvi.

(47.)  Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Ḥaẓot,” xxxv.

(48.)   Zohar I, 34b; Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, pp. 206–209, 341–342.

(49.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 208.

(50.)   Shaʾar Ruaḥ ha‐Kodesh, pp. 108–109.

(51.)  The midnight vigil and the recitation of the Shemaʾ at night have been investigated by Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Ḥaẓot,” and by Idel, Messianic Mystics, pp. 309, 313–314.

(52.)  Vital, Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim, p. 348; Ẓemakh, Siddur Kavvanot ha‐Tefilah be‐Kiẓarah, p. 78.

(53.)  Idel, Messianic Mystics, p. 317; Hanover, Shaʾarei Ẓiyyon, 3b–4a. See also Israel Weinstock, “R. Yosef Ibn Tabul's Commentary on the Idra,” 129–130. On gender issues in Lurianic Kabbalah, see Kallus, “The Theurgy of Prayer in the Lurianic Kabbalah,” p. 142.

(54.)  Ḥeibi, Giant of the Spirit, pp. 45–48.

(55.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 209.

(56.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 209; Idel, Messianic Mystics, p. 309.

(57.)  Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Ḥaẓot,” xxvii.

(58.)   Zohar I, 178b, 245b, 173b; II, 217b; III, 193a; Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Ḥaẓot,” xxix.

(59.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 206–207.

(60.)  Vital, Eẓ Ḥayyim I, pp. 21; Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim, pp. 21, 346–350; Idel, Messianic Mystics, p. 312.

(61.)  Idel, Messianic Mystics, p. 313.

(62.)  Wolfson, “From Sealed Book to Open Text: Time, Memory and Narrativity in Kabbalistic Hermeneutics.” pp. 155–158; Wolfson, “Woman—The Feminine as Other in Theosophic Kabbalah: Some Philosophical Observations on the Divine Androgyne,” pp. 186–187.

(63.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 206‐ In the morning, Zeir has moḥin from Abba and Imma and doesn't need to go to sleep to have them removed to the lower aspect, because a reshimu, or residue, will remain with him. See also Abulafia, Kinyan Perot, p. 10.

(64.)   Eẓ Ḥayyim I, pp. 21; Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I pp. 206, 208, 340–342; II, p. 221; also Dweck and Legimi, Kavvanot Pratiyyot, 1b.

(65.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 209.

(66.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot II (Rosh ha‐Shanah, Drush 3), p. 220–233.

(67.)   Shaʾar Maamarei RaShB”Y I, p. 221.

(68.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 206.

(69.)   Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim, 91c; Magid, “Conjugal Union, Mourning and Talmud Torah in R. Isaac Luria's Tikkun Ḥaẓot,” xxiii.

(70.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 206; II, p. 220.

(71.)   Zohar III, 231b; Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot II, pp. 220, 224.

(72.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot II, pp. 224, 227–228, 340–342.

(73.)  For instance, the empirical wisdom, or Ḥokhmah, in the Keter is called Roshim, “heads,” as in Rosh ha‐Shanah, literally “head of the year.” Shaʾar Maamarei RaShB”Y, p. 237.

(74.)   Beẓah, 4b–5a.

(75.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot II, p. 220, 228–230.

(76.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot II, pp. 224, 227.

(77.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot II, p. 231.

(78.)  Abulafia, Kinyan Perot, p. 5.

(79.)  Kallus, “The Theurgy of Prayer in Lurianic Kabbalah,” p. 102 note 73; also Zemakh, Zohar ha‐Rakiʾa, 68c.

(80.)  Rashkover, Siddur R. Shabbatai, 3:50b–52a.

(81.)   Siddur Tefilah (Zalkova, 1781), 163b.

(82.)  Moshe of Dolena, Seraf Pri Eẓ Ḥayyim, pp. 439–444; Kallus, “The Relationship of the Baal Shem Tov to the Practice of Lurianic Kavvanot in Light of His Comments on the Siddur Rashkov,” 151.

(83.)  Jacob Koppel Lifschuetz, Siddur Kol Yaʾakov (Lemburg, 1859), pp. 215–226.

(84.)   Shaʾar ha‐Kavvanot I, p. 206; Kallus, “The Theurgy of Prayer in the Lurianic Kabbalah,” p. 181 note 137.

(85.)  Vital, Siddur Ḥemdat Yisrael, pp. 219b–220b; see also Menachem Azariah de‐Fano, Sefer Kanfei Yonah, p. 378.

(86.)  Yom Tov Lippman, Siddur ha‐AR”I, mss., Crakow, 1738.

(87.)   Siddur ha‐AR”I, mss., Satanov, 1778.

(88.)   Seder Tefilah me‐ha‐AR”I Z”L (Yampol, 1750; reprinted Jerusalem, 1999).

(89.)  Sharʾabi, Nahar Shalom, p. 38a; Pri Eẓ ha‐Gan, pp. 3,7.

(90.)  Benyahu Shmueli, ed., Siddur Rehovot ha‐Nahar: Kavvanot Nesirah ve‐Shofar le‐Rosh ha‐Shanah, p. 91. A similar tradition is the interpretation of the flood in Tiqqunei ha‐Zohar as being located in an existential explanation for present reality. See Giller, The Enlightened Will Shine, pp. 33–58. Elliot Wolfson has fully examined this process with regards to circumcision; see his “Circumcision, Vision of God and Textual Interpretation: From Midrashic Trope to Mystical Symbol,” pp. 189–215; Wolfson, “Circumcision and the Divine Name: A Study in the Transmission of Esoteric Doctrine,” Jewish Quarterly Review 78, no. 1–2 (July–October 1987): 77–112; Wolfson, “The Mystical Significance of Torah Study in German Pietism,” pp. 74–76.