By Soror Tzadkiel
The role of fire in Jewish holy texts and in Jewish literature embodies many profound levels of
meaning. From Elijah’s ascension in the fiery chariot, to representing the divine spark that is the human soul, examining and understanding the significance of fire assists one in sounding the depths of meaning in Jewish mysticism. According to Jewish mystical teachings, human souls are made of Torah, so by sounding the depths of meaning in Torah, we also stimulate the deepest realms in the soul.
The Kabbalists teach that God exists in the relation between two humans. If this is so, and God is made of holy fire, then it is in the relation between humans that human souls turn from divine sparks into brilliantly shining flames. As David Patterson says in his work, Overcoming Alienation: A Kabbalistic Reflection on the Five Levels of the Soul, “[t]he soul transforms darkness into light by transforming isolation into relation,” (Patterson, 32). One also engages in a relation through writing or telling stories and reading or hearing stories. Thus, the relation within stories also ignites a fire. This is why storytelling is viewed as so sacred within Judaism.
According to a Midrashic tale by Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, the scrolls given to Moses from God
are made of fire. According to the legend, the text is made of black fire and the scroll is made of white fire. Rabbi Lakish said that, “The scroll was itself fire... hewn from fire, completely formed of fire, and given in fire,” (Patterson 135). It is suggested that this teaching is drawn from Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon, a holy man who performed the act of Kiddush Hashem, to die with the name of God on his lips rather than to defy the divine mitzvot, or commandment. Rabbi Chanina lived in the time where Roman authorities prohibited Jewish practice. Rabbi Chanina feared the wrath of heaven more so than that of the Romans, so he kept his Jewish commandments and continued to study Torah. One day he was caught in public with a Torah scroll spreading the teachings of Moses, and the Romans decided that they would make their intentions clear by burning him alive. They bound him in the scroll he had and piled kindle around him. The Romans then wrapped him in wet wool to intensify the torture that he would endure. Rabbi Chanina’s daughter, who was with him during this experience, weeped for her father and for the Torah that were burning. Her father then said to her, “You needn’t shed tears for the Torah, little one... For the Torah is fire. And fire cannot burn fire,” (Patterson 136). So it is taught that the Torah itself is made of divine fire.
In the Jewish tradition, it is understood that God creates every soul from the letters of the holy
Hebrew language. This divine speech that makes up the soul is said to be made of Torah, and the Torah is said to be made of fire. The holy medieval mystic named Soloman ibn Gabirol wrote a poetic prayer that affirmed this notion:
Kabbalistic teachings say that
Thou hast imparted to it the spirit of wisdom
And called it the soul.
And of flames of intellectual fire hast Thou wrought its form,
And like a burning fire hast thou wafted it
And sent it to the body to serve and guard it,
And it is as fire in the midst thereof yet doth consume it,
For it is from the fire of the soul that the body hath been created,
And goeth from Nothingness into Being,
“Because the Lord descended on him in fire.” (Patterson 30)
This implication that the soul and the body are fueled by holy fire “can be seen in every electrical impulse that charges every nerve and that underlies every movement, from the beating of the heart to the raising of the hand,” (Patterson 30). Patterson goes on to say that, “when the soul burns with the light of Torah, the Light of God that is called Torah emanates into the world through that soul. For only the soul, in its manifestation as a body, can perform the mitzvot through which the divine light shines,” (Patterson 30).
References to fire and light are plethoric throughout the Bible. As it says in Genesis, “God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. God saw how good the light was and God separated the light from darkness.” This light is the light that is emanated from the fire that is God. As the sun sustains all life on the planet with the light that is emanated, God sustains all life in the same manner.
There are many situations throughout the Torah where fire is a focal point. In examining the
hermeneutics of the role of fire in the Torah, one begins to see that fire is typically associated with God, angelic forms, and the higher, heavenly realms of existence.
For example, in the epic tale of the burning bush in Exodus, Moses is informed by God that his mission is to go to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery. Moses was told to show the Egyptians and Israelites that he was truly sent by the Holy One to free the Israelites. If they refused to accept that this was so, then he was to prove that he was sent by God by transforming his staff into a snake. If they still refused to accept that he was sent by God, then he was to manifest leprosy on himself, and then heal himself of the boils. If they still refused to acknowledge his mission, then he was to turn water from the Nile River into blood. It is significant that God would emanate from the burning bush. God, as mentioned
before, is repeatedly associated with fire.
In the book of Kings, Elijah’s departure is unique as well as uncanny. As Elijah and Elisha are approaching the Jordan River, accompanied by fifty men from the brotherhood of prophets, Elijah took his mantle and penetrated the waters of the Jordan River. The waters then parted, and Elijah and Elisha walked through the river on dry land. Elijah then informed Elisha that he may be taken away if God wills it so. Elisha then asks if he can integrate Elijah’s soul into his. Elijah then tells Elisha that if he is taken away, then he will get his wish. Suddenly, a chariot made of brilliant flames and driven by fiery horses descended from the heavens and swooped Elijah up. That is the story of the departure of Elijah from this physical realm via the Merkava, or chariot. Once again, we see that fire is associated with the heavenly realms.
Thus we are brought to the Hekhalot writings. In Aryeh Kaplan’s work, Meditation and Kabbalah, he discusses the text known as the Greater Hekhalot. The primary interests in the Hekhalot
writings are occurrences of people ascending into the heavenly realms, summoning angels, divine visions, and entering mystical states of consciousness. The work known as the Greater Hekhalot, dating back to the first century C.E., gives detailed instructions on how to enter altered states of consciousness through different meditation exercises. These writings and exercises are heavily influenced by Elijah’s experience in Kings, as well as Ezekiel’s vision where he “saw, and behold a stormy wind coming from the north, a great clouds and flashing fire, a Glow round about, and from its midst, a vision of the Speaking Silence, in the midst of the fire,” (Ezekiel 1:4). The Hekhalot discusses people entering the Merkava and then ascending to the chambers of the higher realms. Upon getting in the Merkava, it is said that one is engulfed in a stormy wind. An example of this is shown in Kings 2:11: “There appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire... and Elijah went to heaven in a stormy wind.” Kabbalists warn people against
attempting these advanced meditations unless the individual has read and reviewed the Torah, Prophets and Writings (that is, the entire Bible), and have mastered the Mishnah, the Law, the Agadah, as well as the deeper meaning of Law regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden. Secondly, he must be an individual who keeps the entire Torah, and heeds all of its prohibitions, decrees, judgments and laws, taught to Moses on Sinai (Kaplan, 49). So, according to Jewish mystical lore, it is said that only devout Jews who keep all 613 commandments should use the advanced meditation techniques. Those who make the attempt but are not yet ready may be ruined psychologically or possibly even die.
Rabbi Abraham Abulafia is one of the most important Kabbalists who practiced these complex
meditative operations. He also gives grave warnings to those who are not ready or worthy for such processes. He elaborates on Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Genesis and compares it to those who attempt to access the heavenly chambers through Kabbalistic meditation. Genesis 3:42 says that after Adam sinned and fell from Pardes, or the Garden of Eden, the garden became protected by a flaming sword that is in constant rotation. According to Abulafia, the sword rotates specific ways based
on one’s capability to enter. “If he is worthy, it becomes the mirror through which he perceives, while if he is not worthy, he is burned out and ‘cut off’ by the fire of the sword. The one who oversees the sword, preventing the unworthy from entering is the angel Metatron. The turning sword itself is the cycle of the intellect,” (Kaplan 80).
Abulafia’s system of meditation involves letter permutations and pronunciation of different names
of God. The letter permutation methods are insinuated in the Sefer Yetzirah. According to Kaplan, “[t]here is a special technique known as cycling through which one permutes the letters of a word in a prescribed manner. Writing in this manner is a type of meditation,” (Kaplan 83). Other aspects of Abulafia’s meditation processes involve moving one’s head in specific motions that represent drawing of specific letters from the Hebrew alphabet that correspond to the names of God one is chanting.
In Daniel Matt’s book, Essential Kabballah, he says that, “those who practice aloneness and unify the divine name kindle the fire on the altar of their hearts. By their pure thought, all the sefirot are unified and linked to one another until they are drawn to the source of the infinitely sublime flame,” (Matt 119). These sefirot that are mentioned here are alluded to in the Torah and elaborated on in many Jewish mystical works. The ten sefirot, portrayed as vessels of light on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, are connected, yet separate. Each sefirah has different characteristics, and all are perceived to be aspects of God’s character. They are also viewed as maps of creation as well as maps of the human soul.
Throughout Jewish mystical literature, we constantly see enlightenment associated with light, sparks, and flame. Light is even in the word “enlightenment.” Matt says that, [t]he Greater you are, the more you need to search for yourself. Your deep soul hides itself from consciousness. So you need to increase aloneness, elevation of thinking, penetration of thought, liberation of mind – until finally your soul reveals itself to you, spangling a few sparkles of her lights. Then you find bliss, transcending all humiliations or anything that happens, by reducing yourself so extremely that you nullify your individual, imaginary form, that you nullify the existence in the depth of your self... Then you know every spark of truth, every bolt of integrity flashing anywhere. Then you gather everything without hatred, jealousy, or rivalry. The light of peace and a fierce boldness manifest within you. The splendor of compassion and the glory of love shine through you.” (Matt 124). This statement is overflowing with meaning. The aim of Judaism is to be more that you are by doing more for your neighbors who are in need. This is what is meant by being “Greater.” The soul that is the flame intensifies and becomes brighter when we subdue the ego gratification and begin focusing on helping others. In order to attain a state of being where we can do that, we must first facilitate our soul’s growth by imitating the Divine Creator. We can do this by choosing to embody and emanate unconditional love for all of creation, like the Holy One, making the choice to annihilating hatred, jealousy and rivalry. If the
macrocosm exists within the microcosm, then every thought and every word has an impact on all of existence, so it is essential that we humans choose to fill ourselves with love as the Great Spiritual Matrix does. It is only in a loving relation with God, the world, and humanity that we can facilitate the elevation of all souls. In the act of embodying love and relating to others with love, we assist in transforming all human souls from sparks into loving and enlightening flames.
The flame also plays a large role in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism. The eighteenth century
revival of Jewish mysticism in Eastern Europe was started by the great Baal Shem Tov. “Raising the sparks” is a popular phrase used and enacted by Hasidic Jews. It is also said that one of the reasons why they sway back and forth as they are praying is to embody the flickering flame.
In Jewish traditions practiced since ancient times, there exists a deeper meaning behind the
manipulation of fire. There are certain rules on the Sabbath that Jews must abide by, and many of these involve fire. According to Jewish law, Jews are not permitted to start fires on the Sabbath. This is to show respect to God by not manipulating aspects of his creation. Turning on and off electrical appliances also applies to this rule because an electrical current is considered to be a fire. The Jewish teaching says that the Sabbath creates a dwelling place for the Divine Creator here in this physical realm. Out of respect for The Holy One, the Jews do not start fires or do anything creative on the Sabbath. However, Jews do ritualistically light candles at certain times on this sacred day. The only light that is to be ignited on the Sabbath are special candles that are lit eighteen minutes before sunset. Traditionally, Jewish women light these candles as a symbol of the Shekhinah, which is the emanation of God in this physical realm. The Shekhinah is taught by the Jewish mystics to be a feminine emanation of God’s presence.
And from discussing the finale of the Sabbath, we come to the conclusion of this post. From Biblical tales to Midrashic tales, and from commentaries on mystical practices to rules of the Sabbath, Judaism is immersed in heavenly flames. Sometimes these flames light the way to achieve enlightenment; sometimes they represent God in divine glory. It is important to continue the examination of the esoteric interpretations of fire in sacred texts and teachings. It is through this search for meaning that we uncover knowledge and wisdom of spiritual matters, in turn gaining a deeper understanding of the divinity of God, the world, and our very own souls.
Patterson, David. Greatest Jewish Stories. Middle Village, NY. Jonothan David Publishers, 1997.
Patterson, David. Overcoming Alienation. Baltimore, MD. Publish America, 2008.
Kaplan, Aryeh. Meditation and Kabballah. San Fransisco, CA. Weiser, 1982.
Matt, Daniel. Essential Kabballah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. New York, NY. Harper Collins, 1996.