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Rabbi Hayyim Vital on Worlds, Prophecy, and Practical Kabbalah

The following interesting passage by Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1542-1620), the foremost disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria, describes the loss of prophecy as access to the higher worlds is gradually lost

 "The prophets were able to see into Atzilut, although it was completely clothed in the lights of Beriah when they saw it.  Ezekiel lived after the desctruction [of Solomon's Temple], and he therefore only received prophecy from Atzilut, after it was completely clothed in Beriah, with Beriah itself clothed entirely in Yetzirah.

After this the lights of Atzilut and Beriah were no longer revealed at all.  this is the meaning of the teaching that after Hagai, Zechariah and Malachi, prophcy ended completly, only Ruah HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) remained.

[This Ruah HaKodesh] consists of a transmission of the lights of Yetzirah.
itself, as well as lower levels.  Attaining this level is called "Ascending to the Orchard (Pardes)."  This refers to Yetzirah, which is called "the Universe of Metraton."

There are given techniques through which on can open the gates of the physical world so as to enter Asiyah and Yetzirah.  These consist of Yichudim and prayers pertaining to the Universe of Yetzirah and it's Ten Sefirot.  It is these techniques that are taught in the Chapters of Hekhalot, and these practices were used Rabbi Nehunia, Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Ishmael, and the members of the Great Assembly.

These techniques were then forgotten.  Besides this, the ashes of the Red Heifer were lost in the period of the later Talmudic sages [during the Fifth Century]...

Form then on, people only made use of techniques involving the Universe of Asiyah.  Since this is the lowest of the (supra-physical) universes, its angels have only a little good, and are mostly evil.  Besides this, this is a level where good and evil are  closely intertwined [and it is very difficult to separate them].  This does not bring any enlightenment, since it is impossible to perceive good alone, and one's perception is therefore a combination of good and evil, truth and falsehood.

note: compare here with what Sri Aurobindo has to say regarding the "Intermediate Zone"

...Even if one does gain some perception, it is truth mingled with falsehood.  This is especially true today, since the ashes of the Red Heifer no longer exist.  Since one cannot purify himself, the uncleanliness of the Husks (Klippot) attaches itself to the individual who attmpts to gain enlightenment through the.Practical Kabbalah...

Besides this, it involves coercing angels with oaths against their will.  thse angels retailiate by enticing this individual, drawing him into vile ways until his soul is destroyed.

Beyond this, the methods involving these oaths were conceiled by earlier gnerations, and we are not well-versed in the proper techniques.  One must threfore keep himslf far from these things."

reference [Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Shaarey Kedushah 3:6; quoted in Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah, pp39-40]

Opposition to Practical Kabbalah

It is interesting that Vital is dead against "Practical Kabbalah" - or at least certain aspects thereof, such as the practice of  practical magick (Hermetic occultism) that involves "coercing angels against their will."  Opposition to occultism is widespread among the so-called "right-hand path" of mysticism.  One does feel however that the position Vital takes here is rather extreme.

Cosmological Implications

Another significant thing about this passage, in addition to the extreme oppsoition to occultism and Practical Kabbalah, is the dgree to which the higher worlds are elevated, relative to the physical.  Even the lowest Universe, Asiyah, is still beyond the mundane consciousness.  While even the greatest prophets of old, who were considered filled with Divine consciousness (equivalent perhaps to the avatar or jivanmukti of Hindu religious philosophy), were only with difficulty able to attain the higer Universes.

This represents the opposite to the present tendency to reduce the Universe of Asiyah to the mundane physical plane.  Modern Kabbalists, generations and even centuries removed from the great masters and adepts of the past, and immersed in the small secular consciousness of the present world, have only obscure and deeply metaphorical texts to draw from.  Rabbi Vital however was the actual student of the great Rabbi Luria, the Ari, and hence would have picked up much from the master, even if he himself, as a commentator rather than an adept, would have found it difficult to follow.

Significantly, when we look at more recent esoteric teachers, like Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Sri Aurobindo, and Meher Baba, we find again a cosmology of planes beyond planes, the highest of which being sublime and difficult to attain; cosmologies remarkably similiar to those of Luria and Cordovero, and of the Gnostics and Neoplatonists of the classical Hellenistic world, but very different to the small universes of  much modern Kabbalah.

In short, the Universe of Asiyah, as described by Hayyim Vital, is clearly equivalent to the Astral Plane or Psychic or Magickal Universe of modern occult and Hermetic thought.  This is the stratum of being I term the Psychic Universe.  I have however, out of respct for other Kabbalistic traditions, also taken the Universe of Asiyah to designate the Physical as well as the Psychic.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 25 April 1999, last modified 19 January 2005