Rebecca Lesses

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion
School: School of Humanities and Sciences

Ritual Practices to Gain Power

Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism

Harvard Theological Studies 44. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Early Jewish mystics believed both that they could ascend to heaven and attain the vision of God on the Throne of Glory, and that they could command angels to descend and teach them heavenly wisdom. Accounts of their teachings and experiences appear in the literature of Hekhalot mysticism, stemming from Palestine and Babylonia in the fourth-eighth centuries C.E. The Hekhalot incantations are elaborate ritual performances to bring down high angels from heaven to teach celestial mysteries, to learn Torah, to answer questions in dreams, to heal illness, or to expel demons from the body. The rituals to call angels down from heaven are particularly important because they seek to draw divinity, power, and holiness down to earth to human beings. This study situates the Hekhalot adjurations in the context of late antique Jewish and Greco-Egyptian ritual literature and analyzes them as performances.

In order to show that the Hekhalot adjurations belonged to a broad complex of ritual practices in late antiquity, this study demonstrates their similarities to revelatory adjurations of the Greco-Egyptian ritual papyri and Aramaic Jewish incantations on amulets. The Greco-Egyptian revelatory rituals, which consist of incantations of gods or angels to serve the magician, spells to ascend to heaven, and techniques of divination, share common structures, methods, and goals with the Hekhalot adjurations.

While earlier scholars have designated the adjurations of the Hekhalot literature as "magic" or "theurgy," a more fruitful approach views them as ritual performances to gain power. Several Hekhalot adjurations structure a performance that includes the verbal utterance of the adjuration, ascetic preparations, and actions such as secluding oneself in a room or drawing a circle around oneself during the adjuration. Using theories of performative language, this study demonstrates how the words of the incantations, in particular divine names, act in combination with ascetic and isolating actions to bring power to the adjurer and enable him to command the angels. The ascetic restrictions, which emphasize purification from sexuality or unclean substances, provided a way for some Jewish men to approach heavenly holiness after the destruction of the Second Temple. They created a kind of "personal temple" or holy space to which the adept could draw the angel by his utterance of divine names, and thereby bring down heavenly power upon himself.

Available from me for $20. My address is:
Rebecca Lesses
Philosophy and Religion Department
Ithaca College
953 Danby Rd.
Ithaca, NY 14850.

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