When it comes to Jewish Kabbalah, many of us know of the tight restrictions placed on those who could study. Some schools require that one has to be 40 years of age and male in order to learn the secrets of Jewish mysticism. But there is yet another way medieval kabbalists sorted out the wheat from the chaff—they used palmistry.
Jewish mysticism is interesting in that it often incorporates occult techniques, even when it is not attempting to achieve anything we would normally picture as having to do with magic. For instance, the Merkavah mystics often had to perform elaborate recitations in order to gain access to the divine realms (Schäfer 274-276). This act of performance in order to gain a result is considered a magical activity with a mystic outcome, i.e. theurgy, although some outcomes of the mystic experience actually include the ability to perform magic (Schäfer 299-300, 306). Similarly, some yihudim practices border on necromancy. Yet, these activities are not what we normally would consider occult due to their mystical orientation.
But back to palmistry, which itself falls under the purview of divination—an area with a murky legitimacy within Judaism. (Thanks, Leviticus.) According to Daniel Matt, some passages in the Zohar may refer to reading the lines of the hands and forehead to determine mystic suitability—an exercise which goes back to the Merkavah mystics. Matt observes that, “The Merkavah mystics used chiromancy and physiognomy to determine whether one could be initiated into the mysteries” (Matt 248). The kabbalists similarly interpreted some biblical passages to be clues as to where to look for indications of mystic aptitude (Matt 216). This suggests that, like our above theurgical practices, palmistry was considered lawful, even if used in a context of clear divination, for what else is this instance other than predicting the future—in this case the future aptitude of a postulant to esoteric study.
Let’s have a look at a couple of these passages. The first comes from the section of the Zohar called “Male and Female,” itself an interpretation of Genesis:
This is the book of the generations of Adam.
On the day that God created Adam,
in the likeness of God He created him;
male and female he created them.
He blessed them and called their name Adam
on the day they were created
Rabbi Shim’on said
“High mysteries are revealed in these two verses.
‘Male and female He created them’
to make known the Glory on high,
the mystery of faith.
Out of this mystery, Adam was created.
Matt suggests that this “book of the generations of Adam” was really code to the kabbalists for palmistry. The gender distinction, “male and female he created them” let them know that, if one was diving from the lines on the hand, one should use the right hand for male readings, and left hand for women—as per the pillars on the tree of life. Furthermore, the mystery of faith is nothing other than the ten sefirot, which are masculine and feminine in nature and mirror the human body (Matt 216). Interesting stuff! Let’s see how they get palmistry from the other passage mentioned.
This next example is from the section titled “Is There Anyone Like Moses?” If you’ve read the Torah, you will know that the answer to this is ‘no,’ because Moses is the best thing since sliced bread. In fact, he is so great, he has a whole book devoted to his adventures called Exodus. Here Psalms is interpreted kabbalistically:
“Happy is the one You choose and bring near;
he will dwell in Your courts’
Happy is the human being who the Blessed Holy One is drawn to,
whom He draws near to dwell in the place!
Whomever He desires for His work is marked with marking of the
to show that he has been chosen by the high and holy King
to dwell in His Dwelling.
Matt suggests that the markings which denote one’s suitability to God’s work are references to the lines on the forehead or hand which can be read to determine one’s destiny (Matt 248). Here, the lines will tell if one is suite towards a mystic life. If the lines say yes, God has chosen you to ‘dwell in His Dwelling’ or, in plain language, join with the Shekhinah. Which is the whole goal of Kabbalism. And yes, Moses did it first.
So there you go. The kabbalists and Merkavah mystics determined who could learn their mysteries by reading palms and analysing the lines on the forehead. Apparently, these were foolproof ways in which to determine a student’s aptitude for the rigors of mystic life. Despite clear prohibitions against divination, this is one of those areas where kabbalists took a bit of license with the Law. (Torah study is another.) These examples also seem to me as representative of the very nature of Kabbalism, and mysticism in general, which maintains itself within traditional Orthodox Judaism while exiting on the fringe of Jewish thought and practice. The lines of what’s right and wrong are blurred, yet strictly enforced, in order to obtain the mystic goal.
Matt, Daniel. The Zohar. Paulist Press: 1983. Print.
—“Is There anyone Like Moses?” In The Zohar. Paulist Press: 1983. Print.
— “Male and Female.” In The Zohar. Paulist Press: 1983. Print.
Schäfer, Peter. The Origins of Jewish Mysticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2011. Print.
Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York: Schocken Books, 1965. Print.
Veale, Sarah. “The Lurianic Revolution in Kabbalah”. 2012.
Photo by Athena.