72 Holy Names
One of the most complex meditative techniques of the Kabbalah uses the 72 three-letter Names of God that can be seen in this picture. These 216 letters (72 x 3 = 216) actually comprise one Name.
This Name is mentioned in the Bahir and the Zohar, in Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud, but it was Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, the controversial 13th Century kabbalist, who taught how to use this Name in order to attain prophetic insight.
This Name is derived from three verses in Exodus Chapter 14 (verses 19, 20, and 21) that tell the story of how Moshe parted the waters of the Red Sea when the Israelites left Egypt:
‘And the angel of Elohim who went before the camp of Israel moved,
and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and went behind them.’
ויסע מלאך האלהים ההלך לפני מחנה ישראל וילך מאחריהם ויסע עמוד הענן מפניהם וילך מאחריהם
‘And it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel, and the cloud and the darkness were there, yet it illuminated the night, and one did not come near the other all that night.’
ויבא בין מחנה מצרים ובין מחנה ישראל ויהי הענן והחשך ויאר את הלילה ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה
‘And Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea, and YHWH caused the sea to go back with a strong east wind all the night, and it made the sea into dry land, and the waters were parted.’
ויט משה את ידו על הים ויולך יהוה את הים ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה וישם את הים לחרבה ויבקעו המים
Each of these verses has precisely 72 letters. The first triplet Name is produced by taking the first letter of the first verse (ו); the last letter of the second verse (ה); and the first letter of the third verse (ו). The second triplet Name is made from the second letter of the first verse (י); the second to the last letter of the second verse (ל); and the second letter of the third verse (י). The third triplet is the third letter of the first verse (ס); the third to the last letter of the second verse (י); the third letter of the third verse (ט), etc.
So if you look at this picture and read just the blue letters starting from the upper right corner you will find the first verse. And if you read just the red letters backwards starting from the lower left corner you will find the second verse. And to find the third verse, read the green letters starting from the upper right corner.
According to the Midrash and the Kabbalah, all the Israelites experienced collective prophecy when Moshe parted the waters of the Red Sea. Moshe represents Daat. Prophetic inspiration is associated with Daat when it is completely mature, thus Moshe was the greatest prophet. Parting the ‘waters’ of lower or immature consciousness brings us into higher, mature consciousness or prophetic inspiration.
The technique Rabbi Abulafia prescribed is to pronounce these 216 letters in the order they are laid out in this picture using the letter’s ‘natural vowel’ sound. This is the first vowel of the Name of the letter. For example, the name of the letter א is Aleph אלף, so its natural vowel is Kametz ‘a’ (a line under the letter). The name of the letter ב is Bet, so its natural vowel sound is ‘beh’ using Tzere (two dots under the letter). The name of the letter ג is Gimel so its natural vowel sound is ‘ghi’ using Chirik (one dot under the letter). The natural vowel sound of Yod י is ‘yo’ using Cholam (one dot above the letter); and the natural vowel of Nun נ is ‘nu’ using Shurek (three diagonal dots under the letter or one dot in front of a Vav). The natural vowels of all twenty-two Hebrew letters are these five vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u).
After one has purified and prepared oneself physically, emotionally, and mentally to have a deep and profound spiritual experience, one who wishes to attain a prophetic insight through these 72 Names of God, sits, breathes and clears the mind completely. Then, with a clear and pleasant voice, each letter is chanted with its natural vowel drawn out during a long out-breath. An in-breath is taken after each prononciation.
Abulafia taught that a head movement should accompany the prononciation of each letter according to the five vowel sounds. The heart should also ‘move’ internally in conjunction with the external head movement. For example, while chanting a letter like Aleph א or Lamed ל with the Kametz vowel (a), the head should move slowly from left to right (and then back to the center). While chanting a letter like Heh הor Mem מwith the Tzere vowel (e), the head moves slowly from right to left. While chanting a letter like Gimel ג or Shin ש with the Chirik vowel (i), the head moves slowly downward. While chanting a letter like Yod י or Kof ק with the Cholem vowel (o), the head is moved slowly upward. And while chanting the letter Nun נ the only letter with the vowel Shurek (u), the head is moved slightly forward.
The gematria (number value) of Chesed (Lovingkindness), associated with the ‘masculine’ right side of the Tree of Life, is 72 (עב). The gematria of Gevurah (Strength), associated with the ‘feminine’ left side, is 216 (ריו). Together they make 288, the gematria of עיבור ibur (pregnancy) and ויעבור vaya’avor (and he passed) hinting at the ‘conception’ of a prophetic insight attained by passing through the parted ‘waters’ of the ‘sea’ of consciousness.