Kabbalah (Hebrew: קַבָּלָה, Tiberian: qabːɔˈlɔh, Qabbālāh,
Israeli: Kabala) literally means "receiving", and is sometimes transliterated as
Cabala, Kabbala, Qabalah, or other permutations. It is held authoritative by most Orthodox Jews. According to its adherents,
intimate understanding and mastery of the Kabbalah brings man spiritually closer to God and as a result man can be empowered with
higher insight into the inner-workings of God’s creation effectively enabling prophecy and even
control over nature.
The origins of the actual term Kabbalah are unknown and disputed to belong either to the Spanish philosopher, Iba
Gabriol, Solomon ibn Gabirol, (1021 - 1058) or to the 13th century CE Spanish
Kabbalist Bahya ben Asher. While other terms are used in many religious documents from
the 2nd century CE till the present day, the term Kabbalah has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and
practices. Main Kabbalistic literature that served as the basis for most of the development of Kabbalistic thought divides
between early works such as Bahir and Heichalot (believed to be
dated 1st Century CE and dealing mainly with Practical Kabbalah ("Kabbalah Ma'asit"), and later works dated 13th century CE of
which the main book is the Zohar representing the main source for the Contemplative Kabbalah
According to Kabbalistic tradition, Kabbalistic knowledge was known to, and transmitted orally by, the Jewish patriarchs, prophets, and sages (Avot in Hebrew), eventually to be “interwoven” into Jewish
religious writings and culture. According to this tradition, Kabbalah was, in around the 10th century BCE, an open knowledge
practiced by over a million people in ancient Israel ,
although there is little objective historical evidence to support this thesis.
Foreign conquests drove the Jewish spiritual leadership of the time (the Sanhedrin) to hide
the knowledge and make it secret, fearing that it might be misused if it fell into the wrong hands . The Sanhedrin leaders were also concerned that the practice of Kabbalah by Jews
deported on conquest to other countries (the Diaspora), unsupervised and unguided by the
masters, might lead them into wrong practice and forbidden ways. As a result, the Kabbalah became secretive, forbidden and
esoteric to Judaism (“Torat Ha’Sod” Hebrew:
תורת הסוד) for two and a half millennia.
In contemporary Orthodox Judaism, a person must be at least age 40, mature, and married to begin studying Kabbalah
- a direct influence of the Sanhedrin decision to
secrecy manifested over 2,500 years. Despite the above, Kabbalah became of interest to non-Jewish scholars and thinkers in
medieval times, and in modern times its key texts and principles were gradually translated and published, and it has become of
increasing interest to general culture.
Some scholars have proposed an Indian origin for this mystic system.Kapila who founded the Indian system of Samkhya-Yoga
They credit it to the Sage
Origins: Judaic Mysticism
|The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah
According to most groups of Orthodox Judaism, and among the Haredi, Kabbalah dates from Adam and is an integral part of the Jewish
religious tradition. It is believed to have come down from a remote past as a revelation to elect Tzadikim ("righteous
men"), and, for the most part, was preserved only by a privileged few. By contrast, contemporary scholarship suggests that
various schools of Jewish esotericism arose at different periods of Jewish history, each reflecting not only prior forms of
mysticism, but also the intellectual and culture milieu of that historical period. Questions of transmission, lineage, influence,
and innovation vary and cannot be summarized in simple doctrinaire claims.
The proper protocol for teaching this wisdom, as well as many of its concepts, are recorded in the Talmud, Tractate Hagigah, Ch.2.
Originally, Kabbalistic knowledge was believed to be an integral part of the Judaism's oral
law (see also, Aggadah), given by God to
Moses on Mount Sinai around 13th century BCE, though there is
a view that Kabbalah began with Adam.
When the Israelites arrived at their destination and settled in Canaan (Canaanite: כנען, Hebrew: כְּנַעַן,
for a few centuries the esoteric knowledge was referred to by its aspect practice - meditation (“Hitbodedut” Hebrew: התבודדות) (see Jewish meditation), translated as “being alone” or
“isolating oneself”, or by a different term describing the actual, desired goal of the practice - prophecy (“NeVu’a” Hebrew: נבואה).
During the C5th BC, when the works of the Tanakh were edited and canonized and the secret
knowledge encrypted within the various writings and scrolls (“MeGilot”), the knowledge was referred to as Ma'aseh Merkavah
(Hebrew: מעשה מרכבה) and Ma'aseh
B'reshit (Hebrew: מעשה בראשית)., respectively
"the act of the Chariot" and "the act of Creation". Merkavah mysticism alluded to the encrypted knowledge within the book of the
prophet Ezekiel describing his vision of the "Divine Chariot". B'reshit mysticism
referred to the first chapter of Genesis (Hebrew:
בראשית) in the Torah that is believed to contain secrets of the creation of
the universe and forces of nature. These terms are also mentioned in the second chapter of the Talmudic tractate
According to adherents of Kabbalah, its origin begins with secrets that God revealed to Adam. According to a rabbinic
midrashsefirot. When read by
later generations of Kabbalists, the Torah's description of the creation in the
Book of Genesis reveals mysteries about the godhead itself, the true nature of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life, as well as the interaction of these supernal entities with the
Serpent which leads to disaster when they eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in Genesis 2.
God created the universe through the ten
The Bible provides ample additional material for mythic and mystical speculation. The prophet Ezekiel's visions in particular attracted much mystical speculation, as did Isaiah's Temple vision -
Isaiah, Ch.6. Jacob's vision of the ladder
to heaven provided another example of esoteric experience. Moses' encounters with the
Burning bush and God on Mount Sinai are evidence of
mystical events in the Tanakh that form the origin of Jewish mystical beliefs.
The 72 names of God which are used in Jewish mysticism for meditation purposes are derived
from the Hebrew verbal utterance Moses spoke in the presence of an angel, while the Red Sea
parted, allowing the Hebrews to escape their approaching attackers. The miracle of the Exodus, which led to Moses receiving the
Ten Commandments and the Jewish Orthodox view of the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, preceded the creation of the first Jewish nation
approximately three hundred years before King Saul.
Talmudic Era: Mystical Doctrines
In Talmudic times (the early centuries of the first millennium CE), the terms Ma'aseh Bereshit ("Works of Creation")
and Ma'aseh Merkabah ("Works of the Divine Throne/Chariot") clearly indicate the Midrashic nature of these speculations; they are really based upon Genesis 1
and Book of Ezekiel 1:4-28; while the names Sitrei Torah (Hidden aspects of the
Torah) (Talmud Hag. 13a) and Razei Torah (Torah secrets) (Ab. vi. 1) indicate their character as secret
lore. An additional term also expanded Jewish esoteric knowledge, namely Chochmah Nistara (Hidden wisdom).
In contrast to the explicit statement of the Hebrew Bible that God created not only the
world, but also the matter out of which it was made, the opinion was expressed in very early times that God created the world from matter He found ready at hand &mdash. According to
some , this is an opinion probably due to the influence of the Platonic-Stoic cosmogony.
Eminent rabbinic teachers in the Land of Israel held the doctrine of the preexistence
of matter (Midrash Genesis Rabbah i. 5; iv. 6), in spite of the protest of
Gamaliel II. (ib. i. 9).
In dwelling upon the nature of God and the universe, the mystics of the Talmudic period asserted, in contrast to the
transcendentalism evident in some parts of the Bible, that "God is the dwelling-place of the universe; but the universe is not
the dwelling-place of God". Possibly the designation ("place") for God, so frequently found in Talmudic-Midrashic literature, is
due to this conception, just as Philo, in commenting on Genesis
28:11 says, "God is called ha makom (המקום "the place") because God encloses the universe, but is Himself not enclosed by
anything" (De Somniis, i. 11). This type of theology, in modern terms, is known as either pantheism or panentheism. Whether a text is truly pantheistic or
panentheistic is often hard to understand; mainstream Judaism generally rejects pantheistic interpretations of Kabbalah,
and instead accepts panentheistic interpretations.
Even in very early times in the Land of Israel, Jewish, as well as Jewish
Alexandrian theology recognized the two attributes of God, middat hadin, the
attribute of justice, and middat ha-rahamim, the attribute of mercy (see: Midrash Sifre,
Deuteronomy 27); and so is the contrast between justice and mercy became a fundamental
doctrine of the Kabbalah. Other hypostasizations are represented by the ten "agencies", (the Sefirot) through which God created the world: namely, wisdom, insight, cognition, strength, power,
inexorableness, justice, right, love, and mercy.
While the Sefirot are based on these ten creative "potentialities", it is especially the personification of wisdom which, in
Philo, represents the totality of these primal ideas; and the Targ. Jerusalem Talmud i.,
agreeing with him, translates the first verse of the Bible as follows: "By wisdom God created the heaven and the earth." Genesis
Rabbah equates "Wisdom" with "Torah."
So, also, the figure of the Sar Metatron passed into mystical texts from the
Talmud. In the Heichalot literature Metatron
sometimes approximates the role of the demiurgos (see Gnosticism), being expressly
mentioned as a "lesser" God. One text, however, identifies Metatron as Enoch transubstantiated (see: Enoch, III). Mention
may also be made of other pre-existent states enumerated in an old baraita (an extra-mishnaic teaching); namely, the Torah, repentance, paradise and hell, the throne
of God, the Heavenly Temple, and the name of the Messiah (Talmud Pesahim 54a).
Although the origin of this doctrine must be sought probably in certain mythological ideas, the Platonic doctrine of
pre-existence has modified the older, simpler conception, and the pre-existence of the seven must therefore be understood as an
"ideal" pre-existence, a conception that was later more fully developed in the Kabbalah.
The attempts of the mystics to bridge the gulf between God and the world are evident in the doctrine of the preexistence of
the soul, and of its close relation to God before it enters the human body — a doctrine taught by the Hellenistic sages
(Wisdom viii. 19) as well as by the Palestinian rabbis. The mystics also employ the phrase from (Isaiah 6:3), as expounded
by the Rabbinic Sages, "The whole world is filled with His glory," to justify a panentheistic understanding of the universe.
Early Medieval and Medieval Era: Kabbalah
- Main Articles: Solomon ibn Gabirol; Isaac
the Blind; Azriel (Jewish mystic); Nahmanides; Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia; Joseph Chiquitilla; Bahya ben Asher;
Moses de Leon; Eleazar Rokeach.
From the 8th-11th Century Sefer Yetzirah and Hekalot texts made their way into European Jewish circles. Modern scholars have
identified several mystical brotherhoods that functioned in Europe starting in the 12th Century. Some, such as the "Iyyun Circle"
and the "Unique Cherub Circle," were truly esoteric, remaining largely anonymous.
One well-known group was the "Hasidei Ashkenaz," or German Pietists. This 13th Century movement arose mostly among a single
scholarly family, the Kalonymus family of the French and German Rhineland.
There were certain rishonim ("Elder Sages") of exoteric Judaism who are known to have been
experts in Kabbalah. One of the best known is Nahmanides (the Ramban)
(1194-1270) whose commentary on the Torah is considered to be based on Kabbalistic knowledge. Bahya ben Asher
(the Rabbeinu Behaye) (d. 1340) also combined Torah commentary and Kabbalah. Another was
Isaac the Blind (1160-1235),
the teacher of Nahmanides, who is widely argued to have written the first work of classic Kabbalah, the Bahir.
Sefer Bahir and another work, the "Treatise of the Left Emanation", probably composed in Spain by Isaac ben Isaac
ha-Cohen, laid the groundwork for the composition of Sefer Zohar, written by Moses de Leon
and his mystical circle at the end of the 13th Century, but credited to the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, cf. Zohar. The Zohar proved to be the first truly
"popular" work of Kabbalah, and the most influential. From the thirteenth century onward, Kabbalah began to be widely
disseminated and it branched out into an extensive literature. Arthur Green argues that the emergence into public view of Jewish
esotericism at this time coincides with, and represents a response to, the rising influence of the rationalist philosophy of
Maimonides and his followers.
Most Orthodox Jews reject the idea that Kabbalah underwent significant historical
development or change such as has been proposed above. After the composition known as the Zohar
was presented to the public in the 13th century, the term "Kabbalah" began to refer more specifically to teachings derived from,
or related, to the Zohar. At an even later time, the term began to generally be applied to Zoharic teachings as elaborated
upon by Isaac Luria Arizal. Historians generally date the start of Kabbalah as a major
influence in Jewish thought and practice with the publication of the Zohar and climaxing with the spread of the Arizal's teachings. The majority of Haredi Jews accept the Zohar as
the representative of the Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh B'reshit that are referred to in Talmudic texts.
Early Modern Era: Lurianic Kabbalah
- Main Article: Isaac Luria.
Following the upheavals and dislocations in the Jewish world as a result of the Spanish
Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the trauma of Anti-Semitism during the Middle Ages, Jews began to search for signs
of when the long-awaited Jewish Messiah would come to comfort them in their painful
exiles. Moses Cordovero and his immediate circle popularized the teachings of the Zohar which had
until then been only a modestly influential work. The author of the Shulkhan Arukh
(the Jewish "Code of Law"), Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), was also a great scholar of Kabbalah and spread its teachings during this
As part of that "search for meaning" in their lives, Kabbalah received its biggest boost in the Jewish world with the
explication of the Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) by his disciples Rabbi Hayim
Vital and Rabbi Israel Sarug, both of whom published Luria's teachings (in variant
forms) gaining them wide-spread popularity. Luria's teachings came to rival the influence of the Zohar and Luria stands,
alongside Moses De Leon, as the most influential mystic in Jewish history.
Kabbalah: ban against studying
The ban against studying Kabbalah was lifted by the efforts of the sixteenth century Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azulai (1570-1643).
- I have found it written that all that has been decreed Above forbidding open involvement in the Wisdom of Truth [Kabbalah]
was [only meant for] the limited time period until the year 5,250 (1490 C.E). From then on after is called the "Last Generation",
and what was forbidden is [now] allowed. And permission is granted to occupy ourselves in the [study of] Zohar. And from the year
5,300 (1540 C.E.) it is most desirable that the masses both those great and small [in Torah], should occupy themselves [in the
study of Kabbalah], as it says in the Raya M'hemna [a section of the Zohar]. And because in this merit King Mashiach will come in
the future – and not in any other merit – it is not proper to be discouraged [from the study of Kabbalah]. (Rabbi Avraham
Kabbalah: Sefardi and Mizrahi
The Kabbalah of the Sefardi (Spanish/Mediterranean) and Mizrahi (African/Asian) Torah scholars has a long history. Kabbalah in various forms was widely studied,
commented upon, and expanded by North African, Turkish, Yemenite, and Asian scholars from the 16th Century onward. It flourished
among Sefardic Jews in Tzfat (Safed), Israel even before the arrival of Isaac Luria, its most
famous resident. The great Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh was part of the
Tzfat school of Kabbalah. Shlomo Alkabetz, author of the famous hymn
Lekhah Dodi, taught there.
His disciple Moses ben Jacob Cordovero authored Sefer Pardes
Rimonim, an organized, exhaustive compilation of kabbalistic teachings on a variety of subjects up to that point. Rabbi
Cordovero headed the Academy of Tzfat until his death, when Isaac Luria, also known as the
Ari, rose to prominence. Rabbi Moshe's disciple Eliyahu De Vidas authored the classic work, Reishit Chochma, combining
kabbalistic and mussar (moral) teachings. Chaim Vital also studied under
Rabbi Cordovero, but with the arrival of Rabbi Luria became his main disciple. Vital claimed to be the only one authorized to
transmit the Ari's teachings, though other disciples also published books presenting Luria's teachings.
Among the most famous was the Beit El mystical circle of Jerusalem, originally a
brotherhood of twelve, mostly Sefardic, mystics under the leadership of Gedaliyah Chayon and Shalom Sharabi in the mid-18th century. The group endured into the 20th Century and there is still a
yeshivah of that name in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Kabbalah: the Maharal
- Main Article: Judah Loew ben Bezalel
One of the most important teachers of Kabbalah recognized as an authority by all serious scholars up until the present time,
was Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1525-1609) known as the Maharal of Prague.
Many of his written works survive and are studied for their deep Kabbalistic insights. The Maharal is, perhaps, most famous
outside of Jewish mysticism for the legends of the golem of Prague, which he reportedly created.
During the twentieth century, Rabbi Isaac Hutner
(1906-1980) continued to spread the Maharal's teachings
indirectly through his own teachings and scholarly publications within the modern yeshiva
Sabbatian Mysticism: Failure
The spiritual and mystical yearnings of many Jews remained frustrated after the death of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples and colleagues. No hope was in sight for many following the devastation and
mass killings of the pogroms that followed in the wake the Chmielnicki Uprising (1648-1654), and
it was at this time that a controversial scholar of the Kabbalah by the name of Sabbatai
Zevi (1626-1676) captured the hearts and minds of the Jewish
masses of that time with the promise of a newly-minted "Messianic" Millennialism in the
form of his own personage.
His charisma, mystical teachings that included repeated pronunciations of the holy Tetragrammaton in public, tied to an unstable personality, and with the help of his own "prophet"
Nathan of Gaza, convinced the Jewish masses that the "Jewish Messiah" had finally come. It seemed that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah had found their
"champion" and had triumphed, but this era of Jewish history unravelled when Zevi became an apostate to Judaism by converting to Islam after he was arrested by the
Ottoman Sultan and threatened with execution for
attempting a plan to conquer the world and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Many of his followers, known as Sabbateans, continued to worship him in secret, explaining
his conversion not as an effort to save his life but to recover the sparks of the holy in each religion, and most leading rabbis
were always on guard to root them out. The Donmeh movement in modern Turkey is a surviving
remnant of the Sabbatian schism.
Kabbalah: the Frankists
The Sabbatian movement was followed by that of the "Frankists" who were disciples of another pseudo-mystic Jacob Frank (1726-1791) who eventually became an
apostate to Judaism by apparently converting to Catholicism. This era of
disappointment did not stem the Jewish masses' yearnings for "mystical" leadership.
In the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza may have had the well-known phrase from Isaiah,
"The whole world is filled with his glory,"in mind when he said that the ancient Jews did not separate God from the world. This
conception of God may be pantheistic or panentheistic. It
also postulates the union of man with God; both these ideas were further developed in the later Kabbalah.
Spinoza was excommunicated from the main Jewish community by the rabbis at the time for publicly espousing these views, more
likely out of fear of Christian reaction than out of their own outrage.
Kabbalah: the 1700s
The eighteenth century saw an explosion of new efforts in the writing and spread of
Kabbalah by four well known rabbis working in different areas of Europe:
- Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) in the area of Ukraine spread teachings
based on Rabbi Isaac Luria's foundations, simplifying the Kabbalah for the common man. From
him sprang the vast ongoing schools of Hasidic Judaism, with each successive
rebbe viewed by his "Hasidim" as continuing the role of dispenser of mystical divine blessings and
- Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 - 1810), the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov,
revitalized and further expanded the latter's teachings, amassing a following of thousands in Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and
Poland. In a unique amalgam of Hasidic and Mitnagid
approaches, Rebbe Nachman emphasized study of both Kabbalah and serious Torah scholarship to his disciples. His teachings also
differed from the way other Hasidic groups were developing, as he rejected the idea of
hereditary Hasidic dynasties and taught that each Hasid must "search for the tzaddik ('saintly/righteous person')" for
himself—and within himself.
- Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (Vilna Gaon) (1720-1797), based in Lithuania, had his teachings
encoded and publicized by his disciples such as by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin who published the
mystical-ethical work Nefesh HaChaim. However, he was staunchly opposed to the new Hasidic
movement and warned against their public displays of religious fervour inspired by the mystical teachings of their rabbis.
Although the Vilna Gaon was not in favor of the Hasidic movement, he did not prohibit the study and engagement in the
Kabbalah. This is evident from his writings in the Even Shlema."He that is able to understand secrets of the Torah and
does not try to understand them will be judged harshly, may God have mercy". (The Vilna Gaon, Even Shlema, 8:24). "The Redemption
will only come about through learning Torah, and the essence of the Redemption depends upon learning Kabbalah" (The Vilna Gaon,
Even Shlema, 11:3).
- Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), based in Italy, was a precocious Talmudic
scholar who arrived at the startling conclusion that there was a need for the public teaching and study of Kabbalah. He
established a yeshiva for Kabbalah study and actively recruited outstanding students and, in
addition, wrote copious manuscripts in an appealing clear Hebrew style, all of which
gained the attention of both admirers and rabbinical critics who feared another "Zevi (false messiah) in the making".
He was forced to close his school by his rabbinical opponents, hand over and destroy many of his most precious unpublished
kabbalistic writings, and go into exile in the Netherlands. He eventually moved to the
Land of Israel. Some of his most important works such as Derekh Hashem survive and are used as a gateway to the world of Jewish mysticism.
The Modern Era
One of the most influential sources spreading Kabbalistic teachings have come from the massive growth and spread of
Hasidic Judaism, a movement begun by Yisroel ben Eliezer (The Baal Shem Tov), but continued in many branches and streams until today. These groups differ greatly in size, but all emphasize the
study of mystical Hasidic texts, which now consists of a vast literature devoted to
elaborating upon the long chain of Kabbalistic thought and methodology. No group emphasizes in-depth kabbalistic study, though,
to the extent of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose Rebbes
delivered tens of thousands of discourses, and whose students study these texts for three hours
Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch urged the study of kabbala as prerequisite
for one's humanity:
- "A person who is capable of comprehending the Seder hishtalshelus (kabbalistic
secrets concerning the higher spiritual spheres) - and fails to do so - cannot be considered a human being. At every moment and
time one must know where his soul stands. It is a mitzvah (commandment) and an obligation to
know the seder hishtalshelus."
The writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
(1864-1935) also stress Kabbalistic themes:
- "Due to the alienation from the "secret of God" [i.e. Kabbalah], the higher qualities of the depths of Godly life are reduced
to trivia that do not penetrate the depth of the soul. When this happens, the most mighty force is missing from the soul of
nation and individual, and Exile finds favor essentially... We should not negate any conception based on rectitude and awe of
Heaven of any form - only the aspect of such an approach that desires to negate the mysteries and their great influence on the
spirit of the nation. This is a tragedy that we must combat with counsel and understanding, with holiness and courage."
(Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook Orot 2 )
Another influential and important Kabbalah character is Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ashlag
1884-1954 (also known as the Baal HaSulam — a title that he
was given after the completion of one of his masterworks, The Sulam). Ashlag is considered by many to be one of the
greatest Kabbalists of all time.
He developed a study method that he considered most fitting for the future generations of Kabbalists. He is also notable for
his other masterwork Talmud Eser HaSfirot — The Study of the Ten Emanations — a commentary on all the writings of the
ARI. Some today consider this work as the core of the entire teaching of Kabbalah. Baal
Hasulam's goal was to make the study of Kabbalah understandable and accessible to every human being with the desire to know the
meaning of life. There are several organizations that are actualizing his ideas today.
Renewed interest in Kabbalah has appeared among non-traditional Jews, and even among non-Jews. Neo-Hasidism and Jewish Renewal have been the most influential
groups in this trend.
|The Sefirot in Jewish Kabbalah
The Hebrew word Sefirah (סְפִירָה) literally means "Numbering" or "Numeration". Sefirot is the plural,
"Numerations". Sometimes, Jewish midrashic interpretations reread the Hebrew letters of this
word to mean "Spheres" or "Narrations".
Ten Sefirot as process of Creation
According to Kabbalistic cosmology, Ten Sefirot (literally, Ten Numerations) correspond to ten levels of creation. These
levels of creation must not be understood as ten different "gods" but as ten different ways of revealing God, one per level. It
is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes.
While God may seem to exhibit dual natures (masculine-feminine, compassionate-judgmental, creator-creation), all adherents of
Kabbalah have consistently stressed the ultimate unity of God. For example, in all discussions of Male and Female, the hidden
nature of God exists above it all without limit, being called the Infinite or the "No End" (Ein Sof) - neither one nor the other, transcending any definition. The ability of God to become
hidden from perception is called "Restriction" (Tzimtzum). Hiddenness makes creation possible
because God can then become "revealed" in a diversity of limited ways, which then form the building blocks of creation.
Ten Sefirot and physical sciences
Notable is the similarity between the concept in Kabbalah that the physical universe is made of Divine Light, and the modern
concept in Physics that it is made of energy.
Moreover in Kabbalah, Divine Light is the carrier of consciousness.
- "The human soul is a part of the Creator [that is, Divine Light]. Therefore, there is no difference between Him and the soul.
The difference is that He is the 'whole' and the soul is a 'part'. This resembles a stone carved from a rock. There is no
difference between the stone and the rock except that the rock is a 'whole' and the stone is a 'part'". (Yhuda Ashlag, Introduction in Ha-Sulam.)
Thus, a human's consciousness is a part of the Divine Consciousness, where the rest of the infinite Divine has been hidden
from the human. This kabbalistic concept that consciousness is an aspect of Divine Light is similar to the protoscientific hypothesis that the electromagnetic field generated by the brain is the carrier of consciousness.
In other words if the hypothesis is correct, consciousness would be an aspect of light (electromagentic radiation) and not
an aspect of the physical brain per se.
The Ten Sefirot mediate the interaction of the ultimate unknowable God with the physical and spiritual world. Some students of
Kabbalah suggest that the Sefirot may be thought of as analogous to fundamental laws of physics. God's "Restriction"
(Tzimtzum) within the spiritual levels is often compared with the Big Bang in the lowest physical level. Just as the resulting gravity, electromagnetism, strong force, and weak
force allow for interactions between energy and matter, the Ten Sefirot allow for interactions between God and creation. (Compare
Theory of Everything.)
The Ten Sefirot are sometimes mentioned in the context of the Ten Dimensions that some physicists suspect the Superstring Theory may require.
Ten Sefirot as process of ethics
Divine creation by means of the Ten Sefirot is an ethical process. Examples: The Sefirah of "Compassion" (Chesed) being part of the Right Column corresponds to how God reveals more blessings when humans use
previous blessings compassionately, whereas the Sefirah of "Overpowering" (Gevurah)
being part of the Left Column corresponds to how God hides these blessings when humans abuse them selfishly without compassion.
Thus human behavior determines if God seems present or absent.
"Righteous" humans (Tzadikim) ascend these ethical qualities of the Ten Sefirot by doing righteous actions. If there were no
"Righteous" humans, the blessings of God would become completely hidden, and creation would cease to exist. While real human
actions are the "Foundation" (Yesod) of this universe (Malchut), these actions must accompany the conscious intention of compassion. Compassionate actions
are often impossible without "Faith" (Emunah), meaning to trust that God always supports compassionate actions even when God
seems hidden. Ultimately, it is necessary to show compassion toward oneself too in order to share compassion toward others. This
"selfish" enjoyment of God's blessings but only if in order to empower oneself to assist others, is an important aspect of
"Restriction", and is considered a kind of golden mean in Kabbalah, corresponding
to the Sefirah of "Adornment" (Tiferet) being part of the "Middle Column".
Ten Sefirot as vowel sounds
The Scholar and Rabbi Solomon Judah Leib Rappaport notes that according
to the Masoretes there are ten vowel sounds. He suggests that the passage in Sefer Yetzirah, which discuss the manipulation of letters in the creation of the world, can be better
understood if the Sefirot refer to vowel sounds. He posits that the word sefirah in this case is related to the hebrew word
sippur - to retell. His position is based on his belief that most Kabbalistic works written after Sefer Yetzirah (including the
Zohar) are forgeries. (Igrot Shir(Heb.) "Letters of Shir) - available on Google Books)
See also: Kabbalistic use of the Tetragrammaton; Masseket Azilut; Four graduated worlds;
Tree of Life; Tree of
Kabbalistic understanding of God
Ein Sof(in-finite) and the emanation of angelic hierarchies (Universes or olamot עולמות)
Kabbalah teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the
creator of both, but is himself neither. But if God is so different from his creation, how can there be any interaction between
the Creator and the created?
This question prompted Kabbalists to envision two aspects of God, (a) God himself, who in the end is unknowable, and (b) the
revealed aspect of God that created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind. Kabbalists speak of the
first aspect of God as Ein Sof (אין סוף); this is translated as "the
infinite", "endless", or "that which has no limits". In this view, nothing can be said about this aspect of God. This aspect of
God is impersonal. The second aspect of divine emanations, however, is at least partially accessible to human thought. Kabbalists
believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but, through the mechanism of progressive emanation, complement one another.
See Divine simplicity; Tzimtzum. The structure of
these emanations have been characterized in various ways: Four "worlds" (Azilut, Yitzirah, Beriyah, and Asiyah), Sefirot, or Partzufim ("faces"). Later systems harmonize these models.
Some Kabbalistic scholars, such as Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, believe that all things
are linked to God through these emanations, making us all part of one great chain of being. Others, such as Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Lubavitch [Chabad]
Hasidism), hold that God is all that really exists; all else is completely
undifferentiated from God's perspective.
If improperly explained, such views can be interpreted as panentheism or pantheism. In truth, according to this philosophy, God's existence is higher than anything that this world can
express, yet He includes all things of this world down to the finest detail in such a perfect unity that His creation of the
world effected no change in Him whatsoever. This paradox is dealt with at length in the Chabad Chassidic texts.
Theodicy: explanation for the existence of evil
Kabbalistic works offer a theodicy, a philosophical reconciliation of how the existence of a
good and powerful God is compatible with the existence of evil in the world. There are mainly two different ways to describe why
there is evil in the world, according to the Kabbalah. Both make use of the kabbalistic Tree of Life:
The ten Sephiroth or 'emanations' of God
- The kabbalistic tree, which consists of ten Sephiroth, the ten "enumerations" or
"emanations" of God, consists of three "pillars": The left side of the tree, the
"female side", is considered to be more destructive than the right side, the "male side". Gevurah (גבורה, "Might"), for example, stands for strength and
discipline, while her male counterpart, Chesed
(חסד, "Mercy"), stands for love and mercy. Chesed is also known as
Gedulah (גדולה, "Glory"), as in the Tree of Life pictured to the right. The "center pillar" of the tree does not have any
polarity, and no gender is given to it. Thus evil is really an emanation of Divinity, a harsh byproduct of the "left side" of
- In the medieval era, this notion took on increasingly gnostic overtones. The Qliphoth (or Kelippot) ( קליפות, the primeval
"husks" of impurity) emanating from the left side were blamed for all the evil in the world. Qliphoth are the Sephirot out of balance. Sometimes the qliphoth are called the "death
angels", or "angels of death". References to a word related to "qlipoth" are found in some Babylonian incantations, a fact used
as evidence to argue the antiquity of kabbalistic material.
- Not all Kabbalists accepted this notion of evil being in such intimate relationship with God. Moses Cordovero (16th century) and Menasseh ben Israel (17th century) are two examples of
Kabbalists who claimed "No evil emanates from God." They located evil as a byproduct of human freedom, an idea also found in
mythic form in Rabbinic traditions that claim most demons are either the "dead of the flood" or products of human sexual
The human soul in Kabbalah
The Zohar posits that the human soul has three elements, the nefesh, ru'ach, and
neshamah. The nefesh is found in all humans, and enters the physical body at birth. It is the source of one's
physical and psychological nature. The next two parts of the soul are not implanted at birth, but can be developed over time;
their development depends on the actions and beliefs of the individual. They are said to only fully exist in people awakened
spiritually. A common way of explaining the three parts of the soul is as follows:
- Nefesh (נפש) - the lower part, or "animal part", of the soul. It is linked to instincts and bodily cravings.
- Ruach (רוח) - the middle soul, the "spirit". It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
- Neshamah (נשמה) - the higher soul, or "super-soul". This separates man from all other lifeforms. It is related to the
intellect, and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. This part of the soul is provided at birth and allows one to have some awareness of
the existence and presence of God.
The Raaya Meheimna, a section of related teachings spread throughout the Zohar, discusses the two other parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah (first mentioned in
the Midrash Rabbah). Gershom Scholem writes that these "were considered to represent the
sublimest levels of intuitive cognition, and to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals". The Chayyah and the
Yechidah do not enter into the body like the other three - thus they received less attention in other sections of the
- Chayyah (חיה) - The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.
- Yehidah (יחידה) - the highest plane of the soul, in which one can achieve as full a union with God as is
Both rabbinic and kabbalistic works posit that there are a few additional, non-permanent states of the soul that people can
develop on certain occasions. These extra souls, or extra states of the soul, play no part in any afterlife scheme, but are
mentioned for completeness:
- Ruach HaKodesh (רוח הקודש) - ("spirit of holiness") a state of the soul that makes prophecy possible. Since the age of
classical prophecy passed, no one (outside of Israel) receives the soul of prophesy any longer. See the teachings of
Abraham Abulafia for differing views of this matter.
- Neshamah Yeseira - The "supplemental soul" that a Jew can experience on Shabbat. It
makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment of the day. This exists only when one is observing Shabbat; it can be lost and
gained depending on one's observance.
- Neshamah Kedosha - Provided to Jews at the age of maturity (13 for boys, 12 for girls), and is related to the study
and fulfillment of the Torah commandments. It exists only when one studies and follows
Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one's study and observance.
The act whereby God "contracted" his infinite light, leaving a "void" into which the light of existence was poured. The primal
emanation became Azilut, the World of Light, from which the three lower worlds, Beriah, Yetzirah and Assiyah,
Among its many pre-occupations, Kabbalah teaches that every Hebrew letter, word,
number, even the accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contains a hidden sense; and it
teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings. One such method is as follows:
As early as the 1st Century BCE Jews believed that the Torah (first five books of the Bible) contained encoded message
and hidden meanings. Gematria is one method for discovering its hidden meanings. Each letter in Hebrew also represents a
number; Hebrew, unlike many other languages, never developed a separate numerical alphabet. By converting letters to numbers,
Kabbalists were able to find a hidden meaning in each word. This method of interpretation was used extensively by various
schools. An example would be the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria.
There is no one fixed way to "do" gematria. Some say there are up to 70 different methods. One simple procedure is as follows:
each syllable and/or letter forming a word has a characteristic numeric value. The sum of these numeric tags is the word's "key",
and that word may be replaced in the text by any other word having the same key. Through the application of many such procedures,
alternate or hidden meanings of scripture may be derived. Similar procedures are used by Islamic
mystics, as described by Idries Shah in his book, "The Sufis".
Divination and clairvoyance
Some Kabbalists have attempted to foretell events or know occult events by the Kabbalah. The term Kabbalah Maasit ("Practical
Kabbalah") is used to refer to secret science in general, mystic art, or mystery. Within Judaism proper, the foretelling of the
future through magical means is not permissible, not even with the Kabbalah.
However, there is no prohibition against understanding the past nor coming to a greater understanding of present and future
situations through inspiration gained by the Kabbalah (a subtle distinction and one often hard to delineate). The appeal to
occult power outside the monotheist deity for divinative purpose is unacceptable in Judaism, but at the same time it is held that
the righteous have access to occult knowledge. Such knowledge can come through dreams and incubation (inducing clairvoyant
dreams), metoscopy (reading faces, lines on the face, or auras emanating from the face), Ibburim and Maggidim (spirit
possession), and/or various methods of scrying (see Sefer Chasidim, Sefer ha-Hezyonot).
The Midrash and Talmud are replete with the use of Divine
names and incantations that are claimed to effect supernatural or theurgic results. Most post-Talmudic rabbinical literature seeks to curb the use of any or most of these formulae, termed Kabbalah
Ma'asit ("practical Kabbalah"). There are various arguments for this; one stated by the Medieval Rabbi Jacob Mölin
(Maharil) is that the person using it may lack the required
grounding, and the spell would be ineffective. Yet the interest in these rituals of power continued largely unabated until
recently. And in fact, since the Talmud exempts virtually all forms of magical healing from this prohibition ("Whatsoever effects
healing is not considered witchcraft" - Tractate Shabbat), there has been the widespread practice of medicinal sorcery,
amulets, and segullot (folk remedies) in Jewish societies across time and geography.
Other dramatic examples of such "practical" power include: the knowledge required to produce a Golem, a homunculus or artificial lifeform. Some adherents of Kabbalah
developed the idea of invoking a curse against a sinner termed a Pulsa diNura (lit.
"lashes of fire",) although the majority of Kabbalists reject the notion that a person can actually cause it.
Many kabbalistic rituals require the participation of more than one individual, e.g., the creation of a Golem, for which at
least three individuals are required. Further, Kabbalah itself can only be taught to a very small group of select individuals who
had mastered the other branches of Torah. For these reasons, the English word
"cabal" came to refer to any small, secretive and possibly conspiratorial group.
Kabbalah: Primary Texts:
- Main Article: Kabbalah: Primary Texts
Title page of first edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558 (Library of Congress).
Like the rest of the Rabbinic literature, the texts of Kabbalah were once part of an ongoing oral tradition, though, over the
centuries, many have been written up. They are mostly meaningless to readers who are unfamiliar with Jewish spirituality and
assume extensive knowledge of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Midrash
(Jewish hermeneutic tradition) and Halakhah (practical Jewish law). Nevertheless, Kabbalistic
literature uses powerful paradigms that are elegant, universal and easy for anyone to understand when pointed out.
Jewish forms of esotericism existed over 2,000 years ago. Ben Sira warns against it,
saying: "You shall have no business with secret things" (Sirach iii. 22; compare Talmud, Hagigah, 13a; Midrash
Genesis Rabbah, viii.). Nonetheless, mystical studies were undertaken and resulted in mystical literature, the first being
the Apocalyptic literature of the second and first pre-Christian centuries and
which contained elements that carried over to later Kabbalah.
Throughout the centuries since, many texts have been produced, among them the Heichalot literature, Sefer
Yetzirah, Bahir, Sefer Raziel HaMalakh and the Zohar.
See Kabbalah: Primary Texts.
Claims for authority
Historians have noted that most claims for the authority of Kabbalah involve an argument of the antiquity of authority (see,
e.g., Joseph Dan's discussion in his Circle of the Unique Cherub). As a result, virtually all works pseudepigraphically
claim, or are ascribed, ancient authorship. For example, Sefer Raziel
HaMalach, an astro-magical text partly based on a magical manual of late antiquity, Sefer
ha-Razim, was, according to the kabbalists, transmitted to Adam by the angel Raziel
after he was evicted from Eden.
Another famous work, the Sefer Yetzirah, supposedly dates back to the patriarch
Abraham. This tendency toward pseudepigraphy has
its roots in Apocalyptic literature, which claims that esoteric knowledge such as magic, divination and astrology was transmitted to humans in the mythic past by the two angels, Aza and Azaz'el (in other places, Azaz'el and Uzaz'el) who 'fell' from heaven (see Genesis 6:4) A similar belief prevails
in Islam, where the angels are named Harut and Marut (see Qur'an, Ch. 2: 102).
The appeal to antiquity has also shaped modern theories of influence in reconstructing the history of Jewish mysticism. The
oldest versions have been theorized to extend from Assyrian theology and mysticism. Dr. Simo
Parpola, professor of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki, remarks
on the general similarity between the Sefirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and the Tree of Life of Assyria. He
reconstructed what an Assyrian antecedent to the Sephiroth might look like, and noted parallels between the characteristics of En Sof
on the nodes of the Sefirot and the gods of Assyria. The Assyrians assigned specific numbers to
their gods, similar to the numbering of the Sefirot. However, the Assyrians use a sexagesimal number system, whereas the Sefiroth is decimal. With the
Assyrian numbers, additional layers of meaning and mystical relevance appear in the Sefirot. Normally, floating above the Assyrian Tree of
Life was the god Assur (god), corresponding to the Hebrew Ay
Sof, which is also, via a series of transformations, derived from the Assyrian word Assur.
Parpola re-interpreted various Assyrian tablets in terms of these primitive Sefirot, such as the Epic Of Gilgamesh. He proposed that the scribes had been writing philosophical-mystical tracts, rather than
mere adventure stories, and concluded that traces of this Assyrian mode of thought and philosophy eventually reappeared in
Greek Philosophy and the Kabbalah.
Skeptical scholars find attempts to read Kabbalah back into the pre-Israelite Ancient Near East, as Parpola does, to be
implausible. They point out that the doctrine of the Sefirot started to seriously develop only in the 12th century CE with the publication of the Bahir, and that for this
doctrine to have existed undocumented within Judaism from the time of the Assyrian empire (which fell from cultural hegemony in
the 7th century BCE) until it "resurfaced" 17–18 centuries later seems far-fetched. A
plausible alternative, based in the research of Gershom Scholem, the pre-eminent scholar
of Kabbalah in the 20th Century, is to see the Sefirot as a theosophical doctrine that emerged
out of Jewish word-mythology of late antiquity, as exemplified in Sefer Yetzirah, and the angelic-palace mysticism found
in Hekalot literature, and then fused to the Neo-Platonic notion of creation through progressive divine emanations.
Gnosticism frequently appears as an element of Kabbalah. Gnosticism ( systems of secret spiritual knowledge, or some sources
say, the concept of Hokhmah (חכמה "wisdom")) seems to have been the first attempt on the part of Jewish sages to give the
empirical mystic lore, with the help of Platonic and Pythagorean or Stoic ideas, a speculative turn. This led to the danger of
heresy from which the Jewish rabbinic figures Rabbi Akiva and Ben Zoma strove to extricate themselves.
- The original teachings of Gnosticism have much in common with Kabbalah:
- Core terminology of classical gnostics include using Jewish names of God.
- Mainstream Gnostics accepted a "Jewish Messiah" as a key figure of gnosticism
A key text of Gnosticism, the Apocryphon of John, mentions 365 powers who created the World. 365 is a number of
recurrent interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the solar year figuring prominently in the texts.
However, there are aspects of Gnosticism at odds with Kabbalah. Within most of the Christian Gnostic groups the Jewish creator
God was relegated to the status of a demi-urge. Their responses ranged from pity for what the Gnostics felt was an imperfect
Godhead, to identification of the Jewish God with evil.
Although Kabbalah propounds the Unity of God, one of the most serious and sustained criticisms is that it may lead away from
monotheism, and instead promote dualism, the belief that
there is a supernatural counterpart to God. The dualistic system holds that there is a good power versus an evil power. There are
two primary models of Gnostic-dualistic cosmology: the first, which goes back to Zoroastrianism, believes creation is ontologically divided between good and evil forces; the second,
found largely in Greco-Roman ideologies like Neo-Platonism, believes the universe knew a
primordial harmony, but that a cosmic disruption yielded a second, evil, dimension to reality. This second model influenced the
cosmology of the Kabbalah.
According to Kabbalistic cosmology, the Ten Sefirot correspond to ten levels of creation. These levels of creation must not be
understood as ten different "gods" but as ten different ways of revealing God, one per level. It is not God who changes but the
ability to perceive God that changes.
While God may seem to exhibit dual natures (masculine-feminine, compassionate-judgmental, creator-creation), all adherents of
Kabbalah have consistently stressed the ultimate unity of God. For example, in all discussions of Male and Female, the hidden
nature of God exists above it all without limit, being called the Infinite or the "No End" (Ein Sof) - neither one nor the other, transcending any definition. The ability of God to become
hidden from perception is called "Restriction" (Tsimtsum). Hiddenness makes creation possible
because God can become "revealed" in a diversity of limited ways, which then form the building blocks of creation.
- Later Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar, appear to more strongly affirm dualism, as they ascribe all evil to a
supernatural force known as the Sitra Ahra ("the other side") that emanates from God. The "left
side" of divine emanation is a negative mirror image of the "side of holiness" with which it was locked in combat.
[Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 6, "Dualism", p.244]. While this evil aspect exists within the divine structure of the
Sefirot, the Zohar indicates that the Sitra Ahra has no power over Ein Sof, and only exists as a necessary aspect of the
creation of God to give man free choice, and that evil is the consequence of this choice. It is not a supernatural force opposed
to God, but a reflection of the inner moral combat within mankind between the dictates of morality and the surrender to one's
- Rabbi Dr. David Gottlieb notes that many Kabbalists hold that the concepts of, e.g., a Heavenly Court or the Sitra Ahra are
only given to humanity by God as a working model to understand His ways within our own epistemological limits. They reject the notion that a Satan or
angels actually exist. Others hold that non-divine spiritual entities were indeed
created by God as a means for exacting his will.
- According to Kabbalists, humans cannot yet understand the infinity of God. Rather, there is God as revealed to humans
(corresponding to Zeir Anpin), and the rest of the infinity of God as remaining hidden from
human experience (corresponding to Arikh Anpin). One reading of this theology is monotheistic,
similar to panentheism; another a reading of the same theology is that it is dualistic.
Gershom Scholem writes:
"It is clear that with this postulate of an impersonal basic reality in God, which becomes a person - or appears as a person -
only in the process of Creation and Revelation, Kabbalism abandons the personalistic basis of the Biblical conception of
God....It will not surprise us to find that speculation has run the whole gamut - from attempts to re-transform the impersonal
En-Sof into the personal God of the Bible to the downright heretical doctrine of a genuine dualism between the hidden Ein
Sof and the personal Demiurge of Scripture." (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism Shocken Books p.11-12)
Perception of non-Jews
Another aspect of Kabbalah that Jewish critics object to is its metaphysics of the human soul. Since the Zohar was
written, most Kabbalistic works assume that Jewish and non-Jewish souls are fundamentally different. While all human souls
emanate from God, the Zohar posits that at least part of the Gentile soul emanates from the "left side" of the Sefirotic
structure and that non-Jews therefore have a dark or demonic aspect to them that is absent in Jews.
Later Kabbalistic works build and elaborate on this idea. The Hasidic work, the Tanya, fuses this idea with Judah ha-Levi's medieval philosophical argument for the uniqueness of the
Jewish soul, in order to argue that Jews have an additional level of soul that other humans do not possess.
Theologically framed hostility may be a response to the demonization of Jews which developed in Western and Christian society
and thought, starting with the Patristic Fathers. By the Middle Ages, Jews were widely characterized as minions of Satan, or even
devilish non-humans in their own right.
The Kabbalistic view concerning non-Jews can be compared with the Christian doctrine that baptized Christians form part of the
Body of Christ while (at least according to Augustine of Hippo) all others remain in the massa perditionis.
In an article that appears in The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth, David Halperin theorizes that the collapse of
Kabbalah's influence among Western European Jews over the course of the 17th and 18th Century was a result of the cognitive
dissonance they experienced between Kabbalah's very negative perception of gentiles and their own dealings with non-Jews, which
were rapidly expanding and improving during this period due to the influence of the Enlightenment.
Modern Judaism has rejected, or at least dismissed, this outdated aspect of Kabbalah as non-relevant
, as it possibly persists in only the most recondite and anti-modernist corners of the Jewish
Critique: Orthodox Judaism
The idea that there are ten divine sefirot could evolve over time into the idea that "God is One being, yet in that One
being there are Ten" which opens up a debate about what the "correct beliefs" in God should be, according to Judaism.
- Rabbi Saadia Gaon teaches in his book Emunot
v'Deot that Jews who believe in reincarnation have adopted a non-Jewish
- Maimonides (12th Century) belittled many of the texts of the Hekalot, particularly in the work Shiur Komah with its starkly anthropomorphic vision of
- Rabbi Avraham ben haRambam, in the spirit of his father Maimonides, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, and other predecessors, explains at
length in his book Milhhamot HaShem that the Almighty is in no way literally within time or space nor physically outside
time or space, since time and space simply do not apply to His Being whatsoever. This is in contrast to certain popular
understandings of modern Kabbalah which teach a form of panentheism, that His 'essence' is
- Around the 1230s, Rabbi Meir ben Simon of Narbonne wrote an epistle (included in his
Milhhemet Mitzvah) against his contemporaries, the early Kabbalists, characterizing them as blasphemers who even approach
heresy. He particularly singled out the Sefer Bahir, rejecting the attribution of its authorship
to the tanna R. Nehhunya ben ha-Kanah and describing some of its content as
- Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet, (The Rivash), 1326-1408, stated that Kabbalah was "worse than Christianity", as it made God into 10,
not just into three. Most followers of Kabbalah have never followed this interpretation of Kabbalah, on the grounds that the
concept of the Christian Trinity posits that there are three persons existing within the Godhead, one of whom became a human
being. In contrast, the mainstream understanding of the Kabbalistic Sefirot holds that they have no mind or intelligence;
further, they are not addressed in prayer and they cannot become a human being. They are conduits for interaction, not persons or
beings. Nonetheless, many important poskim, such as Maimonidies in his work Mishneh Torah, prohibit any use of mediators between oneself and the Creator as a form of idolatry.
- Rabbi Leone di Modena, a 17th century Venetian critic
of Kabbalah, wrote that if we were to accept the Kabbalah, then the Christian trinity would indeed be compatible with Judaism, as
the Trinity closely resembles the Kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot. This critique was in response to the knowledge that
some European Jews of the period addressed individual Sefirot in some of their prayers, although the practise was
apparently uncommon. Apologists explain that Jews may have been praying for and not necessarily to the aspects of
Godliness represented by the Sefirot.
- Rabbi Yaakov Emden, 1697-1776, wrote the book Mitpahhath Sfarim (Scarf/Veil of
the Books), a detailed critique of the Zohar in which he concludes that certain parts of the Zohar contain
heretical teaching and therefore could not have been written by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.
Opponents of his work claim that he wrote the book in a drunken stupor. Emden's rationalistic approach to this work, however,
makes neither intoxication nor stupor seem plausible.
- Rabbi Yihhyah Qafahh, an early 20th century Yemenite
Jewish leader and grandfather of Rabbi Yosef Qafih, also wrote a book entitled
Milhhamoth HaShem, (Wars of the L-RD) against what he perceived as the false teachings of the Zohar and the false
kabbalah of Isaac Luria. He is credited with spearheading the Dor
Daim who continue in R. Yihhyah Qafahh's view of Kabbalah into modern times.
- Yeshayahu Leibowitz 1903-1994, brother of Nechama Leibowitz, though Modern Orthodox in his
world view, publicly shared the views expressed in R. Yihhyah Qafahh's book Milhhamoth HaShem and elaborated upon these
views in his many writings.
- There is dispute among modern Haredim as to the status of Isaac Luria's, the Arizal's kabbalistic teachings. While a portion of
Modern Orthodox Rabbis, Dor Daim and many
students of the Rambam, Maimonides, completely reject Arizal's kabbalistic teachings, as well as
deny that the Zohar is authoritative, or from Shimon bar Yohai, all three of
these groups completely accept the existence Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh B'resheyt mysticism. Their only
disagreement concerns whether the Kabbalistic teachings promulgated today are accurate representations of those esoteric
teachings to which the Talmud refers. Within the Haredi Jewish community one can find rabbis who both sympathize with such a
view, while not necessarily agreeing with it, as well as rabbis who consider such a view absolute
Critique: Conservative and Reform Judaism
Since all forms of reform or liberal Judaism are rooted in the Enlightenment and
tied to the assumptions of European modernity, Kabbalah tended to be rejected by most Jews in the Conservative and Reform movements, though its influences
were not completely eliminated. While it was generally not studied as a discipline, the Kabbalistic Kabbalat Shabbat
service remained part of liberal liturgy, as did the Yedid Nefesh prayer. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, Rabbi
Saul Lieberman of the Jewish
Theological Seminary, is reputed to have introduced a lecture by Scholem on Kabbalah with a statement that Kabbalah itself
was "nonsense", but the academic study of Kabbalah was "scholarship". This view became popular among many Jews, who viewed the
subject as worthy of study, but who did not accept Kabbalah as teaching literal truths.
According to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (Dean of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinical
Studies in the University of Judaism), "many western Jews insisted that their future and their freedom required shedding what
they perceived as parochial orientalism. They fashioned a Judaism that was decorous and strictly rational (according to
19th-century European standards), denigrating Kabbalah as backward, superstitious, and marginal".
However, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries there has been a revival in interest in Kabbalah in all branches of liberal
Judaism. The Kabbalistic 12th century prayer Ani'im Zemirot was restored to the new Conservative Sim Shalom
siddur, as was the B'rikh Shmeh passage from the Zohar, and the mystical Ushpizin service welcoming to the Sukkah the
spirits of Jewish forbearers. Ani'im Zemirot and the 16th Century mystical poem Lekhah Dodi reappeared in the
Reform Siddur Gates of Prayer in 1975. All Rabbinical seminaries now teach several courses in Kabbalah, and both the
Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles have fulltime instructors in Kabbalah and Hasidut, Eitan Fishbane and Pinchas Geller,
respectively. Reform Rabbis like Herbert Weiner and Lawrence Kushner have renewed interest in Kabbalah among Reform Jews.
According to Artson "Ours is an age hungry for meaning, for a sense of belonging, for holiness. In that search, we have
returned to the very Kabbalah our predecessors scorned. The stone that the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone
(Psalm 118:22)... Kabbalah was the last universal theology adopted by the entire Jewish people, hence faithfulness to our
commitment to positive-historical Judaism mandates a reverent receptivity to Kabbalah".
Also see Neo-Hasidism
A recent revival of Kabbalah has been initiated by Rav Philip Berg in Los Angeles in 1984 in the foundation of the Kabbalah Centre and
run by him and his sons, Yehuda and Michael. With a number of branches worldwide, the group has attracted many non-Jews,
including entertainment celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Mick
Jagger, Britney Spears, Leonardo
DiCaprio, Paris Hilton, Steve Carrel and
Anthony Kiedis. To its proponents, the Kabbalah Centre is a spiritual organization which
teaches the principles of Kabbalah in a unique and user-friendly system accessible to anyone, regardless of religion, race or
gender. To its detractors, the Kabbalah Centre has been described as an "opportunistic offshoot of the faith, with charismatic
leaders who try to attract the rich and vulnerable with the promise of health, wealth, and happiness." The Kabbalah Centre
comprises Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and students and is not supported by the greater part of the Jewish religious
establishment. Jewish organizations frequently distinguish it as non-Jewish and often consider participation by Jews in it to be
a problem since classical Judaism forbids Jews to participate with non-Jews in religious rituals.
The Kabbalah Centre embraces many of the criticisms applied to it by traditional Judaism, by pointing out that these
criticisms only prove the insidious tendency for organized religion, Jewish or otherwise, to ultimately preach superiority and
exclusion rather than universal love and equality, which the Kabbalah Centre maintains is the single most important foundation of
Kabbalah itself, both of the traditional variety and that expounded at the "Centre".
Kabbalah in non-Jewish society:
Kabbalah has gained an audience outside of the Jewish community. Christian
understandings of Kabbalah began in the 15th Century with Pico Della
Mirandola's 900 thesis on the syncretism of religions. By the late 19th century several western esoteric groups existed
which incorporated Kabbalistic principles into their corpus. Because of the influence of these magical orders on Wicca and
neo-paganism many Kabbalistic concepts are inherent in present day western mystical practice.
Hermetic Qabbalah ( from the Hebrew קַבָּלָה "reception"), is a western, esoteric, mystical tradition which is a precursor to
the neo-Pagan, Wiccan and New Age movements which draws on a great many influences, most notably; Jewish Kabbalah, western
astrology, tarot, alchemy, pagan religions (especially Egyptian and Greco-Roman), Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, the Enochian system
of angelic magic of John Dee, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and Tantra. It differs from the Jewish form in being a
more admittedly syncretic system while still retaining many concepts deriving from Jewish Kabbalah.
Christian Kabbalah arose during the Renaissance as a
result of the studies of, and translations by, Christian Hebraists. The invention of
the printing press also played its part in the wider dissemination of texts. Among the first to promote the knowledge of Kabbalah
beyond exclusively Jewish circles was Pico della Mirandola (1463 -
1494) a student of
Marsilio Ficino at his Florentine Academy. His syncretic world-view combined Platonism,
Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, Hermeticism and Kabbalah. Mirandola's work on Kabbalah was further developed by Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680), a Jesuit priest, hermeticist and polymath, who wrote on the subject
in Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1652. Though they both worked from within the Christian tradition, both were more interested in
the syncretic approach. Their work led directly into Occult and Hermetic Qabalah.
That could not be said of Reuchlin, Rosenroth and Kemper. Johann Reuchlin, (1455 -
1522), was a German humanist and a scholar of Greek and Hebrew. For much of his life, he was the centre of Greek and Hebrew
teaching in Germany. Having met with Mirandola in Italy, he later studied Hebrew with a Jewish physician, Jakob ben Jehiel Loans,
producing thereafter De Arte Cabbalistica in (1517). The following century produced Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, (1631–1689), a Christian Hebraist who studied Kabbalah, in
which he believed to find proofs of the doctrines of Christianity, as did Johann Kemper, whose tenure at Uppsala University
lasted from 1697-1716. Kemper, formerly known as Aaron of Cracow, was a convert from Judaism and Swedenborg's probable Hebrew tutor. During his time at Uppsala (1697-1716), he wrote his three-volume
work on the Zohar entitled Matteh Mosche (The Staff of Moses), in which he tried to show that it contained
the Christian doctrine of the trinity. This belief also drove him to make a literal translation of Matthew's Gospel
into Hebrew and to write a kabbalistic commentary on it.
Emanation: Eastern Orthodox Christianity
The Kabbalistic concept of emanation can be compared to the statements made by fourteenth-century Eastern Orthodox theologian Gregory Palamas. He drew a
distinction between God's essence and energies, affirming
that God was unknowable in His essence, but knowable in His energies. Palamas never enumerated God's energies, but described them
as ways that God could act in the universe, and particularly on people, from the light shining from the face of Moses after he
descended from Mt. Sinai, to the light surrounding Moses, Elijah and Jesus on Mt. Tabor during the transfiguration of Jesus. For
Palamas, God's energies were not separate from God, but were God. However, the idea of energies was kept distinct from the idea
of the three Persons of the Trinity, the unity of the Three Persons of the Trinity being united by God's transcendent
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition a similar example is found in the writings and system of Nikitas Stithatos:
"Nikitas Stithatos' decad has affinities with the decads of both the foregoing theories (kabbalistic and pythagorean decads),
although it cannot be identified with either. It has roots in the conception of the celestial hierarchy or concatenation
formulated by St Dionysios the Areopagite. This hierarchy constitues a threefold structure, each level of which consists of three
orders or ranks of celestial intelligences, giving a total of nine such interlocking and mutually participating orders. The
function of the lowest of these orders, that of the angels, has two aspects. The first is to transmit the divine grace and
illumination, which it has received from God through the meditation of the orders about it, to the order below it, the human
order, that taken as a whole thus represents the tenth order, the second is to convert the human intelligence, the "finest of all
the offerings; that can be made by this human order, so that it mounts upward and stage by stage returns, again through the
meditation of the celestial hierarchy, to a state of union with its divine source and in this way achieves Divinization. This
double meditation descending and ascending, constitues the cyclic movement...."
He further states in On Spiritual Knowledge, verse 99 that, "The nine heavenly powers sing hymns of praise that have a
threefold structure...." The Highest Rank: Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. The Middle Rank: Authorities, Dominions and Powers.
The Lowest Rank: Principalities, Archangels and Angels. Humanity is the last component to complete the Decad.
- ^ Megillah 14a, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:22,Ruth Rabbah 1:2, Aryeh Kaplan
“Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide” p.44 - p.48
- ^ See "Preface to the Wisdom of Truth" p.12 section 30 and p.105 bottom
section of the left column as preface to the "Talmud Eser HaSfirot" by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ha-Levi Ashlag (Yehuda Ashlag)
- ^ a b Artson,
Bradley Shavit. From the Periphery to the Centre: Kabbalah and the Conservative Movement, United Synagogue Review,
Spring 2005, Vol. 57 No. 2
- ^ Parpola S. 1993. The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish
Monotheism and Greek Philosophy. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 52(3) pp161-208
- Deepak Chopra and Mike "Zappy" Zapolin Ask The Kabala Oracle Cards/ Kabala Guidebook ISBN 978-1401910396
- Aivanhov, Omraam Mikhael The Fruits Of The Tree Of Life (The kabbalistic
Tradition), ISBN 2-85566-467-5
- Kaplan, Aryeh Inner Space: Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy.
Moznaim Publishing Corp 1990.
- Bodoff, Lippman, "Jewish Mysticism: Medieval Roots, Contemporary Dangers and Prospective Challenges": The Edah Journal 2003
- Dan, J., The Early Jewish Mysticism, Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1993.
- __________, The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences, New York: Oxford University Press,
- __________, “Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah,” AJS Review, vol. 5, 1980.
- __________, The ‘Unique Cherub’ Circle, Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1999.
- Dan, J. and Kiener, R., The Early Kabbalah, Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986.
- Dennis, G., The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, St. Paul: Llewellyn Wordwide, 2007.
- Fine, L., ed., Essential Papers in Kabbalah, New York: NYU Press, 1995.
- ____________, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship, Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2003.
- ____________, Safed Spirituality, Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1989.
- ____________, ed., Judaism in Practice, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
- Idel, M., The Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, New York: SUNY Press, 1990.
- _________, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic, New York: SUNY Press, 1995.
- _________, “Kabbalistic Prayer and Color,” Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, D. Blumenthal, ed., Chicago: Scholar’s
- _________, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, New York, SUNY Press, 1988.
- _________, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, New Haven: Yale Press, 1988.
- _________, “Magic and Kabbalah in the ‘Book of the Responding Entity,’” in The Solomon Goldman Lectures VI, Chicago: Spertus
College of Judaica Press, 1993.
- _________, “The Story of Rabbi Joseph della Reina,” in Behayahu, M., Studies and Texts on the History of the Jewish Community
- John W. McGinley, 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly; ISBN
- Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah, Jewish Publication Society.
- Dominique Aubier, Don Quijote, Profeta y cabalista, ISBN 84-300-4527-9
- Wineberg, Yosef. Lessons in Tanya: The Tanya of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (5 volume set). Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch,
1998. ISBN 0-8266-0546-X
- The Wisdom of The Zohar: An Anthology of Texts, 3 volume set, Ed. Isaiah Tishby, translated from the Hebrew by David
Goldstein, The Littman Library.
- Green, Arthur. EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003.
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a
publication now in the public domain.
Kabbalah in film and fiction
- In Sidney Lumet's 1992 film A Stranger Among
Us, a Hasidic rebbe's son is studying the
Kabbalah, which is considered daring for a man under 40--he is in his mid-20's.
- Guy Ritchie's 2005 film, Revolver,
functions as a Kabbalistic cinematic text on liberation of the self from the material world. It implies that those who are
'enlightened' by this process are able to control the material world in ways that were previously unachievable.
- Umberto Eco's 1989 novel Foucault's
Pendulum weaves Kabbalistic concepts into an imagined global conspiracy involving Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, druidism,
and the Knights Templar. The book's ten sections are named after the ten Sefiroth.
- In the 1997 X-Files episode Kaddish, a widow whose husband was murdered by white supremacists for being Jewish uses her
father's Sefer Yetzirah to bring her husband back to life as a golem for one last chance to say goodbye.
- In The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler is plotting a murder mystery
which takes place in 16th century Portugal.
- Another novel that deals with Jewish mysticism and mythology is The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne.
- In Darren Aronofsky's Pi, number theorist Max Cohen is pursued by a group of Kabbalah mysticists who are trying to unlock the
secrets of the Torah through numbers.
- Kabbalistic themes and symbols figure heavily in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion
- The comic Promethea by Alan Moore features a Thelemic
version of the Qabalah. Over a number of issues, the characters undergo a journey that
takes them along the 32nd path, through most of the stations of the Qabalah.
- The storylines in the video game series Xenosaga, and its predecessor Xenogears, borrow Kabbalistic names, concepts, and symbols. They also include such things from other subjects
that borrow from Kabbalah, like alchemy and, by extension, the writings of Carl Jung. Characters, objects, and events featured in the storylines are named for Kabbalistic symbols, as
well as alchemic and Jungian symbols based on Kabbalah, like Rubedo, whitening, the Zohar, and the Path of Sefiroth.
- The storyline of the manga 666 Satan has a Kabbalah and a reverse Kabbalah (upside down
Kabbalah) positioned at the north and south pole of the world, which absorb 10 angels (Kabbalah) and 10 demons (reverse Kabbalah)
in order to unlock their power as a weapon.
Unconventional and non-traditional sites
Folk and pop Kabbalah sites
General information sites
Online rabbinic Kabbalah texts
Online Hasidic Kabbalah texts
Jewish Kabbalah organizations
Non-rabbinical Jewish Kabbalah
Jewish criticisms of Kabbalah
Portal and commons
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