Kabbalah (in Hebrew קַבָּלָה literally “parallel/corresponding,” or “received tradition”) is an esoteric method, discipline, and school of thought that originated in Judaism. A traditional Kabbalist in Judaism is called a Mekubbal (מְקוּבָּל).
Kabbalah’s definition varies according to the tradition and aims of those following it, from its religious origin as an integral part of Judaism, to its later Christian, New Age, and Occultist/western esoteric syncretic adaptations. Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal, and mysterious Ein Sof (infinity) and the mortal and finite universe (GOD’s creation). While it is heavily used by some denominations, it is not a religious denomination in itself. It forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation. Kabbalah seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions. It also presents methods to aid understanding of the concepts and thereby attain spiritual realisation.
Kabbalah originally developed within the realm of Jewish tradition, and kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Bible (Tanakh) and traditional Rabbinic literature and their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.
Traditional practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date world religions, forming the primordial blueprint for Creation’s philosophies, religions, sciences, arts, and political systems. Historically, Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th- to 13th-century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. Safed Rabbi Isaac Luria is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah. It was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century onwards. Twentieth-century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation.
The Kabbalistic activity were kept hidden for Centuries, the mystics worn that this practices is too dangerous for average people to attempt. Ancients legends tell us about people being driven crazy on even dying because unprepared for the power spiritual forces they have unleash.
If you are not pure enough, or you are not modest enough then GOD might not except you, then GOD might not let you go through that Journey.
According to the Zohar, a foundational text for kabbalistic thought, Torah study can proceed along four levels of interpretation (exegesis). These four levels are called pardes from their initial letters (PRDS Hebrew: פרדס, orchard).
- Peshat (Hebrew: פשט lit. “simple”): the direct interpretations of meaning.
- Remez (Hebrew: רמז lit. “hint[s]”): the allegoric meanings (through allusion).
- Derash (Hebrew: דרש from Heb. darash: “inquire” or “seek”): midrashic (Rabbinic) meanings, often with imaginative comparisons with similar words or verses.
- Sod (Hebrew: סוד lit. “secret” or “mystery”): the inner, esoteric (metaphysical) meanings, expressed in kabbalah.
Kabbalah is considered by its followers as a necessary part of the study of Torah – the study of Torah (the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature) being an inherent duty of observant Jews.
Modern academic-historical study of Jewish mysticism reserves the term “kabbalah” to designate the particular, distinctive doctrines that textually emerged fully expressed in the Middle Ages, as distinct from the earlier Merkabah mystical concepts and methods. According to this descriptive categorisation, both versions of Kabbalistic theory, the medieval-Zoharic and the early-modern Lurianic kabbalah together comprise the theosophical tradition in Kabbalah, while the meditative-ecstatic Kabbalah incorporates a parallel inter-related Medieval tradition. A third tradition, related but more shunned, involves the magical aims of Practical Kabbalah. Moshe Idel, for example, writes that these 3 basic models can be discerned operating and competing throughout the whole history of Jewish mysticism, beyond the particular Kabbalistic background of the Middle Ages. They can be readily distinguished by their basic intent with respect to GOD:
- The Theosophical tradition of Theoretical Kabbalah (the main focus of the Zohar and Luria) seeks to understand and describe the divine realm. As an alternative to rationalist Jewish philosophy, particularly Maimonides’ Aristotelianism, this speculation became the central component of Kabbalah
- The Ecstatic tradition of Meditative Kabbalah (exemplified by Abulafia and Isaac of Acre) strives to achieve a mystical union with GOD. Abraham Abulafia’s “Prophetic Kabbalah” was the supreme example of this, though marginal in Kabbalistic development, and his alternative to the program of theosophical Kabbalah
- The Magico-theurgical tradition of Practical Kabbalah (in often unpublished manuscripts) endeavours to alter both the Divine realms and the World. While some interpretations of prayer see its role as manipulating heavenly forces, Practical Kabbalah properly involved white-magical acts, and was censored by kabbalists for only those completely pure of intent. Consequently, it formed a separate minor tradition shunned from Kabbalah. Practical Kabbalah was prohibited by the Arizal until the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt and the required state of ritual purity is attainable.:31
According to traditional belief, early kabbalistic knowledge was transmitted orally by the Patriarchs, Prophets, and sages (hakhamim in Hebrew), eventually to be “interwoven” into Jewish religious writings and culture. According to this view, early kabbalah was, in around the 10th century BC, an open knowledge practiced by over a million people in ancient Israel. 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.
It is hard to clarify with any degree of certainty the exact concepts within kabbalah. There are several different schools of thought with very different outlooks; however, all are accepted as correct. Modern halakhic authorities have tried to narrow the scope and diversity within kabbalah, by restricting study to certain texts, notably Zohar and the teachings of Isaac Luria as passed down through Hayyim ben Joseph Vital. However, even this qualification does little to limit the scope of understanding and expression, as included in those works are commentaries on Abulafian writings, Sefer Yetzirah, Albotonian writings, and the Berit Menuhah, which is known to the kabbalistic elect and which, as described more recently by Gershom Scholem, combined ecstatic with theosophical mysticism. It is therefore important to bear in mind when discussing things such as the sephirot and their interactions that one is dealing with highly abstract concepts that at best can only be understood intuitively.
Jewish and non-Jewish Kabbalah
According to the traditional understanding, Kabbalah dates from Eden. It came down from a remote past as a revelation to elect Tzadikim (righteous people), and, for the most part, was preserved only by a privileged few. Talmudic Judaism records its view of the proper protocol for teaching this wisdom, as well as many of its concepts, in the Talmud, Tractate Hagigah, 11b-13a, “One should not teach … the Act of Creation in pairs, nor the Act of the Chariot to an individual, unless he is wise and can understand the implications himself etc.”
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 cultural milieu of that historical period. Answers to questions of transmission, lineage, influence, and innovation vary greatly and cannot be easily summarised.
Originally, Kabbalistic knowledge was believed to be an integral part of the Oral Torah, given by GOD to Moses on Mount Sinai around the 13th century BCE according to its followers; although some believe that Kabbalah began with Adam.
For a few centuries the esoteric knowledge was referred to by its aspect practice—meditation Hitbonenut (Hebrew: התבוננות), Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Hitbodedut (Hebrew: התבודדות), 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 5th century BCE, when the works of the Tanakh were edited and canonised 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”. Merkabah 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 Hagigah.
Mystic elements of the Torah
When read by later generations of Kabbalists, the Torah’s description of the creation in the Book of Genesis reveals mysteries about GOD Himself, 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 supernatural entities with the Serpent which leads to disaster when they eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in Genesis 3.
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 Torah that form the origin of Jewish mystical beliefs.
The 72 letter name of GOD which is used in Jewish mysticism for meditation purposes is derived from the Hebrew verbal utterance Moses spoke in the presence of an angel, while the Sea of Reeds 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.
In early rabbinic Judaism (the early centuries of the 1st 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 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).
Talmudic doctrine forbade the public teaching of esoteric doctrines and warned of their dangers. In the Mishnah (Hagigah 2:1), rabbis were warned to teach the mystical creation doctrines only to one student at a time. To highlight the danger, in one Jewish aggadic (“legendary”) anecdote, four prominent rabbis of the Mishnaic period (1st century CE) are said to have visited the Orchard (that is, Paradise, pardes, Hebrew: פרדס lit., orchard):
Four men entered pardes—Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher (Elisha ben Abuyah), and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.
In notable readings of this legend, only Rabbi Akiba was fit to handle the study of mystical doctrines. The Tosafot, medieval commentaries on the Talmud, say that the four sages “did not go up literally, but it appeared to them as if they went up”. On the other hand, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, writes in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906) that the journey to paradise “is to be taken literally and not allegorically”.
The mystical methods and doctrines of Hekhalot (Heavenly “Chambers”) and Merkabah (Divine “Chariot”) texts, named by modern scholars from these repeated motifs, lasted from the 1st century BCE through to the 10th century, before giving way to the documented manuscript emergence of Kabbalah. Initiates were said to “descend the chariot”, possibly a reference to internal introspection on the Heavenly journey through the spiritual realms. The ultimate aim was to arrive before the transcendent awe, rather than nearness, of the Divine. From the 8th to 11th centuries, the Hekhalot texts, and the proto-Kabbalistic early Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Creation”) made their way into European Jewish circles.
Medieval emergence of the Kabbalah
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.
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) (died 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 (Book of “Brightness”).
Many 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
Following the upheavals and dislocations in the Jewish world as a result of anti-Judaism during the Middle Ages, and the national trauma of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, closing the Spanish Jewish flowering, Jews began to search for signs of when the long-awaited the Messiah would come to comfort them in their painful exiles. In the 16th century, the community of Safed in the Galilee became the centre of Jewish mystical, exegetical, legal and liturgical developments. The Safed mystics responded to the Spanish expulsion by turning Kabbalistic doctrine and practice towards a messianic focus. Moses Cordovero and his school popularized the teachings of the Zohar which had until then been only a restricted work. Cordovero’s comprehensive works achieved the systemisation of preceding Kabbalah. The author of the Shulkhan Arukh (the normative Jewish “Code of Law”), Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488–1575), was also a scholar of Kabbalah who kept a personal mystical diary. Moshe Alshich wrote a mystical commentary on the Torah, and Shlomo Alkabetz wrote Kabbalistic commentaries and poems.
The messianism of the Safed mystics culminated in Kabbalah receiving its biggest transformation in the Jewish world with the explication of its new interpretation from Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), by his disciples Hayim Vital and Israel Sarug. Both transcribed Luria’s teachings (in variant forms) gaining them widespread popularity, Sarug taking Lurianic Kabbalah to Europe, Vital authoring the latterly canonical version. 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.
Ban on studying Kabbalah
“I have seen it written that the prohibition from Above to refrain from open study in the wisdom of truth was only for a limited period, until the end of 1490, but from then on the prohibition has been lifted and permission was granted to study the Zohar. Since 1540 it has been a great Mitzva (commandment) for the masses to study in public, old and young… and that is because the Messiah will come because of that and not because of any other reason. Therefore, we must not be negligent.”
(Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Azulai, Introduction to the book, Ohr HaChama [Light of the Sun])
The ban on studying Kabbalah was lifted by the efforts of the 16th-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].”
The question, however, is whether the ban ever existed in the first place. Concerning the above quote by Avraham Azulai, it has found many versions in English, another is this
“From the year 1540 and onward, the basic levels of Kabbalah must be taught publicly to everyone, young and old. Only through Kabbalah will we forever eliminate war, destruction, and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.”
The lines concerning the year 1490 are also missing from the Hebrew edition of Hesed L’Avraham, the source work that both of these quote from. Furthermore, by Azulai’s view the ban was lifted thirty years before his birth, a time that would have corresponded with Haim Vital’s publication of the teaching of Isaac Luria. Moshe Isserles understood there to be only a minor restriction, in his words, “One’s belly must be full of meat and wine, discerning between the prohibited and the permitted.” He is supported by the Bier Hetiv, the Pithei Teshuva as well as the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon says, “There was never any ban or enactment restricting the study of the wisdom of Kabbalah. Any who says there is has never studied Kabbalah, has never seen PaRDeS, and speaks as an ignoramus.”
Modern-era traditional Kabbalah
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746), based in Italy, was a precocious Talmudic scholar who deduced a need for the public teaching and study of Kabbalah. He established a yeshiva for Kabbalah study and actively recruited students. He wrote copious manuscripts in an appealing clear Hebrew style, all of which gained the attention of both admirers and rabbinical critics, who feared another “Shabbetai Zevi” (false messiah) in the making. His rabbinical opponents forced him to close his school, 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 serve as a gateway to the world of Jewish mysticism.
Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (Vilna Gaon) (1720–1797), based in Lithuania, had his teachings encoded and publicised by his disciples, such as Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, who (poshumously) published the mystical-ethical work Nefesh HaChaim. He staunchly opposed 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 did not look with favor on 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).
In the Oriental tradition of Kabbalah, Shalom Sharabi (1720–1777) from Yemen was a major esoteric clarifier of the works of the Ari. The Beit El Synagogue, “yeshivah of the kabbalists”, which he came to head, was one of the few communities to bring Lurianic meditation into communal prayer.
In the 20th century, Yehuda Ashlag (1885—1954) in Mandate Palestine became a leading esoteric kabbalist in the traditional mode, who translated the Zohar into Hebrew with a new approach in Lurianic Kabbalah.
Jewish mysticism has influenced the thought of some major Jewish theologians in the 20th century, outside of Kabbalistic or Hasidic traditions. The first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook was a mystical thinker who drew heavily on Kabbalistic notions through his own poetic terminology. His writings are concerned with fusing the false divisions between sacred and secular, rational and mystical, legal and imaginative. Students of Joseph B. Soloveitchik, figurehead of American Modern Orthodox Judaism have read the influence of Kabbalistic symbols in his philosophical works. Neo-Hasidism, rather than Kabbalah, shaped Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Conservative Judaism. Lurianic symbols of Tzimtzum and Shevirah have informed Holocaust theologians.
Concealed and revealed GOD
The nature of the divine prompted kabbalists to envision two aspects to GOD: (a) GOD in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable, limitless Divine simplicity, and (b) GOD in manifestation, the revealed persona of GOD through which he creates and sustains and relates to mankind. Kabbalists speak of the first as Ein/Ayn Sof (אין סוף “the infinite/endless”, literally “that which has no limits”). Of the impersonal Ein Sof nothing can be grasped. The second aspect of divine emanations, however, are accessible to human perception, dynamically interacting throughout spiritual and physical existence, reveal the divine immanently, and are bound up in the life of man. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but complement one another, emanations revealing the concealed mystery from within the Godhead.
The Zohar reads the first words of Genesis, BeReishit Bara Elohim – In the beginning GOD created, as “With the level of “Reishit-Beginning” the Ein Sof created ELOHIM-GOD’s manifestation in creation:
“At the very beginning the King made engravings in the supernal purity. A spark of blackness emerged in the sealed within the sealed, from the mystery of the Ayn Sof, a mist within matter, implanted in a ring, no white, no black, no red, no yellow, no colour at all. When He measured with the standard of measure, He made colours to provide light. Within the spark, in the innermost part, emerged a source, from which the colours are painted below; it is sealed among the sealed things of the mystery of Ayn Sof. It penetrated, yet did not penetrate its air. It was not known at all until, from the pressure of its penetration, a single point shone, sealed, supernal. Beyond this point nothing is known, so it is called reishit (beginning): the first word of all…” “
The structure of emanations has been described in various ways: Sephirot (divine attributes) and Partzufim (divine “faces”), Ohr (spiritual light and flow), Names of GOD and the supernal Torah, Olamot (Spiritual Worlds), a Divine Tree and Archetypal Man, Angelic Chariot and Palaces, male and female, enclothed layers of reality, inwardly holy vitality and external Kelipot shells, 613 channels (“limbs” of the King) and the divine souls in man. These symbols are used to describe various parts and aspects of the model.
The Sephirot (also spelled “sefirot”; singular sefirah) are the ten emanations and attributes of GOD with which He continually sustains the existence of the universe. The Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts elaborate on the emergence of the sephirot from a state of concealed potential in the Ein Sof until their manifestation in the mundane world. In particular, Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (known as “the Ramak”), describes how GOD emanated the myriad details of finite reality out of the absolute unity of Divine light via the ten sephirot, or vessels.
Comparison of the Ramak’s counting with Luria’s, describes dual rational and unconscious aspects of Kabbalah. Two metaphors are used to describe the sephirot, their theocentric manifestation as the Trees of Life and Knowledge, and their anthropocentric correspondence in man, exemplified as Adam Kadmon. This dual-directional perspective embodies the cyclical, inclusive nature of the divine flow, where alternative divine and human perspectives have validity. The central metaphor of man allows human understanding of the sephirot, as they correspond to the psychological faculties of the soul, and incorporate masculine and feminine aspects after Genesis 1:27 (“GOD created man in His own image, in the image of GOD He created him, male and female He created them”). Corresponding to the last sefirah in Creation is the indwelling shekhinah (Feminine Divine Presence). Downward flow of divine Light in Creation forms the supernal Four Worlds; Atziluth, Beri’ah, Yetzirah and Assiah manifesting the dominance of successive sephirot towards action in this world. The acts of man unite or divide the Heavenly masculine and feminine aspects of the sephirot, their anthropomorphic harmony completing Creation. As the spiritual foundation of Creation, the sephirot correspond to the names of God in Judaism and the particular nature of any entity.
Ten Sephirot as process of Creation
According to Lurianic cosmology, the sephirot correspond to various levels of creation (ten sephirot in each of the Four Worlds, and four worlds within each of the larger four worlds, each containing ten sephirot, which themselves contain ten sephirot, to an infinite number of possibilities), and are emanated from the Creator for the purpose of creating the universe. The sephirot are considered revelations of the Creator’s will (ratzon), and they should not be understood as ten different “gods” but as ten different ways the one GOD reveals his will through the Emanations. It is not GOD who changes but the ability to perceive GOD that changes.
Ten Sephirot as process of ethics
Divine creation by means of the Ten Sephirot is an ethical process. They represent the different aspects of Morality. Loving-Kindness is a possible moral justification found in Chessed, and Gevurah is the Moral Justification of Justice and both are mediated by Mercy which is Rachamim. However, these pillars of morality become immoral once they become extremes. When Loving-Kindness becomes extreme it can lead to sexual depravity and lack of Justice to the wicked. When Justice becomes extreme, it can lead to torture and the Murder of innocents and unfair punishment.
“Righteous” humans (tzadikim) ascend these ethical qualities of the ten sephirot 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 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”.
Descending spiritual Worlds
Medieval Kabbalists believed that all things are linked to GOD through these emanations, making all levels in creation part of one great, gradually descending chain of being. Through this any lower creation reflects its particular characteristics in Supernal Divinity.
Hasidic thought extends the Divine immanence of Kabbalah by holding that GOD is all that really exists, all else being completely undifferentiated from GOD’s perspective. This view can be defined as monistic panentheism. According to this philosophy, GOD’s existence is higher than anything that this world can express, yet he includes all things of this world within his Divine reality in perfect unity, so that the Creation effected no change in him at all. This paradox is dealt with at length in Chabad texts.
Origin of evil
Among problems considered in the Hebrew Kabbalah is the theological issue of the nature and origin of evil. In the views of some Kabbalists this conceives ‘evil’ as a ‘quality of GOD’, asserting that negativity enters into the essence of the Absolute. In this view it is conceived that the Absolute needs evil to ‘be what it is’, i.e., to exist. Foundational texts of Medieval Kabbalism conceived evil as a demonic parallel to the holy, called the Sitra Achra (the “Other Side”), and the Kelipot/Qliphoth (the “Shells/Husks”) that cover and conceal the holy, are nurtured from it, and yet also protect it by limiting its revelation. Scholem termed this element of the Spanish Kabbalah a “Jewish gnostic” motif, in the sense of dual powers in the divine realm of manifestation. In a radical notion, the root of evil is found within the 10 holy Sephirot, through an imbalance of Gevurah, the power of “Strength/Judgement/Severity”.
Gevurah is necessary for Creation to exist as it counterposes Chesed (“loving-kindness”), restricting the unlimited divine bounty within suitable vessels, so forming the Worlds. However, if man sins (actualising impure judgement within his soul), the supernal Judgement is reciprocally empowered over the Kindness, introducing disharmony among the Sephirot in the divine realm and exile from God throughout Creation. The demonic realm, though illusory in its holy origin, becomes the real apparent realm of impurity in lower Creation.
Role of Man
Kabbalistic doctrine gives man the central role in Creation, as his soul and body correspond to the supernal divine manifestations. In the Christian Kabbalah this scheme was universalised to describe harmonia mundi, the harmony of Creation within man. In Judaism, it gave a profound spiritualisation of Jewish practice. While the kabbalistic scheme gave a radically innovative, though conceptually continuous, development of mainstream Midrashic and Talmudic Rabbinic notions, kabbalistic thought underscored and invigorated conservative Jewish observance. The esoteric teachings of kabbalah gave the traditional mitzvot observances the central role in spiritual creation, whether the practitioner was learned in this knowledge or not. Accompanying normative Jewish observance and worship with elite mystical kavanot intentions gave them theurgic power, but sincere observance by common folk, especially in the Hasidic popularisation of kabbalah, could replace esoteric abilities. Many kabbalists were also leading legal figures in Judaism, such as Nachmanides and Joseph Karo.
Medieval kabbalah elaborates particular reasons for each Biblical mitzvah, and their role in harmonising the supernal divine flow, uniting masculine and feminine forces on High. With this, the feminine Divine presence in this world is drawn from exile to the Holy One Above. The 613 mitzvot are embodied in the organs and soul of man. Lurianic kabbalah incorporates this in the more inclusive scheme of Jewish messianic rectification of exiled divinity. Jewish mysticism, in contrast to Divine transcendence rationalist human-centred reasons for Jewish observance, gave Divine-immanent providential cosmic significance to the daily events in the worldly life of man in general, and the spiritual role of Jewish observance in particular.
Levels of the soul
The Kabbalah 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. This part of the soul is provided at birth.
- 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 life-forms. It is related to the intellect and allows man to enjoy and benefit from the afterlife. It 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 fourth and fifth 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 Zohar.
- 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 possible.
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 prophecy any longer.
- 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 the Torah; it can be lost and gained depending on one’s study and observance.
Reincarnation, the transmigration of the soul after death, was introduced into Judaism as a central esoteric tenet of Kabbalah from the Medieval period onwards, called Gilgul neshamot (“Cycles of the soul”). The concept does not appear overtly in the Hebrew Bible or classic Rabbinic literature, and was rejected by various Medieval Jewish philosophers. However, the Kabbalists explained a number of scriptural passages in reference to Gilgulim. The concept became central to the later Kabbalah of Isaac Luria, who systemised it as the personal parallel to the cosmic process of rectification. Through Lurianic Kabbalah and Hasidic Judaism, reincarnation entered popular Jewish culture as a literary motif.
Tzimtzum, Shevirah and Tikkun
Tzimtzum (Constriction/Concentration) is the primordial cosmic act whereby GOD “contracted” His infinite light, leaving a “void” into which the light of existence was poured. This allowed the emergence of independent existence that would not become nullified by the pristine Infinite Light, reconciling the unity of the Ein Sof with the plurality of creation. This changed the first creative act into one of withdrawal/exile, the antithesis of the ultimate Divine Will. In contrast, a new emanation after the Tzimtzum shone into the vacuum to begin creation, but led to an initial instability called Tohu (Chaos), leading to a new crisis of Shevirah (Shattering) of the sephirot vessels. The shards of the broken vessels fell down into the lower realms, animated by remnants of their divine light, causing primordial exile within the Divine Persona before the creation of man. Exile and enclothement of higher divinity within lower realms throughout existence requires man to complete the Tikkun olam (Rectification) process. Rectification Above corresponds to the reorganization of the independent sephirot into relating Partzufim (Divine Personas), previously referred to obliquely in the Zohar. From the catastrophe stems the possibility of self-aware Creation, and also the Kelipot (Impure Shells) of previous Medieval kabbalah. The metaphorical anthropomorphism of the partzufim accentuates the sexual unifications of the redemption process, while Gilgul reincarnation emerges from the scheme. Uniquely, Lurianism gave formerly private mysticism the urgency of Messianic social involvement.
According to interpretations of Luria, the catastrophe stemmed from the “unwillingness” of the residue imprint after the Tzimtzum to relate to the new vitality that began creation. The process was arranged to shed and harmonise the Divine Infinity with the latent potential of evil. The creation of Adam would have redeemed existence, but his sin caused new shevirah of Divine vitality, requiring the Giving of the Torah to begin Messianic rectification. Historical and individual history becomes the narrative of reclaiming exiled Divine sparks.
Linguistic mysticism of Hebrew
Kabbalistic thought extended Biblical and Midrashic notions that GOD enacted Creation through the Hebrew language and through the Torah into a full linguistic mysticism. In this, every Hebrew letter, word, number, even accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contain esoteric meanings, describing the spiritual dimensions within exoteric ideas, and it teaches the hermeneutic methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings. Names of GOD in Judaism have further prominence, though fluidity of meaning turns the whole Torah into a Divine name. As the Hebrew name of things is the channel of their lifeforce, parallel to the sephirot, so concepts such as “holiness” and “mitzvot” embody ontological Divine immanence, as GOD can be known in manifestation as well as transcendence. The infinite potential of meaning in the Torah, as in the Ein Sof, is reflected in the symbol of the two trees of the Garden of Eden; the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge is the external, Halachic Torah, through which mystics can perceive the unlimited Torah of the Tree of Life. In Lurianic expression, each of the 600,000 souls of Israel find their own interpretation in Torah.
“The reapers of the Field are the Comrades, masters of this wisdom, because Malkhut is called the Apple Field, and She grows sprouts of secrets and new meanings of Torah. Those who constantly create new interpretations of Torah are the ones who reap Her.”
As early as the 1st century BCE Jews believed that the Torah and other canonical texts contained encoded messages 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.
Like the rest of the Rabbinic literature, the texts of kabbalah were once part of an ongoing oral tradition, though, over the centuries, much of the oral tradition has been written down.
Jewish forms of esotericism existed over 2,000 years ago. Ben Sira (born c. 170 BCE) warns against it, saying: “You shall have no business with secret things”. 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 ancient descriptions of Sefer Yetzirah, the Heichalot mystical ascent literature, the Bahir, Sefer Raziel HaMalakh and the Zohar, the main text of Kabbalistic exegesis. Classic mystical Bible commentaries are included in fuller versions of the Mikraot Gedolot (Main Commentators). Cordoveran systemisation is presented in Pardes Rimonim, philosophical articulation in the works of the Maharal, and Lurianic rectification in Etz Chayim. Subsequent interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah was made in the writings of Shalom Sharabi, in Nefesh HaChaim and the 20th-century Sulam. Hasidism interpreted kabbalistic structures to their correspondence in inward perception. The Hasidic development of kabbalah incorporates a successive stage of Jewish mysticism from historical kabbalistic metaphysics.
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