Kabbalah (also Qabbala, Cabala, cabbala, cabbalah, kabala, kabalah, kabbala) is a religious philosophical system claiming an insight into divine nature. Kabbalah (קבלה QBLH) is a Hebrew word which means oral tradition.
"Kabbalah" refers to an esoteric doctrine concerning God and the universe, asserted to have come down as a revelation to elect saints from a remote past, and preserved only by a privileged few.
Early forms of Jewish mysticism at first consisted only of empirical lore. Much later, under the influence of Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean philosophy, it assumed a speculative character. In the medieval era it greatly developed with the appearance of the mystical text, the Sefer Yetzirah. It became the object of the systematic study of the elect, called "baale ha-kabbalah" (בעלי הקבלה "possessors or masters of the Kabbalah"). Students of Kabbalah later became known as the "maskilim" (משכילים "the enlightened"). From the thirteenth century onward Kabbalah branched out into an extensive literature, alongside of and often in opposition to the Talmud.
Most forms of Kabbalah teach that every letter, word, number, and accent of Scripture contains a hidden sense; and it teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these occult meanings.
Some historians of religion hold that we should limit the use of the term Kabbalah only to the mystical religious systems which appeared after the twelfth century; they use other terms to refer to esoteric Jewish mystical systems before the 12th century. Other historians of religion view this distinction as arbitrary. In this view, post 12th-century Kabbalah is seen as the next phase in a continuous line of development from the same mystical roots and elements. As such, these scholars feel that it is appropriate to use the term "Kabbalah" to refer to Jewish mysticism as early as the first century of the common era. Orthodox Jews disagree with both schools of thought, as they reject the idea that Kabbalah underwent significant historical development and change.
Since the late 19th century, with the emergence of the "Jewish Studies" approach, the Kabbalah has also been studied as a highly rational system of understanding the world, rather than a mystical one. A pioneer of this approach was Lazar Gulkowitsch.
Antiquity of esoteric mysticism
Early forms of esoteric mysticism existed over 2,000 years ago. Ben Sira warns against it in his saying: "You shall have no business with secret things" (Sirach) iii. 22; compare Talmud Hagigah 13a; Midrash Genesis Rabbah viii.).
Apocalyptic literature belonging to the second and first pre-Christian centuries contained some elements of later Kabbalah, and as, according to Josephus, such writings were in the possession of the Essenes, and were jealously guarded by them against disclosure, for which they claimed a hoary antiquity (see Philo, "De Vita Contemplativa," iii., and Hippolytus, "Refutation of all Heresies," ix. 27).
That many such books containing secret lore were kept hidden away by the "enlightened" is stated in IV Esdras xiv. 45-46, where Pseudo-Ezra is told to publish the twenty-four books of the canon openly that the worthy and the unworthy may alike read, but to keep the seventy other books hidden in order to "deliver them only to such as be wise" (compare Dan. xii. 10); for in them are the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the stream of knowledge.
Instructive for the study of the development of Kabbalah is the Book of Jubilees written under King John Hyrcanus, which refers to the writings of Jared, Cainan, and Noah, and presents Abraham as the renewer, and Levi as the permanent guardian, of these ancient writings. It offers a cosmogony based upon the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and connected with Jewish chronology and Messianology, while at the same time insisting upon the heptad as the holy number rather than upon the decadic system adopted by the later haggadists and the "Sefer Yetzirah". The Pythagorean idea of the creative powers of numbers and letters, upon which the "Sefer Yetzirah" is founded, and which was known in the time of the Mishnah (before 200 CE).
Gnosticism and Kabbalah
Gnostic literature testifies to the antiquity of the Cabala. Gnosticism that is, the cabalistic "Chochmah" (חכמה "wisdom") - seems to have been the first attempt on the part of the 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 Akiva and Ben Zoma strove to extricate themselves;
The dualistic system of good and of evil powers, which goes back to Zoroastrianism, can be traced through Gnosticism; having influenced the cosmology of the ancient Kabbalah before it reached the medieval one. So is the conception underlying the cabalistic tree, of the right side being the source of light and purity, and the left the source of darkness and impurity, found among the Gnostics. The fact also that the Kelippot (קליפות the primeval "husks" of impurity), which are so prominent in the medieval Kabbalah, are found in the old Babylonian incantations, is evidence in favor of the antiquity of most of the cabalistic material.
Mystic Doctrines in Talmudic Times
In Talmudic times 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 Gen. i. and Ezek. i. 4-28; while the names "Sitre Torah" (Talmud Hag. 13a) and "Raze Torah" (Ab. vi. 1) indicate their character as secret lore. In contrast to the explicit statement of Scripture that God created not only the world, but also the matter out of which it was made, the opinion is expressed in very early times that God created the world from matter He found ready at hand an opinion probably due to the influence of the Platonic-Stoic cosmogony.
Eminent Palestinian rabbinic teachers hold 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 Biblical transcendentalism, 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 Gen. xxviii. 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).
Spinoza may have had this passage in mind when he said that the ancient Jews did not separate God from the world. This conception of God maybe pantheistic, or panentheistic. It also postulates the union of man with God; both these ideas were further developed in the later Kabbalah.
Even in very early times Palestinian as well as Alexandrian theology recognized the two attributes of God, "middat hadin," the attribute of justice, and "middat ha-rahamim," the attribute of mercy (Midrash Sifre, Deut. 27); and so is the contrast between justice and mercy a fundamental doctrine of the Cabala. Other hypostasizations are represented by the ten agencies 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. Yer. i., agreeing with him, translates the first verse of the Bible as follows: "By wisdom God created the heaven and the earth."
So, also, the figure of Metatron passed into Kabbalah from the Talmud, where it played the rôle of the demiurgos (see Gnosticism), being expressly mentioned as God. Mention may also be made of the seven preexisting things enumerated in an old Baraita; namely, the Torah, repentance, paradise and hell, the throne of God, the Heavenly Temple, and the name of the Messiah (Talmud Pes. 54a). Although the origin of this doctrine must be sought probably in certain mythological ideas, the Platonic doctrine of preexistence has modified the older, simpler conception, and the preexistence of the seven must therefore be understood as an "ideal" preexistence, 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 especially 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.
Kabbalah in Christianity and non-Jewish society
The term "Kabbalah" did not come into use until sometime in the 11th century, and at that time referred to the Jewish school of thought related to esoteric mysticism.
Since this time Kabbalistic works gained a wider audience outside of the Jewish community. As such, Christian versions of Kabbalah began to develop; by the early 18th century kabbalah had passed into widespread use by hermetic philosophers, neo-pagans and other new religious groups. Today this word can be used to describe many Jewish, Christian, or neo-pagan schools of esoteric mysticism. Take note that each of these groups has different sets of books that they hold as part of their chain of tradition, and they reject each other's interpretations.
Primary Jewish texts
The first book on Kabbalah to be written, and still extant today, is the Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Creation"). The first commentaries on this small book were written in the 10th century, and the text itself is quoted as early as the sixth century. Its historical origins are unclear. It exists today in a number of recensions, up to 2500 words long. Like many Jewish mystical texts, the Sefer Yetzirah was written in such a way as to be meaningless to those who read it without an extensive background in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Midrash.
The second of the important Jewish mystical works is the Bahir ("illumination"), also known as "The Midrash of Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana". It is some 12,000 words long. First published in Provence in 1176, many Orthodox Jews believe that the author was Rabbi Nehuniah ben haKana, a Talmudic sage of the first century. Historians have shown that the book was likely written not long before it was published.
The most important work of Jewish mysticism is the Zohar (זהר "Splendor"). It is an esoteric mystical commentary on the Torah, written in Aramaic. Orthodox Jewish tradition maintains that it was written by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai in the 2nd century. In the 13th century, a Spanish Jew by the name of Moshe de Leon claimed to discover the text of the Zohar, and the text was subsequently published and distributed throughout the Jewish world. Famed historian and scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem has shown that de Leon himself was the author of the Zohar. Among his proofs was the text used 12th century Spanish grammar and word phrasings, and that the author did not have a correct knowledge of the land of Israel. The Zohar contains and elaborates upon much of the material found in Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Bahir, and without question is the Kabbalistic work par excellance.
Kabbalistic teachings about the human soul
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 are slowly created 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:
The Raaya Meheimna, a later addition to the Zohar by an unknown author, posits that there are two more parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah. 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".
Both Rabbinic and kabbalistic works posit that there are also a few additional, non-permanent states to 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.
Foretelling the future
A small number of Kabbalists have attempted to foretell events by the Kabbalah. The term has come to be used to refer to secret science in general; mystic art; or mystery.
Following that, the word cabal came to mean a secret association of a few individuals who seek by cunning practices to obtain office and power.
Other terms which originally described religious associations but have come to refer in some way to dangerous or suspicious behavior include zealot, assassin, and thug.
Kabbalah and the Western Esoteric Tradition
The Western Esoteric (or Hermetic) Tradition, a major precursor to both the neo-Pagan and New Age movements which is also extant in various forms today, is heavily intertwined with various aspects of Kabbalah. Much of this has been changed from its Jewish roots due to the common esoteric practice of syncretism, but the core of the tradition is very recognizably present.
"Hermetic" Kabbalah, as it is sometimes called, probably reached its peak in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th-century organization that was arguably the pinnacle of ceremonial magic (or, depending upon one's position, its ultimate descent into decadence). Within the Golden Dawn, Kabbalistic principles such as the ten Sephiroth were fused with Greek and Egyptian deities, the Enochian system of angelic magic of John Dee, and certain Eastern (particularly Hindu and Buddhist) concepts within the structure of a Masonic- or Rosicrucian-style esoteric order. Many of the Golden Dawn's rituals were exposed by the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley and were eventually compiled into book form by Israel Regardie, an author of some note.
Crowley made his mark on the use of Kabbalah with several of his writings; of these, perhaps the most illustrative is Liber 777. This book is quite simply a set of tables relating various parts of ceremonial magic and Eastern and Western religion to thirty-two numbers representing the ten spheres and twenty-two paths of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The attitude of syncretism displayed by Hermetic Kabbalists is plainly evident here, as one may simply check the table to see that Chesed (חסד "Mercy") corresponds to Jupiter, Isis, the color blue (on the Queen Scale), Poseidon, Brahma, and amethysts--none of which, certainly, the original Jewish Kabbalists had in mind!