Kabbalah, derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to receive,” is the name given to a Jewish mystical tradition that originated around 100 BCE. Owing to variations in transliteration from the Hebrew, it is sometimes rendered as Kabalah, Qabalah, or Qabbalah. The name Kabbalah is attributed to the scholar Isaac the Blind (c. 11601236), sometimes called the Father of Kabbalah, although the practice of Kabbalah predates him. As a form of Jewish mysticism, it is primarily concerned with directly experiencing God through meditation, spiritual exercises, or interpretations of scripture (particularly the Torah) and other writings. Kabbalah has both a traditional and a distinct beginning.
Traditionally Kabbalah is believed to date from the relationship between Adam and God. According to the first three chapters of Genesis, Adam enjoyed a unique experience with God: Adam conversed directly with God without any mediation from another person or text. He was able to know God face-to-face. This is the kernel of mysticism in general and Kabbalah specifically: to know God directly.
Viewed this way, many persons from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible; in Christianity, the Old Testament) are viewed as having kabbalistic experiences. According to Jewish teaching, the events in the book of Genesis occurred prior to God giving the Law of Moses. Within Genesis, people speak with God directly. While Genesis makes no mention of the type of relationship between Melchizedek and God, Melchizedek (Gen 14: 18-20) is mentioned as a priest of God prior to the establishment of the Torah (Law). Therefore (the reasoning goes), because there was no mediation, Melchizedek must have had a direct experience with God. Abraham spoke directly with God (Gen 12-22) as did Moses (Exodus through Deuteronomy).
In other books of the Tanakh, prophets are mentioned as having direct experiences with God. This is important for understanding Kabbalah, because the prophets had experiences with God after the Law of Moses was given. To a Kabbalist, therefore, the Law of Moses does not stand between a follower of God and God, such as in the role of a mediator, but instead the Law of Moses becomes a gateway into communication with God.
Kabbalah has a distinct beginning that can be traced to a wealth of Jewish mystical literature from the period 100 BCE to 1000 CE. Over time, the literature and understanding of Kabbalah increased. Yet the central Kabbalah text is the Sefer ha- Zohar (Book of Splendor), which is usually given simply as Zohar. The Zohar contains commentary and stories. Its preeminence among Kabbalah is borne out by the number of commentaries that have been written about the Zohar. This book is attributed to Simeon bar Yohai (2nd century CE), although the first record of the book is from the 13th century in Spain as the work of Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305). He either edited the writings of Simeon bar Yohai or based his work on Simeon; in either case the work originated with Simeon and was completed by Moses de Leon.
Soon after the Zohar, Ma-arekhet ha-Elohut (The Order of God) appeared, which attempted to systematically explain Kabbalah doctrine. In addition, Sefer ha-Bahir (Book of Light) was another early Kabbalah text that explained the sefirot (the emanations of God).
A central tenet of Kabbalah is the tree of life. This symbol contains a diagram (sometimes represented as a tree) with ten sefirot (emanations): sovereignty, foundation, endurance, majesty, beauty, loving kindness, judgment, wisdom, understanding, and the crown. The sefirot exhibit different aspects of God. They are to be viewed as a unit and individually. As a unit, these represent the way that God communicates or interacts with the world. Individually, these are steps along which the kabbalist works or progresses in an attempt to draw closer to God.
Prominent teachers of Kabbalah include Moses Cordovero (1552-1570), who wrote Tamar Devorah (Palm Tree of Deborah), which explains Kabbalah, and Or Yaqar (Precious Light), which is a commentary on the Zohar. Isaiah ben Abraham ha-Levi Horowitz (1565-1630) wrote Shenei Luhot ha-Berit (Two Tablets of the Covenant). Isaac the Blind (c. 1160-1235) is believed to have written the Sefer ha-Bahir (Book of the Brightness). Over time, texts and commentaries on Kabbalah have been written and collected, and interest in the texts has increased both within and outside Judaism.
Similar to other mystical traditions, Kabbalah considers time and space as mundane realities. Within the spiritual realm, therefore, concepts such as time, space, and place are nonexistent. Understanding God entails understanding his actions apart from time; God’s qualities exist beyond time and cannot be limited or perceived by temporal constraints. This in itself tends to restrict interest in Kabbalah to truly serious adherents, because practitioners must remove themselves from the physicalness of their surroundings in their efforts to fully understand God.
Among Jewish religious groups, the Kabbalah greatly influenced the ultraorthodox Hasidim. This influence can be seen in the Hasidic theology of working toward a union with God and in their concept of devekut (from the Hebrew for “cleaving,” the cleansing or preparation of prayer and mediation toward God).
In understanding the intent toward the Torah of Kabbalah, the teaching of Bahya ben Asher is instructive. He held to four different interpretations of scripture: the literal, the homiletic (preaching), the moral, and the mystical. The Kabbalah is not solely interested in the mystical meaning of scripture, yet it is concerned with utilizing the former three while focusing on the mystical. For the kabbalist, the Torah does not solely teach people about God and how to live before God; instead it starts with those and brings the person into communication with God.
Kabbalah texts can be difficult to understand, many being written in esoteric language. Additionally, some kabbalists in the past believed that no one under the age of 40 should practice Kabbalah. Kabbalah was understood to be reserved for those willing to devote themselves to a mystical relationship with God.
Recently, more accessible forms of Kabbalah have become popularized and are currently practiced by people from various backgrounds, both Jewish and gentile. Kabbalah centers can be found in major cities worldwide, and a number of Web sites offer instruction and guidance in teachings that are based on elements of the kabbalistic traditions.
See also Bible and Time; Genesis, Book of; Judaism;
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Epstein, P. (1978). Kabbalah: The way of the Jewish mystic. Boston: Shambhala.
Scholem, G. (Ed.). (1995). Zohar: The book of splendor: Basic readings from the Kabbalah. New York: Schocken Books.