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Kabbalah (Hebrew קַבָּלָה "reception", Standard Hebrew Qabbala, Tiberian Hebrew Qabbālāh; also written variously as Cabala, Cabalah, Cabbala, Cabbalah, Kabala, Kabalah, Kabbala, Qabala, Qabalah, Kaballah) is an interpretation (exegesis, hermeneutic) key, "soul" of the Torah (Hebrew Bible), or the religious mystical system of Judaism claiming an insight into divine nature.

Kabbalah is a doctrine of esoteric knowledge concerning God and the universe. Kabbalah stresses the reasons and understanding of the commandments, and the cause of events described in the Torah. Kabbalah includes the understanding of the spiritual spheres in creation, and the rules and ways by which God administers the existence of the universe. (Some of its adherents may describe Kabbalah as: A unique, universal and secret knowledge of God, the laws of nature and of the universe. Technically speaking it explains laws of "light". All things in the world are different levels, the closer to God the more revealed the Godliness.) According to Jewish tradition, this knowledge has come down as a revelation to elect saints from a remote past, and preserved only by a privileged few. It is considered part of the Jewish Oral Law. It is the traditional mystical explanation of the Torah.

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Origin of Jewish mysticism

Torah and Tanakh

The origin of mysticism for Jews goes hand-in-hand with the origins of the entire Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). The Torah's description of the creation in the opening of the Book of Genesis remains the strongest textual source for an "invisible" and "inscrutable" God creating the universe, the world, and finally Adam and Eve, who are placed in a mysterious Garden of Eden with its Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and a Tree of Life, and the interaction of these creations with the Serpent which leads to disaster when they eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in Genesis 2 [1].

Jacob's vision of the ladder to heaven is another example of a mystical experience. Moses' experience with the Burning bush and his encounters with God on Mount Sinai, the prophet Ezekiel's visions are all evidence of mystical events and beliefs in the Tanakh, and most importantly, all these episodes form the bed-rock of Kabbalah's teachings.

Early forms of Jewish mysticism at first consisted only of empirical "lore". In the medieval era it greatly developed with the appearance of the mystical text, the Sefer Yetzirah. Jewish sources attribute the book to Abraham. It became the object of the systematic study of the elect who were called baale ha-kabbalah (בעלי הקבלה "possessors or masters of the Kabbalah"). From the thirteenth century onward Kabbalah branched out into an extensive literature, alongside of and often in opposition to the Talmud.

Kabbalah teaches that every Hebrew letter, word, number, and accent of the Hebrew Bible contains a hidden sense; and it teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings.

Orthodox Judaism rejects the idea that Kabbalah underwent significant historical development and change.

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 Genesis 1 and Book of Ezekiel 1:4-28; while the names Sitrei Torah (Talmud Hag. 13a) and Razei Torah (Ab. vi. 1) indicate their character as secret lore. 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 is expressed in very early times that God created the world from matter He found ready at hand — (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 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 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).

Even in very early times of the Land of Israel 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, Deuteronomy 27); and so is the contrast between justice and mercy 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. 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 role 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 (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 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 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.

In the 17th century, Baruch 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 may be pantheistic or panentheistic. It also postulates the union of man with God; both these ideas were further developed in the later Kabbalah. (He was excommunicated from the main Jewish community of his times by the rabbis at the time for espousing these views).

Kabbalah of the early Middle Ages

See Nahmanides; Bahya ben Asher; Isaac the Blind; and Azriel (Jewish mystic).

There were certain early rishonim 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 as well as Bahya ben Asher (the Rabbeinu Behaye) (d. 1340). Another was Isaac the Blind (1160-1235) who wrote about the mystical classic the Bahir,

Lurianic Kabbalah in the Middle Ages

See 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. As part of that "search for meaning" in their lives, Kabbalah received its biggest boost in the Jewish world when the explication of the Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), by his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital who published the Luria's teachings, gained wide-spread popularity. It was Luria who popularized and gave credence to the teachings of the Zohar which had until then been a little-known work. The author of the Shulkhan Arukh (the Jewish "Code of Law"), Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), and Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570) were also great scholars of Kabbalah and spread its teachings during this era.

Kabbalah of the Sefardim and Mizrahim

The Kabbalah of the Sefardi and Mizrahi Torah scholars has its own long history. Rabbis Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, Chaim Vital, and Yosef Karo are part of this school of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah of the Maharal

See: Judah Loew ben Bezalel.

One of the most important teachers of Kabbalah recognized as an authority by all serious scholars 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. 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 world.

The failure of Sabbatian mysticism

Main article Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank.

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 continued to worship him in secret and most leading rabbis were always on guard to root them out. 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 converting to Catholicism. This era of disappointment did not stem the Jewish masses' yearnings for "mystical" leadership.

Spread of Kabbalah during the 1700s

See main articles Israel ben Eliezer; Vilna Gaon; and Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.

The eighteenth century saw an explosion of new efforts in the writing and spread of Kabbalah by three well know rabbis working in different areas of Europe:

  1. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) in the area of Ukraine spread teachings based on Rabbi Isaac Luria's foundations. From him sprang the vast ongoing schools of Hasidic Judaism, with each successive rebbe viewed by his "Hasidim" as continuing the role of dispensor of mystical divine blessings and guidance.
  2. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (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.
  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, in addition, wrote copious manuscripts in an appealing clear Hebrew style, all of which gained the attention of both admirers as well of 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 world

See Hasidic Judaism and Abraham Isaac Kook.

Two of the most influential sources spreading Kabbalistic teachings have come from the growth and spread of Hasidic Judaism, as can be seen by the growth of the Lubavitch movement, and from the influence of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935) who inspired the followers of Religious Zionism with mystical writings and hopes that interpreted the rise of modern day Zionism as the onset of the atchalta dege'ula - the "beginning of the redemption" of the Jewish people from their exile, in expectation of the arrival of the "final redemption" of the Jewish Messiah. The varied Hasidic works (sifrei chasidus) and Rabbi Kook's voluminous writings drew heavily on the long chain of Kabbalistic thought and methodology.

Primary texts

Tile page of first edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558 (Library of Congress).
Tile page of first edition of the Zohar, Mantua, 1558 (Library of Congress).
  • Sefer Raziel HaMalakh ("Book of Raziel the angel") - the first and oldest book of Kabbalah. It explains Mazal ("fortune" or "destiny" associated with the notions of Kabbalah astrology)
  • 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 editions, up to 2500 words long. Like many Jewish mystical texts, it 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.
  • 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, however, believe that the book was likely written not long before it was published.
  • Zohar (זהר "splendor") - the most important work of Jewish mysticism. It is an esoteric mystical commentary on the Torah, written in Aramaic. In the 13th century, a Spanish Jew by the name of Moses de Leon claimed to discover the text of the Zohar, attributing it to the 2nd century Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. This book was subsequently published throughout the Jewish world. Though the book was widely accepted, over the subsequent centuries a small number of significant rabbis published works espousing the view that it was a forgery, and that it contained concepts contrary to Judaism.

Modern historian Gershom Scholem (a famous scholar and historian of Kabbalah in the twentieth century), echoing many of the arguments of some of these rabbis, contends that de Leon himself was the author of the Zohar. The Zohar contains and elaborates upon much of the material found in Sefer Yetzirah and Bahir, and is considered the Kabbalistic work par excellence.

Theodicy: explanation for the existence of evil

The ten Sephiroth or 'emanations' of God
The ten Sephiroth or 'emanations' of God

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 makes use of the kabbalistic Tree of Life:

  • 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), for example, stands for strength and discipline, while her male counterpart, Chesed (חסד), stands for love and mercy. Chesed is also known as Gedulah (גדולה), 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 them.
  • In the medieval era, old ideas from Babylon gained new strength. The Qliphoth, (or Kelippot)(קליפות the primeval "husks" of impurity), were blamed for all the evil in the world. Qliphoth are the "evil twin" of the sephiroth. The tree of Qliphoth is usually called the kabbalistic Tree of Death, and sometimes the qliphoth are called the "death angels", or "angels of death". The qliphoth are found in the old Babylonian incantations, a fact used as evidence in favor of the antiquity of most of the kabbalistic material.

Kabbalistic understanding of God

Ein Sof and the emanation of angelic hierarchies (Universes or olamot אולם)
Ein Sof and the emanation of angelic hierarchies (Universes or olamot אולם)

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) 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 than 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 who created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but complement one another. See Divine simplicity; Tzimtzum.

Some Kabbalistic scholars, such as Moses ben Jacob Cordovero and Schneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of Lubavitch (Chabad) Hasidism), hold that the first aspect of God is all that there really exists; all else is completely nullified to God and therefore an illusion. Depending on how this is explained, such a view can result in panentheism, or pantheism. However, most other Jews who believe in Kabbalah hold that there is an aspect of God that is revealed to the world.

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.


See main article: Sephirah (Kabbalah).

Most forms of Kabbalah teach that the Sefirot are not distinct from the Ein Sof, but are somehow within it in a potential manner. Kabbalists speak of the second aspect of God as being seen by the universe as ten emanations from God; these emanations are called sefirot. See also Kabbalistic use of the Tetragrammaton.

The sefirot mediate the interaction of the ultimate unknowable God with the physical and spiritual world. Some explain the sefirot as stages of the creative process whereby God, from His own infinite being, created the progression of realms which culminated in our finite and physical universe. Others suggest that the sefirot may be thought of as analogous to the fundamental laws of physics. Just as gravity, electro-magnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force allow for interactions between matter and energy, the ten sefirot allow for interaction between God and the universe.

A Christian theological view

The Kabbalah's idea of emanations can be compared to the distinction made by fourteenth century Christian theologian Gregory Palamas. Palamas 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 Moses descended 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 some other thing 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 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 both to Jew and non-Jew alike at birth. It allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.

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".

  • 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 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:

  • 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 receives the soul of prophesy any longer.
  • Neshamah Yeseira - The "supplemental soul" that a Jew 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.

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 English word "cabal" came to refer to any small, secretive and possibly conspiratorial group.

Practical applications

The Midrash and Talmud are replete with the use of Divine names and incantations that are claimed to effect supernatural or metaphysical results. Most post-Talmudic rabbinical literature disapproves of the use of any or most of these formulae, termed Kabbalah Ma'asith ("practical Kabbalah"). There are various arguments; 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, leading to a de facto diminuition of belief in the power of these statements.

Kabbalistic knowledge is required to produce a Golem. 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.

Textual antiquity of esoteric mysticism

Early forms of esoteric mysticism 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.).

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. It 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 Kabbalah. Gnosticism - systems of secret spiritual knowledge, or some sources say - — that is, the cabalistic Chochmah (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.

Original teachings of gnosticism have much in common with Kabbalah:

  1. Core terminology of classical gnostics was Jewish names of God.
  2. Mainstream Gnostics accepted a "Jewish Messiah" as a key figure of gnosticism
  3. A Key text of Gnosticism - Apocryphon of John - mentions 365 powers who created the World. The same is a number of dark powers among 613 powers of the soul in Judaism and Kabbalah.

However there are also aspects of Gnosticism at odds with Kabbalah. Most glaring is the fact that within most of the Christian Gnostic groups the Jewish creator God was looked down on. This ranged from somewhat sympathetic pity for what the Gnostics felt was a deranged abortion, to outright identification of the Jewish God to evil incarnate.

Essene, Manichaean and Nasorean doctrines (of gnostic character) claim that before Kabbalah there existed a so-called Aramaic Quabalta.



One of the most serious and sustained criticisms of Kabbalah 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 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.

  • Some early mystics believed in a heavenly being called Metatron, a lesser Adonai-"God", that worked in concert with the greater Adonai. While this essentially Gnostic belief was never a mainstream trend within Jewish thought, a very few Kabbalists accepted it.
  • 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".) "The dualistic tendency is, perhaps, most marked in the Kabbalistic treatment of the problem of evil. The profound sense of the reality of evil brought many Kabbalists to posit a realm of the demonic, the Sitra Ahra, a kind of negative mirror image of the "side of holiness" with which it was locked in combat." [Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 6, "Dualism", p.244]. However the Zohar indicates that the Sitra Ahra has no power over God, and only exists as a creation of God to give man free choice.
  • Rabbi Dr. David Gottleib (www.dovidgottleib.com) notes that many Kaballists hold that the concepts of, for example, a Heavenly Court or the Sitra Ahra are only given to humanity by God to give humanity a working model to understand His ways within our own epistemological limits. They reject that a Satan or angels actually exists. Others hold that non-God spiritual entities were indeed created by God as a means for exacting his will.
  • According to Kabbalists, no person can understand the true, unknown nature of God. Rather, there is God that makes Himself known to man, and a hidden Ein Sof that is totally removed from man's experience. One can have a reading of this theology which is totally monotheistic; however one can also have a reading of this theology which is essentially dualistic. Professor 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)

Debate about Kabbalah in Judaism

Although it was criticized by a small number of rabbis, Kabbalah has nevertheless been a fundamental part of most Jewish theology for many centuries, and is particularly influential in Hasidic and Sephardic thought. As well, the Vilna Gaon, the greatest leader of the Mitnagdim - former opponents of the Hasidim - was also a major Kabbalist. Gershom Scholem has written that between 1500 and 1800 "Kabbalah was widely considered to be the true Jewish theology". Though many Modern Orthodox Jews do not ascribe to Kabbalah, most other Orthodox Jews still consider it a fundamental part of Jewish thought and belief.

Early critiques

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 Leon 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 sefirot. This critique was in response to the fact that some Jews went so far as to address individual sefirot individually in some of their prayers, although this practise was far from common. This interpretation of Kabbalah in fact did occur among some European Jews in the 17th century. To respond, others say that the sefiros (To clarify for the reader not accustomed to the jargon, Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum says "The names of God are the Ten Sefiros of which the kabbalists spoke. The Ten Sefiros are ten kinds of revelation of God's powers that are accessible to us: these are His Ten Names, as explained in the Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah") represent different aspects of God. In order, the first six are Chesed (kindness), Gevurah (might). Tiferes (harmony), Netzach (victory), Hod (splendor), and Yesod (foundation). The German Jews may have been praying for and not necessarily to those aspects of Godliness.

Kabbalah had many other opponents, notably Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (The Rivash); he stated that Kabbalah was "worse than Christianity", as it made God into 10, not just into three. The critique, however, is considered untenable. Most followers of Kabbalah never believed this interpretation of Kabbalah. The Christian Trinity concept posits that there are three persons existing within the Godhead, one of whom literally 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 can not become a human being. They are conduits for interaction - not persons or beings.

Within Conservative and Reform Judaism

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 the Conservative 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 Conservative 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. All Conservative Rabbinical seminaries now teach several courses in Kabbalah, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies in Los Angeles has a fulltime instructor in Kabbalah and Hasidut. 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".1

Kabbalah Centre

See main article Kabbalah Centre.

In recent years, knowledge of Kabbalah has spread throughout the world -- finally overcoming restriction to men of a certain age only. For instance, of the Kabbalah Centre International, has provided one of the first english translations for universal availability which has sparked an increase of adherents globally, to include high-profile celebrities, such as pop icon Madonna. Some discussion and debate has ensued among more traditional Jewish interests who continue to encourage exclusion of Kabbalistic knowledge to religious Jews. The debate over Kabbalah's meaning and purpose as well as its intended audience continues.

Kabbalah in non-Jewish society

Kabbalah eventually gained an audience outside of the Jewish community. Christian versions of Kabbalah began to develop; by the early 18th century some kabbalah came to be used by some hermetic philosophers, neo-pagans and other new religious groups.

Hermetic Kabbalah

The Western Esoteric (or Hermetic) Tradition, a precursor to both the neo-Pagan and New Age movements, is intertwined with aspects of Kabbalah. Within the Hermetic tradition, much of Kabbalah has been changed from its Jewish roots through syncretism, but core Kabbalistic beliefs are still 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. The credibility of Crowley is inconsistent at best though, as many of the rituals "exposed" were actually manipulated versions.

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!

However popular within certain sects, especially the Thelemic Orders such as the O.T.O. and Lon Milo DuQuette's Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford, Crowley is not without critics. Dion Fortune, a fellow initiate of the Golden Dawn, disagreed with Crowley, and her work The Mystical Qabalah implicitly states this. Elphas Levi's works such as Transcendental Magic, heavily steeped in esoteric Kabbalah (rendering it very difficult to understand correctly; it is completely misunderstood by critics), agrees. Samael Aun Weor has many significant works that discuss Kabbalah within many religions usually considered unrelated to Kabbalah, such as the Egyptian, Pagan, and Central American religions, which is summarized in his work The Initiatic Path in the Arcana of Tarot and Kabbalah.

Modern forms

A recent modern revival has been initiated by the controversial Kabbalah Center founded by Philip Berg in Los Angeles in 1984, 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, Mick Jagger and Britney Spears. Reactions from organized Jewish groups have been almost uniformly negative.

Fictional representations

The anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion utilised the Kabbalah imagery heavily and implied a secret portion of the Kabbalah contained within the Dead Sea scrolls and maintained through time by various individuals and operating in a group currently known as SEELE (which, in production materials for the series, are identified with the Essenes). Imagery such as the Systema Sephiroticum is utilised by various characters in the decorum of their offices and operation areas. During an apocalyptic sequence, referred to as the "Third Impact", in the film End of Evangelion, heavy use of the Tree of Life is undertaken, both visually and with characters "walking through" the explanation of what is happening.

The comic series Promethea by Alan Moore draws heavily on Kabbalah, and is in large part a framework for an overview and explanation of many Kabbalistic concepts. The main character journeys up through the entire tree of life over the course of many issues exploring the symbolism and meaning of each level and of the journey itself.

Umberto Eco's 1989 novel Foucault's Pendulum weaves Kaballistic 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.

See also

Related articles

Kabbalah personalities


Note 1: Artson, Bradley Shavit, From the Periphery to the Centre: Kabbalah and the Conservative Movement, United Synagogue Review, Spring 2005, Vol. 57 No. 2


  • 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.
  • 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 082660546X
  • 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.

External links

Jewish/Hebrew Kabbalah


This article incorporates text from the public domain 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

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