Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Kabbalah (קבלה "Reception", Standard Hebrew Qabbala, Tiberian Hebrew Qabbālāh; also written variously as Cabala, Cabalah, Cabbala, Cabbalah, Kabala, Kabalah, Kabbala, Qabala, Qabalah) is a religious philosophical system claiming an insight into divine nature.

Table of contents
1 Origin
2 Antiquity of esoteric mysticism
3 Primary texts
4 Gnosticism and Kabbalah
5 Kabbalistic Dualism
6 Mystic Doctrines in Talmudic Times
7 Kabbalah in Christianity and non-Jewish society
8 The human soul in Kabbalah
9 Foretelling the future
10 Kabbalah and the Western Esoteric Tradition
11 Criticisms
12 See also
13 External links and references


"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 typically 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).

Primary 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, however, believe 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. In the 13th century, a Spanish Jew by the name of Moshe de Leon claimed to discover the text of the Zohar, attributing it to the 2nd century Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, and the text was subsequently published and distributed 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. Gershom Scholem (the most famous scholar and historian of Kabbalah in the twentieth century), echoing many of the arguments 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 Sefer Bahir, and without question is the Kabbalistic work par excellance.

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 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.

Kabbalistic Dualism

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.

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:

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 may be 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 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.

A recent modern revival has been initiated by the 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 Demi Moore, Madonna, Mick Jagger and Britney Spears. Reactions from organized Jewish groups have been almost uniformly negative, and other critics have accused it of being a "cult".

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 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. 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, Crowley is not without many 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.


Most forms of Kabbalah teach that the Sefirot are not distinct from the Ein-Sof, but are somehow within it. 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". This would be similar to the Christian belief in the Trinity, which states that while God is One, in that One there are three persons. This interpretation of Kabbalah in fact did occur among some European Jews in the 17th century.

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.

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.

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. Gershom Scholem has written that between 1500 and 1800 "kabbalah was widely considered to be the true Jewish theology,".

More recently many Modern Orthodox Jews have not ascribed to Kabbalah, seeing mysticism as inferior to philosophical rationalism, and Kabbalah has been rejected outright by most Jews in the Conservative and Reform movements. In the 1960s, Rabbi Saul Lieberman of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, who was widely known for his expertise in the Talmud and rabbinic literature, is reputed to have introduced a lecture by Scholem on Kabbalah with a statement that Kabbalah itself was nonsense, but the study of Kabbalah was scholarship. This view has become popular among many Jews, who view the subject as worthy of study, but who do not accept Kabbalah as teaching literal truths.

See also

Zohar, Mysticism, List of Messiah claimants, Donmeh, Sabbetai Zvi, golem, abracadabra, the cult Dragon Rouge

External links and references

News / News Archives Kabbalah Center