Kabbalah is a branch of Jewish mysticism whose goal is to uncover the reality hidden under layers of what we in this world perceive to be reality. We live in a world of appearances and perceptions which mask the underlying reality of all being and all Creation; Kabbalah (meaning “that which has been received”) is the intellectual and methodological approach to accessing the timeless truth of reality in the here and now. In other words, it is the process of acquiring and practicing esoteric knowledge and techniques for glimpsing the reality beyond our material world -- ultimately, for “glimpsing” the Ultimate Reality, God. Academics would term this “communing with the godhead.” In this regard, most mystical religious practices share a common search for the underlying reality that grounds all being; Jewish Kabbalah promotes additional goals deriving from Jewish values, and its own particular methods and practices related to Jewish sacred texts and traditions. Like all mystical practices, it is rich in metaphor and employs a vocabulary which invests “old words” with new meaning.

According to Kabbalah, the divisions of the world which we perceive are just that: perceptions. In reality, the world is a unity and therefore every human act in the earthly realm affects the divine realm. The world is in a constant state of flux, God no less than life on earth. God is a dynamic becoming more than a static being. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), chief rabbi of Palestine and student of Kabbalah, taught the singularity and unity of the universe by explaining that all existence is part of the body of God. Thus everything is purposeful.

Those who engage in the study and practice of Kabbalah are called Mekkubalim. They study Jewish sacred texts, as well as kabbalistic interpretations of Jewish sacred texts, and practice meditative techniques geared toward raising the practitioner to a higher ontological plane. (The so-called Kabbalah studies and practices of Madonna and several others of Hollywood fame have no genuine connection with Jewish Kabbalah, despite all claims to the contrary.) Mekkubalim maintain a primary commitment to Torah study and observance of mitzvot (commandments), living fully in the Jewish world at all times, and taking on Kabbalah as an additional mode of spirituality, not a substitute for religiosity.

At the same time that Kabbalah has enjoyed great popularity in the Jewish world, it has been recognized by Rabbis as a potential source of danger to the individual. Delving into practices which are intended to raise one to a high ontological plane carry the danger of separating one from this world. The Talmud records that four Sages entered a pardes (garden): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiba. Of the four, only Rabbi Akiba emerged unscathed. Ben Azzai glimpsed and died; Ben Zoma glimpsed and went insane; Acher cut his roots (became a heretic) [Hagigah 14b]. To protect people from the inherent dangers of mystical practices, the Rabbis ordained that one must be at least 40 years old, married, and employed (that is, must possess emotional maturity and solid roots in this world) to enter into Kabbalah. Moreover, the insights gained and truths gleaned are to be shared with the community. Traditionally, one studies Kabbalah with a mentor whose teaching and supervision assure his/her safety. The novice begins by exploring his/her own being first -- testing his/her devotion, concentration, and ability to absorb teachigns -- connecting with a community of kabbalists later on in the process. Ultimately, the goal of the kabbalist is to acquire esoteric truths which can be shared with the community and thereby promote Tikkun Olam (see below for explanation of Tikkun Olam).

The roots of Jewish mysticism go back at least as far as the first century of the Common Era, from which we have reports of Sages engaging in meditative and mystical practices, some of which proved dangerous and even potentially deadly. Sages of this period speculated about the vision of the prophet Ezekiel (sixth century B.C.E.) of God’s throne and chariot. Ma’aseh Merkavah, the account of the chariot, was taught and transmitted by many mystics, from generation to generation, giving rise to mystical interpretations of other biblical texts and a set of practices designed to help the practitioner experience Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot, and eventually, the Divine Figure on the throne in heaven. A second branch of Jewish mysticism focused its speculation on the story of Creation. Known as Ma’aseh Beraishit, the Work of Creation, these mystics concerned themselves with cosmology. Their central mystical text was Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Creation), written in the Land of Israel sometime between the third and sixth centuries of the Common Era. Creation by means of the ten sefirot (spheres) originated in this branch of mysticism and fueled radical interpretations of the Creation story in Genesis and metaphysical theories of the cosmos.

The full flowering of Kabbalah, however, came about in the 12th and 13th centuries when it received the enthusiastic support of learned sages such as Nachmanides and Rabad of Posquieres, whose religious practices comported with traditional Judaism, but whose interpretations of text are best described as radical. The teachings of Kabbalah have long touched something deep within the human soul; Kabbalah caught on like wild fire and quickly spread throughout the Jewish world. Sefer HaBahir (The Book of Light) emerged from this period, a small and recondite text focusing on the sefirot as powers or lights emanating from God. Most significantly during this period, toward the end of the 13th century, Rabbi Moses de Leon “discovered” a long lost work of mysticism written in Aramaic and attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiba. Ben Yochai lived in the second century in the Land of Israel and was known to have been a mystic. In fact, de Leon is the author of Sefer HaZohar (The Book of Radiance) but the ancient attribution no doubt contributed to its ready acceptance and popularity throughout the Jewish world. The Zohar, as it is now known, became the classic book of Jewish mysticism, and is eagerly studied by students of Kabbalah to this day. (Rabbi Daniel Matt is currently engaged in a magnificent and unprecedented scholarly translation of the Zohar, complete with extensive notes and references.) In essence, the Zohar is a Kabbalistic interpretation of the Torah and a novel about Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai woven into one magnificent, mystical tapestry to delight, confound, and tantalize the mind and spirit.

Kabbalah of this period teaches that God created the universe through ten radiant emanations, a concept that draws heavily on neo-Platonic thought. These sefirot are variously described as numbers, vessels, instruments, and attributes, and pictured as a tree (growing downward with roots in negative existence) or as Adam haKadmon (the primordial androgenous human being) whose body parts correspond with the sefirot. This latter image is a natural consequence of the kabbalistic notion that each human being is a microcosm of the entire universe, having been created by the same principles of emanation. (See diagram below.) Therefore, a human being possesses innate sensitivity to other realms and the ability to influence them. Kabbalah provides the insight and tools to unlock the truths secreted in those realms.

In the 15th century, the Jews were subjected to the Catholic Inquisition and expelled from Spain and Portugal after having lived for centuries as productive, contributing citizens. Tens of thousands of Jews fled to locations around the Mediterranean basin. A community of disillusioned, traumatized, and displaced Jews settled in Tzfat in northern Israel, a city situated atop a mountain boasting a magnificent view of the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and gorgeous views in every directions. The air in Tzfat is clear and clean; here the refugees sensed they could establish new roots and build a life. They had brought with them the now-classic work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. In response to the horrendous evil and cruelty of the Inquisition and Expulsion, these Jews constructed a form of mysticism which, they believed, would renable them to participate in the desperately needed repair of the world, and bring the messiah. Among the shining lights of this community are Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and Rabbi Isaac Luria (who arrived in Tzfat shortly before Cordovero’s death and studied with him for a short period). These teachers and their students are credited with many new and innovative observances, most especially Kabbalat Shabbat. On Friday afternoons, as the sun set, dressed in white they would walk to the outskirts of town and sing psalms of welcome to the Shekhinah (the indwelling presence of God in this world) who was envisioned as the Queen Sabbath, Israel’s bride. They would then symbolically escort the bride back to the synagogue, singing to her the bridal song Lecha Dodi, composed by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz. The mystical “wedding” betwen God and Israel, the sabbath and the community, would be reenacted weekly through the welcoming of Shabbat. Most Jews know Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known as Ha-Ari (an acronym for “the divine Rabbi Isaac”) as the greatest Kabbalist of Shabbat. What is less well known is that while he is often remembered as the architect of Lurianic Kabbalah, he lived only 2-1/2 years in Tzfat, dying at the age of 38 from an epidemic that swept through the community in the summer of 1572. He wrote very little, but his teachings have had enormous impact on the theology of Jews throughout the ages because he was able to constructively address the question of intractable evil in the world. Luria asked: If God is infinite and pervades the universe, how could anything else -- and particularly human beings -- come into being? Clearly, it could not, and hence God’s first act of Creation was tzimtzum (meaning “contraction”) whereby God contracted from a portion of the universe to make room for human beings to abide and exert their free will. Into the space vacated by God and intended for human beings, God emanated a ray of light contained in sacred vessels but the vessels could not contain the powerful light and shattered, releasing sparks of God’s divine light out into the world. Each spark was captured and trapped in an element of material existence. This explains the disunity and pervasive evil in our world: There was a cataclysmic accident during creation and the world did not unfold according to the Divine plan. The Jewish task is to liberate the divine sparks from the evil holding them prison so that they can reunite with one another in heaven. This process, called Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world) is accomplished through the performance of mitzvot (commandments); each time a Jew observes a mitzvah, a spark is released and the world undergoes a measure of repair.

Kabbalah’s lasting influence is seen in Jewish expressions as diverse as Hasidism (an 18th century revivalist populist movement in Europe that taught that God can be experience through ecstatic song and dance and intense prayer, not just through the scholastic study of Talmud) and the Reform Movement, which identifies Tikkun Olam with social action pursuits. Both seek to repair our broken world and pave the way to the messianic era.

Click here to see another Sefirot chart.

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