Kabbalah, Qabalah or Cabala. It comes from the Hebrew word QBL meaning “oral tradition”.
An esoteric and mystical division of Judaism. What the Kabbalah does is present a symbolic explanation of the origins of the universe. It shows the relationship of humans to the God with the approach to creation where the Infinate Light manifests through different Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. The Kabbalah has strong links with Gnosticism.
In the early days it was passed down by word of mouth. In around 1280 it was written down most likely by Moses de Leon. All manifestations are said to have their origins in Ain Soph Aur. The system is monotheistic in nature but yet allows for a tenfold structure of the Sephiroth upon the Tree of Life.
The renowned Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. It has also become popular to link the ten Sephiroth of the Tree of Life with the tarot cards of the Major Arcana.
The origins of the actual term Kabbalah are unknown and disputed to belong either to Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021 – 1058) or else to the 13th century CE Spanish Kabbalist Bahya ben Asher. While other terms have been used in many religious documents from the 2nd century CE up to the present day, the term Kabbalah has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices. The Kabbalistic literature, which served as the basis for most of the development of Kabbalistic thought, divides between early works such as Heichalot and Sefer Yetzirah (believed to be dated 1st or 2nd Century CE) and later works dated to the 13th century CE, of which the main book is the Zohar representing the main source for the Contemplative Kabbalah (“Kabbalah Iyunit”). According to Kabbalistic tradition, knowledge was transmitted orally by the Patriarchs, prophets, and sages (Hakhamim in Hebrew), eventually to be “interwoven” into Jewish religious writings and culture. According to this tradition, Kabbalah was, in around the 10th century BCE, an open knowledge practiced by over a million people in ancient Israel, although there is little objective historical evidence to support this thesis. Foreign conquests drove the Jewish spiritual leadership of the time (the Sanhedrin) to hide the knowledge and make it secret, fearing that it might be misused if it fell into the wrong hands. The Sanhedrin leaders were also concerned that the practice of Kabbalah by Jews deported on conquest to other countries (the Diaspora), unsupervised and unguided by the masters, might lead them into wrong practice and forbidden ways. As a result, the Kabbalah became secretive, forbidden and esoteric to Judaism for two and a half millennia. It is hard to clarify with any degree of certainty the exact concepts within Kabbalah. There are several different schools of thought with very different outlooks, however all are accepted as correct.
In Kabbalah every idea grows from the foundation of God, and the entire study is based on that central belief. The statement by Maimonides, from the Mishneh Torah is accepted by all traditional Kabbalists:
The foundation of all foundations, and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is God who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, and the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of God’s being. Kabbalah teaches that God is neither matter nor spirit. Rather God is the creator of both. This question, “what is the nature of God?”, prompted Kabbalists to envision two aspects of God, (a) God himself, who in the end is unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God that created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind. Kabbalists speak of the first aspect of God as Ein Sof; 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. The second aspect of divine emanations, however, is at least partially accessible to human thought. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but, through the mechanism of progressive emanation, complement one another. The structure of these emanations have been characterized in various ways: Four “worlds” (Azilut, Yitzirah, Beriyah, and Asiyah), Sefirot, or Partzufim (“faces”). Later systems harmonize these models.
The Sefirot are the ten emanations of God with which He creates the universe. The word “sefirah” literally means “counting,” but early Kabbalists presented a number of other etymological possibilities including: sefer (text), sippur (recounting), sappir (sapphire, brilliance, luminary), separ (boundary), and safra (scribe). The term sefirah thus has complex connotations within Kabbalah. Although the Hebrew word Sefirah is not connected to the Greek word sphaira (sphere), some scholars think later Kabbalists conceptualized the Sefirot as circles encompassing the material world, the heavenly spheres based on the Ptolemaic universe. Sefer Yetzirah speaks of the Sefirot as the “Breath of the living God” and as living numerical beings that are the hidden “depth” and “dimension” to all things. Sefer Ha-Bahir (late Twelfth Century), treats the Sefirot in terms that are also thought by some scholars as having their source in Gnostic or Neoplatonic terms as aeons or logoi that serve as the instruments of creation.
Ten Sephirot as process of Creation
According to Lurianic cosmology, the Sephirot correspond to various levels of creation (ten sephirot in each of the four worlds, and four worlds within each of the larger four worlds, each containing ten sephirot, which themselves contain ten sephirot, to an infinite number of possibilities, and are emanated from the Creator for the purpose of creating the universe. The Sephirot are considered revelations of the Creator’s will (ratzon), and they should not be understood as ten different “gods” but as ten different ways the one God reveals his will through the Emanations. It is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes.
The names of the ten Sephirot are:
- Keter (will)
- Chochmah (wisdom)
- Binah (understanding)
- Chesed (loving kindness)
- Din (Sometimes referred to as Gevurah or Gedulah) (judgement)
- Tiferet (harmony)
- Netzach (victory)
- Hod (glory)
- Yesod (foundation)
- Malchut (sovereignty)
While God may seem to exhibit dual natures (masculine-feminine, compassionate-judgmental, creator-creation), all adherents of Kabbalah have consistently stressed the ultimate unity of God, and that all parts of god are the same. For example, in all discussions of Male and Female, the hidden nature of God exists above it all without limit, being called the Infinite or the “No End” (Ain Soph) – neither one nor the other, transcending any definition. The ability of God to become hidden from perception is called “Restriction” (Tzimtzum). Hiddenness makes creation possible because God can then become “revealed” in a diversity of limited ways, which then form the building blocks of creation.
Divine creation by means of the Ten Sefirot is an ethical process. Examples: The Sefirah of “Compassion” (Chesed) being part of the Right Column corresponds to how God reveals more blessings when humans use previous blessings compassionately, whereas the Sephirah of “Overpowering” (Geburah) being part of the Left Column corresponds to how God hides these blessings when humans abuse them selfishly without compassion. Thus human behavior determines if God seems present or absent. “Righteous” humans (Tzadikim) ascend these ethical qualities of the Ten Sefirot by doing righteous actions. If there were no “Righteous” humans, the blessings of God would become completely hidden, and creation would cease to exist. While real human actions are the “Foundation” (Yesod) of this universe (Malchut), these actions must accompany the conscious intention of compassion. Compassionate actions are often impossible without “Faith” (Emunah), meaning to trust that God always supports compassionate actions even when God seems hidden. Ultimately, it is necessary to show compassion toward oneself too in order to share compassion toward others. This “selfish” enjoyment of God’s blessings but only if in order to empower oneself to assist others, is an important aspect of “Restriction”, and is considered a kind of golden mean in Kabbalah, corresponding to the Sefirah of “Adornment” (Tiferet) being part of the “Middle Column”.
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 – the lower part, or “animal part”, of the soul. It is linked to instincts and bodily cravings.
- Ruach – the middle soul, the “spirit”. It contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.
- Neshamah – 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 at birth and allows one to have some awareness of the existence and presence of God.
The Raaya Meheimna, a section of related teachings spread throughout the Zohar, discusses the two other parts of the human soul, the chayyah and yehidah (first mentioned in the Midrash Rabbah).
Chayyah – The part of the soul that allows one to have an awareness of the divine life force itself.
Yehidah – 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 a few additional, non-permanent states of 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 – (“spirit of holiness”) a state of the soul that makes prophecy possible. Since the age of classical prophecy passed, no one (outside of Israel) receives the soul of prophesy any longer.
Neshamah Yeseira – The “supplemental soul” that a Jew can experience on Shabbat. It makes possible an enhanced spiritual enjoyment of the day.
Neshamah Kedosha – Provided to Jews at the age of maturity 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.
The act whereby God “contracted” his infinite light, leaving a “void” into which the light of existence was poured. The primal emanation became Azilut, the World of Light, from which the three lower worlds, Beriah, Yetzirah and Assiyah, descended.
Among its many pre-occupations, Kabbalah teaches that every Hebrew letter, word, number, even the accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contains a hidden sense; and it teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings.
Like the rest of the Rabbinic literature, the texts of Kabbalah were once part of an ongoing oral tradition, though, over the centuries, much of the oral tradition has been written down. Jewish forms of esotericism existed over 2,000 years ago. Throughout the centuries since, many texts have been produced, among them the Heichalot literature, Sefer Yetzirah, Bahir, Sefer Raziel HaMalakh and the Zohar.
Because it is by definition esoteric, no popular account can provide a complete, precise, and accurate explanation of the Kabbalah.
Historians have noted that most claims for the authority of Kabbalah involve an argument of the antiquity of authority. As a result, virtually all works pseudepigraphically claim, or are ascribed, ancient authorship.
Although Kabbalah propounds the Unity of God, one of the most serious and sustained criticisms 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 holds that there is a good power versus an evil power. There are two primary models of Gnostic-dualistic cosmology: the first, which goes back to Zoroastrianism, believes creation is ontologically divided between good and evil forces; the second, found largely in Greco-Roman ideologies like Neo-Platonism, believes the universe knew a primordial harmony, but that a cosmic disruption yielded a second, evil, dimension to reality. This second model influenced the cosmology of the Kabbalah. According to Kabbalistic cosmology, the Ten Sefirot correspond to ten levels of creation. These levels of creation must not be understood as ten different “gods” but as ten different ways of revealing God, one per level. It is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes. While God may seem to exhibit dual natures (masculine-feminine, compassionate-judgmental, creator-creation), all adherents of Kabbalah have consistently stressed the ultimate unity of God. For example, in all discussions of Male and Female, the hidden nature of God exists above it all without limit, being called the Infinite or the “No End” (Ein Sof) – neither one nor the other, transcending any definition. The ability of God to become hidden from perception is called “Restriction” (Tzimtzum). Hiddenness makes creation possible because God can become “revealed” in a diversity of limited ways, which then form the building blocks of creation.
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 Achra (“the other side”) that emanates from God.
Originally, Kabbalistic knowledge was believed to be an integral part of the Judaism’s oral law, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai around 13th century BCE, though there is a view that Kabbalah began with Adam. When the Israelites arrived at their destination and settled in Canaan, for a few centuries the esoteric knowledge was referred to by its aspect practice – meditation Hitbonenut, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s Hitbodedut, translated as being alone or isolating oneself, or by a different term describing the actual, desired goal of the practice – prophecy.
According to adherents of Kabbalah, its origin begins with secrets that God revealed to Adam. When read by later generations of Kabbalists, the Torah’s description of the creation in the Book of Genesis reveals mysteries about the godhead itself, the true nature of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life, as well as the interaction of these supernal entities with the Serpent which leads to disaster when they eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in Genesis 2. The Bible provides ample additional material for mythic and mystical speculation. The prophet Ezekiel’s visions in particular attracted much mystical speculation, as did Isaiah’s Temple vision – Isaiah, Ch.6. Jacob’s vision of the ladder to heaven provided another example of esoteric experience. Moses’ encounters with the Burning bush and God on Mount Sinai are evidence of mystical events in the Tanakh that form the origin of Jewish mystical beliefs. The 72 letter name of God which is used in Jewish mysticism for meditation purposes is derived from the Hebrew verbal utterance Moses spoke in the presence of an angel, while the Sea of Reeds parted, allowing the Hebrews to escape their approaching attackers. The miracle of the Exodus, which led to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the Jewish Orthodox view of the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, preceded the creation of the first Jewish nation approximately three hundred years before King Saul.