Kabbalah, also spelled Kabbala (Hebrew: “tradition”), is generally known as the name for esoteric Jewish mysticism as it appeared in the 12th century and later. According to Dr. Gershom Scholem in his seminal work entitled Kabbalah, in its wider sense, it also signifies all the successive esoteric movements in Judaism that evolved from the end of the period of the Second Temple and became active factors in Jewish history. Other scholars, such as Dr. Leonora Leet, believe that Kabbalah is the product of a sophisticated, though largely forgotten, Hebraic sacred science that has its origin with the ancient Hebraic priesthood.

But at first the word Kabbalah did not refer to a specific esoteric tradition per se; in the Talmud, it is used for the extra-Pentateuchal parts of the Bible, and in post-talmudic literature the Oral Law is also called “kabbalah”. In the beginning of the 13th century, Eleazar of Worms used the term kabbalah to refer to more esoteric subject matter, such as the names of the angels and the magical Names of God, and the actual precise meaning as we think of it today seems to have originated in the circles of Isaac the Blind (1200). There is no question that Kabbalah is very important to study of the esoteric traditions of the west. The earliest roots of Kabbalah are thought to have come from Merkavah mysticism, which flourished from the 1st century in Palestine. Its focus was on ecstatic and mystical contemplation of the divine throne, or chariot (merkava), seen in a vision by Ezekiel.

Kabbalah is only one of the many terms used, during a period of more than 1500 years, to designate the mystical movement, its teaching, and its adherents, says Scholem. The Talmud speaks of “sitrei torah” and “razei torah” (secrets of the torah), and parts of the secret tradition are called “ma’aseh bereshit” (the work of creation) and “ma’aseh merkabah” (the work of the chariot). The earliest known Jewish text on cosmology was the Sefer Yetsirah (the Book of Creation), which appeared from sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries. It explained creation as a process involving the ten divine numbers (sefirot) of God and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Combined, they were said to represent the 32 paths of wisdom. Another major early text was the Sefer ha-bahir (Book of Brightness), which has had a profound effect on Jewish mysticism since the 12th century. In the 13th century, the Sefer ha-temuna (Book of the Image) appeared in Spain and dealt with the idea of cosmic cycles; each aeon, or cycle, was said to have a different Torah.

treeoflifeThe famous Zohar, properly called Sefer ha-zohar (Book of Splendour), also appeared in medieval Spain. It was written between 1280 and 1286 by Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon in Guadalajara, and is the central work in the literature of the Kabbalah. The Zohar is a powerful and beautiful book to read, elaborating on the mystery of creation and the mystery of the ten sefirot*, which were:

  1. Keter (Supreme Crown);
  2. Hokhmah (Wisdom);
  3. Binah (Intelligence);
  4. Gedullah (Greatness) or Hesed (love);
  5. Gevurah (Power) or Din (Judgment);
  6. Tiferet (Beauty); or Rahamim (Compassion);
  7. Nezah (Endurance);
  8. Hod (Majesty);
  9. Zaddik (Righteous One) or Yesod (Foundation of the world);
  10. Malkhut (Kingdom) or Atarah (Diadem).

The ten sefirot are emanated successively from above to below, and each one reveals another stage in the divine process. In their totality, they make up “the tree of emanation”, known to many now as the Tree of Life.

Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Jews were more than ever devoted to serious study of the Kabbalah, as interest in messianic hopes and the future increased. By the middle of the 16th century, the centre of Kabbala was Safed, Galilee, where one of the most famous kabbalists, Isaac ben Solomon Luria, lived. Luria’s influence was profound, and probably surpassed only by the Zohar. Lurianic Kabbala developed several basic doctrines, the “withdrawal” of the divine light, for example. Luria’s Kabbala had a major influence on the doctrines of modern Hasidim, the communities of which still exist today. In more recent times, Jewish academics and other scholars and writers are continuing to research this important subject today.

Dr Karen Ralls


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