What Is Kabbalah? Definition and History

Zohar (Enlightenment) holy book
A religious Jewish Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) scholar reaches for the Zohar (Enlightenment) holy book during his studies at leading Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri's synagogue August 4, 2004 in Jerusalem.

 David Silverman / Getty Images

Kabbalah, translated to mean "receiving," is a form of Jewish mysticism that is rooted in the ancient past but was more fully developed during the middle ages. Like all mysticism, it relates to the connection between human beings and the divine. Kabbalah, however, is based on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible) and The Zohar (a collection of mystical commentaries on the Torah) and requires intensive study. Originally available only to married orthodox Jewish men over the age of 40, Kabbalah is now an area of interest for people of all ages and many religious backgrounds.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Kabbalah is its relationship to magical practices. These are certainly part of the history and study of Kabbalah, but they are not the central focus.

Key Takeaways

  • Kabbalah is a form of Jewish mysticism which involves interpretation of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament).
  • The most important Kabbalistic text is the Zohar, written during the 12th and 13th century and popularized in the 16th century after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
  • Contemporary Kabbalah study is built around the work of Isaac Luria, who believed that human actions can help to heal the universe and reconnect humanity with the divine.
  • There are three aspects of Kabbalah: theoretical, meditative, and practical. It is the practical aspect of Kabbalah that involves the practice of magic.

Origins of Kabbalah

The Kabbalah interprets the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. While the events of the Torah (including the story of Moses receiving the ten commandments) is supposed to date from around 2500 BCE, most scholars agree that the actual texts are much more recent. In fact, the oldest writers of the Torah may have completed their work between 1000 and 900 BCE, while the newest writers were most likely active between 539 and 330 BCE.

While the Torah is, by any measure, an ancient text, Kabbalah was not the first form of Jewish mysticism. It did not emerge until the 12th or 13th century when the Zohar was written; and when it did emerge it was a European phenomenon centered in Spain and South France. It was then reinterpreted during the 16th century in Ottoman Palestine.

The Kabbalah as it is known today was largely based on the writings of Isaac Luria. Isaac ben Solomon Luria was born 1534 in Jerusalem, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Luria's teachings relate to the idea that human beings, through specific acts (including use of secret words) can help to repair the world and reunify the human and divine realms.

Three Aspects of Kabbalah

Kabbalah is practiced, or studied, in three ways. These include the theosophical (or theoretical), the prophetic (or meditative), and the practical (or magical).

  • Theoretical Kabbalah is based on the Zohar and the teachings of Luria, and it focuses on the attempt to understand and describe divinity and the realm of the divine.
  • Meditative Kabbalah is the mystical process of striving to achieve union with God. This is a process that involves reading, meditation, prayer, and (to a limited degree in Judaism) ascetic practices.
  • Practical Kabbalah is the process of engaging in rituals, summoning angels and demons, uttering incantations and divine names, using amulets and magical seals to actually change the world (and worlds beyond our own).

The Zohar (Sefer ha-zohar)

The Zohar, translated to mean "The Book of Splendor," is the most important text of Kabbalah. Unlike the Torah, it is not ancient (though it was originally ascribed to a second-century Jewish scholar); rather, it is now believed to have been written by the Spanish rabbi Moses de Leon during the 13th century.

While the text of the Zohar was written during the 1200s, it was popularized during the 1500s, after the Spanish expelled the Jews. At that time, many Jewish scholars left Spain for Safed in northern Israel. The result was the development of a center for the study of Kabbalah.

The Zohar has several parts including stories and parables, but the first and largest is usually thought of as the "Zohar proper." It is this text which explores the mystical and symbolic meanings of texts from the Torah, with a special emphasis on the Book of Ruth and the Song of Solomon. The Zohar also includes discussion of the 10 "divine emanations" of God, also referred to as the sefirot. The sefirot are supposed to explain the mysteries of creation.

Ein Sof

Ein Sof is the Infinite God, all things that are revealed and all things that are hidden. In Kabbalistic thinking, Ein Sof is described in many ways: as the union of male and female, reality and illusion, creator and created. Some terms used to describe Ein Sof are "the concealed light," "cause of causes," and "prime mover."

Ein Sof is not only the creator but is also the created. In fact, according to Kabbalah, Ein Sof is not complete until it is made "real" through the actions of humanity. Humanity's deeds are an essential aspect of healing and actualizing Ein Sof.

The Ten Sefirot

Kabbalah Tree of Life names
Each of the names of God in Kabbalah represents one of God's characteristics. Jobalou / Getty Images

The ten sefirot are the qualities or emanations of God. It is through the sefirot that human beings can know and interact with God. Many of these qualities are described in the book of Chronicles 29:11 in the Old Testament. Usually depicted in the form of a tree (sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life) they include:

  • Keter (the crown)
  • Chokhmah (wisdom)
  • Binah (intuition, understanding)
  • Chesed (mercy) or Gedulah (greatness)
  • Gevurah (strength)
  • Tiferet (glory)
  • Netzach (victory)
  • Hod (majesty)
  • Yesod (foundation)
  • Malkut (sovereignty)

The sefirot are not deities; they are aspects of God that connect with all things in the universe, including humanity. The acts of human beings interact with the sefirot, impacting the entire universe including Ein Sof.

Modern Kabbalah

Modern Kabbalah comes from the Lurianic tradition. Luria himself was considered to be one of the great scholars of Kabbalah; although he did not write a great deal himself, his teachings were recorded by students in multiple volumes. It was Luria who described the structure of the sefirot and many of the most arcane aspects of the Zohar.

Luria was believed to have mystical powers such as the ability to commune with the dead. Despite his abilities, however, Luria was strictly opposed to the use of magic which, he believed, could disrupt the order of the universe and the relationship between humanity and Ein Sof.

Kabbalah has also become popular among New Age thinkers and has been incorporated into other contemporary forms of spirituality. Many of the teachings of the Kabbalah resonate with esoteric teachings ranging from Theosophy to astrology.

The Kabbalah Centers, supported by Madonna and visited by many celebrities during the early 2000s, attempted to place Kabbalistic teachings into the context of contemporary self-help and spiritual guidance. While these centers do still exist, their practices are highly questionable.

Sources

  • Huss, HussBoaz, et al. “THE NEW AGE OF KABBALAH.” Taylor & Francis, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14725880701423014.
  • Russell, James R. Ein-Sof: The Kabbalistic Conception of God, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil 281b/Philosophy of Magic/Arcana/Kabbalah/Ein-sof The Kabbalistic Conception of God.htm.
  • “What Is Kabbalah?” ReformJudaism.org, 2 Jan. 2019, https://reformjudaism.org/what-kabbalah.