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What is Kabbalah?

What is Kabbalah?

A basic introduction to the Kabbalah

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The Three Types of Kabbalah

It is important to realize that the Kabbalah is more about losing ourselves than about finding, becoming more other-centered and less ego-centered. The literal translation of the word Kabbalah is 'that which is received.' To receive we must be receptive. We must open ourselves, creating a vessel in which to absorb that which we wish to understand or grasp, and in turn become part of Kabbalah. To open the self to a higher reality, to view the spirit within the matter, to raise our consciousness to the point where our perception of reality is completely changed, and the divine within all creation is revealed.

Generally speaking, Kabbalah is divided into three categories: the theoretical, which concerns itself primarily with the inner dimensions of reality; the spiritual worlds, souls, angels, and the like, and the meditative, where the goal is to train the person who is studying to reach higher elevated meditative states of consciousness and, perhaps, even a state of prophecy through employing the Divine names, letter permutations, and so forth. The third type of Kabbalah is the magical, which concerns itself with altering and influencing the course of nature. It also uses the Divine names, incantations, amulets, magical seals and various other mystical exercises.

With regards to the latter, the vast majority of the more important texts of magical Kabbalah have never been published, and perhaps for good reason. Besides being a highly complex issue to master, even when mastered it can be at times dangerous. Many of the earlier Kabbalists have deemed the magical Kabbalah as a precarious discipline. R. Joseph Della Reina (1418 - 1472) was one of the great masters of the magical Kabbalah. Legend has it that he attempted to utilize his spiritual powers to bring the ultimate redemption, and in the process of failure became spiritually injured. Some say he committed suicide, while others say that he transmogrified as an apostate. Others say that he simply went mad. Many Kabbalists in the generations that followed took his actions as a warning sign against practicing advanced transcendental and magical Kabbalah. From therein, the magical elements of Kabbalah have, for all intents and purposes, become extinct, and its knowledge has been completely forgotten.

For whatever reason, meditative Kabbalah was also never really a popular discipline. One of the great proponents of meditative Kabbalah was R. Abraham Abulafia (1240-1296). The mystical school he headed was primarily interested in a method of reaching higher meditative states. He believed that through his method of meditation, one was able to attain a level of prophecy. He proposed using a writing mantra, meaning instead of the usual verbal or visual mantra, one should write a word repeatedly over and over again in various styles and configurations. One should attempt to alter the sequence of the word and to permute and cycle the letters of the word in every which way possible: combining and separating the letters, composing entire new motifs of letters, grouping them and then joining them with other groups, and so on. This was done until one attained a heightened state of consciousness.

Now, although Abulafia was a prolific writer and authored over forty books in his lifetime, nonetheless most of his works were never published. In fact, even during his life, many of the other great Kabbalists opposed him and his teachings. Therefore, the Kabbalah, wherein the aim was to reach the transcendental state of consciousness, never became mainstream even though on an individual level, there were Kabbalists, especially the Kabbalists from 16th century Safed, who incorporated his teachings as a way to achieve elevated states of awareness and consciousness.

What we are left with is the theoretical dimension of Kabbalah. The vast majority of the Kabbalah that has been and is continuously being produced are all within the domain of the theoretical. The main body of this type of Kabbalah is the sacred work of the Zohar, a book of teachings of the second century Talmudic mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which were handed down from one generation to the next until they were published in the late 13th century by the Kabbalist R. Moshe De Leon.

The Three Stages of the Development of the Theoretical Kabbalah

It is the theoretical aspect of the Kabbalah that has been developed throughout the ages in various stages. For practical purposes, the tradition of this style of Kabbalah can be divided into three basic stages. The first is the era of the publication of the Zohar, with the mystics of that and the following generation who articulated these teachings. The second would be the 16th century mystics who lived in the city of Safed. This particular period in history is referred to as the great Kabbalistic renaissance. The movement was steered by the profound and systematic teachings of R. Moshe Corodovero, known as the Ramak (1522-1570), and particularly by the teachings of R.Yitzchak Luria, (1534-1572) whose sobriquet was the Ari-Zal, the G-dly Rabbi Yitzchak of blessed memory. Ultimately, the third development of the Kabbalah was with the birth of R. Yisrael Ben Eliezer, (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, who was the founder of the Chassidic movement, which in a direct or indirect way has steered all the other mystical movements up until this present day.

One who has only seen glimpses of the theoretical Kabbalah--the novice--tends to view it as a writing replete with fantasy, strange happenings and images, fantastical mythical landscapes, seemingly irrational, unrealistic, and unrelated to reality. Opening the classic work of theoretical Kabbalah, the Zohar, one is amazed at the authors' imagination, but perhaps the fascination ends there. It seems to the novice to be a book of fantasy, nothing more. A famed Kabalistic Master, the Tzadik of Zitshav, once observed regarding the Kabbalah that these three stages in its development can be related to a parable.

In a time when travel was a perilous and arduous venture and most people had never been outside their little village, a man journeyed to a distant land. Upon his return, he gathered together the people of his village and enthusiastically related the great adventures of his voyage. He spoke of a bird he had seen in a distant land, whose features were remarkable. For example, the bird's face was human; his legs were that of a giraffe. The villagers scoffed and dismissed his story as utter fantasy. Inspired by the adventurers of his tales, a fellow villager set out on the same voyage determined to see the world for himself. Years later he returned to his village, a man of the world. Like the traveler who had so inspired him, he gathered the village folk and related his adventures. He too spoke of this fantastic bird, but the description was slightly different. The face of the bird, he said, was not actually human, although it closely resembled one, and the legs were long and spindly and definitely brought to mind the giraffe; however, they were most certainly not actual giraffe's legs. Upon hearing this man's story, the villagers were divided. Some wholeheartedly believed this man whose story was more convincing than the first traveler. Yet there were plenty of skeptics, to whom the story still sounded entirely contrived and unrealistic.

One of the villagers was determined to bring a final conclusion to the matter of this strange bird and undertook the arduous journey himself. Upon his return he gathered together the villagers and triumphantly proclaimed, the matter is settled! Whereupon he reached into his large bag and withdrew this strange and fantastic bird. This time there was not a skeptic to be found.

This parable relates to the three stages in the development of the theoretical domain of Kabbalah. The author of the Zohar, the main body of Kabalistic thought, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was the first to describe the Divine presence and our relationship with the Ein Sof. In the Zohar, we find such strange and fantastic tales, such mythical and mystical configurations and images, that we can hardly believe. In the 16th century, in Safed, the city of mystics, the Kabbalah began to take on a more comprehensive, detailed form and analysis. Patterns and systematic thought processes began to appear in Kabalistic literature. Ultimately, with the birth of the Chassidic movement, Kabbalah has come to its full fruition. Chassidism is the mystical movement founded by R. Yisrael Ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. He brought the image of the Creator into reality. No longer were these mystical concepts farfetched and unrealistic, rather they became a concrete part of our everyday lives, affecting every facet of creation. Heaven was brought down to Earth.

The Kabbalistic Journey Comes Full Circle

The purpose of the Kabbalah is fraught with misconceptions. A popular misunderstanding is that the study of Kabbalah is meant to transform one into a psychic, or perhaps a clairvoyant, capable of miraculous and otherworldly abilities. This, however, is a misconception. The ultimate purpose in the study of Kabbalah is the perfection of the Self. Making the Self into a better, more expanded individual, more transcendent, more attuned to the essence and roots of one's soul, this is what Kabbalah comes to offer those who truly wish to receive it.

The criterion of the authentic and Kabbalistic journey is one that comes full circle and where one returns ultimately to the world of the here-and-now. The Talmud tells of four sages who entered the mystical orchard and experienced a transcendental experience. Ben Azzai gazed and died. Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. In other words, he went insane. Acher (the other) (née Elisha Ben Avuyah) gazed and cut off his plantings, that is, transmogrified into a heretic. Rabbi Akiva entered and exited in peace. The orchard represents the higher spiritual realms. Rabbi Akiva was the only sage, amongst these four great sages, who was able to enter and exit the mystical orchard without being scarred. Being a man of great spiritual stature, a true and well balanced master, he realized that the objective is not to identify with the light and not return, physically, as Ben Azzai did, or mentally as Ben Zoma did. Nor, was it to feel personal release or ecstasy, but rather to go there and return here, with the proper wisdom to serve in the here-and-now. The journey is to come full circle into one's day-to-day life behaviors.

Now, though, the core of all Kabbalah is the distinct goal and objective to draw down the Infinite Light from the abstract and anchor holiness into one's day to day reality. And, the early Kabbalists were known as "Men of toil"--their exertions were not of the physical sort, rather they labored throughout their lifetimes to improve themselves and elevate their level of consciousness to the point of a spiritual perception of reality. With the arrival of Baal Shem Tov, this notion took on a new and fresh meaning. With the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the path became ever so clear as to how this refinement could be achieved.

To Know Kabbalah is to Live Kabbalisticaly

Kabbalah is likened to the proverbial "tree of life." It is a study of life, and just as life cannot be studied through a textbook but through living itself, so too, the study of Kabbalah is effective only through the practicality of its teachings in our everyday lives. Kabbalah studied as a textbook subject is as one who studies 'love' yet never experiences it for himself.

R. Simchah Bunem of Pshischah, a celebrated Chassidic master, once said of a well-know Kabbalist that he had no understanding of Kabbalah. He explained that though it is true that he was versed in Kabbalistic literature, he had no real understanding. To illustrate his point, he offered the following metaphor. Lets say, for example, a person wants to become familiar with Paris, he then buys himself a map and a city guide and studies it diligently until he know all the intricate details and pathways of the city; yet, it is self-explanatory that if he never visits the actual city, he will never truly know what Paris is really like. The heart beat and pulse of any city can only be known by actually experiencing it. In the same vain, concluded Reb Bunem, to fully understand Kabbalah, one most live it and that so-called Kabbalist did not.

The Kabbalistic Way of Character Refinement

It only takes a short glimpse into the work of the great masters of the theoretical Kabbalah to notice that the mass majority of the texts do not deal at all with transformation of character. While it is true that Chassidic mystical literature is geared toward taking the highly theoretical and relating it to one's day-to-day life, the Kabbalah itself seems not to care so much about the person. But rather, it seems to be interested in explaining the heavenly spheres, angels, souls, and 'things' of this sort, not how one is to conquer negative behavior.

Notwithstanding, this does not imply that the Kabbalah is not interested in the person per se. To the contrary! In fact, there are countless remarks throughout all the works of Kabbalah regarding the negativity of bad character traits, such as anger, laziness, depression, and others. The harshest condemnation of depression, anger, and other negative counter-productive emotions are found within the works of Kabbalah. Yet, the Kabbalistic method of character refinement is quite a different approach than the approaches that we are accustomed to encountering. It is not a head-on battle of countering negativity on its own turf, but neither is it to overwhelm the negative with the positive. Its approach is to come from another vantage point and see things from another perspective.

The primary objective of mystical thought is to make the person understand that there is nothing else besides the Infinite. Reading the various configurations, maps, and diagrams the Kabbalah presents, the person is supposed to be awakened to consciousness that all that really exists is the Ein Sof. There is a feeling tone that is to be aroused when we penetrate the truths of Kabbalah, and that is the feeling that the world as we tend to perceive it, as separate, independent of a creator, is but an illusion, and in reality there is nothing other then the infinite light. Having this notion in mind, consciously or even subconsciously, we are then able to conquer all our personal negative emotions and traits.

The Ego / False Sense of Self, as the Source of all Negative Emotions

R. Eliyahu ben Moshe Di Vidas, a 16th century Kabbalist, deposits that there are three primary negative traits, which may be considered the 'principal traits' from which all further dissention occurs. They are: haughtiness, stubbornness, and anger, all of which claim origin in the same source, that is, the ego. Ego is the fountainhead from which all negativity stems. The core of all corruption is that false sense of self/ego, which lives in an incessant state of what it thinks will cause its survival.

It is the ego which give rise to all negative emotions. For example, when a person becomes angry, it is the ego's way of showing its objection that it is not happy. The ego, when it feels it is threatened, is the one who protests: 'how can you do this to me,' which arouses the anger. The fear of annihilation is the constant condition with regards to the ego. Anger is but a manifestation of a persons preoccupation with his imaginary presumptions of survival. The total involvement with the illusory 'self' is the root of all negative emotions.

By overcoming this false sense of self, which stems from one's false estimation of survival, one's negative emotions is conquered. Through the study of the Kabbalah, we come to the realization that the false sense of self/ego is but a masquerade of our true and inner dynamics, our transcendent soul. The feeling tone we get when contemplating Kabbalah is that all that exists is Ein Sof. We ought to feel this on a cosmic level, and then understand it on our own level. Consequently, the illusion of separateness/ego, and as a result, the preservation of this mirage will slowly begin to fade, and with it will fade the negative emotions which is the ego's manifestation.

In the place of seeing the ego as a real enemy who needs to be engaged in battle in order to be overcome, we begin to realize that there is nothing besides the Light, and everything else is simply a concealment of that truth. Such is the Kabbalistic approach for self-perfection. It does not deal with the negative head-on, nor does it deal with it at all. Rather it goes to the source of all problems, the I/ego, and by extension, the entire physical reality, and it demonstrates how, in fact, these seemingly independent realities are but a camouflage. By realizing this, our negativity is more easily overcome.

Rabbi DovBer Pinson is a scholar, spiritual teacher, and the author of several books on Kabbalah and Jewish spirituality. Rabbi Pinson heads the Iyyun Institute, a center for Jewish enrichment in Brownstone Brooklyn.
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Discussion (8)
July 11, 2014
magic is not a part of any religion
Magic is not and was never a part of religion. stop misguiding people. Judaism is following the torah and the prophet and not some evil kind of magic. magic can never be a source of happiness. all the Abrahamic prophets have told to follow them in their actions and not some magic wizard. this is far from judaism
Anonymous
Israel
June 21, 2014
Thank You
Since I was a little girl , I have always been very interested in Mysticism. I am so glad to learn about it , & that it must be used only to better humanity . This makes me very proud of my heritage . Too many people use " magic " to harm others ; often innocent people who are completely defenseless . I am so glad to know we use " magic " productively , rather than destructively . B. ' H.
Anonymous
Toronto
May 3, 2014
Amazing
All there is around us is the light but until recently I never saw it.
Anonymous
May 23, 2011
Relgion
Very Interesting & Knowledgeable.
Anonymous
October 29, 2009
kabbalah
Is it possible for an one to grow up in the world never knowing of the kabbalah and later after all the toil of life finding it the only thing that is directly related to every moment of his life? Or rather, is it possible for someone to look upon his life and see that his life IS the kabbalah In every way shape and form?
DAVID
N.O., LA
December 4, 2007
Did you know about the Italian Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463/1494) who believed in and studied the Kabalah in Hebrew.
He was a Neo-Platonist and one of the greatest philosphers who studied at the Platonic Academy of Florence. He was encouraged in his studies by Lorenzo de Medici and his teacher was Marsilio Ficino one of the greatest philosophers of the Renaissance. Pico believed that an educated person should study Hebrew and Talmudic sources.
Clarice Smolarz
Camarillo, Ca, USA
July 12, 2007
kabalah
great article, A must read!
yoni waysman
la, ca
June 22, 2005
The 21 Steps!
Thank you for this most informative article.

Interestingly one of the greatest teachers of Kabbalah The Saintly Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Blessed Memory the famous ARI HAKODESH described how their 21 steps towards perfecting oneself. (The ARI HAKODESH learnt these 21 ways from the verse in Tehillim (Psalms) "Ach Tov Le"Yisrael". Ach standing for 21)

It shows that the story of the hidden parts of The Torah should come with trying to perfect oneself and come closer to G-d and Torah.
Menashe Kaltmann
Melbourne, Australia
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