Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

Is Kabbalah for Everyone?

Is Kabbalah for Everyone?

Is there really a ban on Kabbalah before the age of 40?

 Email

This article is part of Ask Rabbi Y, a weekly column with fascinating question and answer that will enrich your knowledge. Sign up here to receive Rabbi Y's weekly email.

Question:

Last night I got into a discussion with a friend about some classes I was attending. He claimed that one shouldn’t learn Kabbalah until he is 40 years old. Is this true? And if yes, how come many rabbis and Jewish educational organizations, including your own site, don’t seem to be concerned about this?

Answer:

Let’s first understand what your friend was alluding to.

After devoting four chapters to the mystical concepts of the Creator and His creation (“Maaseh Merkavah” and “Maaseh Bereishit”), Maimonides concludes: “I maintain that it is not proper for a person to stroll in the Pardes (lit. “orchard,” referring to esoteric teachings) unless he has filled his belly with bread and meat. ‘Bread and meat’ refer to the knowledge of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and similar matters concerning other mitzvahs.”1 In other words, one should not learn the mystical secrets of Torah until he has first mastered the revealed level of Torah.

In the same vein, Rabbi Shabbetai ha-Kohen (known by the acronym “the Shach”), a 17th-century commentator on the Code of Jewish Law, writes: “There are those who say that one should wait until the age of 40 before learning Kabbalah, for it says in the Mishnah, ‘Forty is the age of wisdom.’”2

This is the basis for the notion of limiting the study of Kabbalah to older, accomplished scholars.

However, if we carefully read the words of Maimonides within their context, we will note that: (a) he never said that one should not learn any mysticism—rather, he writes that one should do so in the proper manner; and (b) the esoteric teachings that he warned about aren’t necessarily classical Kabbalah.

It should also be noted that much of the “Kabbalah” that is taught today is a distilled form that does not have the same issues as pure Kabbalah.

Allow me to elaborate.

Maimonides and Strolling Through the Pardes

The above quote from Maimonides comes at the end of the fourth chapter of his “Laws of the Torah’s Foundations,” which is the first section of his 14-volume exposition of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah.

He opens these laws by stating, “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence.” He then goes on to stress that it is obligatory “to love and fear this glorious and awesome G‑d3 through contemplating the greatness of G‑d and His awesome creations.

It is only four chapters in, after expounding on many mystical concepts, that Maimonides concludes by saying that one shouldn’t “stroll in the Pardes” unless he has already mastered the revealed Torah.

This, of course, raises the question: How could Maimonides begin a work he says is for all people with information that’s only for those who have already attained a certain stature? The question is compounded when we consider that Maimonides declares that this knowledge is necessary to fulfill the mitzvahs to know, love and fear G‑d!

It is therefore safe to say that studying these first four chapters does not constitute “strolling in the Pardes,” only “glimpsing” it. What’s the difference? One who “strolls” through the “orchard” of the Torah learns its secrets in great depth and enjoys its mysteries, but he needs to take precautions before his venture. But one who simply “glimpses” the orchard just grasps the basics of these hidden matters, which Maimonides not only permits, but requires.4 Indeed, he begins his codification of Jewish law with a mystical introduction—the sip of “wine” should precede the meal of “bread and meat”!

Listen to the Experts in Their Field

There is a general rule that just as when you have a medical question you ask the doctor who is an expert in that field, so too when it comes to halachah you follow the experts. We can see an example of this in the disputes between the Talmudic sages Rav and Shmuel. If the dispute concerns what is permitted or prohibited, the halachah follows Rav, while if the dispute concerns monetary issues, the halachah follows Shmuel5—since each was an expert in his respective field.6

Likewise, when you have a question about the deeper, mystical aspects of the Torah, you need to ask the opinion of an “expert” in that field.7

So although we discussed Maimonides’ warning against “taking a stroll in the Pardes,” it should be pointed out that a true scholar of Kabbalah can recognize that Maimonides was not even referring to the Kabbalistic tradition, but to a metaphysical understanding of G‑d and creation.8 In fact, according to most, Maimonides was not familiar with and never learned Kabbalah.9 Even those who say he did learn Kabbalah say that this was only at the very end of his life.10

In light of this, the famed Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, known as the Vilna Gaon or Gra, strongly disagrees with both Maimonides and the Shach about their restrictions, positing that they didn’t know enough about the subject.11 He therefore holds that not only is it permitted—with no age restrictions—to learn Kabbalah, one has an obligation to do so.12

Also note that some of the most important teachers of Kabbalah, such as the Arizal and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), did not even live to the age of 40!

Learning Kabbalah Today

Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in the name of his teacher the Arizal that although in previous generations the teachings of Kabbalah were kept hidden and were studied only by a select few, today not only are we permitted to learn Kabbalah, but we also have a responsibility to spread and teach it.13

Why is learning the inner aspects of the Torah so important nowadays? The answer is twofold:

a) The rabbis write of the tremendous descent of later generations. We are like a person in a deep slumber or coma, unaware of and unattuned to the holiness of G‑d and His Torah. Additionally, the world at large has descended into a much deeper spiritual darkness. Under such conditions, the only antidote is to unleash the power of the inner light of Torah.14

b) As expounded upon by the Zohar,15 the Arizal,16 the Baal Shem Tov,17 and the Vilna Gaon,18 among many others, learning the inner teachings of the Torah is a crucial preparation for the coming of the Moshiach and the final redemption.

Are There No Precautions?

Although we have discussed why it is permitted to learn the mystical aspects of the Torah, we still need to address why past generations were so wary of learning Kabbalah.

One reason is that there have been instances in Jewish history, even relatively recently, when the misuse of Kabbalah had disastrous consequences for the Jewish people. For example, approximately 350 years ago a misguided Jew named Shabbetai Tzvi proclaimed himself the Messiah, based on misinterpretations of the Kabbalah. By the time he was proven a fraud, he had brought great material and spiritual suffering upon a significant portion of Jewry.

The danger of Kabbalah is in its misinterpretation. The Baal Shem Tov himself cautioned against the layman learning pure Kabbalah without its Chassidic explanation.19 This is where Chassidut comes in. Chassidut, while largely based on Kabbalah, expresses Kabbalah in a distilled and accessible form, which mitigates the possibility of misinterpretation.

The importance of learning Chassidut cannot be understated, as is evident from a vision of the Baal Shem Tov concerning the coming redemption:

On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 (1746), I made a [Kabbalistic] oath and elevated my soul. . . . I saw wondrous things in a vision, the likes of which I had never witnessed since the day my mind first began to awaken. . . . I went up from level to level until I entered the Palace of the Messiah. . . . I asked the Messiah, “When will you come, Master?” And he replied, “By this you shall know: it will be a time when your teachings become publicized and revealed to the world, and your wellsprings have overflowed to the outside . . .”20

May it be speedily in our days!

For more on the definition of Kabbalah, click here, here and here.

For more on the importance of learning the deeper aspects of the Torah nowadays, see Teachers of the Hidden Wisdom: Who gave permission to reveal the secrets of millennia?

This article is part of Ask Rabbi Y, a weekly column with fascinating question and answer that will enrich your knowledge. Sign up here to receive Rabbi Y's weekly email.

Footnotes
2.
See Shach, Yoreh De’ah 246:6.
4.
See Shulchan Menachem, vol. 4, p. 299; Likkutei Sichot, vol. 26, p. 114.
5.
Talmud, Bechorot 49b.
6.
See Rosh on Talmud, Bava Kamma 4:4.
7.
See Igrot Kodesh, vol. 23, p. 57; Gra on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 246:18.
8.
See Maimonides’ introduction to Part Three of his Guide for the Perplexed, where he writes that what he explains about Maaseh Merkavah, Maaseh Bereishit and the secrets of the Torah were not received from any teacher, nor did they come to him through prophecy. Rather, these are his own ideas, using his own logic. Therefore, he says, it’s possible that they are incorrect, and that they mean something completely different. See also R. Yosef Ergas, Shomer Emunim 1:8–9.
9.
See Shaar ha-Gilgulim, Introduction, sec. 36; commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz on Song of Songs; Shomer Emunim 1:13.
10.
Responsa of Maharam Alashkar 117; Shem ha-Gedolim, s.v. Rambam; Shomer Emunim 1:13; Igrot Kodesh, vol. 22, p. 129.
11.
Gra on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 246:18.
12.
Gra, commentary to Proverbs 2:9; commentary to Heichalot, Pekudei 17:1–2; Even Sheleimah 11:3.
13.
Rabbi Chaim Vital’s introduction to Shaar Hakdamot.
14.
See Kuntres Eitz Chaim, ch. 13, and the letter printed at the end of that work, p. 82.
15.
See Zohar 1:117a, 118a, 3:124b (in Raaya Meheimna).
16.
See introduction to Shaar Hakdamot.
17.
Letter of the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law R. Gershon Kitover, printed at the beginning of Keter Shem Tov.
18.
See Even Sheleimah 11:3.
19.
For fear that some would not be able to strip the abstract Kabbalistic concepts from their corporeality. See Derech Mitzvotecha, Shoresh Mitzvat ha-Tefillah 2.
20.
Letter of the Baal Shem Tov to his brother-in-law R. Gershon Kitover, printed at the beginning of Keter Shem Tov.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
16 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Hafiz Ben David November 1, 2017

Sufism and Kabbalah Kabbalah is the light! If i didn't studied it, i should be dead now!
Radicalism, fascism...all 'ism' end with its light!
Avraham is our father! Yisrael is Eternal and the Light of World!
Am Yisrael Chai! Reply

David Lloyd-Jones Toronto, Ontario Canada M5B 2C2 February 6, 2016

Rabbi Shurpin is certainly right that large scale obsession with mysticism has had disastrous results for Judaism.

This should not distract us, imho, from the fact that drifting off into dreamland is also bad for the individual. The strong tendency of both the Hellenic and the Judaic streams of our culture to leave abstract philosophizing for the old is a judgment, it seems to me, that the young should pay attention to real life.

Us older folks can afford to spend our time with the books, and here -- spoiler alert -- all the answers are clear. We don't know.

-dlj.
Reply

Yehuda Shurpin (Author) February 5, 2016

Re: The vilna Gaon's and Kabbala contrary to popular belief, the Gra's opposition to Chassidut was not about learning Kabbala per-say, but more about specific kabbalistic doctrines, for a key example of this see Immanent Transcendence - Chassidim, mitnagdim, and the debate about tzimtzum. Reply

Shiraly via chabadac.com February 5, 2016

To Giordano The Chasidism do not "hide away" Anyone can sign up to take the course on Kabbalah when it is offered at any Hasidic community. We have had Evangelicals and Catholic nuns and others come to study. Last time we had an Arab muslim studying with us. so look up the JLI and see when the courses are offered in your community.

Chabad does not prohibit anyone from taking these courses. Reply

Shiraly Agoura via chabadac.com February 5, 2016

Why one under 40 should not study Kabbalah Let me tell you a story: when I was in my 20's and I heard that I was not supposed to study Kabbalah unless I was really Frum and over 40 --in other words, fairly stable and rooted in the Torah.
I did not pay attention to this warning. I eagerly and voraciously set about find the books and i would learn on my own.
One day walking up Boylston St in Boston near Shreve Crump & low, a car came careening down that avenue. It is wide like fifth ave in NYC. It is a very chic area of town. That car came fast and headed right to me. It pinned me against the windows of the store, Shreve Crump & low. I looked up, terrified and just then when he wheel was about to go over me, the driver caught my eyes and stopped.
He was so close that my handbag which had been on my shoulder went under the wheel of that car. People ran up and asked if I was ok and then they went after the guy. I turned and went down into the subway and went home. I knew what had happened. Reply

Anonymous Delray Beach October 31, 2017
in response to Shiraly:

Hashgocha Protis, Divine Providence. You’re a very old soul whose time has not yet come, you still need to fulfill something, an unknown at this time but by the mere fact you survived that, should be a sign of great things to come. Reply

Giordano February 4, 2016

It is said that "Torah is Kabbalah and Kabbalah is Torah", meaning that it is not meant to be grasped as something separate from that which is integral to Torah. However, it can end up being apprehended in a way that does not clarify, but rather obscures. It needs 'spadework', as well as a good teacher. There is also a great deal of therapeutic value in the deeper side of Chassidut and Kabbalah, but only if it is applied empathically. The teachings of Rabbi Nachman are a good example of this, amongst others. People today need real role models who can inspire them to become more humble and spiritual, yet also satisfy them beyond the simple homiletic approach of the churches or the ego driven cults of personal power. Unfortunately, when they reach out to ask for advice, they are often turned away or ignored, because they are considered lesser beings. Steinsaltz rightly says that a 'true' Jew is one that has kindness, real deep kindness towards others. Otherwise we are not. Reply

Gary W. Harper Saylorsburg, PA February 4, 2016

I have only started looking at Kabbalah recently, when I was 59. And yet, my entire life, everything that I have seen, experienced, done, and been, is based entirely in Kabbalah, what little of it I have looked at.

To me, reading the Sefer Yetzirah, was like reading about my own life, and the very Universe which I personally exist in. As it should be, for you.

One has to reach a certain point of understanding, to even begin to grasp it. But there is no minimum age, at which you can start preparing the receptive mind.

The Truth is, that all of Kabbalah, is about One Single Point...

It is like the Mobius strip of Torah; negative infinity and positive infinity; origin and null; black and white; front and back; inside and outside; revealed and hidden; All, are One, with no actual Beginning, nor End.. Reply

acs October 18, 2017
in response to Gary W. Harper:

Yin and Yang as opposed to Aleph Tav perhaps?
Careful now. Reply

Giordano February 3, 2016

One can only hope that Orthodox Judaism, and particularly the Chassidim, share their wisdom in this field with those outside their communities, so that the 'misinterpretations' are cleared up and the masses are not left wandering by themselves or left in the hands of those who use it to acquire money and serve their own ego. The Jews are supposed to be a 'light unto the nations'. Hiding away in communities and despising the 'nations' will do nothing to assist the genuine education of people everywhere who are genuinely interested in these matters. There are many great souls who are reaching out to help the 'nations' and also those websites such as Chabad which are a source of inspiration for many. The fact remains that too many Chassidim refuse to have any contact with the nations or hep them in any way. Whilst this is understandable from a certain point of view, what this world needs right now are Tzaddiks and Rebbes who can inspire Jew and Gentile alike to share the Path to G-d Reply

sheila ginsberg los angeles February 2, 2016

Too bad that so many strains of Judaism do not teach Chassidut not classical Kabbalah. My complaint is that most Chabad centers do not teach more than rudimentary Kabbalah. Many Jews who have been studying Torah thirst for studying the deeper knowledge but classes are nonexistent or hard to find. Rabbi Ginsburg is a super genius and we wish there were more teachers like him. I realize that there are books, but the subject matter needs to be taught by master teachers. Thank you. Reply

sandra Highland , IN. February 2, 2016

When to learn the kabbalah ? I studied the Kabbalah in my thirties long before my path with Judaism was certain. I read many authors on mystical and spiritual works. I wanted to learn all I could about God that I could get my hands on.I was raised catholic and spiritual study and growth are not encouraged. I was a single mother and worked long hours to care for my children . Reading was a source of great peace in some areas and questions in others. Now as a Jew I look back and see this is where my Jewish soul began awakening and questioning me . Kabbalah study as I was told can be dangerous to those without the proper foundation. As I took my law classes the veil lifted and I knew Torah was calling me to go deeper ! This was in my fifties . I felt a deep peace which seemed contrary to my turbulent life at the time. Just jumping into deep study of the Torah was like diving back into the womb only with more intention. Later studying the Tanya reminded me of the Kabbalistic lessons I had lived not just read . Reply

acs October 18, 2017
in response to sandra:

Is it not wonderful how our dear Lord provides?
He takes 9 months to put together a human being. Cell by cell.
Creating a truly unique piece of art.
Then He takes 40 Years to teach that creation the difference between right and wrong, building it's character.
Then He reveals the purpose for which that particular human is created
How great is He, The God of Gods? Reply

Anonymous Canada February 2, 2016

Simply, yes or no? Reply

Shoshana GA February 2, 2016

Is Kabbalah for everyone? Let me try to answer that with another question. What would Moshe say about kabbalah? How is it that much different than Eastern mysticism? Really regardless of how many rabbis endorse it I see it as another of Israel's downfalls, another golden calf that when Moshiach comes will be called out for what it is, an idol. Kabballah is another idol, same as the star of "David"(seen as well in ancient pagan temples), same as the kippa, another sun symbol used by pagan religions (including the Roman and Muslin). Kabbalah is for nobody. Reply

T australia February 1, 2016

if the Vilna Gaon encouraged the study of Kabbalah, how is it that he was a leader of the misnagdim who were against chassidus precisely because of that? (among other things) Reply

Related Topics