The Baal Shem Tov's vision in essence reflects an ancient premise of the mystics, as stated in the Zohar:

"And they that are wise shall shine as the splendor of the firmament" (Daniel 12:3) with this work of [R. Shimon bar Yochai], i.e., the Book of the Zohar (Book of Splendor)... And because in the future Israel will taste from the Tree of Life, the Sefer haZohar, they will leave the exile with it, in mercy." (17)

(In Kabbalistic terminology, the 'Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil' (Genesis 2:9) symbolizes the exoteric Talmud and Halachah (which deal with the clarification of what is permitted, fit and pure, and what is forbidden, unfit and impure; in other words, the clarification or 'knowledge' of 'good' and 'evil'), and the 'Tree of Life' symbolizes the esoteric dimension of the Torah, the Kabbalah. See the sequel of our passage in the Zohar (and its interpretation in Igeret Hakodesh, sect. XXVI), and Zohar Chadash, Tikunim:106c-d; also ZoharIII:153a; and R. Sholom Dov Ber (Reshab) of Lubavitch, Kuntres Eitz Hachayim, ch. 3, 5, 11-13, and Appendix III.)

...''And so many people here below (on earth) shall be sustained (yitparnessun) by this work of [R. Shimon bar Yochai] when it will be revealed in the last generation, at the end of days, and in the merit there of 'You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land' (Leviticus 25:10)."

The teachings of the Kabbalah originally were restricted to yechidei segulah, a chosen few whose saintliness matched their scholarship and who had mastered the strict prerequisites to entering the orchard of mysticism.

(See Zohar Chadash, Bereishit:6d: ''One must not reveal the mysteries of the Torah except to a person that is wise and studied Scripture and Talmud, whose studies endure, and he is G‑d-fearing and erudite in everything."

R. Mosheh Cordovero notes that he who wishes to pursue the esoteric teachings of the Torah must first possess some basic knowledge of nigleh (the exoteric Torah), the laws relevant to the daily life of the Jew. Otherwise he would be like one who ''gazes at the stars, only observing the things above him, and thus failing to see holes right under his feet; ultimately he will fall into a deep pit."

To study the mysteries of the Torah before Scripture, Mishnah and Talmud is at best ''like a soul without a body, lacking efficacy and accountability.. Man must study the wisdom of the Kabbalah, but first his body must be purified. This is effected by practicing the mitzvot - which serve this purpose (Bereishit Rabba 44:1) and are essential. Only thereafter can the neshamah (soul) radiate in this body like a lamp placed in a glass reflector - 'The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d' (Proverbs 20:27) - shining and invigorating him to understand the mysteries of the Torah and revealing its depths..." R. Chaim Vital, Introduction to Eitz Chayim.

See also Ramban's introduction to his commentary on the Torah; the strict words of caution of the Baal Shem Tov quoted in Keter Shem Tov, Hossafot, sect. 26 (and the notes there); and R. Dov Ber of Mezhirech, Or Torah, sect. 258; also The Great Maggid, p. 116, note 17.)

''The whole science of the Kabbalah had been concealed from all the scholars except for a select few - and even that was in a mode of 'walking secretly' and not publicly, as mentioned in the Gemara. R. Shimon bar Yochai, too, stated in the sacred Zohar that permission to reveal was given to him and his associates only." This concealment and restriction, however, was to last only to 'the end of days,' i.e., to the period immediately preceding the Messianic era.

''The decree against open involvement with Chochmath haEmeth (the Wisdom of the Truth, i.e., the Kabbalah) was but for a set period of time, namely up until the end of the year 5250 (1490). From then onwards it is called the 'last generation,' and the decree was nullified and it is permissible to occupy oneself with the Zohar. Since the year 5300 it is a most meritorious precept to be occupied therewith in public, for both the great and the small. As it is by virtue of this merit, and not another, that the King Messiah will come in the future, it is improper to be slothful [with this study]."

Indeed, in this context R. Shimon bar Yochai foresaw an ever- increasing revelation of mysticism in the period preceding the Messianic redemption to the point that "when the days of the Messiah will be near at hand even young children will happen to find the secrets of wisdom."