Kabbalah means “received.” In common use today, Kabbalah refers to the received wisdom of theology of Jewish practice built upon teachings handed down through the generations from Sinai. As Halacha comprises the body of Judaism, Kabbalah is its soul.

What are the basic books of Kabbalah?

The most prominent book of Kabbalah is the Zohar (“Radiance”), which contains the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples. Other classic texts are the Sefer ha-Bahir (“Splendor”) and Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”). Renaissance-era additions include Pardes Rimonim (“Pomegranate Orchard”) by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and the writings of the Arizal, which were transcribed by his students.

Who are the major teachers of Kabbalah?

  • Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a student of Rabbi Akiva and a leading sage of the Mishnah. In the years following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, he led a circle of sages in their exploration of esoteric Torah traditions. His teachings are found in the Zohar.
  • Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as Ramban, or Nachmanides, was the pre-eminent Talmudist and halachic authority of the 13th century. He also composed a classic commentary on the Five Books of Moses that includes many Kabbalistic teachings.
  • After the Zohar was rediscovered in the late 13th century, important commentaries were composed by Menachem Recanati, Moshe Zacuto, Moshe Cordovero, and many others.
  • There was a major resurgence of Kabbalistic activity in the city of Safed (Tzfat), mostly among exiles from Spain, in the 16th century. The most prominent of that group was Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, who was also a halachic authority. The Arizal’s explanations opened up the Zohar and had a profound impact on every aspect of Jewish thought and practice.

Is Kabbalah the same as the Talmud?

No. The Talmud is part of the “revealed Torah.” Focusing primarily on Jewish law and observance, the Talmud was well known to Jews throughout the millennia.

Conversely, Kabbalah is concerned with the inner meaning and function of our Divine service on a cosmic scale, using metaphysical metaphors and concepts. In addition, by learning and contemplating Kabbalistic teachings, a Jew fulfills the mitzvahs of knowing G‑d, loving G‑d, awe of G‑d, and more.

Since these teachings can only be transmitted through highly abstract metaphor, they lend themselves to misinterpretation, and were thus taught only to a select few throughout most of Jewish history.

Who can study Kabbalah?

Traditionally, Kabbalah was only studied by advanced students who were well versed in Talmud and meticulous in their observance of halacha. Then the Baal Shem Tov, and his disciples, particularly the Magid of Mezritch and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, employed parables and metaphor to deliver the most profound and vital concepts of Kabbalah to every man and woman. Their teachings are most certainly for everyone. This is a harbinger of the time to come when, “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d like the sea is covered with water.”

Read: Is Kabbalah for Everyone?

What are some basic Kabbalistic concepts?

  • G‑d is infinite. To make space for our reality, G‑d created a void within His infinite light, whereby He remains present, but cannot be perceived. This is known as tzimtzum.
  • G‑d is within everything and everything has a purpose. When you have interacted with any part of G‑d’s creation and used it for a good cause, you have elevated the Divine spark within it and brought the universe one small step closer to its perfection.
  • To bridge the gap between finite and infinite, G‑d emanated a world of harmony and Divine oneness we call “Atzilut.” This acts as the interface between G‑d and us so that we can relate to Him. The instructions for this interaction are in the Torah, as taught by our Sages in the form of halacha.
  • We are a reflection of G‑d. Through understanding the human being, particularly, the 10 elements of the human intellect and emotional makeup, we can get an inkling of the 10 elements of the Divine. Conversely, through attempting to understand Him, we can understand and harness our own selves.