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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.