In delivering the Torah, Moses was instructed to package its content in two distinct presentations.

“The Written Law”—Torah Shebichtav

“The Oral Tradition”—Torah Shebaal Peh

The Written Law generally refers to the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, known as the Torah. Moses himself instituted that the scroll be read regularly in places of worship, and today we read from the Torah four times a week; Shabbat morning, Shabbat afternoon, Monday and Thursday morning. However, the Written Law is somewhat cryptic and requires explanation. Together with the Written Law, G‑d transmitted to Moses an entire Oral tradition which explains every aspect of the Written Law. For example, it says in Deuteronomy that one should affix a mezuzah on the door of a dwelling: “Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9). What is unclear and not detailed in the text is what exactly is to be written, upon what it must be written, where and how it is to be placed on the door. All this is explained in the Oral tradition.

Included in the Oral tradition is the Kabbalah, the very same tradition programmed into Adam, received by Abraham and now incorporated into the Torah body. In fact, Moses received four levels of interpretation on every aspect of the Torah. These four levels are called Pardes, meaning an “orchard.” The Hebrew letters of the word Pardes form an acronym standing for the four words;

Pshat—simple meaning Remez—allusion—what is hinted to in the text Drush—the homiletic interpretation Sod—the mystical dimension.

This means that the written text is actually layered with explanation. Moses transmitted this received tradition to Joshua, who in turn passed it on to the Elders and Prophets throughout the generations. There was always an inner circle that possessed knowledge of the mystical tradition. In a subsequent chapter we shall delve deeper into these four levels of interpretation.

To better understand our topic, let us look through the annals of Jewish history. The Torah was given in the Hebrew year 2448 (1312 B.C.E). The Jews entered the land of Israel in 2488. For 14 years the Tabernacle was housed in Gilgal and then for 369 years in Shiloh. The Ark was then moved to Nov and Gibeon and then to Jerusalem. Here, King Solomon built the first Temple where it stood for 410 years, until it was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Before the impending destruction, the Ark was hidden in catacombs beneath the Temple Mount where, according to Jewish tradition, it remains until today. The vision received and recorded by the prophet Ezekiel just before the destruction of the first Temple is of great significance in the Kabbalistic tradition. This vision is of a chariot supported by animals with the appearance of a man on top, and is known as the “Discipline” or “Workings of the Chariot” (Maaseh Merkavah). In code and shorthand, Ezekiel is describing the higher worlds and providing the keys for entry into the Pardes and prophetic experience.

The people were exiled to Babylon for a seventy year period and returned to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia to build the second Temple. It was in this period that there was a great congress of rabbis called the Anshei Kneset Hagedola or “Men of the Great Assembly.” A total of 120 rabbis and prophets convened and arranged the Scriptures and instituted a formal Hebrew text of our daily prayers. The members of this assembly were well versed in the mystical tradition, and the structure, wording, and content of the prayers were all Kabbalistically correct. Every nuance of the liturgy they composed is laden with mystical significance and potent Kabbalistic power.

The second Temple stood for 420 years and was destroyed by the Romans in 69 CE. The Romans ravished the Land of Israel and systematically tried to destroy Torah teachers and their students. Until that point there had been an unbroken chain of tradition, transmitting the Written and Oral Laws in tandem. However, due to Roman persecution the Oral tradition was in danger of being broken. A great rabbi known as Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, also known simply as Rebbi, made a monumental decision at that juncture. For the first time in history, he decided out of necessity to commit the Oral tradition to writing, and did so in his concise book, the Mishnah.

The rabbis of the period of the Mishnah (during the first centuries of the Common-Era) were called Tannaim, and Rebbi collected their teachings and incorporated them in the Mishnah.

The Mishnah was universally accepted in the Jewish world and in the few hundred years after the passing of Rebbi, a tremendous amount of discussion around the Mishnah was collected, edited, and finally published in a work known as the Talmud. In fact two Talmuds were made, the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. So vast is this collection of knowledge that if one studies the Babylonian Talmud at the rate of a page a day it takes over seven years to finish! There are a few references in the Mishnah to the mystical tradition. For example, the Mishnah states that the “Workings of Creation” (Maaseh Bereishit) may not be expounded in the presence of two students, and the Workings of the Chariot may not be expounded even in the presence of one, unless he is wise and understanding with his knowledge. The term “Workings of the Chariot” refers to the meditative methods used to ascend to higher spiritual realms, and according to many authorities, “Workings of Creation” refers to the mysteries of Sefer Yetzirah.

Although the Mishnah constitutes the body of Jewish law, other Sages of the period also committed to writing the soul of the law. Worthy of special mention is Rabbi Akiva (50-135 C.E.) who was a master of both the revealed and concealed aspects of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva was the primary custodian of the Workings of Creation tradition, the prevalent view is that Sefer Yetzirah was redacted from Abraham through him. Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah and his disciple, the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, wrote the Sefer HaBahir (Book of Illumination) and the Pirkei Heichalot Rabati (The Greater Book of the Divine Chambers), which was one of the main texts for the study of Workings of the Chariot, containing meditative exercises, mystical disciplines, and directions for entering the prophetic state.

Although the Talmud focuses primarily on the body of the law, there is also much record of the mystical tradition. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Chaninah and Rabbi Hoshia would learn Sefer Yetzirah every Friday before Shabbat, and using methods described in this early Kabbalistic work, would create for themselves a calf which they would then eat on Shabbat.

Despite the greatness of these writings, the most famous of all Kabbalistic texts composed in that era is the Zohar.