Kabbalah (sometimes spelled Qabala, Cabalah, or Kabalah) is a Hebrew word translated as “reception”. In early centuries of the second millennium (CE), this word was adapted in western-European Jewish communities to connote the ancient Jewish mystical teachings known as “Chohmah Nistarah” (hidden wisdom), “Rozey Torah” (secrets of Torah), or “Sitrey Torah” (concealed aspects of Torah). It is unknown who first associated the term Kabbalah with “Sitrey Torah”, but some believe it was Iba Gabriol (1021-1058) or Bahya ben Asher (Isaac the Blind; 1160-1236).
In teachings of Jewish wisdom the term Kabbalah implies the reception of the oral Torah, which originated at the same time when the tablets were given to Moses on Mount Sinai (1313 BCE). According to Jewish tradition, during the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, he was taught the oral interpretation of what was to become the written Torah scroll (Pentateuch). These interpretations were transmitted from Rabbis to their disciples through an unbroken chain into modern days. The chronological order of the chain from Moses to subsequent Jewish leaders, up to around 200 CE, is presented in treatises of the Mishnah “Perky Avos” (Ethics of the Fathers) which was compiled during that time. The term employed in “Perky Avos” to signify the process of passing down the teachings of the oral Torah throughout generations was Kabbalah (reception). The term was intended to emphasize the authenticity of Jewish tradition represented in the oral Torah, and thus, was sometimes simply translated as “tradition”.
When the term Kabbalah later became associated with “Sitrey Torah” (concealed aspects of Torah) its intention did not change. It meant to indicate that “Sitrey Torah” are just as authentic as the revealed aspects of Torah which were widely known. Foundations of both revealed and concealed aspects of Torah were received by Moses on Mount Sinai and then were passed down through generations. However, concealed aspects were taught only to unique individuals such as leading Rabbis and their close students. Whereas revealed aspects were taught publicly and became widely known as Jewish wisdom.
The “Sitrey Torah” were concealed from public knowledge for several reasons. One reason is that “Sitrey Torah” dealt with refined spiritual matters which could be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted even by scholars, and much more so by illiterate people who represented the majority of the population in ancient times. One of the significant adverse outcomes of misinterpreting “Sitrey Torah” was a prolonged turbulence in Jewish communities which began in 1664 when Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1976) proclaimed himself Messiah and Nathan of Gaza (1644-1680) proclaimed himself a prophet. In modern days self-proclaimed Kabbalists continue misinterpreting “Sitrey Torah” (concealed aspects of Torah) in pursuit of financial gains, to attract attention, or just due to their illiteracy in authentic sacred texts (which could be read only in Hebrew and Aramaic and require many years of guided studies to develop proper understanding). Another reason why “Sitrey Torah” were concealed from public knowledge is in order to prevent abuse of this wisdom, as it could be used to perform miracles by individuals who possess the required skills.
To denote the difference between concealed and revealed wisdom, in the Talmud (compiled around 500 CE) Jewish sages referred to concealed “Sitrey Torah” as “Maaseh Merkavah” (account of the chariot) and to reveled “Sitrey Torah” as “Maaseh Bereishit” (account of creation). Just as Mishnah and Talmud, the wisdom of Kabbalah was accumulated throughout generations, including what Abraham bequeathed to his heirs and what Moses received on Mount Sinai. Given that Kabbalah was transmitted orally, a lot of this wisdom has been lost.
However, when in 135 CE Romans crashed Bar Kochva’s revolt, Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem, and diaspora began, Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai (80-160 CE) expanded the circle of dedicated disciples and began compiling teachings of Kabbalah in a similar manner as the Mishnah and Talmud. Given the hardships of the diaspora and constarins of a narrow circle of contributors to the project, it took a millennium until it was finally revealed.
Only afew small Kabbalistic works were publicized during that millennium [e.g, “Sefer Yezirah” (the book of creation), “Sefer Bahir” (Book of Illumination), “Pirkey Hekhalot Rabatai” (the greater book of the divine chambers)]. The major work “Zohar” (Splendor), however, was completed and publicized only in the thirteenth century by Rabbi Moses de Leon (1250-1305). Some believe that similarly to how Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575) received instructions and guidance from an angel to compile the “Shulchan Aruch” (the Code of Jewish Law), so too did Rabbi Moses de Leon receive instructions and guidance from Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai to compile the Zohar.
The next major Kabbalah revelation was made by Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) and his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), who published Luria’s teachings “Kitvei Ari” (writings of Ari). Although systematic and detailed explanations in “Kitvei Ari” shed some light on largely underunderstood meanings of previous Kabbalistic texts, it was not until Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov’s (1698-1760; the founder of Chasidus) teachings spread that the correct and profound understanding of Kabbalah became possible for average Rabbis and lay people.
The most significant disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov’s teachings was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), who supplemented largely mystical and metaphysical teachings of Kabbalah with lengthy explanations, analogies, and examples, which could be comprehended by an average intellect. His approach to studying and understanding Kabbalah was expanded and advanced throughout generations into our times by Rabbis of the Chabad branch of Chasidus.
Profound explanations to existing Kabbalah teachings, as well as revelation of new Kabbalistic secrets, were compiled into over a hundred volumes of sacred texts by Chabad Rabbis. An average volume contains around thirty discourses, approximately ten pages each. However, even a compromised translation in English of a single discourse comes out to around sixty pages, and is still intellectually challenging (see Recommended Readings). Usually the entire discourse is dedicated to elaboration on just a few passages from fundamental Kabbalah texts, Talmud, Medrash, or Torah, revealing secrets hidden within them. Such an approach to Kabbalah is often referred to as “Kabbalah Iyunit” (contemplative Kabbalah).
“Kabbalah Iyunit” deals with concepts such as the nature of Divinity, dynamics of the universe, ontology, the purpose of creation, the origin and structure of souls or angels, inner meaning behind commandments and laws, and the role and task of human beings. In contrast, “Kabbalah Maasit” (practical Kabbalah) deals with mystical and magical practices of inducing altered states of consciousness, ascending to higher worlds, communicating with spirits and angels, as well as provides techniques for healing, altering destiny and natural states or events, and exerting mental mediated influence on any object.
The full extent of the art of “Kabbalah Maasit” was never really revealed. It was preserved only for the most saintly individuals and for no other reason than fulfilling the Divine purpose. The existing sacred texts such as “Pirkey Hekhalot Rabatai”, which have implications for “Kabbalah Maasit”, even if correctly understood, could not be implemented except by the individuals who possess special skills. However, certain safe practices are available for anyone who is wishing to pursue spiritual development. They are described at length in “Kabbalah Iyunit” and Chasidus.
The skills required for true practice of Kabbalah are found in everyone to some degree due to the very fact that everyone has a soul. Usually, however, the extent to which these skills are found in an individual is so insignificant that it may take more than a lifetime to develop them. Thus, on one hand everyone can benefit from studying and implementing Kabbalistic teachings, thereby advancing in spiritual development; on the other hand, it is unlikely that success of such practice will lead to a level of development required for becoming fit for the art of “Kabbalah Maasit”, unless a person is born with such skills. According to Kabbalah, individuals who possess souls from very high levels are born with these skills.
In present times, mainstream Kabbalah is a continuation of ancient tradition. Deviations from ancient tradition, known in our days as new age Kabbalah, or just as Kabbalah, compromise, misinterpret, and contradict the tents and principles of ancient wisdom. From the perspective of mainstream Kabbalah, a true authentic Kabbalist is someone who masters both the art of “Kabbalah Maasit” and knowledge of “Kabbalah Iyunit”. Mere academic knowledge of Kabbalah, a long beard, and black hat, do not qualify a Rabbi as a Kabbalist. Unfortunately, in modern days many self-proclaimed “Kabbalists” mislead their followers.
One of the core principles of Kabbalah is that it is a religious practice. If taken out of the context of Torah, it is no longer authentic Kabbalah. This does not mean that you have to engage in religious practice before studying Kabbalah. What it means is that your experience will never be complete unless you practice what you have learned within the context of the Torah’s way of life.
According to ancient teachings over millennium, and from perspective of mainstream Kabbalah, a true teacher of Kabbalah has to be an ordained Rabbi who is practicing Kabbalah within the context of Orthodox Judaism. The teacher has to study Kabbalah from the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts under the guidance of a Rabbi who is an authority in the field, as well as possess extensive knowledge of Torah, Talmud, and Jewish law, which are interpreted by Kabbalah. In addition, at least some extrasensory skills need to be present. For example, a true Kabbalist should be able to describe an individual’s personality and identify sicknesses (if any), by merely focusing on the name or a picture of the individual.
We will conclude with a story about two great Kabbalists, Chasidic Rabbis Dovber of Mezeritch (1710-1772) and his teacher Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Dovber became a renowned scholar when he was still young. He was searching for deeper wisdom and in his pursuit decided to visit Rabbi Yisrael, a legendary Kabbalist of those times. During the meeting Rabbi Yisrael opened “Etz Haim” (tree of life) from “Kitvei Ari” (writings of Ari) and asked Rabbi Dovber to elucidate a certain passage. The latter did so to the best of his ability, but Rabbi Yisrael declared that he did not understand the real meaning of the passage. Rabbi Dovber did not see any problems with his explanation and asked Rabbi Yisrael to clarify. The latter proceeded and as he did so, Rabbi Dovber suddenly “saw” a visual representation of the concept at hand. He later became the next Chasidic leader.
This story illustrates that the inner meaning of Kabbalah remains hidden even after so many Kabbalistic texts were revealed, explained, and publicized. Rabbi Dovber possessed tremendous skills for being a true Kabbalist; he just needed help to reveal them, as well as guidance and instructions on how to develop and utilize them. In modern days there are no renowned Kabbalists who can be compared to Rabbi Yisrael or Rabbi Dovber. The last Kabbalist of this caliber was the late Lubavicher Rabbi M. M. Schneerson (1902-1994). There are, however, a few Rabbis living in our days, primarily in Israel, who possess these skills to a lesser extent.
Whatever the status is of an individual’s knowledge of Kabbalah and whether or not one developed Kabbalistic skills, the aim of anyone aspiring to study true Kabbalah should be to internalize the teachings of Kabbalah, make them real for yourself through living by their principles, and strive towards spiritual development, thus leading to a bond with the Divine