Introduction to the Kabbala

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 10:02 am


Today we are living in a free world. Whereas once one would be discriminated against for reading the wrong philosophy or a banned religious book, today a person can read whatever their heart desires.


Therefore, the question “should celebrities study Kabbalah?” is almost irrelevant in today’s age. The most one can do is put Kabbalah in its historical perspective and expect people to make their own judgment. What is Kabbalah?


The word Kabbalah literally means ‘tradition’. It is a tradition passed down from generation to generation beginning with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as a method for the soul to ascend unto spiritual heights and connect with its Creator. It was a closely held secret for the wise and righteous, involving the permutations of G-d’s exalted names and communicating intimately with G-d through meditation. This was also the idea of prophecy, as explained by Maimonides.


The Mishna (Chagigah ch. 2) says that these teachings should be taught only in private to a person who has a sharp intellect. In the 1st century there lived a great sage and mystic, Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) relates that four men entered the orchard - a euphemism for the soul ascending to paradise - through the permutations of G-d’s name as taught in the Kabbalah. The experience was so intense that, the Talmud says, only Rabbi Akiva remained unharmed: Alisha ben Avuya became an apostate, Ben Azzai died and Ben Zoma became mentally unstable.


Another mystical episode is recited in the Yom Kippur service. The Romans were about to execute the ten great sages including Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest. Rabbi Ishmael, through the permutations of the Divine name, ascended to Heaven and inquired whether this merciless death at the hands of the evil Romans was destined by G-d. When he heard the affirmative he conveyed this to his colleagues and they accepted their fate.


Rabbi Akiva had a student, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He opened an academy to teach the mysticism of the Kabbalah. His disciples were men of great spiritual heights, versed in the entire Torah and Jewish law. Earlier in his life, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) relates, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spent 13 years in a cave with his son Rabbi Elazar hiding from the Romans. During this time they meditated, studied and served G-d in total separation from the physical world. After Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passed away his teachings were written in a book called the Zohar, meaning illumination. His students, who were a very exclusive society, held on to these manuscripts. Under persecution by the Romans the group disbanded and subsequently the manuscripts were buried. According to tradition, these manuscripts were rediscovered and published in the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe of Leon (1238 – 1305). It was at this time that these teachings came to public light.


In 1492, after the Jews were expelled from Spain, many of the Kabbalists subsequently resettled in the ancient city of Safed, Israel. In the 16th century the great mystic Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (1522 – 1570) founded a Kabbalah academy in Safed and for the first time systemized the Kabbalistic works into a structured philosophy. This was partly inspired by the discovery of printing in 1490 and the systemization of the entire body of Jewish knowledge. This inevitably made the teachings of Kabbalah more accessible. It was under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero that Safed became synonymous with the Kabbalah.


This continued with Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572), also known as the ‘Holy Ari’ or Arizal, who became the dean of the Kabbalah academy in Safed. It was said about Rabbi Isaac Luria that he was the greatest mystic since Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar.


However, the Kabbalist circle was still very small in number and only for people of great spiritual heights. One had to be well versed in the entire Torah and Jewish law before being accepted as a student.


All this changed in the 17th century when Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698 – 1760) was born. He founded the Hasidic movement, which was predicated on teaching the Kabbalah to the public. Together with a small group of followers, he would travel from town to town to raise the morale of the Jewish people who were devastated by the recent Chmielnitsky massacres in 1648, and the Sabbatai Zvi debacle in 1666.


The Baal Shem Tov was a great mystic and highly involved in meditation and spiritual ascent. This is documented in an epistle written to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon. The Baal Shem Tov writes, on Rosh Hashanah, 1746, that his soul ascended to paradise and entered the chamber of Messiah. The Baal Shem Tov asked when the Messiah’s arrival is due, to which Messiah responded: “When your wellsprings (teachings) are spread to the outside.”


Here, for the first time, there seemed to be a mandate for publicising the secrets of the Kabbalah to the masses. However, it is known that the Baal Shem Tov instructed his students not to study the Zohar. How was this instruction consistent with the message he received on his spiritual ascent?


The Baal Shem Tov began a new school of mystical teachings, which was based on ideas in the Zohar but elucidated for the masses. This method conveyed the depth of the teachings of the Kabbalah in a way that was able to inspire even the unlettered.


Why was the Baal Shem Tov so seriously concerned about Kabbalah being studied by the masses? He realised that without the elucidation of the teachings on a discernible level, a person can be led theologically astray.


Many ideas in the Kabbalah are lofty and deal with the nature and essence of G-d and spirituality. Although the great mystics who experienced these teachings in real life articulated them in writing, it is obvious that without proper guidance one can gravely misunderstand what is being taught. This is evident in the terminology that the Kabbalists use to describe G-d. They sometimes call G-d, ‘infinite light’. Without proper elucidation one could interpret this as comparing G-d to some type of radiant light. This is bordering on idolatry.

The same is true with the idea of the ten attributes, ‘Sefirot’. This might lead a person to think of G-d similar to a human being with emotions and characteristics. However, by studying the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidic philosophy, in particular the ‘Tanya’ by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 - 1813), one can be guided through these concepts with intellectual clarity, thus truly bringing Divine inspiration into one’s daily life.


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