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What is Kabbalah?
Will the real Kabbalah Stand Up

By Leila Leah Bronner


What is Kabbalah? And what has made Kabbalah so popular today? Because we see so many variants of Kabbalah practiced today, I wanted to present the history of Kabbalah and to contrast it with the popular and trendy brand marketed today in various Kabbalistic centers.

Although many Jews in the 60's traveled to the East in search for spirituality, Kabbalah has replaced the quest for spirituality today.

In fact, now we are witnessing a flurry of popular interest in Jewish Kabbalah, from Jews and non-Jews alike. Hilary Clinton and Madonna are among the adherents to Kabbalah. Though Kabbalah used to be a somewhat elitist philosophy of thought followed by a select few, today celebrities and politicians alike embrace Kabbalah. But the Kabbalah of today is a mishmash of modern New Age thought. The real Kabbalah is very different than what is so popular and widespread among the celebrities and masses.

Kabbalah has been defined as theosophy, which is a "teaching about the hidden nature of divinity." That is what Kabbalah is, in a nutshell: the study of the nature of God.

In short, there are three types of Kabbalah: theoretical, meditative, and magical. I will basically deal with theoretical, but I may touch on the other two as well. By magical, I mean the use of amulets, rituals and the like. The meditative type involves prayer and focus on the divine. The theoretical type involves understanding of its teachings and its significance to Jewish history.

Early Forms of Kabbalah and Later Development

Where did the name Kabbalah come from? The word, kabbalah, hails from the Hebrew root (kbl) meaning, "to receive." The word itself is meant to indicate that the philosophy and belief and practice continue ancient tradition going back to Moses and Sinai. Thus Kabbalah is not to be seen as some new-fangled philosophy, but a legitimate part of Judaism.

Its legitimacy stems from its history. The roots of Jewish mysticism may have early biblical and Talmudic predecessors. [Ezekiel; merkavah] For instance, there is a mystical story within the Talmud (Haggigah 14a) that mentions four rabbis who went into pardis to study the mysteries of the world -- one died, one went insane, one became a heretic, and one [Akiba] went in peace and emerged in peace. This early story has mystical overtones with the mention of the unnamed garden (pardis) which conjures up Eden and the mention of the "mysteries of the world." Kabbalah is interested in the mysteries of the world, how the world functions in relation to Ein Sof, Almighty God, and finally how we as finite beings can come into contact with, and even influence God above. Kabbalah is not anchored to earthly concerns but is heavenly inclined, concerning itself with discovering divine secrets open only to a select few.

There are different periods of Jewish mysticism:

ancient mysticism - Talmudic period (i.e., some seedlings found in the Mishna

early medieval period

13th-15th century Spain

post-expulsion Kabbalah, Safed, Lurianic Kabbalah, 16th-18th century

18th century-present day, modern schools that grew up around Hasidic movement

The Kabbalah we are primarily interested with here did not come onto the scene until the medieval period in Spain. Because of the deterioration of the political and social situation of the Jews of that time, some Jews of the era looked inward to deal with the outside cultural crisis and social persecution that suddenly overtook them, and this is perhaps why Kabbalah flourished during the 13th century onwards. Crisis typically brings change, and in this case, the change in Judaism involved the introduction of mysticism.

With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Kabbalah was carried into other lands, notably into Safed, where a mystical community was born under the leadership of Isaac Luria. Although Luria was young, when he was only 38, he managed to have great influence on the course of Kabbalistic development.

The Zohar

The Zohar is an important and key text of Kabbalah. According to tradition the core of the text was written by a 2nd century Tanna, Shimon bar Yohai, who passed it down to his descendents. Moses de Leon, a 13th century Spanish sage, edited (and perhaps wrote most of) the Zohar later. But what does the Zohar actually contain?

The Zohar gives guidance about the true meaning of the first sentences of the book of Genesis, describing the creation of the world. It also speaks of the mystical aspects of the Hebrew alphabet and the journey of the soul after death. Though it reads like a mystical novel, it is fundamentally a biblical commentary. It is dynamic'portraying its rabbinic figures walking through the Galilee, but then encountering strange figures on their journey who are full of surprises. They are accompanied by the Shekhinah, and meet a wise child or grumpy old donkey-driver who turns out to be a sage in disguise. The Zohar likes to use the elements of mystery and disguise.

The Zohar can be difficult and hard to follow at times, but the following example is taken from one of the more simpler sections:

Rabbi Hizkiah opened his discourse with the text: As a lily among thorns, etc (Song of Solomon 2:2). "What," he said, "does the lily symbolize? It symbolizes the Community of Israel. As the lily among thorns is tinged with red and white, so the community of Israel is now with justice and now with mercy; as the lily possesses thirteen leaves, so the Community of Israel is vouchsafed thirteen categories of mercy which surround it on every side. For this reason, the term Elohim mentioned here (in the first verse of Genesis) is separated by thirteen words from the next mention of Elohim, symbolizing the thirteen categories of mercy which surround the Community of Israel to protect it.

As this passage shows, the Zohar takes Scripture and uses it an springboard to show a mystical truth, in this case, to demonstrate that Israel is like a lily to God, beautiful and precious, surrounded by justice and mercy.

While the God of the Hebrew Bible is a powerful leader and r of his people, and the God of the Talmud is a wise judge and loving father of his people, the God of the Kabbalah is multi-faceted, revealing himself especially through the sefirot. The sefirot are concept basic to Kabbalah, which we now will turn our attention to.

The Sefirot

The Sefirot are a fundamental part of the Zohar and of Kabbalah. The sefirot emerge from God himself, and even are understood as part of his divine being. The sefirot are an ancient part of Kabbalah. They are the divine emanations, ways in which human beings can experience God. God is so transcendent that the true essence of the Almighty's existence cannot be described except to explain God's revelation in terms of the sefirot, the emanations which act as filters between us and God, providing a way for us to understand God. Every single sefirah points to an aspect of God in his capacity of Creator, forming at the same time a whole world of divine light in the chain of being. There are ten sefirot, which when linked together are sometimes called the "Tree of Life." They are Keter (crown), Hokhmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah/Din (strength/judgment), Teferet/Rechamim (beauty/compassion), Hod (splendor), Netzakh (victory), Yesod (foundation), Malkhut/Shekinah (sovereignty/divine dwelling).

The sefirot are not static, but dynamic. There is movement and energy between each sefirah. There is a flow, beginning with Keter, moving through the lower sefirot and ending with Malkhut. They respond and react to one another and balance must be maintained.

The best way to understand the sefirot is to realize that they represent a way to grasp God and come in contact with him. God is infinite and limitless (Ein Sof), but though we are finite humans we can touch an aspect of the infinite divine through our understanding of and interaction with the sefirot. How we can interact with the sefirot will be elaborated upon in our explanation of Lurianic Kabbalah. The following is a list of the sifirot:


This is the sefirah that is at the top of the "tree" and represents the intentionality of God to create and to run the world. Keter is like an idea in your head that hasn't been expressed in vocal or written (or any) form.


Hokhmah is the first and finest point of real existence; all things exist in a primal point and hokhmah represents that primal point. God creates the world through wisdom, creation and revelation are twin processes.


If Hokhmah is the light, then Binah is the room of mirrors that reflects the light. They are seen together by the kabbalists, each one needs the other; the flow of light from Hokmah goes into Binah and gives birth to all the lower sefirot.


Hesed represents the God of , calling for the response of in the human soul as well.


Gevurah, judgment/strength is the counterpart of Hesed, and needs always to remain in balance with Hesed.


The proper balance between Hesed and Gevurah results in the sixth sefirah, Tiferet.


Within the sefirotic system, the function of Netsah and Hod involves prophecy


Operates in unison with Netsah, balancing the two sides of the "tree," and also represents the prophecy which is associated with God


Like Hokhmah, which begin the flow of the sefirot, Yesod reassembles them and directs their flow in the cycle again. Through Yesod the above sefirot are united with Malkhut


The symbol of this sefirah is kingship, representing God's dominion over earth. This represents the part of God's presence, Shekinah that follows his people into exile.

Lurianic Kabbalah

Luria's brand of Kabbalah became the most influential type of Kabbalah that would impact later communities in their practice of Jewish mysticism. In Lurianic Kabbalah, many of the previous kabbalistic elements are refined, energized, and even transformed. But it is important that we understand these elements in order to understand how they develop later.

In Luria's teaching, the creation of the world differs from the Zohar's description. According to Luria, creation was not as an emanatory process from an infinite source of power and light, but as an act of divine contraction (tzimtzum) whereby God contracts himself, thereby creating space for a created world. This act is catastrophic when looked at in detail, involving the clash of forces within God himself, which causes the shevirat hakelim, the rending apart of the vessels that can only be rectified by the process of tikkun.

The tzimtzum (contraction) and the "shattering of the vessels" is very important to Lurianic Kabbalah. Luria described Creation as being a contraction of the Ein Sof, needed to bring about an empty space, the tehiru (Aramaic for "empty"). After the tzimtzum, light flowed out of the Godhead and took the shape of the sefirot and Adam Kadmon/Primal Man. Light flowed out of the Adam Kadmon and created the vessels of the sefirot. But the vessels were too fragile to contain the divine light and the upper three vessels were damaged and the lower seven all shattered and fell. The tehiru thus became divided into the upper and lower worlds. This is how evil came into the world. The elements that had willfully resisted creation and contributed to the shattering of the vessels cannot survive without access to divine light. They only exist in the world today by gathering the holy sparks that fell when the shattering took place.

The genius of Lurianic Kabbalah is the way in which it unites Jewish mysticism with Jewish ethics. Humanity can undo the destruction that took place at creation by tikkun olam, repairing the damaged world. Tikkun Olam then takes on a very specific meaning for Luria and his followers. When a human does a mitzvah, s/he raises one the holy sparks out of the hands of the forces of evil and restores it to the upper world. Every time a human sins, a divine spark plunges down. True restoration will take place when the remaining sparks are returned to the upper world. Through Jewish ritual life we contribute to the reversal of the shattering of the vessels. Ethical behavior takes on cosmic significance. If you forget to say the blessing over bread you have contributed to universal evil; if you put a mezuzah on the door of your house, you have helped redeem the entire world. It is the task of the Jewish people to restore the world. Lurianic Kabbalah combines a radical understanding of God and Creation with a profoundly conservative attitude towards Jewish observance. One can see how this idea was appealing to a people who had suffered immense persecution. They could counter evil in the world; by performing the mitzvot each person could do his or her part.

The Soul

Another concept within Lurianic Kabbalah has to do with the soul. The body is seen as an outward cloak for the soul, holder for the spark of divinity within. When the Bible says that human was created in the image of God, it refers to the structure of the sefirot. Each human being is like a blueprint of all existence. All souls before birth are originally a composite of male and female, and it is only in their descent to earth that the souls separated into masculine and feminine. Marriage relations are the restoration of the soul that was split at birth. The soul is tripartite: consisting of nefesh, the vitalistic, animal force, ruah, the moral force, and neshamah, the spiritual force capable of apprehending God and glimpsing cosmic secrets. Each part of the soul corresponds to a sefirah: the nefesh'the 10th malkhut, ruah'6th tiferet, neshamah'3rd binah.


Also inherent within Lurianic Kabbalah is the idea of reincarnation, also gilgul, "transmigration," that certain souls take on a body several times. And this is how one can understand the suffering of small child and the innocent one'even though the righteous suffer and perish prematurely, they will be given another chance at life by their Creator.

The basic metaphor of Lurianic Kabbalah is exile. Even God experiences exile (shekinah begalutah), and the scattering of the sparks must be restored in order to bring about divine unity. Luria's brand of kabbalah brought much comfort to a people who had experienced exile again and again in their history. It brought much encouragement to think that even their Creator could identify with the concept of exile. Kabbalah became a type of liberation and spiritual salvation to a people who had suffered greatly.

False Messiahs and the Rise of Hasidism

Lurianic Kabbalah had much impact on future developments within Jewish mysticism, namely in the growth and flourishing of messianism. This rise of messianism created an even greater gap between the rationalists and the kabbalists. The kabbalists sought redemption from their present sufferings and expected God to "blow the whistle" on humanity, thus some kabbalists saw themselves as God's whistle-blowers. One of these activists, Shabbetai Tzvi, a self-proclaimed messiah, had a detrimental affect on Jewish mysticism. His life would ultimately end tragically. He proclaimed himself the messiah, led many astray, and later converted to Islam to save his skin. This led to much distrust of messianism.


When the Hasidic movement arose, the sages distrusted it because they feared it was messianic and dangerous. However, the Hasidic movement differed greatly from the earlier followers of heretical messiahs.

Contemporary Hasidism traces its roots to a single Polish folk preacher and itinerant healer, Israel ben Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov, Besht for short, who lived in the 1700s. He told his followers that the way to oneness with God does not necessarily flow from the world of sacred texts and scholarship, but instead is open to any Jew, no matter how uneducated. The Besht and his followers placed great importance on devekut (becoming attached to God), annihilation of the self through ecstatic worship, on kavanah/intention and knowledge of the sefirot.

For the Hasid, sincere involvement in the intricacies of the heart of prayer was of great importance. Hasidism was anti-ascetic; it was forbidden to despair, to give up hope. Worship should be accomplished with joy, with music and with dance. The Besht emphasized the hidden truths over the revealed aspects of the Torah. The Hasid found the Divine Presence immanent, inhering in everything. Some of the beliefs of the Hasidim veered dangerous close to heresy for the Mitnadgim; for example, as Dov Baer, the Maggid (successor to the Besht) taught, since evil once resided in the Godhead itself, it must have been good at its origin. If we can return it to the source, it will not only be cleansed of its evilness, but will be added to the goodness of the Divine. To the Mitnadgim, this sounded like "redemption through sin," fighting evil by becoming one with it, and thus was dangerous in their eyes.

Also controversial was the role of the tzadik. A Hasid could not by himself achieve fullest potential of oneness with God without help from a divinely inspired source, his rebbe. The tzadik was able to intercede with the Almighty on behalf of his Hasidim. He serves as a spiritual advisor but also issues advice on material matters too (who one should marry, how one should invest money). Eventually, the courts of various rebbes grew and dynasties formed.

The Besht taught that one should show devotion to God in everything one did. Even today, Hasidic Jews follow halakhah with a determination and rigidity that is unparalleled in the Jewish world. The Hasidim have become perhaps the most conservative traditional force within Orthodox Judaism.

What became of Hasidism in modern times? Many Hasidic communities perished in the Holocaust, other dynasties decayed, others immigrated to America and abandoned their Old World ways. However Lurianic Kabbalah was still firmly embedded in traditional Jewish practice. Though Orthodoxy concentrated its aims on fighting rationalism, secularlism and assimilation, there were some further explorations of Kabbalah. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook emerged in the 20th century as one of the few original thinkers in the field of Jewish mysticism'using the idea that there is good in everyone, even the secular (the Zionists).

Key Concepts of Kabbalah

So, in sum, what should one know about Kabbalah? There are a few basic and key concepts of Jewish mysticism that continue to influence how Kabbalah is practiced today. Kabbalah provides us with a new understanding of tikkun olam. Every mitzvah that one does contributes to the return of the divine sparks to their place of holiness. Every evil deed causes a spark to fall. Tikkun olam, then takes on cosmic significance, contributing the redemption of the world, God and humanity.

Kavvanah, "intention," is another key concept of Kabbalah. Kavvanah is force or intention within prayer. One must focus on the blessing recited or the mitzvah performed. Some Orthodox Jews recite a short prayer before they pray, stating, "behold I am about to (pray, perform a commandment)." The idea is to focus the mind on one's actions instead of simply praying or performing the mitzvah by rote.

Devekut is the kabbalistic concept of "clinging to God." Devekut involves communion with the divine. The idea is that one becomes in such close contact with God that one becomes "one" with the Divine. Devekut can take place during prayer, worship, or even during the day when one performs mitzvot. These ideas were taken over by Hasidut.

Ritual and Liturgy from Kabbalah

Jewish mysticism has influenced both ritual and liturgy. Lecha Dodi, by which we receive the Sabbath, was written by a Safed mystic and is still sung today in Shabbat services. The ritual of passing the water vessel from left hand to right to wash the right first is kabbalistic, as is the importance of conjugal relations during the Shabbat. Welcoming the ushpizin, the invisible guests of Jewish past into the sukkah, is kabbalistic in origin. The all-night study session before Shavuot is a Lurianic innovation as well. Kabbalah also popularized the concept of the evil eye (the red bracelets that modern Kabbalistic adherents wear symbol the warding off of the evil eye).


We have seen that true Kabbalah is much different from the trendy Kabbalah today, marketed to a popular audience, like the selling of red bracelets, etc.

As a concluding point of interest, to touch on the magical elements of Kabbalah, we know that they used amulets and used the Hebrew alphabet for magic. The Kabbalists, like so many other religious movements, tried to tell the future by interpreting biblical texts. Moses de Le'n, the author of the Zohar, in his comments on the Torah portion, Va'yero, made the following proclamation about the End of Days:

There will be an overflow of wisdom and knowledge upon humanity, unprecedented in history (i.e., medicine, technology, Internet)

"Knesset Israel," the mystical name for the Jewish people, shall arise out of the dust (ashes). Undoubtedly refers to the creation of the state of Israel and ingathering of the exiles.

The nations of the world will try to destroy Israel (the Jewish people), but will not succeed.

Ishmael (the Arab nations) will come and fight with the nations of the world over Jerusalem, but the Jewish people will prevail (it may refer to Ezekiel 48 and Zechariah 14).

But in my humble opinion, one of the most significant contributions that Kabbalah made to the Jewish people is the rejuvenated idea of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. It is a very beautiful belief that our individual good deeds restore holiness to the Ein Sof, our bed Creator. We can thank Luria for his contribution, the ly idea that we partner with God in returning lost sparks of divinity back unto him. This inspires us to strive to do better, to be kind to one another, and mindful of God at all times.