This term, ultimately from the rabbinical Hebrew qabbalah, “tradition,” in turn from the verb qibbel, “receive, accept,” denotes a form of mysticism and esotericism, originally transmitted by oral tradition. The Kabbalah probably dates to the second or third century CE in Palestine, and flourished in Babylonia in the sixth to eleventh centuries. It spread to Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe. Its early stages received influences from NEOPLATONISM and GNOSTICISM. Its earliest major source of teaching was the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor), first published in the thirteenth century by Moses de Leon (c. 1240-1305) but traditionally said to have been written in the second century by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai. A second book that played a major role in Kabbalistic mysticism was the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation). A third one is Sefer Ha-Bahir (Book of Illumination).
Gershom Scholem states that the Kabbalah is but one of many terms for the mystical and esoteric aspects of Judaism. The Talmud refers to razei torah or the “secrets of the Torah,” which include the Ma’aseh Bereshit (“work of creation”) and the Ma’aseh Merkabah (“work of the chariot”). Bereshit, “in the beginning,” is the first word in the Book of Genesis, and thus the Hebrew origin of the Greek name for the text. The Merkabah is a mystical tradition derived from the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, in which Ezekiel has a vision of a heavenly chariot. This tradition is believed to have been current during the Second Temple period in Jewish history (c. 538 BCE - 70 CE). Its primary sources are the Greater and Lesser Hekhaloth, which speak of the various halls or palaces that the mystic must go through while ascending in the Merkabah.
In the sixteenth century, two prominent Kabbalists made significant impact on speculative and practical Kabbalah. They were Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), and Isaac Luria (1533-1572). Luria originated an entire subtradition of Kabbalah that influenced its later magical applications.
The Kabbalah became popularized in Europe through Western occultists who used it for magical purposes. Among them were Cornelius Agrippa, A. E. Waite, Eliphas Levi, and S. L. MacGregor Mathers, author of Kabbala Unveiled. Mathers divides the Kabbalah into four aspects.
1. The practical Kabbalah, which deals with talismanic and ceremonial magic. This is the tradition that became popular in Europe.
2. The literal Kabbalah, which deals with the keys to the unveiling of the hidden meanings of the scriptures. These are divided into the following techniques: (a) Gematria assigns numbers to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the Hebrew order, adding the numbers of one word and using the total to connect that word with another of the same total. For example, the name of the angel Metatron totals 314 and that of the Deity, Shaddai, is also 314, meaning that one is symbolical of the other. (b) Notaricon is uses the numbers of the first letters of the words of a sentence, again identifying their equivalents. It has two versions. The first is that every letter of a word can be expanded into a sentence. For example: the first word of Genesis, Bereshit, “in the beginning,” expands into six Hebrew words that mean, “In the beginning the Elohim saw that Israel would accept the law.” The second version is the opposite of the first — the first letters of a sentence represent a word. (c) Temura is a complex permutation of letters and their equivalent numbers according to a table. In addition to these three methods, Kabbalists also give significance to the particular shape of each Hebrew letter, particularly as they vary when at the end or middle of a word.
3. Unwritten Kabbalah. This is the knowledge never put down in writing but transmitted from teacher to disciple.
4. Dogmatic Kabbalah. These are the doctrines in the various Kabbalistic books, such as Sefer Yetzirah and Zohar.
Major Teachings. The Kabbalah is concerned with the emanation of the universe at its origin, the structure of the cosmos, and the pathways through which human beings can attain to realization. A central concept is AIN SOPH (or En-sof, “the Limitless”), an unmanifested state of existence, transcendent and indescribable. Its ground is Ain, or Nothingness. Ain Soph is followed by Ain Soph Aur, “Limitless Light,” before it becomes the universe. From Ain Soph issues Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man, whose body is the Tree of Life. Adam Kadmon is an archetype, not to be confused with the Adam of Genesis. It is equivalent to the Macroprosopus of the Zohar (as opposed to the Microprosopus, which consists of the lowest seven sephiroth of the Tree of Life).
Isaac Luria espoused the view that cosmic manifestation started with the contraction of Ain Soph, a process called tzimtzum, after which light filled the sephiroth. After the third sephira, the other sephiroth could no longer contain the light, and hence the vessels broke (shevirah), leading to chaos (the fall of man). A new light shone forth from Ain Soph that sought to restore things. This restoration work is called tikkun, of which human beings play a central role.
The Tree of Life
The cosmos that emanated from the Ain Soph is symbolized by the Tree of Life which consists of ten sephiroth belonging to different levels of spirituality and materiality. They are as follows: (1) Kether, “crown”; (2) Chokmah, “wisdom”; (3) Binah, “understanding”; (4) Chesed, “mercy”; (5) Geburah, “severity, strength”; (6) Tiphareth, “beauty, harmony”; (7) Netzach, “victory”; (8) Hod, “splendor”; (9) Yesod, “foundation”; and (10) Malkuth, “kingdom.” The Tree of Life represents the various stages in the emanation of deity into the universe. The ten sephiroth are connected to one another through 22 paths. These, together with the 10 sephiroth, become the 32 pathways of growth in practical Kabbalah.
The sephiroth of the Tree of Life are divisible into four worlds: (1) Atzilut, the World of Emanation. This is the divine world or the realm of pure spirit. It consists of the sephiroth Kether, Chokmah, and Binah. (2) Beriyah, the World of Creation, the world of the highest angels. It is the realm of the next three sephiroth: Chesed, Geburah, and Tiphareth. (3) Yetzirah, the World of Formation. It is the world of ten angelic hosts: Malachim, Arelim, Chajoth, Ophanim, Chashmalim, Elim, Elohim, Benei Elohim, Ishim, and Seraphim, presided over by Metraton, the Prince of the World. It is the world of the sephiroth Netzach, Hod, and Yesod. (4) Assiyah, the World of Action, the material realm. It is the location of the last sephira, Malkuth.
The ten sephiroth are also divided into three groups, called the three pillars. The three sephiroth on the right are masculine and constitute the Pillar of Mercy. The three on the left are feminine and constitute the Pillar of Judgment. The middle Pillar, consisting of four sephiroth, is regarded as the perfect pillar, the mediating factor between light and darkness. It is also called Shekhinah, the “dwelling” of the Divine in the world.
Kabbalistic literature, such as Sefer-ha-Bahir and Sefer ha-Temunah, also teach the transmigration of souls, or gilgulim. While it is generally rejected by mainstream Judaism, it is taken for granted in the Kabbalah.
Theosophical Views on Kabbalah. H. P. BLAVATSKY states that published works on the Kabbalah contain no inner secrets of the Wisdom. The latter are transmitted orally and need seven keys to unveil them. This corresponds to the Unwritten Kabbalah identified by Gregor Mathers. The present Kabbalah, according to Blavatsky, originated from the Secret Doctrine of the Chaldeans and Egyptians, and the authentic Kabbalah is to be found in the Chaldean Book of Numbers in the possession of Persian SUFISM (SD 1:174, 2:240). The Kabbalists, wrote Blavatsky, had the equivalent of the seven principles of a human being, as espoused in Theosophy (THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY, 349): Tzurah, the Atma; Ruach, Buddhi; upper and lower Neshamah, (the dual mind); Nephesh, kama or emotional body; Tzool-mah, shadow; Tzelem, phantom of the image; Guff, body.
Ain Soph is equated with Parabrahman. Adam Kadmon is the manifested LOGOS, equivalent to the Manu-Swayambhuva, the BRAHMA (and also Vishnu) of the Hindus, and the Protogonos of the Greeks. In the correspondences between Kabbalistic concepts and those in The Secret Doctrine, Ain Soph is at times equated with the First or unmanifested Logos, being involved with later manifestation, and at times with the ABSOLUTE, which is beyond the Logoi. “En-Soph, the unrevealed forever, who is boundless and unconditioned, cannot create, and therefore it seems to us a great error to attribute to him a ‘creative thought,’ as is commonly done by the interpreters. In every cosmogony this supreme Essence is passive; if boundless, infinite and unconditioned, it can have no thought nor idea. It acts not as the result of volition, but in obedience to its own nature, and according to the fatality of the law of which it is itself the embodiment” (IU 2:212-3).
Among Kabbalistic works, it is common to assume that the sephiroth are emanated from Ain Soph. In which case, Ain Soph is equivalent to the Theosophical first Logos. The equivalent of the Absolute then ia Ain, or Nothingness. In Blavatsky’s writings, Adam Kadmon is equated sometimes with the second Logos, and sometimes with the third. The several Adams are distinguished by Blavatsky as follows: Adam Kadmon is the host of the sephiroth, the Adam in the first chapter of Genesis; the second Adam is the mindless first human ROOT RACE; the third Adam is the third root race, “whose eyes are opened,” that is, has received intellect (SD 2:46). As to practical Kabbalah, Blavatsky echoed the warning of Eliphas Levi regarding the dangers in the use of the Kabbalah for ceremonial magic, and admonished Theosophists to avoid it.
Further reading: Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (N.Y.: Dorset, 1987); Adolphe Frank, The Kabbalah (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel, 1979); Charles Ponce, Kabbalah (Wheaton, IL: Quest, 1983);
S. L. MacGregor Mathers, The Kabbalah Unveiled (York Beach: Weiser, 1968); Nurho de Manhar, Zohar (San Diego: Wizards, 1980).
Vincente R. Hao Chin, Jr.