Full name of the group: Qabalah (modern “cultic” spelling, also known as Hermetic Qabalah), Kabbalah (traditional Jewish spelling), Cabala (Christian spelling). All of these spellings are merely transliterations of the word in Hebrew. Therefore, one spelling is not necessarily right over another, but each group tends to spell it differently.
Founder: Isaac the Blind (It is not known for sure that he was the original founder, but he is considered the Father of Kabbalah. Aspects of Kabbalah can be traced back to the first century A.D.)
Date of Birth and Death: c. 1160-c. 1236
Birth Place: Provence
Year of founding: Kabbalah can be traced as far back as the first century A.D. It was formed as a scholarly group sometime during Isaac the Blind’s lifetime (c. 1160-1236), but the exact year is unknown.
Why and how it was founded: The first Kabbalistic ideas emerged in ancient times as an attempt by the Merkabah mystics to reach what they called the “higher throne” of God. Isaac the Blind was the first to name Jewish mysticism Kabbalah, and he formed a scholarly group based on the tradition.
Size: Not known
Remarks: Kabbalists of all kinds believe in hidden meanings in the Torah. Kabbalists believe that every letter of the Hebrew Aleph Beth (alphabet) has a hidden meaning. Qabalists expand that idea and give each letter a tarot key and an affiliation with a constellation. The Cabalists say that they know Jesus is the son of God because the Hebrew name for God is spelled Yod Heh Vav Heh. By adding a fifth letter, Shin, the name of Jesus in Hebrew is formed (Yod Heh Shin Vav Heh). To the Cabalists, Yod is fire, Heh is Water, Vav is air, the final Heh is Earth, and the Shin is spirit. (Walden, Michael. Qabalistic Tarot: Table of Contents. “Introduction to Qabalah.” http://www.tcd.net/~mwalden/qbl/contents.html)
Sacred or Revered Texts:
Sepher Yetzirah , or the Book of Formation (c. first century A.D.)
Bahir (12th Century)
Sepher ha Zohar, or the Book of Splendour by Moses de Leon of Spain (late 13th century)
Key of Solomon (Middle Ages) This text is considered part of the magical aspect of Qabalah which is not accepted by mainstream Kabbalists.
“No one with the slightest interest in Kabbalah can fail to notice that there are many alternative spellings of the word, the two most common being Kabbalah and Qabalah . . . The reason for this is that some letters in the Hebrew alphabet have more than one representation in the English alphabet, and the same Hebrew letter can be written either as K or Q (or sometimes even C) . . . There has been a tendency for non- Jewish books on Kabbalah published this century to use the spelling ‘Qabalah.’ Jewish publications are relatively uniform in preferring the spelling ‘Kabbalah'” (Low, Colin. Colin’s Hermetic Kabbalah Page: http://www.digital-brilliance.com/kab/).
Kabbalah began in the first century A.D. when Isaac the Blind formed a scholarly group based on mystical traditions. Like the Jewish religion as a whole, Kabbalah has thrived throughout the ages. Even today, Kabbalah interests people of all ages, but especially the younger generation. “The study of mysticism has a certain attraction for students in the last quarter of the twentieth century” (Blumenthal, xv). The Christians and the Muslims adopted aspects of Kabbalah into their mysticism, and more recently, a cultic group formed with their basic tenets centered around Kabbalistic belief.
In a complex modern society, people are seeking their inner-self. They desire a self- awareness, a spiritual consciousness. Kabbalists realize that much of the world is unexplainable to humans who exist in one level of consciousness. Therefore, they seek to enter other levels of spirituality by detailed study of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Kabbalists believe the answers to all human perplexities can be found in this most sacred work, but the answers are hidden within a complex network of codes and symbols. Not only is the Torah all- encompassing, it is also dynamic, meaning God continues to create.
The first person to record the mysteries of the Torah was Rabbi Shimon who lived during Rome’s rule over Israel. Rabbi Shimon taught the Torah despite the Roman edict banning all practice of Judaism. When the Romans sentenced Rabbi Shimon to death, he fled to a cave with his son, Rabbi El’azar. They hid in the cave for thirteen years. During this time, Rabbi Shimon developed spiritually by drawing “on deep levels of memory and vision stored in his unconsciousness from years of study” (Luzzatto, xxix). Rabbi Shimon created the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, which remains the most important book of Kabbalah.
In sixteenth century Safed, a town in the mountainous Upper Galilee region of Israel, Rabbi Moses Cordovero began to study Kabbalah. He developed a clear understanding of the main Kabbalistic teachings, and he, along with his student Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari), composed volumes of writings on their mystical interpretations. Rabbis Shimon, Cordovero, and Luria along with Isaac the Blind were the primary founders of Jewish mysticism, and their ideas remain the basis for most Kabbalistic interpretation.
Kabbalah means “to receive” or “to accept.” It is believed that when Moses brought the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai he also brought with him oral law, or Kabbalah. People who know this secret oral tradition claim to know the true meaning of the Torah which has hidden messages. Therefore, the main principles of Kabbalah are a belief in the divinity of the Torah and that by studying the Torah you can understand the creation of the world. Kabbalists also believe that a prophet was someone “chosen by God as a mouth-piece.” (Low, Colin. Hermetic Kabbalah. “Frequently Asked Questions.” http://www.digital-brilliance.com/kab/) They saw God as a being not as an abstraction.
“It is probably accurate to say that from the Renaissance on, virtually all occult philosophers and magicians of note had a working knowledge of some aspect of Kabbalah . . .” (Low, Colin. Hermetic Kabbalah. “Frequently Asked Questions.” ) Groups that currently practice Qabalah are the Hermetics, the Gnostics, the Neoplatists, the Pythagoreanists, the Rosicrucianists, Tantra, the English Order of the Golden Dawn, and the French magician Eliphas Levi. Some Qabalists practice ritual magic — “names of power, the magic circle, ritual implements, consecration, evocation of spirits, etc.” (Low, Colin. Hermetic Kabbalah. “Frequently Asked Questions.” http://www.digital-brilliance.com/kab/)
Some Christians see Cabala as a way to reveal hidden meaning in scriptures and others see it as a mechanism to be used to convert Jews to Christianity. The main Christian Cabalist leader was Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola. He claimed, “No science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the Kabbalah.” (Walden, Michael. Qabalistic Tarot: Table of Contents. “Introduction to Qabalah.” http://www.tcd.net/~mwalden/qbl/contents.html)
An important idea Kabbalists teach is that there are ten Sephirot, emanations, “which the Creator issued to serve as channels through which His bounty might be transmitted to man” (Luzzatto, 3). These ten stages are Keter (crown) also called Da’at (knowledge), Hokmah (wisdom), Binah (intelligence), Hesed (mercy), Geburah (power), Tif’eret (beauty), Nezah (triumph), Hod (glory), Yesod (foundation), and Malkut (kingdom). These Sephirot can be imagined in the form of a human. For example, Keter is the head, Hokmah and Binah are the two halves of the brain, Hesed and Geburah are the hands, and the others make up the rest of the body. Both good and bad actions find root in the vessels, but all God’s actions are good. Therefore, when everyone on earth discovers spiritual unity with God, people will realize that all God’s actions are good.
For Kabbalists their ultimate aspiration is to reach a oneness with God. Every person should strive to attain this spiritual oneness by ascending from one world to another. The bottom world is the world of action, Assiah; the second level is the world of formation, Jetzirah; the third world is the world of creation, Briah; the fourth and highest world is the world of emanation, Atziluth. At the final level, a person, usually through extensive meditation and a departure from the body, arrives in a state of total knowledge of the universe. All creation evolves around this goal.
Light plays an important role in the spiritual life of a Kabbalist. They refer to the Impression of Light as the source of humanity, the lower beings, who exist in the fallible state. God hovers above the fallible lower beings as the Infinite Encircling Light. He interacts with the fallible beings through a Line of Light in an attempt to help them reach perfection. The Line of Light is God’s way of instilling perfection and abolishing all imperfection.
Qabalah is the “cultic” branch of Kabbalah. To the Qabalists, man exists parallel to the universe as a whole. Man’s organs are like elements of the Universe. For example, blood maintains human life as it flows, much like the Universe is maintained by the “flow” of sunlight. Man’s “nervous fluid” also governs his actions, but this fluid is entirely separate from the blood. There is only one connection between the nerve cell and the nerve receptor. Similarly, there is only one connection between God and man, a fluid that God emanates, the spirit of the Universe. Occultists call this spirit Universal Magnetism, but the Qabalists call it Aour. Therefore, both man and the Universe have the same three components: a body (physical), a life (blood and light), and a will (nervous fluid and Aour), but “. . . like Man, the Universe is subject to periodic involution and ultimately it will be reintegrated in its origin: God” (Encausse, 176).
Another aspect of Qabalah is the importance of numbers. Certain numbers found in the Torah can be analyzed to show their significance. For example, in the prophecy of Ezekiel, the first sentence reads, “And it came to pass in the thirtieth year of the fourth month.” J. Charrot explains, “3×10=30 decans, and 30×12=360 and 3×24=72 which is the ternary divided by four, giving 18. 30 decans in the cycle of 12, 12×30, give 360 divisions of the church year in the cycle of 12 months pertaining to the 4 seasons of a civilization. By adding a 0 we arrived at 3600, 6 times the week of Moses; it is to be understood then that 1800 is only half a double civilization” (Levi, 25). Complicated explanations of individual passages from the sacred texts characterize the essence of mystical Qabalah.
Qabalists also believe that man is made of three elements: Nephesh, Neshamah, and Ruah. Nephesh is the lowest element and it is the “determining principle which accounts for the appearance of the material form” (Encausse, 171). The Neshamah is the highest element. It is the divine spark and “the spirit of the occultists” (Encausse, 171). The Ruah, the life or the soul, is the uniting force between the other two elements.
In the words of Everett Gendler, “Mysticism is an intense experience of direct connection with life’s Source and Surrounding Purpose.” For believers of both Qabalah and Kabbalah, mysticism brings them an understanding of the world around them. As they seek answers to the complexities of the universe, they ultimately find themselves.
The following are quotes by David Wolfe-Blank and are referred to as Hassidic Sparks. They are meant to summarize many of the fundamental Kabbalistic beliefs.
“God alone has real existence and all else is illusion. The Divine is everywhere. There is none beside the Divine means that there is nothing beside the Divine.”
“Human fulfillment depends on the overcoming of separations and balancing disharmonious relation-ships on every level of experience.”
“Every individual should be regarded as potentially good as each has a ‘holy spark.’ The goodness within the other should be encouraged. No one is ultimately evil.”
“One never knows what one’s full resources are until one attempts the deed asked. Only then does one discover the limits of one’s capacities.”
“Activities like prayer, song, and dance, in which one opens one’s self directly and wholeheartedly are powerful means to personal unification.”
“Despair is the greatest evil.”
Blumenthal, David R., 1978. Understanding Jewish Mysticism. New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
Crowley , Aleister, 1986. 777 and other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley: Including Gematria and Sepher Sephiroth with an introduction by Israel Regardie. York Beach, ME: S. Wesier.
Encausse, Gerard Anaclet Vincent (Papus), 1977. The Qabalah: Secret Tradition of the West. Wellingborough: Thorsons.
Fine, Lawrence, ed., 1995. Essential Papers on Kabbalah. New York: New York University Press.
Gutwirth , Israel , 1987. The Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. New York: Philosophical Library.
Hoffman, Edward, 1995. Opening the Inner Gates: New Paths in Kabbalah and Psychology. Boston: Shambhala.
Hoffman, Edward, 1981. The Way of Splendor: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.
Levi, Eliphas, 1973. The Book of Splendours. Wellingborough: Aquarian Press.
Levi, Eliphas, 1974. The Mysteries of the Qabalah. New York: S. Weiser.
Luzzatto, Rabbi Moses C. Translated by the Research Center of Kabbalah, 1970. General Principles of the Kabbalah. New York: The Press of the Research Centre of Kabbalah.
Matt, Daniel C., 1995. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Scholem, Gershom, 1987. Origins of the Kabbalah. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Sperling, Harry, and Maurice Simon (translators), 1970. The Zohar. New York: The Soncino Press.
Waite, Arthur Edward, 1902. The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabbalah. London: The Theosophical Publishing Society.
Feldman, Ron H, February 25, 1996. “A Gateway to Jewish Mysticism.” San Francisco Chronicle. REV, 8:1.
Kosman, Joshua, October 6, 1991. “Stewart Wallace: Kabbalah.” San Francisco Chronicle. DAT, 42:4.
Silk, Mark, May 27, 1995. “Unraveling Mysteries of the Hebrew Bible.” Atlanta Journal Constitution. F, 6:4.
Magazine and Journal Articles
Alter, Robert, 1990. “Jewish Mysticism.” Commentary. 89:13-15.
Baigell, Matthew, 1994. (Art) “Barnett Newman’s Stripe Paintings and Kabbalah: A Jewish Take.” American Art. 8(2):32-43.
Halbertal, Moshe, 1990. “Varieties of Mysticism.” The New Republic. 202:34-9.
Longstaff , S.A. , 1987. (Sociology) “Daniel Bell and Political Reconciliation.” Queen’s Quarterly. 94, 3, autumn, 660-665.
Scholem, Gershom, Jean Bollack, and Pierre Bordieu, 1980. (Sociology) “The Jewish Identity.” Actes-de-la-recherche-en-sciences-sociales. 35, November, 3-19.
prepared by Erin Ghelber
Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1996
Last Modified: 8/8/11