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What is Kabbalah?

The word Kabbalah (from the Hebrew קַבָּלָח; Kabbalah, “the received”) signifies reception, but should not be thought of in terms of information received by oral tradition, but rather the act of receiving a transmission.

Kabbalah is the name commonly used to refer to a particular brand of Jewish mysticism which was a significant influence on the Western world from the Renaissance onwards during the 12th century AD.

Kabbalists attribute the origins of Kabbalah to an ancient wisdom tradition which had been kept secret since it was first revealed by God to Moses, on Mount Sinai. This process continued all the way through the Major Prophets, through various schools of rabbis and later recorded in the Mishna. It has also been referred to as the spiritual essence of the Torah, based on an esoteric interpretation of the Jewish Bible.

What is Kabbalah? Origins

The earliest known school of Kabbalists were based in Provence, France, in the 12th century. They relied on the ancient Jewish mystical traditions known as Hekhalot (heavenly palaces) and Merkabah (chariot) mysticism. The ancient cosmological work Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) is the earliest extant book of Jewish mysticism, and contains many of the concepts that would develop into Kabbalah. Its emanationist cosmology had much in common with gnosticism and it has continued to influence Jewish traditions.

The Bahir is a compilation of Jewish mystical writings, which was published during the 12th century and circulated amongst the Provence school of Kabbalists. There are clear parallels to gnosticism and neoplatonism contained within the imagery of the Bahir, although Kabbalists attribute its authorship to the first century AD rabbinic sage Nehunya ben HaKanah. The Bahir presents a hermeneutic of the Old Testament which encourages a mystical interpretation of the numbers and letters of the Torah. These enable the Kabbalist to gain mystical knowledge of God and the cosmos. The Bahir was followed by the most important work of Kabbalistic literature, the Sefer ha-Zohar (“Book of Splendor”), which appeared in Spain in the 13th century. It was written by Rabbi Moses de León (1250–1305) in the form of a commentary on the Pentateuch and other books of the Bible.

Christian Kabbalah

As a result of the Alhambra Decree of 1492, which expelled the practicing Jews from Spain, the influence of Jewish culture dispersed—much of it toward Italy. This diaspora led to a greater awareness of Kabbalah among non-Jews, as well as attempts to interpret it in light of Christian theology. The Italian Renaissance philosopher, Florentine Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), instead focused on understanding the method of biblical interpretation practiced by the Jewish Kabbalists. He applied this hermeneutic to Christianity in an attempt to discover the hidden truths of the New Testament texts. The Latin world was primed for the influence of the neoplatonist Kabbalah during the Renaissance, having already experienced a revival of Greek philosophy and Hermetic magic. In his Apology, Pico discusses the invocations of the secret Hebrew names of God and angels in the “natural magic” of his Kabbalistic system. Kabbalah (and Pico) played a pivotal role in the development of Renaissance magic and religious experiences within a neoplatonist framework of the cosmos.

What is Kabbalah? Basic Doctrine

God and the Sephiroth

The God of Kabbalah bears a striking resemblance to the Greek (and later gnostic) concept of the Monad, in that he is totally transcendent. Referred to as En-Soph (אֵין סוֹף) (“without end”), he went about manifesting himself by emanating the sephiroth. The sephiroth then cascaded downward, the first sephiroth emanating the second, the second emanating the third, and so on until there were ten. All human souls are pre-existent within thesephiroth and must purify themselves in order to return from the lower realm. Reincarnation became a part of the Kabbalistic system from the Medieval period onwards.

The Kabbalistic concept of the ten sephiroth, which theBahir refers to as a “tree of emanation,” was later illustrated as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The sephiroth are the divine emanations and manifestations of the divine attributes of god which structure the cosmos. This cosmic tree represents the twenty-two pathways which correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each one also represents the hierarchy of divine beings which act as intermediaries between each sphere of the system. This cosmology also incorporates good as well as evil entities and is therefore dualistic. The divine hierarchy of angelic emanations closely parallels the cosmology of the gnostics.

Mystical Interpretation of Scripture

The Kabbalistic method of Scriptural exegesis relies on the use of three methods:

  • Gematria (“geometry”) assigns a numerical value to each Hebrew letter and is used to discover the mystical meaning of the text by means of the relationship between the numerical equivalents of the letters. Kabbalists used this method to conclude that the world is destined to last 600 years based on the six א’s which are found in the first and last verses of the Hebrew Bible. This method is also applied to the names of the ten sephiroth in order to reach a deeper understanding of them.
  • Notarikon (“extract”) takes the first (or last) letters of several words to form a new word or sentence and thereby discover the esoteric meaning hidden within the text. This method has been used to discover secret names of god as well as the scientific truths of the universe.
  • Temurah (“permutation”) is anagrammatical, rearranging letters to create new words or phrases.

These methods were derived from the 13th century work Ginnat Egoz (“Garden of Nuts”) by the Spanish Kabbalist Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (1248–1305). Gikatilla was a student of the renowned Kabbalist Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240–1292), founder of the magical school of “Prophetic Kabbalah.”

In the treatise Shaarey Zedek (“Gates of Justice”), written by an anonymous student of Abulafia, the author describes his journey toward unlocking the secrets of the alphabet and the divine names through which the soul can ascend into a mystical union with the divine. He recounts his quest for “spiritual expansion” in which he describes the shortcomings of ascetic as well as philosophical approaches. He eventually decides to study Torah, the Talmud, and the Jewish philosophy of Maimonides, but still felt that something was amiss. He finally meets a Kabbalist who teaches him how to meditate on scripture using the Kabbalistic methods of interpretation, and he began to combine letters for himself. Eventually, he begins to have mystical experiences in the night as he rearranges the letters of the names of god, noticing a presence welling up within him, causing him to utter words uncontrollably. As he continues to meditate on the permutations and principles of this “true reality,” the intensity of this inner “power” increases until he eventually encounters god himself. He describes the Kabbalistic way as an “amalgamation in the soul of man of the principles of mathematical and of natural science, after he has first studied the literal meanings of the Torah and of the faith.” Through the use of one’s imagination, the Kabbalistic method of manipulating letters encourages the detaching of the soul from the senses so that one may “pass beyond the control of your natural mind.” Once the control of one’s thoughts has been bypassed through contemplation, then one can draw into oneself a great divine power. This divine power will then manifest itself outwardly and the “power of sheer imagination will take on the form of a polished mirror.” The author describes the culmination of this process as the ability to create for oneself a malbush (“clothing”), a spiritual garment which is said to be worn by angelic beings and is the clothing of our higher self.


All of the pre-existent souls of the cosmos must first be incarnated on earth before the coming of the Messiah and the ushering in of the Year of Jubilee. This will culminate in the ascent of the entire pleroma of purified souls back into heaven.


Dan, Joseph (2003) “The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences”

Fahlbusch, Erwin and Bromiley, Geoffrey William (2008) “The Encyclopedia of Christianity”

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (2008). “The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction”

Faivre, Antoine (2010). “Western Esotericism: A Concise History (SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions)”

Hanegraaf, Wouter J (2006). “Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism”

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