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Kabbala (Kabbalah)

System of Jewish religious mysticism

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Kabbala. —The term is now used as a technical name for the system of esoteric theosophy which for many generations played an important part, chiefly among the Jews, after the beginning of the tenth century of our era. It is a transcript of the Heb. QBLH, itself an abstract noun derived from the pi `el QBL. It primarily signifies reception, and, secondarily, a doctrine received by oral tradition. Its application has greatly varied in the course of time, and it is only since the eleventh or twelfth century that the term Kabbala has become the exclusive appellation for the system of Jewish religious philosophy which claims to have been uninterruptedly transmitted by the mouths of the patriarchs, prophets, elders, etc., ever since the creation of the first man. The two works which the advocates of this system treat as the authoritative exposition of its doctrines are: (I) the “Book of Creation” and (2) the “Zohar”. The former is a short treatise consisting of six chapters subdivided into thirty-three very brief sections. It is written in Mishnic Hebrew, and is made up of oracular sentences. It professes to be a monologue of the patriarch Abraham, who enumerates the thirty-two ways of wisdom by which God produced the universe, and who shows, by the analogy which is assumed to exist between the visible things and the letters which are the signs of thought, the manner in which all has emanated from God and is inferior to Him. The “Zohar”, or second expository work of the Kabbala, has justly been called the “Bible” of the Kabbalists. It is written in Aramaic, and its main portion is in the form of a commentary on the Pentateuch according to the Tatter’s division into fifty-two weekly lessons. Its title “Zohar” (light, splendor) is derived from the words of Gen., i, iii (Let there be light), with the exposition of which it begins. It is a compilatory work, wherein several fragments of ancient treatises can still be noticed. The following is a brief account of the chief contents, doctrinal, hermeneutical, and theurgical, of the “Zohar”.

Considered in Himself, the Supreme Being is the En-Soph—Endless, Infinite—and, in a certain sense, the En—Non-existent—since existence is in human conception a limitation which as such should not be predicated of Him. We can conceive and speak of God only in so far as He manifests and, as it were, actualizes Himself in or through the Sephiroth. His first manifestation was by way of concentration in a point—the first Sephira, “the Crown”, as it is called—which is hardly distinguishable from the En-Soph from Whom it emanates, and which is expressed in the Bible by the name Ehieyeh (I am). From the first Sephira proceeded a masculine or active potency called wisdom, represented in the Bible by Yah, and an opposite, i.e. a feminine or passive potency, called intelligence, and represented by Yahweh. These two opposite potencies are coupled together by the “Crown”, and thus yields the first trinity of the Sephiroth. From the junction of the foregoing opposite tendencies emanated the masculine potency called love, the fourth Sephira, represented by the Biblical El, and the feminine one justice, the fifth Sephira, represented by the Divine name Elohah. From them again emanated the uniting potency, beauty, the sixth Sephira, represented in the Bible by Elohim. And thus is constituted the second trinity of the Sephiroth. In its turn, beauty beamed forth the seventh Sephira, the masculine potency firmness, corresponding to Yahweh Sabaoth, and this again produced the feminine potency splendor, represented by Elohe Sabaoth. From splendor emanated the ninth Sephira, foundation, which answers the Divine name El-Hai and closes the third trinity of the Sephiroth. Lastly, splendor sends forth kingdom, the tenth Sephira, which encircles all the others and is represented by Adonai. These ten Sephiroth are emanations from the En-Soph, forming among themselves and with Him a strict unity, in the same way as the rays which proceed from the light are simply manifestations of one and the same light. They are infinite and perfect when the En-Soph imparts His fullness to them, and finite and imperfect when that fullness is withdrawn from them (Ginsburg). In their totality, they represent and are called the archetypal man, without whom the production of permanent worlds was impossible. In fact, they constitute the first world, or world of emanations, which is perfect and immutable because of its direct procession from the Deity.

Emanating immediately from this first world is the world of creation, the ten Sephiroth of which are of a more limited potency, and the substances of which are of the purest nature. From the world of creation proceeds the world of formation, with its less refined ten Sephiroth, although its substances are still without matter. Finally, from this third world proceeds the world of action or of matter, the ten Sephiroth of which are made of the grosser elements of the other worlds. Of these worlds, the second, that of creation, is inhabited by the angel Metatron, who governs the visible world, and is the captain of the hosts of good angels who in ten ranks people the third world, that of formation. The demons or bad angels inhabit the fourth world, that of action, the lowest regions of which constitute the seven infernal halls wherein the demons torture the poor mortals whom they betrayed into sin in this life. The prince of the demons is Samael (the “angel of poison or of death”); he has a wife called the Harlot; but both are treated as one person, and are called “the Beast”. Man was directly created not by En-Soph, but by the Sephiroth, and is the counterpart of the archetypal man. His body is merely a garment of his soul. Like God, he has a unity and a trinity, the latter being made up of the spirit representing the intellectual world, the soul representing the sensuous world, and the life representing the material world. Souls are preexistent, destined to dwell in human bodies, and subjected to transmigration till at last they return to God. The world also, including Samael himself, will return ultimately—viz. at the advent of the Messias born at the end of days—to the bosom of the Infinite Source. Then Hell shall disappear and endless bliss begin.

All these esoteric doctrines of the Kabbala are supposed to be contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which, however, they can be perceived only by those initiated into certain hermeneutical methods. The following are the three principal methods of discovering the heavenly mysteries hidden under the letters and words of the Sacred Text: (I) The Temurah (change), by means of which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is interchanged with another, according to some definite process, as when Aleph, the first letter, becomes Lamed by interchange with the twelfth, the second, Beth, becomes Mem, the thirteenth, etc.; or as, when the last letter takes the place of the first, the last but one takes the place of the second, etc.; (2) the Gematriah (Gr. gemetria), which consists in the use of the numerical values of the letters of a word for purposes of comparison with other words, which give the same or similar combinations of numbers: thus in Gen., xlix, 10, “Shiloh come” is equivalent to 358, which is also the numerical value of Mashiah, whence it is inferred that Shiloh is identical with Messias; (3) the Notarikon (Lat. notarius), or process of reconstructing a word by using the initials of many, or a sentence by using all the letters of a single word as so many initials of other words; for instance, the word Agla is formed from the initials of the Hebrew sentence: “Thou (art) (a) Mighty (God) forever.” The theurgical, or last chief element of the “Zohar”, needs no long description here. It forms part of what has been called the practical Kabbala, and supplies formulas by means of which the adept can enter into direct communication with invisible powers and thereby exercise authority over demons, nature, diseases, etc. To a large extent it is the natural outcome of the extraordinary hidden meaning ascribed by the Kabbala to the words of the Sacred Text, and in particular to the Divine names.

Of course, the “Book of Creation” does not go back to Abraham, as has been claimed by many Kabbalists. Its ascription by others to Rabbi Akiba (d. A.D. 120) is also a matter of controversy. With regard to the “Zohar”, its compilation is justly referred to a Spanish Jew, Moses of Leon (d. 1305), while some of its elements seem to be of a much greater antiquity. Several of its doctrines recall to mind those of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, the neo-Platonists of Alexandria, the Oriental or Egyptian Pantheists, and the Gnostics of the earliest Christian ages. Its speculations concerning God‘s nature and relation to the universe differ materially from the teachings of Revelation. Finally, it has decidedly no right to be considered as an excellent means to induce the Jews to receive Christianity, although this has been maintained by such Christian scholars as R. Lully, Pico della Mirandola, Reuchlin, Knorr von Rosenroth, etc., and although such prominent Jewish Kabbalists as Riccio, Conrad, Otto, Rittangel, Jacob Franck, etc., have embraced the Christian Faith, and proclaimed in their works the great affinity of some doctrines of the Kabbala with those of Christianity.


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