The Origins of Kabbalah

In an excerpt from his new book, A Brief Guide to Judaism, Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer takes a tour through the mystical tradition.


December 9, 2008
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The origins of Kabbalah are ancient.

According to Jewish tradition there are four levels of Torah knowledge. The first is called peshat, which means the plain or literal meaning of the text.

One must begin with the peshat before even beginning to contemplate moving beyond on to the next level. The second level is remez, which means hint.

This refers to interpretations of the Torah that are not stated explicitly but are rather only hinted at in the text. An example of this would be the verse in Genesis that describes Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent when God appears to talk to him.

Oddly, Abraham is sitting while the Almighty is standing. The remez is that this hints at the future, indicating that when a Jewish court decides halachah, they are in God’s presence and yet they must be seated while the Almighty stands above them.

The third level of Torah knowledge is drash; which can be roughly translated as homiletics. An example of drash is the story of Abraham discovering God at the age of three and having his faith tested by being thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod.

Nowhere is this story found in the text of the Bible, yet, as drash, it is an integral part of the Torah. Drash can be tricky.

There is an entire literature of drash called Midrash which contains many fantastical tales relating to the Bible.

The story of Abraham mentioned above is one, the story of Moses fleeing Egypt and becoming an African king years before he encountered God at the burning bush, is another. The tricky element is that the tales seem so simple and straightforward, but in truth they are not.

Only an expert trained in the study of Midrash is able to understand their deeper meaning; and there is always a deeper meaning.

Midrash is a form of allegory, and according to Maimonides only a fool would confuse the tale with the message. The forth and highest level of Torah knowledge is sod, meaning “secret”.

Sod is the esoteric dimension of Torah that deals with matters of a higher world. It is concerned with the deepest questions regarding the Creator, the universe and the soul of man. It is this section of the Torah that is also known as Kabbalah, meaning “received tradition”.

Unlike the other dimensions of Torah, Kabbalah was never taught publicly. One had to be sufficiently well versed in all other aspects of the Torah before embarking on Kabbalah.

Even then, it was a very private affair passed on from master to disciple, who would in turn receive this ancient and secret tradition. The four dimensions peshat, remez, drash and sod give rise to the acronym PaRDeS which in Hebrew means an orchard.

The orchard of the Torah is one unity, and just as both the written and oral Torah were given at Sinai, so too was the PaRDeS. There is a story in the Talmud that serves as a warning to the uninitiated against entering the deepest levels of the PaRDeS.

The Talmud recounts how four scholars, Rabbi Akiva, Ben Zoma, Ben Azzai and Elisha ben Avuya entered the PaRDeS, meaning that together they delved into the most hidden secrets of the Torah. As a result, Ben Azzai lost his life, Ben Zoma lost his mind and Elisha ben Avuya lost his faith. Of the four scholars, only Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed.

This cautionary tale is the backdrop against which the Talmud warns the masters of sod to exercise extreme caution before initiating prospective pupils.

The Zohar (the Book of Splendor) is the seminal text of Kabbalah. It is traditionally ascribed to the second-century Talmudic master Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, although modern scholars date it to Moses de Leon of thirteenth-century Spain.

While Kabbalah was taught and studied especially in the thirteenth century, it had a particular resurgence in the sixteenth century, at the time of Yosef Caro.

During this period, in the aftermath of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews, many leading Kabbalists were attracted to the city of Safed in northern Israel, gradually turning it into the leading centre for the study of Kabbalah.

Yosef Caro belonged to this elite circle of leading Kabbalists, which, at this time, included Rabbi Moses Cordevaro (1522–70), Rabbi Shlomo Alkebetz (c. 1500–80)and Rabbi Hayyim Vital Calabrisi (1543–1620). The greatest Safed Kabbalist was Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–72), known as the AriZal (the Holy Lion), who introduced an entirely new system of Kabbala, which is still called the Lurianic system.

One of the Lurianic innovations is the concept of shevirat hakelim (the shattering of the vessels) and tikkun olam (the repair of the world).

This doctrine posits that God created two universes; this one and a previous one. The spiritual core of these universes consists of orot (lights) and kelim (vessels). Light is symbolic of God’s creative energy while the vessels are symbolic of the receptacles that receive and harness the energy.

In the first universe, which Luria calls olam ha-tohu (world of chaos) the divine light was too intense for the vessels.

This resulted in shevirat hakelim, the shattering of the vessels, and the implosion of that universe. In the second universe, the one we inhabit (called olam hatikkun), the divine light is much dimmer and thus suited to the limited vessels which, combined, create and sustain the universe.

The real twist of this doctrine is that the shattered vessels showered sparks of the earlier light into the new universe, where they have become embedded.

It is the purpose of life in this world (the world of repair) to uncover these holy sparks and release them back to their source.

This, explains Luria, is achieved through the Torah and mitzvot. Once all the sparks are released and the tikkun (repair) is complete, the Messiah will arrive and the world will be redeemed.

An interesting feature of this Lurianic doctrine is the urgency it places on the study of the Torah and the performance of mitzvot.

The Torah and mitzvot, according to Luria, are not a private affair between the Jew and God: they are in essence the key to the future redemption of this world and mankind.

Every time someone does a mitzvah he is releasing a spark that brings redemption one step closer. This is a remarkable and radical idea, since it changes the very way one thinks about and observes the mitzvot.

It also helped to make sense of a turbulent and difficult world, by seeing it as yet unredeemed, but at the same time empowering the Jew actively to change this reality through engagement with the Torah and mitzvot. The message that Jews could play a role in shaping not just their future but the future of the world was radical, bold and intoxicating, particularly to those who were still haunted by the Spanish expulsion.

In addition to the development of the study of Kabbalah, the mystics of Safed also created new liturgies and practices. Rabbi Isaac Luria composed his own Siddur.

He explained that there are twelve gates to heaven and that originally each of the twelve tribes had a particular prayer rite uniquely suited to their respective gate. As a result of exile and the dispersion, it is no longer certain who belongs to which tribe and thus which rite of prayer is to be used.

Luria’s Siddur purports to remedy this by incorporating the key elements of each of the twelve rites into one whole. Thus, Luria’s Siddur is said to be the key to the thirteenth gate through which the prayers of any worshipper can travel.

One of the better-known rituals that developed in the mystical circle of fifteenth century Safed was that of Kabbalat Shabbat, a beautiful Shabbat reception ceremony.

The ceremony, based on the Jewish tradition that the Shabbat is likened to a queen, welcomes her arrival with song and prayer.

In its original form, the mystics, late on a Friday afternoon as the sun began to set, would dress in white and go out into the fields to welcome the Sabbath Queen. They sang six psalms, each representing a day of the past week, and concluded with a seventh psalm in honour of the Shabbat.

In due course one of their circle, a Kabbalist named Shlomo Alkebetz, composed a hymn called the Lecha Dodi. The hymn, which is full of longing, welcomes the Shabbat Queen and paints a picture of a world full of tranquillity and holiness, a world in which glory is restored to the Jewish people and to the Holy City of Jerusalem.

So powerful was this ceremony that it has made its way into virtually every Jewish community. Although the vast majority of Jews would not proclaim themselves mystics, the Kabbalat Shabbat service has become part of their lives.

Today, for practical reasons, the service is conducted in the synagogue, but one can almost imagine those mystics standing robed in white in the fields as the glowing sun dipped behind the mountains.

A Brief Guide to Judaism – Theology, History and Practice, Naftali Brawer, Robinson, £8.99

    Last updated: 3:51pm, March 3 2010