Kabbalah and mysticism

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Basic ideas of Kabbalah

The Hebrew word Kabbalah (קַבָּלָה, “reception) refers to secret, esoteric mystical teachings said to have been revealed to figures in the Bible, and some from the first century CE. These teachings were secretly transmitted from teacher to pupil until today. These teachings are mystical, and concern the nature of God, how God created the universe, and how the universe works.

One of the ideas addressed in kabbalah is that God is totally unlike anything in the world that we perceive. Since God is so different from the universe then how could the universe have been created in the first place? How can there be any interaction between the Creator and the created?

This question prompts speculation on two aspects of God, (a) God Himself, who is unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God who created the universe and interacts with mankind.

Some Kabbalists, such as Moses Cordovero and those in Chabad Lubavitch Hasidism, teach that the first aspect of God is all that exists: Nothing exists except for God. All else is an illusion. This idea is often compared to panentheism. However, other schools of Kabbalist thought holds that there is an additional aspect of God that is revealed to the world.

Kabbalists speak of the first aspect of God as En Sof, (אין סוף ,the infinite) or “that which has no limits”. Nothing can be said about this aspect of God.

The second aspect of God is that which interacts with our universe. This aspect does so through emanations called ‘sefirot’; these mediate the interaction of the ultimate unknowable God with the physical and spiritual world that we know.  Some explain the sefirot as stages of the creative process whereby God, from His own infinite being, created the progression of realms which culminated in our finite, physical universe.

Our actions literally affect spiritual dimensions

Kabbalah ascribes a remarkably significant meaning to tefila (prayer) and ritual: these are said to affect the very fabric of reality itself. If humans have the right intentions, recite the correct prayers with the correct wording, and perform the correct rituals, then we literally restructure and repair our imperfect, shattered universe. Conversely, choosing other words and actions can further damage spiritual levels of reality, strengthening dark, demonic forces, and negatively affecting the world in which we live.

This approach has been taken by the Chassidei Ashkenaz (German pietists of the Middle-Ages), the Zohar, the Arizal’s Kabbalist tradition, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (the Ramchal,) most of Hassidism, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (the Vilna Gaon,) and Jacob Emden.

On the other hand, many religious Jews reject this aspect of kabbalah as, in their view, it becomes indistinguishable from theurgy (“practical magic”.)

Kabbalistic schools of thought

Over time, various mystical schools of thought developed. The most prominent schools of thought include:

The Hasidei Ashkenaz (חסידי אשכנז), medieval German pietists. Despite their name they have no connection to the later Hasidic Jewish movement. This group was active from 1150 to 1250 CE.

Medieval Spanish scholars – Sages of Provence and Languedoc in southern France in the latter 1100s.

The teachings of Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (משה קורדובירו) ).1522-1570)

Lurianic Kabbalah. This is a school of thought named after Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572.) He is known to his followers as the ARI’zal. Luria’s interpretation of the Zohar and earlier texts were recorded by his students. They read his teachings back into the Zohar and all earlier texts.

Lurianic Kabbalah describes new doctrines of the origins of Creation, and the concepts of Olam HaTohu (עולם התהו “The World of Tohu-Chaos”) and Olam HaTikun (עולם התיקון “The World of Tikun-Rectification”), which represent archetypal spiritual states of being and consciousness.

The main popularizer of Luria’s ideas was Rabbi Hayyim ben Joseph Vital of Calabria.

Criticisms of Kabbalah

In much of Orthodoxy, Kabbalah is taught as the official theology of Judaism. So it comes as a shock for some people to discover that most Jews throughout history have never believed in Kabbalah, and further, that many religious Jews reject part or all of Kabbalah. What are the core issues? Click here to learn more.


Types of Jewish mystical literature

Rationalism and Mysticism – Two ways to approach faith

Concepts of Hasidic thought

The origin of the Zohar

The development of the Zohar

Judaism , Christianity and Zohardoxy

Christological statements in the Zohar

Related topics

Gematria (Jewish numerology)

Reincarnation (גּלְגּוּל “transmigration of souls”)

Reincarnation and pseudoscience, the views of Alon Anava

Books on Kabbalah and mysticism p.1

Books on Kabbalah and mysticism p.2

Kabbalah Timeline

Rabbinic Merkabah mysticism 100 BCE -> 1000 CE

Sefer Yetzirah (proto) 100 CE

Sefer Yetzirah (expanded) 200-500 CE

Sefer haBahir 900s-1100s CE

Abraham Abulafia, Sefer haYashar 1200s, Spain, Italy, Malta (pre Zohar) – are any of his books popularly studied?

Zohar 1300 CE

Moses de León, Moshe ben Shem-Tov c. 1240–1305 Spain

Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, the Ramak רמ״ק‎, 1500s CE Tsfat

Isaac Luria, Ha’Ari, 1500s CE, Tsafat

Hayyim ben Joseph Vital, 1600 CE Tsafat


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