Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 3 January 2004 / 9 Tevet 5764

The Meaning of Kabbala

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: David Z.

Dear Rabbi,

What is Kabbalah and its history in Judaism? May we learn Kabbalah today?

Dear David,

Kabbalah literally means "received" because true understanding of it is only possible through tradition handed down from master to disciple. Also known as Sod, (meaning secret) or Sitrei Torah, (the hidden aspects of Torah), Kabbalah addresses issues that are not observable in the physical world and are difficult to express in words. For this reason Kabbalah was always discussed in cryptic language and clothed in secrecy.

Because of its subtlety, complexity and depth, stringent laws surround the study of Kabbalah. Only someone well versed in the revealed aspects of Torah and steeped in knowledge of Jewish law can learn or truly understand Kabbalah. Extreme ethical and spiritual purity is another prerequisite for learning and understanding Kabbalah, as in the verse "the beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d" (Psalms 111:10). Furthermore, mistakes in the study of Kabbalah have more far-reaching and serious consequences than in the study of law and ethics, since they affect our perception of G-d and our beliefs.

For example, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his book Nefesh HaChayim, states that we cannot, and should not, try to delve into understanding the nature of tzimtzum, which he defines as G-ds hiding Himself from the world. Delving too deeply into the idea that we only "exist" in the vacuum of G-ds hiddeness could bring a person to the erroneous conclusion that we do not really exist, and therefore do not need to keep the mitzvoth. Conversely, contemplating too deeply the notion of G-d before tzimtzum, that He is simultaneously everywhere, may lead one to mistakenly believe that there is no difference between holy and unholy objects and places, because all existence is really G-d himself. Obviously, such a conclusion can lead one to incorrect behavior, as in fact Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner bemoans in his work.

Kabbalah can be divided into five main areas: Maasei Bereshit (Acts of Creation) explores seemingly contradictory ideas such as an infinite Creator of a finite world, an omnipresent G-d in a world of seemingly separate existence, and creation ex-nihilo, from nothing. Maasei Mercava (Deeds of the Chariot) deals with Divine providence, G-ds continuous interaction with the world. Taamei Hamitzvot (Reasons for the Commandments) explains how the physical body and spiritual soul interact and how the mitzvot establish harmony between the physical and spiritual worlds. Remez and Sod (Intimated and Secret Torah) offer mystical explanations of verses, stories and incidents in Tanach (the Scriptures). Kabbalah Maasit (Practical Kabbalah) entails using Divine Names and knowledge of the innermost levels of reality to produce affects in the physical world.

Kabbalah was part of the Oral Torah that G-d gave to Moses at Sinai, and parts of it were recorded in the Mishna with the rest of the Oral Torah. The Talmud also recounts that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son hid in a cave, penetrating the depths of Torah; according to tradition, much of what they learned was written in the Zohar. Jews continued to learn Kabbalah throughout the ages led by rabbis like the Ramban and Rabeinu Bachaye, as well as rabbis in Europe. In the late 1500s, Tzefat in northern Israel became the home of great Kabbalists such as Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) who compiled the system of Kabbalah used until today. Later, rabbis in Europe such as the Baal Shem Tov, father of the Chasidic movement, and the Vilna Gaon, as well as rabbis in the East such as the Or HaChaim and the Ben Ish Chai, taught to incorporate certain kabbalistic concepts into our daily observance.

Nowadays, many Jews and non-Jews are attracted to the mystical and esoteric aura surrounding the Kabbalah. It has been degradingly drawn into pop culture where it has become commercialized by pseudo-spiritual "experts" who write of it profusely and "teach" it in various vicarious Kabbalah centers. Needless to say, these people are not teaching or learning real Kabbalah, which by definition can only be understood through proper transmission. Whats more, they lack even a basic knowledge of Torah and Jewish law, and simultaneously steeped in modern pop-culture, are not expected to have the ethical and spiritual purity needed to properly grasp the Kabbalah.

This does not mean, however, that a beginner to traditional Judaism cannot have some exposure to the esoteric. As mentioned earlier, both Sefardi and Ashkenazi rabbis offered ways to infuse mysticism into our daily observance. But this must be in the context of proper Torah study and mitzvah observance, under the responsible guide of authentic rabbis.


  • Ramban, Bereishit 1
  • Chagiga, Mishna 11b, and Gemmora until 16a
  • Shabbat 33b
  • The Zohar was hidden for over a thousand years until R. Moshe de Leon purportedly found it. Although originally there was some doubt as to its authenticity, once the master Kabbalist R. Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) unequivocally attributed the Zohar to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, this became the accepted opinion.
  • Great Kabbalists of Europe include Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid, author of Sefer Chasidim, and Rabbi Elazar of Germiza, author of Rokeach.
  • Other well-known Kabbalists of Tzefat were R. Moshe Kordovera, author of Tomer Devora, and R. Shlomo Alkabetz, author of "Lecha Dodi" sung before Shabbat.
  • The Vilna Gaon wrote extensively on the Kabbalah including a commentary on an early Kabbalistic work called Sefer Yetzira which is attributed to Abraham and can be used to "create" animals and human-like beings such as a golem, see Sanhedrin 67b.

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