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An Introduction to the Kabbalah

What is the Kabbalah?

Tree of Life Kabbalah can be translated from the Hebrew as "received tradition" and is a term applied to a vast and seemingly disparate body of esoteric knowledge and practice. It is used to describe Jewish mysticism in general, or more specifically the tradition which found its impetus in the Sefer ha-Zohar ("The Book of Splendor") of the thirteenth century. It is also applied to the Christian or Western Kabbalah which grew from German and Lurianic Kabbalism and found its expression and extension in western Mystery Orders, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

In its most complete form the Kabbalah can be considered as the "Yoga of the West", complementing the eastern chakra system and having counterparts to many of the forms of yogic practice. Indeed, the three main nadis (energy channels) in eastern philosophy (ida, sushumna and pingala) and the Taoist concepts (yin, Tao and yang) find direct expression in the Kabbalistic pillars of severity, equilibrium and mercy on the Tree of Life.

The Kabbalah at its best is a system of esoteric philosophy, psychology and cosmology that allows any aspect of existence to be assimilated and related to any other on many levels, both rational and trans-rational. It may be used profitably by anyone, regardless of creed; for those who wish it, it is a key to the control of subtle forces and the attainment of true mystical union.

A Brief History of the Kabbalah

Jewish mysticism has its origins in the Merkabah practices of the first centuries AD. Through fasting, meditation, prayer and incantation, the Merkabah mystics sought experience of the "Throne-Chariot of God" (Merkabah) described in Ezekiel 1.

The Kabbalah itself made its first known appearance in written form with the Sefer Yetsirah ("Book of Formation"), though mythologically the oral tradition is said to date back to Abraham or even earlier. The Sefer Yetsirah is a short work expounding the basic structure of the Kabbalah, detailing the creation of the universe via thirty-two hidden paths: the ten sefirot ("numbers," "emanations" or "spheres;" singular, sefira) and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is attributed to Rabbi Akiba, who was martyred by the Romans, but its exact date of origin is unknown (possibly as early as the third century, but no later than the tenth).

What was to become known as German Kabbalism or Early Hasidism began in Italy in 917 with Aaron ben Samuel. This had its roots in Merkabah mysticism, involving magical rituals, meditation, prayer and ecstatic experience. Its emphasis on the magical power of words fuelled the development of the Kabbalistic techniques of gematria (the study of the numerical values of letters and words), notarikon (the study of the first and last letters of words) and temurah (the study of the permutation and combination of letters).

The preeminent form of Jewish mysticism, sometimes referred to as Classical Kabbalah, began in Provence, France, in the thirteenth century, but flourished most readily in medieval Spain. It contains elements of both Gnosticism and Neo-platonism, and is more concerned with the nature and structure of all creation from the divine to the material worlds than with ecstatic experience.

The most important work of this period is the Zohar (Sefer ha-Zohar or "Book of Splendor"), written between 1280 and 1286 by the Spanish Kabbalist Moses de Leon (1250-1305), though attributed to a second century rabbi, Simeon bar Yohai. This deals with the ten sefirot emanating from the ineffable infinite (en sof) through which the universe is created and maintained. The mutual interaction of these sefirot and their individual natures are seen both as expressing the nature of divinity and as archetypes for all of creation. The Bahir ("Book of Illumination") is the third important Kabbalistic text, appearing in France around the eleventh century.

The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 served to spread the Spanish Kabbalah further into Europe. The next major development occurred with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, named after its originator, Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572). In this, the en sof contracts (tsimtsum) at the start of creation to allow "room" for cosmic expansion. This also allows "room" for evil, the qelippot (literally "shells," singular qelippa) in which sparks of the divine light become entrapped after a shattering of the sacred receptacles during emanation. Thus freedom of choice is born of the godhead's self-inflicted suffering, and the redemption (tiqqun) of the broken world and the reunification of divinity becomes the overriding goal of humanity. The exile of all human beings is symbolized in the exile of Israel, and the tiqqun is paralleled in Israel's task to "gather what has been scattered," symbolizing the redemption of the world, crowned with the coming of the Messiah. This move towards a messianic philosophy fostered the Hasidic movement, which made the Kabbalah more widely accessible. The most important figure here was Israel ben Eleazar (1698-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, the "Master of the Holy Name."

Western or Christian Kabbalism grew from German and then Lurianic Kabbalism. Mediaeval ceremonial magicians were fond of appropriating Kabbalistic words of power, and in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, western Kabbalists augmented the Kabbalah with aspects of Christian theology and alchemy. The Kabbalah was included in Agrippa von Nettesheim's (1486-1535) key work, De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (1531).

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen further development of the Western Kabbalah from occultists such as Eliphas Levi, Papus (1865-1916) and members of the Golden Dawn such as Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune (1890-1946). Links between the Kabbalah and many other philosophical, mythological and religious systems have been postulated and detailed; the most important being the links between the Kabbalah, astrology and the Tarot.