Kabbalah” means “received teachings” or simply “traditions” and is derived from the Hebrew “kabel” which means “to receive.” It originally applied only to the Oral Law “received” after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the form of the Talmud. However, in the twelfth century the term “kabbalah” was also used to denote various mystical teachings that began to be “received” by the Jewish communities of that day. This second set of “received” teachings is the Kabbalah proper. Though it was fully developed in the Middle Ages, the first seeds of a mystical trend began to emerge in the talmudic literature, written well after the destruction of the Second Temple—from 150 A.D. to 600 A.D.
The Hekhalot Literature
The earliest mystical texts of Judaism are contained in the Hekhalot (heavenly places) literature which are collections of fragmentary midrashim—rabbinic writings of the Talmudic period. They center on mystical interpretations of certain biblical passages.
For example, while commenting on the chariot described in Ezekiel 1, Ishmael ben Elijah1 describes his ecstatic ascent into the heavenly places where he beholds the divine chariot, the heavenly places and the throne on which God is seated as well as his visions of the divine palaces and his personal experience of the Divine presence. The Hekhalot literature sets the scene for further “heavenly exploration.”
Another important mystical text, developed between the third and six centuries a.d. is the Sepher Yetzirah or the “Book of Creation.” This canonical text for the later kabbalistic movement sought to explain the workings and the origin of the universe. It described the sefirot or “emanations,” the ten so-called “manifestations of God.” Knowledge of these mysteries was thought to confer magical powers on the initiated.
Neoplatonism and Gnosticism
Sepher Yetzirah was influenced heavily by neoplatonsim, a late Greek philosophical school that combined elements of Plato with Oriental belief systems. Plato believed that our physical world is not the primary place of existence. He posited a “higher” world where the true forms exist. Our world is, he thought, only a mirror of the true world “above.” Sefer Yetzirah placed these ideas into a Jewish framework. The work was back-dated and its authorship ascribed (in typical Kabbalistic fashion) to an authoritative Jewish figure, in this case Abraham.
Gnosticism, another mystical trend of the time also influenced the Kabbalists. Gershon Sholem, one of the great modern scholars in the development of the Kabbalah defines gnosticism as “the possession of knowledge that cannot be obtained by ordinary intellectual means; the possession of a secret doctrine concerning the order of the celestial worlds and the means that provide access to it.”2
Gnosticism puffed-up the place of the individual and emphasized that he or she must gain secret knowledge and develop personal power in order to discover the road to self-enlightenment. Although the Kabbalah never removed its adherents from the community-at-large, as other gnostic sects did, Kabbalists latched onto the personal-experiential appeal of gnosticism and grafted the idea into the Jewish context.
And so it can be seen that “from the Talmudic period forward, Jews cultivated profoundly rich and highly diverse forms of mysticism.”3 With the rise of Islam and the consequent persecutions of the Jews, the religious center of the Jewish people shifted from Babylon to locations in Europe, specifically to Italy, Germany, Spain and France.
It was in twelfth and thirteenth century France and Spain that the Kabbalah finally came into its definitive expression. In his article on kabbalistic texts, scholar Lawrence Fine defines the term “Kabbalah” as “a specific historical movement which originated in the second half of the twelfth century in that area of southern France known as Provence, and in northern Spain in the thirteenth century.”4
It was the appearance of The Book Bahir at that time, that signaled the first classical statement of kabbalistic beliefs and ideology.
“The Book Bahir, whose few pages seem to contain so much that is pertinent to the mystery of the origin of the Kabbalah, has the form of a midrash, namely, a collection of sayings or very brief homiletical expositions of biblical verses.”5 The title “Bahir” means “bright” and is taken from Job 37:21 which is the first biblical text cited. The authorship of The Bahir was attributed to Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah, a talmudic sage of the first century.6
The Bahir caused division within the Jewish community of France, with some hailing it as a brilliant text from times of yore, whilst others, like Meir ben Simon, a contemporary of the early French Kabbalists, decrying the book as heretical.7 The adherents to the Kabbalistic movement in France and Spain wrote, some two-hundred years after the publication of The Book Bahir that towards the middle of the thirteenth century the prophet Elijah appeared in visions to some of the leading men of Provence and that he had inspired them to write The Bahir. The historical evidence strongly suggests that the book was written in France during this time.
The Bahir soon became another canonical text for further kabbalistic studies and was accepted by many as being a work of much earlier date. The “Kabbalah” or received mystical traditions, were being penned, back-dated and received simultaneously! In fact, the precise move that had been made by the rabbis of the Talmud in order to validate their work as hailing from Mt. Sinai, was now repeated by the Kabbalists of France in order to authenticate their “new-found” teachings as given by the venerated rabbis of the Talmud. These men, who were grappling to reformulate Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, are construed by the Kabbalists as mystical genies who promulgated the mystical secrets of Judaism. Lawrence Fine remarks that The Bahir represent[s] the “emergence of a striking set of Gnostic motifs within the heart of rabbinic Judaism.”8
The Zohar (Book of Splendor) appeared on the kabbalistic scene around 1250 a.d. Lawrence Fine describes how Moses de Leon “began circulating manuscripts which he had written, but which he claimed were ancient midrashim ‘interpretations of biblical texts.'” Moses pretended merely to be copying from a manuscript which, he argued, “had originated in the circle of the second-century Palestinian rabbi, Shimon bar Yohai, but had only recently found its way into Spain. In all likelihood, de Leon opted to write in this pseudepigraphic way out of the conviction that a work of antiquity would be more readily considered to be authoritative truth.”9
History has it that one Isaac ben Shmuel, who later became a leading 14th century Kabbalist, arrived in Spain after fleeing Mamluk’s attack on the land of Israel. In his diary (Sefer Ha Yamim) we read that he was amazed to hear about the newly “discovered” manuscript of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.
“The book had supposedly been written in Israel, but Isaac was from Israel and had never heard of it!”10 Isaac’s diary informs us that he went to see Moses de Leon at his home, only to learn that he had died. His widow greeted Isaac at the door and in response to his request to see the original parchment of Shimon Bar Yohai, she informed him that the document had never existed but that the Zohar had been written solely out of her husband’s head.
However, the effort to back-date a kabbalistic text again succeeded. Despite early warnings regarding the errors of the Zohar the book soon became acknowledged as the mystical revelations of the great sage Shimon bar Yohai. In the text, Shimon is pictured in various settings discoursing with his pupils at every opportunity on the great matters of mystical inquiry. The language of the text is Aramaic, “contrived, replete with medieval usages, in grammar, syntax, vocabulary and ideas.”11 “Behind the veil of the Aramaic, the Hebrew of the medieval era can be clearly detected.”12 The only Aramaic which Moses de Leon knew was that which he had learned from his talmudic studies. And so it was that one of the most important books of the Kabbalah came into being.
The Safed Period
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 caused a rupture in the Jewish world. The defeat of the Mamluks and the conquest of the land of Israel by the Ottomans afforded the Jewish refugees from Europe an unexpected safe-haven in the Holy Land itself.
No longer under hostile Islamic dominion, a new center of Jewish learning sprang up. Safed was a thriving agricultural and commercial town situated in the Galilean hills about 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Not only that, Safed was the burial place of a number of rabbis of the Talmudic period. In fact, a little outside the town lay the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the supposed author of the Book of Splendor-the Zohar.
It was in Safed that the Zohar gained its kabbalistic preeminence. From there Moses Cordovero would compose his lengthy commentaries on what had become the central kabbalistic text. It was also from Safed that Rabbi Isaac Luria would develop his “redemptive” brand of kabbalistic philosophy. The climate of political upheaval and the massive forced removals of the Jewish people had given rise to speculation that the world was in the midst of the “birth-pangs” of the Messiah. Luria was hard-pressed to explain the terrible state of exile that characterized the Jewish people. He expanded the kabbalistic doctrine of the exile of the Shechinah (or Divine Presence) into a mystical theology of redemption and promoted a rationale for the performance of good deeds which was designed to hasten and even produce the coming of the Messiah.
Kabbalah would ultimately give rise to Sabbatianism, the messianic movement of the seventeenth century that proclaimed Shabbetai Zevi as King Messiah and in so doing, led Jewry into despondency for decades. Lurianic Kabbalah would also, through the popular mystical Chassidic movement, exert a strong influence on the future thinking of Judaism. Modern Judaism and its raison d’être is heavily grounded in the Lurianic notion that the Jewish people exist in order to prepare the world for the arrival of the Messiah.
- A third generation talmudist, lived roughly between 120-200 A.D.
- Origins of the Kabbalah; Gershon Scholem, Jewish Publ. Society, 1987, p.22
- Back to the Sources; ed. Barry W. Holtz, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1984, p.307
- Back to the Sources; p.308
- Origins, p.49
- Ibid, p.39
- The Bahir suggested the possibility of the transmigration or reincarnation of souls, a doctrine foreign to biblical Judaism itself, which teaches the resurrection of the dead.
- Back to the Sources; p.308
- Ibid., p.310
- Zohar, Book of Enlightenment; Daniel Chanan Matt; Paulist Press, Toronto,1983, p.3
- Back to the Sources; p.313
- The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia (7th Edition), Ed. Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder, 1992, p.999