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What is Kabbalah?

Kabbalah, or “received tradition,” refers to an elaborate system of esoteric interpretation of certain texts of the Hebrew Bible that has formed the basis of Jewish mysticism. Visionary accounts in which the prophet Ezekiel, for example, describes seeing four wheels in the sky led to what is called merkavah (chariot or throne) mysticism. The Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), an ancient cosmological treatise, eventually exercised great influence on mystical thinking. Traditional accounts trace the origins of mystical interpretation to twelfth-century Europe. There the originally Italian Kalony-mus family, transplanted to the Rhine valley in Germany, became the nucleus of important developments. Samuel the Pious and son Judah began an important movement of Hasidic spirituality at Speyer, as did Eleazar ben Judah (d. 1228) at Worms. These were contemporary with similar developments among Christian Rhenish mystics, and devised a style of spiritual canticle called the Din Shamayim (“Law of the Heavens”) with a type of prayer, called “Jacob’s Ladder,” that symbolized spiritual ascent.

Further important developments occurred with a later generation of Iberian Jews. Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (1240-1292) of Sarragossa wrote prolifically of the need to achieve spiritual freedom, liberating the soul through a combined discipline of contemplation, reflection on mystical meanings of Hebrew letters, and the cultivation of what was in effect a kind of Jewish “yoga.” According to tradition, Abulafia’s contemporary Moses ben Shem Tov of Leon (1240-1305) composed perhaps the single most influential mystical text, the Zohar (Book of Splendor). Based on a theory of emanation, the Zohar teaches that the divine presence becomes manifest in the material world through a series of ten sefirot, or spheres, that symbolize the increasingly tangible presence of divine energy (the shekhinah). As a movement, Jewish mysticism generally goes by the name Kabbalah (“reception”). It was revived in the sixteenth century in Israel by Solomon Alkabez (1505-1584) and Isaac Luria (1534-1573).


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