Because Judaism accepted and incorporated seemingly heterodox belief systems rather than strain a community under fire from outside forces, the mystical practice and study known as Kabbalah was allowed to grow alongside mainstream Judaism. (In the 17th century, however, the Rabbis ruled that, because it contained advanced an potentially danmgerous spiritual knowledge, Kabbalah should be studied only by married men over 40 who were also adept in Talmud and Torah.) Kabbalah offered Jews a mystical approach to religion within the context of the accepted beliefs and practices of Judaism. By modern times, Kabbalistic themes had entered the Jewish mainstream, influencing certain prayers and liturgies and contributing its own set of customs and folk beliefs, notably belief in reincarnation.
Originally, the word Kabbalah, from a root meaning “to receive,” referred to the received tradition of the Bible, but it later came to signify esoteric wisdom known only to a select few. Seeing physical creation as a manifestation of the Divine Word, Kabbalah assigned detailed descriptions of God’s body parts along with secret names and numerical interpretations of scriptural texts. Kabbalists believe that the letters of the Torah, along with the numbers they symbolize, provide a direct knowledge of God in the classic mystical sense; the mystical combination of these letters is one of the major techniques of Jewish mysticism. The magical or occult elements of Kabbalah developed separately from the mystical theology, and from about the 15th century, the two sets of teachings became known respectively as “Practical Kabbalah” and “Speculative Kabbalah.” The aim of the latter was to give the Kabbalist inner spiritual guidance; the former delved into the more questionable realms of white (helpful) and black (harmful) magic.
During the long period spent under Babylon from the 6th to 11th century, Judaism was influenced by many of the mystical and magical concepts derived from Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Persian sources. These found their way into the underground stream of Kabbalism which surfaced during the early Middle Ages in Europe, incorporating the Hindu concept of reincarnation with Babylonian astrology and the numerology of Greek philosopher and mystic Pythagoras (of “music of the Spheres” fame). Numerology, the study of the occult significance of numbers, became an especially significant part of Kabbalah.
The blend of disparate sources matured among the Provencal Sephardic Jews in the late 12th century from the work of Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1142), the great Jewish poet of the Middle Ages, and later in Catalonia and Castile in Spain, and favored direct experience of God over the intellectual, rationalist approach. It drew on earlier Kabbalistic texts like the Sefir Yetzirah (c.100-500), attributed to Rabbi Akiba ben Josef. Among other things, Kabbalists believed that each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet had a specific meaning and a numerical counterpart. When properly combined and added, these values would release great creative powers inherent in the “Word.” They taught that particularly the first five chapters of Genesis were written in a kind of code that could be correctly interpreted only by knowing the specific values of each Hebrew letter.
Some Kabbalists argued that the original Hebrew of the Bible was purposely altered to hide certain secret knowledge when it was translated into Greek for the Septuagint and later into Latin by St. Jerome. Only by learning the Kabbalistic values of the Hebrew letters was it possible to unravel the deeper, esoteric meaning of the Torah.
The Provencal Kabbalist Isaac the Blind (d.c.1235), who was the first to refer to God as En Sof (“Without End,” or “Infinite”), and Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (better known by the acronym Ramban, 1194-1270), who supported Kabbalistic mysticism and brought it into the mainstream in Spain, were among those most responsible for the development and spread of Kabbalistic mysticism in Europe. The concept of En Sof as the undifferentiated Absolute beyond comprehension is key to the identity of the Kabbalah as an esoteric study, since it implies that even Biblical conceptions of God do not reveal the true nature of the infinite Source of the universe. But despite attempts to keep Kabbalistic teachings limited to an inner circle, the ideas and practices began to filter into Jewish society on both a folk-magic and a theological level.
Abraham Abulafia (c.1240-1292) developed a so-called “Prophetic Kabbalah” based on his own ecstatic approach. Around 1286 in Guadalajara, Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon (1230-1305) produced a work called the Sefer ha-Zohar, or Zohar, the best known Kabbalistic text to this day. De Leon presented the Zohar as being a more ancient work by the second century Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai, although some scholars believe he made this claim merely to bolster the book’s believability, since it has been proven that the Aramaic of the book could not have come from the 2nd century. Nonetheless, the Zohar, written in the form of a mystical commentary on the Torah, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Ruth, is considered to be the most profound expression of Jewish mysticism in existence.
Building on the work of Isaac the Blind, de Leon propounded a Kabbalistic theory of creation that attempts to describe the creation of the Godhead from within itself. At the root of the theory is the concept of divine “emanations” that take the form of the 10 sefirot — manifestations or attributes of En Sof that contain the archetypes of the rest of creation, implying that all material objects contain some divine aspect.
The process of emanation by which God manifests Himself also implies naming these emanations, and, by extension, the Divine power and significance of language, specifically the 22 Hebrew letters. In general, the Kabbalists saw Judaism as a system of mystical symbols, letters, and numbers relating to God and humanity, and sought to discover the keys that would help them understand these symbols. But as befits the Kabbalah’s esoteric status, the particulars were not spelled out in books, and Kabbalists themselves disagreed sharply over many of the details. If the notion that all matter is good because it is of God is fully coherent with Jewish tradition, the concept that God exists within all matter clearly goes counter to Judaic monotheism, and is close to pantheism. The Zohar also contains material on astrology, demonology, numerology, and transmigration of souls that many conservative Jewish authorities found threatening and potentially heretical. But because the Kabbalah was also supported by renowned rabbinical scholars, it was absorbed into the mainstream, especially through the Hasidic traditions that developed later.