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Character and origin of the Kabbala
1. What is the Kabbala?
The Kabbala contains the complete mystical doctrines of Judaism which include the theosophical-metaphysical-naturalistic speculations as well as the fantasies based upon magical superstitions.
2. What does Kabbala actually mean?
This name, in use since the 13th century A.D., really means tradition. The system can lay claim to the name "secret doctrine" insofar that it was known (other than to Bible and Talmud scholars) to only a very few. It was communicated to excellent pupils only.
3. How old is the Kabbala?
The Kabbalists date the principle conceptions of the Kabbala back to the earliest times—back to Moses and even to Abraham and Adam. As to the true founders of the Kabbala, however, they mention mainly three Talmudists: Rabbi Ismael ben Elisa (about 130 A.D.), Rabbi Nechunjah ben Hakana (about 75 A.D.), and especially Simeon ben Yohai (about 150 A.D.), the last of whom they point out is author of the famous Zohar (see also question 45).
4. How much of the Kabbala should be believed?
Such speculations as the Kabbala contains are in general foreign to the nature of the older Judaism and especially to the original Mosaism. The enormous collective work, the Talmud, does contain many mystical conceptions about God and his chariot (the "Merkabah" according to Ezekiel); about heaven, hell, and the world (angelology, demonology, cosmology); about the origin, character, and the continual existence of the soul; the future world; and about various magical rituals. Some of these contemplations and rituals are, nevertheless, often classified as risky, useless, and dangerous. The elements entering mostly from Persia and later from Neoplatonism have nothing to do with the character of the Talmud writings. Such speculations and doctrines are not communicated by the three above-mentioned Talmud scholars (see question 3) even though they exist within the Talmud of Midrasch. The Kabbala as a mystical system—and its development as such—belongs undoubtedly in the Middle Ages and its origin dates at most back to the 7th century A.D. From then on it richly developed in various ways until it reached its peak in the book Zohar (see question 45), with its last offshoots extending to our time.
5. Which periods can be distinguished in the development of Kabbalism?
Its origin up to the book Yetsirah.
Its further development under the influence of the book Yetsirah (10th–12th century).
The completion of the Kabbala from the rise of the actual Sephiroth system to the end of the book Zohar (13th-15th century).
The later development (16th-17th century).
The fall (since the 18th century).
6. Is the Kabbala based on oral tradition only?
No. Several of its doctrines may have been propagated for a long time only orally before they were written down; others may not have been communicated in writing. But what we know of the Kabbala comes from written sources and the first certain knowledge about the Kabbalistic doctrines was drawn exclusively from the Kabbalistic writings dating from the 7th-9th century.
7. Is the Kabbalistic literature extensive?
Very extensive. In addition to a great number of printed writings there exists in public and private libraries an unbelievable amount of manuscripts of Kabbalistic nature which are hardly known. Furthermore one supposes that many more such writings have been lost.
8. In which language is this literature written?
Mainly in new Hebrew and Chaldean, like the Talmud literature. Only a few commentaries on the book Yetsirah (see question 17) are written in Arabic.
9. Which Kabbalistic book is written in Chaldean?
The Zohar, written in Spain at the end of the 13th century, the principal work of Kabbalistic literature.
10. What are the contents of the Kabbalistic writings?
In addition to theosophical, metaphysical, cosmological, naturalistic, and other such speculations, and in addition to daring poetical representations of abstract ideas and high ethical thoughts, there is also systemically arranged nonsense, worthless fantasies, and various superstitions.
11. Which three main schools of thought can be distinguished in Kabbalism?
The metaphysical-speculative, the ethical-ascetical, and the magical-superstitious, though they cannot be clearly distinguished. The decline of Kabbalism in more modern times is mainly charaterized by an emphasis on the latter.
12. How was and is the attitude of Judaism as such toward Kabbalism?
Until the 9th century, the Talmudic Jews held a hostile attitude toward Kabbalism. In the 10th century it was the authority of the Gaon Saadja (892-942 A.D.), the famous founder of Hebrew linguistic research in relation to Kabbalism, who obtained followers amongst rabbis. In the 12th and 13th century their number was growing mainly because of the example of the famous Talmud scholars Nachmanides and Gikatilla (see question 30). During the 17th century Judaism as a whole was under the influence of the Kabbala. In the 18th century respect for the Kabbala declined under the influence of the era, and modern Judaism considers the Kabbala as not much more than a historical curiosity or subject for literary historical research.
History of the Kabbala
13. What are the characteristics of the first period of Kabbalism?
Instead of the later more speculative tendency, the religious fantasy was dominant during this period.
14. What is the principal subject of the mystical doctrine of this period?
The mysteries of the Godhead and the kingdom of heaven with its hosts, especially the glory of God throned (see question 4), and the activities of the archangel Metatron, as well as the other heavenly beings, and finally the exaltation to the mystical intuition of these matters.
15. What are the main works from this period?
Othijoth de Rabbi Akiba (the alphabet by Rabbi Akiba) in which the separate letters of the Hebrew alphabet are given a religious, moral, and mystical-fantastic nature.
SchiÛr Komah (determination of the greatness of the divine nature) wherein on the sections that were preserved, the greatness of the anthropomorphized Godhead is described. This fantastic sequence of numbers has been meant allegorically but the profound meaning is hardly to be unravelled.
Hechaloth Rabbathi (the great treatise on heavenly halls) presents information about methods for attaining mystical ecstasy and describes that which one sees during this ecstasy.
16. Are there more Kabbalistic books known from this period?
Yes. The Gaon Hai (see Figure 2), for example, mentions writings of magical content dealing with amulets and magical formulas by means of which one could still storms at sea, inspire love, kill people, etc.; and also Sepher ha-jaschar, Sepher ha-rasim, Sepher Schêm ben Noach, all of which however have been lost.
17. How can the second period of Kabbalism be distinguished from the first?
In the Sepher Yetsirah (the Book of Formation) it is not so much described theosophically but rather more cosmologically. Its subject is the beginning and the active elements of the world of apparitions; it becomes more and more speculatively-systematical. Later the cosmological and theosophical direction unite—especially with the Jewish mystics in Germany about the beginning of the 13th century—developing an ethic embued with mysticism of the most noble kind. Also, a letter mysticism with a magical purpose more emphasized came out of the theosophical speculation about place and numbers of the letters in the names of God and the angels, prayer words, etc.
18. What are the fundamental thoughts of the book Yetsirah!
As the words and those things expressed by words form (in the view of this author) an inseparable whole the elements of the words (namely the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet) are also the elements of the things expressed. Above them stand, as categories of all that exists, the numbers of the first decade (1–10) that present a closed entity. The highest principal is the absolute unity above each number.
19. In what way did the world develop out of this absolute unity according to the book Yetsirah?
The unity is represented by the number 1: this is the breath (spirit) of the living God. From this originates the 2, "the Spirit of spirits," the voice in which the 22 letters as elements of things come into being; physically this breath represents the air. Out of the 2 develops the 3, or out of the air develops the primeval water of chaos, out of which water and earth separate. Out of the 3 develops the 4, or out of the primeval water the primeval fire, as fire in connection with air and water procreates heaven and its inhabitants. Next to these four elementary numbers come the 6 elementary dimensions (height, depth, eastern, western, northern, and southern direction) which form with the others the elementary decade which contains all categories of creation. When the 22 letters connect with the 10 numbers or fundamental principals, the isolated things come into being. As this connection is cyclical however, these things repeatedly change. The circumstances under which this complete development takes place are subject to law, opposite laws, and mediation (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis).
20. What is one reminded of in this cosmogony with its number principles?
Of the striking resemblance of the doctrines of the Greek Neopythagoreans.
21. When was the book Yetsirah written?
According to some, in the 8th or 9th century A.D. In all probability, however, at the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 10th century. Some regard the Gaon Saadja, the founder of Hebrew linguistics who first wrote his commentaries in Arabic in 931, as the author of this book (written in Hebrew) mainly because the perfection of the letters and its classification seem to point to him. In addition many others wrote commentaries on this important work referring to the theosophical Kabbala.
22. What makes the book Rasiêl more remarkable than the others?
It is a certain transition from the cosmological tendency of the book Yetsirah to the pure theosophical direction, while it points out the close connection that exists between the supernatural and the mundane world. In particular this book provides information about the influence of the stars on human destiny so that man through this science is able to unveil the future. By way of this it introduces astonomy, or better astrology, into the Kabbalistic doctrine (see question 202).
23. Could you mention two representatives of the German ethical-mystical school of thought from the second period?
Rabbi Juda ben Samuel ha-Chafid, the author of the excellent moralistic writings Sepher chasidim (the Book of the Pious), who died in Regensburg in 1217; and a pupil, Rabbi Eleasar ben Juda (also called "Rokêach" after his main work), who died in Worms in 1237. He (Eleasar) developed the letter mysticism in his commentaries on the book Yetsirah.
24. What is the main characteristic of the third period of Kabbalism?
The doctrine of the 10 "Sephiroth" and its influence on the further doctrines of Kabbalistic speculation.
25. What is to be understood by "Sephiroth"?
"Sephiroth" is the plural of "Sephirah." Actually it is the Greek "spheres" but in Hebrew it also means "number." Corresponding to the 10 spheres of Ptolemaic astronomy and the 10 "numbers" of the book Yetsirah (see question 19), "Sephiroth" stands for 10 active primeval ideas or metaphysical primeval forces which represent the mediation between the absolute Godhead and the whole world.
26. Were there other names for the Sephiroth?
In the first period they were sometimes called "Maamrim," meaning "conditions of creation," because it is stated in the Talmud that the world was created with ten words. This expression also means "categories" as is the case with the 10 fundamental numbers (Sephiroth) of the book Yetsirah; the meaning soon changes into the conception "creative primeval thought."
27. Do the Sephiroth from the third period differ from the previous periods?
Yes; also their subdivisions have completely different names. Whereas "primeval numbers" represent abstract cosmological ideas, "primeval conceptions" are of a metaphysical nature.
28. Who is considered the founder of the Sephiroth doctrine?
Rabbi Isaac the Blind (about 1200 A.D.) from Nîmes in Provence.
29. Which Kabbalistic book comes out of this period?
Sèpher Bahîr (the Book of Light), a writing that is very mysterious, contrary to its title.
30. Could you mention some other famous Kabbalists from the third period?
Asrièl ben Menachem, a pupil; Ascher ben David, a cousin of Isaac the Blind; Mose ben Nachman (Nachmanides, 1195–1270 A.D.); Todros (ben Joseph Ha-Lewi) Abulafia (second half of the 13th century); Abraham Abulafia (1240–1282); Joseph (ben Abraham) Gikatilla (born 1248); and Mose (ben Schern tob) de Leon (1250–1305).
31. What can be said about the first two Kabbalists?
They were dedicated to the dialectical development of the Sephiroth doctrine that was previously propagated dogmatically.
32. For what reason is Nachmanides important to Kabbalism?
He is believed to have written the commentary on the Sèpher Yetsirah which, however, is credited as the work of Asriêl. He was of even greater importance because, being the greatest Talmud authority of his time, he added in his much-read commentaries on the Five Books of Moses, Kabbalistic interpretations and doctrines.
33. What is the contribution of Todros Abulafia to the Kabbala?
He was the prime instigator of the doctrine of the (ten) Kelippôth, meaning "shell" or "cover," or of the physical elements out of the world of apparitions which correspond to the (ten) Sephiroth of the supernatural world, and which relate to each other in a similar way as Plato said material things relate to thoughts.
34. What makes Abraham Abulafia remarkable?
In addition to the Sephiroth doctrine he also successfully propagated letter mysticism as well as the Kabbalistic treatment of the names of God, which he considers the goal of secret science.
35. What are the principal methods of this letter Kabbalism?
Gematria, Notarikon, and Themurah.
36. What is meant by Gematria?
Gematria (geometry) is the replacement of a meaningful word in a bible verse, etc., either by another whose letters have the same numerological value, or by a conception to which the corresponding letter is related.
37. What are a few examples of this method?
In the First Book of Moses (Chapter 49 verse 10) it states: Ad Ki Jabo Schiloh (until Schiloh comes). The letters in "Jabo Schiloh" have the numerological value of 348 in Hebrew. The letters in "Maschîach" (messiah) have the same numerological value. This word is for clarifying the obscurity "Schiloh" puts in a verse and gives it a messianac meaning. Also, in Habicok (Chapter 3, verse 2) is stated: "In wrath remember mercy" (Rachem). The numerological value of "Rachem" is 248. Therefore the 248 positive commandments of the Mosaic law are meant.
38. What is meant by Notarikon?
Notarikon (from notariacum, meaning abbreviation) is the treating of the letters of a word as the first letters of a sentence or group of sentences. In other words, the treatment of a seemingly important word as a secret abbreviation.
39. What would be a few examples of this?
In "Gan Eden" or Garden of Eden, First Book of Moses (Chapter 2 verse 8) the basic letters (G N E D N) are considered to be the first letters of the words Guph, Nèphesch, Ezem, Dàath, Nèzach (Body, Soul, Bones, Knowledge, Eternity). In this way the "Garden of Eden" in which man was placed takes the meaning from the nature of the earth consisting of body and immortal soul. The word "Abiad" or Father of eternity, Isaiah (Chapter 2 verse 5) is explained by the Kabbalists as Azilah, Beriah, Yetsirah, Asijjah, Daleth (emanation, creation, formation, making). Letter D is 4, the indication of the 4 worlds that develop out of the absolute, and the one out of the other.
40. What is meant by Themurah?
The replacement of the letters of a meaningful word, or a word that needs explanation in such a way that a new word originates.
Excerpted from THE KABBALA by Erich Bischoff. Copyright © 2013 Erich Bischoff. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC.
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Chapter 1: Character and Origin of the Kabbala
Chapter 2: History of the Kabbala
Chapter 3: Doctrines of the Kabbala
Chapter 4: Anthropology of the Kabbala
Chapter 5: Magic of the Kabbala