References abound, misinformation streams forth and the inevitable scams and cults abound- from the cult of Phillip Berg to those selling bits of red string for astronomical prices and other bits and pieces of “Kabbalah Jewelery”. So just what is Kabbalah? I hope to demystify what it is and bring some rationality back to this subject.
So to start off- an introduction and foundation: Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai from God. The Torah consists of two parts
1) The written part, the Chamishe Sifrei Torah (the five books of the Torah- Five books of Moses)
2) The oral law, Mishnah, which was written down after the destruction of the Second Temple so it would not be forgotten or altered through inaccurate transmission.
The rest of the Tanach (Torah, Nevi’im(prophets) and Ketuvim(Writings)) came later. The origins of the Kabbalah are in there- the description of the heavenly chariot is considered one of the major mystical portions- and from which a lot of Kabbalah is learned, and some claim that the entire book of Job is one of Sod (literally secret and referring to Kabbalistic meanings). Later, the Sefer HaYesod was written down (though its origin was much earlier)- which was then complemented with a far more complete work, the Zohar. But these books are not complete- somethings are not written down. These form the basis of what is known as Lurianic Kabalah, named after Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ha’arizal) who is considered one of the greatest Kabbalist in history. A competing school of Kabballah is based around the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the originator of the chassidic movement, and summarised in the Tanya, written by Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi- the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement (Chabad literaly stands for “Chochmah, Binah and Da’at- the three main sefirot in the tree of life as taught by the Ba’al shem tov)
Now, when Jews study the Torah- it is looked at in various ways- and in each way, a word, or even a letter can mean something different or teach something different.
1) Pshat- this is the plain, easily understood meaning (yeah right- sometimes even this is difficult!)
2) Halachic - the legal interpretation- so taking the legal definition of a word rather than its straight meaning. This is really just a subset of pshat since they are both plain meanings though what is learned may differ.
3) Remesh - the alluded to meanings. This is where you get the alluded to meanings and the oral law meanings of the passages. Some of these are aggadot- more like morality stories or fables- though always meant to teach, others are halachic and give guidance on the laws.
4) Sod- secret. This level of study is the most difficult and is not common. studying at this level is usually only done by a student and teacher in an one on one session and is not taught in large groups or classes. The reason for this is that the teacher has to make sure that the student fully understands what is being taught, or the student may be led astray. A story in the Talmud, masechta Chagigah, is told of Rabbi Akivah, one of the greatest sages who, using kaballah from the lessons derived from the vision of the merkava (divine chariot), ascended to view the world to come, with four students- each a great sage in their own right. One student who was pure, did not guard himself and died from the view, a second went mad, a third died and the fourth became an apostate and started his own religion, dualistic in nature. The Talmud brings this story to teach 1) that this should never have been done in a group and 2) as a general warning that studying Kaballah is not for everyone.
So let us now look at Sod- the area in which Kaballah is found.
a) The earliest written work of Kaballah is generally stated as being the Book of Job. Some of the Rabbinical commentaries do not view this book literally but rather as an allegory in which many Kaballistic insights are taught.
b) The earliest oral source of Kaballah is stated as being the Sefer Yetzira, which tradition states was authored by Abraham and passed down orally until it was written down around 200CE since it was in danger of being corrupted or forgotten.
c) The vision of the divine Chariot
d) The Zohar - Tradition states that this was a compilation of lessons that Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai collated and organised while he was hiding from the Romans around 200CE. Because it is in the realm of Sod- people were always reluctant to write down- but it was finally written down around the 1600s.
Who studies it?
Basically the majority of Orthodox Jews accept Kaballah as worthwhile studying, though there is a rule that we never alter the halachah (Jewish law) because of what is found in the Kaballah. The Torah, written and oral, takes primacy. In the talmud in Masechat Chagigah the rules for studying the Merkavah (Divine Chariot) are written down and taken as a model for the rest of the Kabbalah. So what are the rules given in Masechta Chagigah?
1) The person must have a complete knowledge of Judaism- Torah, Tanakh, Midrash, aggadata
2) The person must have children
3) The person must be observant of the mitzvot
4) The teacher must only teach one student at a time
5) The teacher does not teach the details- but only the chapter headings
6) The student must have the potential to be a great sage, equivalent to the nasi of the Sanhedrin (obvioulsy not everyone can eb the head of the Sanhedrin- but this requirement is that essentially the person should eb studying and have the requirements to one day eb a great sage in their own right).
7) The person must be old enough, and mature enough, to understand and incorporate the lessons. this is generally taken to be at the age of 40, though sometimes younger people are taught (the arizal died in his 30’s, so evidently his teachers must have started teaching him at a very young age.)
So- how do we see these laws being applied? Judaism is focused on action- not belief, in doing, not in studying for the sake of studying, thus the requirement that the student first be knowledgeable in the rest of Shas (an abreviation for Shisei Sidrei Mishnah- the six orders of Mishnah and used to refer to the entirety of Jewish law); together with all the laws and how to perform them properly, before studying anything to do with the Kaballah. The requirement for children comes from this as well- one must know the laws and carry them out- all of them, including the law of “pru u’revu” (be fruitful and multiply). So we see laws one to three applied
We also knwo that for a long time no Kabbalah was written down, except for in extreme allegorical form (such as the book of Iyov (Job)) it was only directly taught by teacher to student in an one on one fashion. Today- the written works of the Kaballah do not contain everything- their are major elements that are only taught by teacher to student. As such- finding a teacher is paramount- and it is not easy to do, teachers generally find students- not the other way around. Thus we see points four and five- the books contain what are essentially the discussion points which the teachers teach from, and not enough detail for the student to be able to use just the book to get a true knowledge of Kabbalah. Studying Kaballah outside of Judaism is a bizarre concept- much of Kaballah is direct commentary on the Torah and Tanach (such commentary is “remesh” and refers to the hidden meanings in the verses as opposed to the p’s**t (direct) meaning. Other major sources of learning remesh are the Midrash Rabbah, Sifrei and Sifri. The commentaries of the Ramban and Ba’al Haturim are largely based on remesh as compared to Rashi who exlictly went out to only give the p’s**t meaning of the Tanach. )
Whether a person has the personal merits, well, that is for the teacher to decide- and the age requirement is normally adhered to by most teachers- though there are exceptions (particularly in the Chassidic movements where Kabbalah receives far more focus.)
So Kaballah can be genuine- but most of the time what is taught is far from genuine Kabalah. The Kabalah centre of Philip Berg is a scam and cult. (I don’t refer to him as Rabbi since the place he claims to have gotten ordination from states he never got ordination! Considering what he is doing, I believe them- not him!) Red strings, holy water, reciting verses without understanding them are all nonsense. The other people teaching Kaballah out there are just as fake (though not all of them are as destructive as Berg’s cult). Madonna might be happy there- good for her, but what she is studying is just something made up by someone with a very superficial understanding of but a few issues- and then elaborated on in a huge labyrinth of fakery to part people from their money!
What is my personal recommendation to people that want to study Kabbalah? From the above it should be obvious- don’t bother. If you are going to go to a scam like Phillip Berg’s kabbalah centre, you will just loose your money to deception. If you are going to go and study the books of “Rav” Michael Laitman (Yet another kabbalah teaching Rabbi that has never received smichah) or study through his Beni Brak institute- well, at least it is not the scam that the Kabbalah institute is- but neither are you going to be learning the secrets of the universe or genuine Kabbalah. There is only one way to learn genuine Kabbalah- and that requires years of preparation before you will be ready- and then you may well find that while it is interesting to contemplate studying it, it is not necessary. this si where I am sitting now- I have read enough hints in the writings of Rambam, Ramban and the Kli Yakar in their open writings to know that Kabbalah is interesting, that it will enahnce my study of the Torah- but at the same time, I am not ready for it. There are still vast areas of Halachah I need to study and understand
Answered By: allonyoav - 6/1/2009