Kabbalah

Doctrines Kabbalah (or Qabbalah) represents an alternative mystical world view to that of orthodox Judaism. The central text for kabbalists, comparable in its authority and lasting influence to the Babylonian Talmud, is an early mediaeval work, known as the Zohar or "Book of Splendour, probably by the 13th century Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon. It is a kind of mystical midrash (commentary) on the Five Books of Moses, written in Aramaic: by studying it and discovering the esoteric or mystical meaning of the Torah, kabbalists gain a unique insight into the inner life of God, which cannot be reached by halakhah or philosophy.
This mystical tradition appears in a developed form by the sixth century CE at the latest, in two important works of unknown date and authorship. The one, entitled Sefer Yetzirah "Book of Creation", is a short highly imaginative and enigmatic cosmological work which greatly influenced later kabbalistic speculation. The other, known as Heikhalot Rabbati "Great Treatise on the Heavenly Palaces", contains traditions about God's Chariot (Merkavah), described in awesome detail in Ezekiel, and the secret knowledge (gnosis), magical names, hymns and formulae by means of which the mystic may journey in safety through the outer "palaces" of heaven to communion with God.
In this rich and complex religious tradition, biblical words and names acquire a mystical meaning, as do numbers and letters of the alphabet, all with the object of providing some kind of link or correspondence or analogy between what we know here and now in this world and what we long to know of God in heaven. The Zohar constructs a system based on ten Sefirot, literally "numbers", but now given the sense of "divine attributes, modes of self revelation", by which God, the En-Sof the "Undefinable, Unknowable" (literally "without end"), has chosen to reveal himself:
  1. Keter (Crown)
  2. Hokhmah (wisdom)
  3. Binah (understanding)
  4. Hesed (Love)
  5. Gevurah (power) or Din (Justice)
  6. Rahamim (Mercy)
  7. Netzah (victory)
  8. Hod (majesty)
  9. Yesod (foundation)
  10. Malkhut (Kingdom).
The scheme is diagrammatically represented as a tree or a man.

Fundamental to the kabbalists' view of things is the dynamic nature of God and his relationship to Israel and the world. Since the world of the Sefirot is reflected in this world, we can learn something of it from human history and experience, especially the history of Israel. The Torah as interpreted by the kabbalists provides the God-given key to this scheme of correspondences, and it has an ethical dimension too, derived from biblical references to divine involvement in human affairs. The arrangement or balance of the Sefirot is affected in various ways by what happens on earth: Justice replaces Power, for example, when Israel sins.
One of the most popular aspects of kabbalistic and hasidic speculation is the legend of the golem, which describes the creation out of clay of a man by a magical combination of the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There are numerous stories about the terrifying risks involved in the making of golems, by such characters as Rabbi Loew of Prague (c.1520-1609) and even the "Gaon of Vilna" ( 1720-1797) (see under Hasidism).

History Traces of these mystical traditions, both the contemplative "Creation mysticism" and the more ecstatic, experiential "Merkavah mysticism", can be found already in early Jewish apocalyptic literature and the Talmud, but it is not until the post-Talmudic and early mediaeval periods, that they were permitted to develop alongside talmudical orthodoxy. Before the end of the second century CE, the rabbis had excluded most of the apocalyptic literature from the Jewish canon of scripture, and placed restrictions upon the study of the two Biblical texts most used by early Jewish mystics, Genesis 1 (cosmology) and Ezekiel 1 (merkavah). Some of the early sages who, like the "Four who entered Paradise", strayed into mystical speculation, are remembered as brilliant, but misguided interpreters of scripture.
The same attitude among the leaders of halakhic orthodoxy prevailed at first towards the two post-Talmudic mystical works, Sefer Yetzirah and Hekhalot Rabbati. It was not until after the appearance of the Zohar in the 13th century that the mystical tradition gained a degree of acceptance within or alongside orthodox Judaism. By the sixteenth century the town of Safed in northern Palestine had become a centre for kabbalists of whom Joseph Caro (1499-1575) and Isaac Luria (1534-72) are the best known and most influential. They and their disciples remained within the orthodox talmudical tradition, unlike the "mystical messiah" Shabbetai Tzevi (1626-76) and his followers who rejected the Talmud and study the Zohar as zealously as they study the Bible (See Shabbateans). Finally in the eighteenth century the kabbalistic tradition was revived by the Hasidim of eastern Europe, led by the Baal Shem Tov (died 1760) whose less elitist forms of mysticism survive among ordinary Jewish congregations throughout the world to this day (See Hasidism).

Symbols Kabbalistic art makes use of all kinds of patterns including the Magen David (see Orthodox Judaism), Menorah, Tetragrammaton (see under Ancient Judaism) and other letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Two of the most frequent diagrams used to represent the complex interrelatiohships between the Ten Sefirot are the tree and the primal man (Adam Kadmon). Ezekiel's chariot (merkabah) was an early mystical symbol, as a mode of transportation between heaven and earth.

Adherents The number of kabbalah mystics is impossible to estimate.

Headquarters/
Main Centre
 Safed (Hebrew Tzefat) in northern Palestine was known as the centre of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century