Kabbalah: Origins of a Spiritual Adventure

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Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Kabbalah (Hebrew for "handed down by tradition") made its appearance in the twelfth century in Provence, southern France, which at the time was the scene of the Cathar heresy [one of a number of dualistic religious revivals during the Middle Ages]. It reached maturity, however, in thirteenth-century Spain, with the composition of Sefer ha‑Zohar ("Book of Splendor"). Henceforth, the Kabbalah became the main trend of Jewish mysticism, theosophy and esotericism, comprising many different, at times contradictory, ap­proaches. 

Basically, kabbalists wanted to transform Judaism into a more profound inner experience; an experience, so they believed, that could not be attained through a rational and intellectual approach to religion. For them Judaism was a system of mystical symbols reflecting the mystery of God and the universe, and their aim was to discover keys to the understanding of this symbolism.

kabbalah and mysticism quizThe Zohar, generally attributed to Moses de Leon, sought to revive a "communion" between the faithful and divinity. The Divine manifests itself in ten Sefirot (emanations) represent­ing an intermediate stage between God and creation. Just as these emanations are contained within the Godhead, so they impregnate all beings outside it. Man is capable, by practicing precise rites, of influen­cing the Sefirot which determine the span and progress of the world. The theory of Sefirot became the backbone of Spanish kabbalist teachings, represented by a great number of images.

In time, two attitudes emerged: one esoteric, which tried to restrict the secrets of kabbalist wisdom to a small circle of initiates; and a second which insisted that it should be widely‑spread, benefiting everyone. Rabbinical Judaism received the Kabbalah with mixed feelings: some rabbis regarded the kabbalists as brave defenders of tradition, whose insistence on a meticulous observance of the commandments was more than praiseworthy; others saw in them dangerous innovators, whose introduction of non‑Jewish elements must be arrested at all costs.

The expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula [in 1492] destroyed one of the most important kabbalist centers. The dispersion of kabbalists in three continents, however, soon led to the establishment of new schools. Four new centers emerged during the sixteenth century.

In North Africa, refugees from the peninsula preserved the Spanish tradition in its ori­ginal purity. In Italy the encounter between the Kabbalah and the Renaissance led to its infusion with strong neoplatonic elements. In the Ottoman Empire, Spanish kabbalists came into contact with earlier kab­balistic trends, giving precedence to ecstatic components of the Kabbalah, to theories relating to the transmigration of souls, cosmic cycles, and calculations of the End of Days. And finally, in Palestine, where the Kabbalah had two successive centers--first in Jerusalem, where there existed from the thirteenth century an ecstatic tradition with strong messianic tendencies; then in Safed, which witnessed in the mid-­sixteenth century a great revival of mysticism.

ancient kabbalah textThe Kabbalah in Safed developed in two stages. The doctrine introduced by Moses Cordovero was a concise synthesis of the trends prevalent up to his time, whereby he sought to construct a speculative kabbalistic system which he later presented in his works, particularly in Pardes Rimmonim (Garden of Pomegranates). Then, after Cordovero’s death, Isaac Luria Ashkenaz founded his own school, teaching extremely complicated theories intended only for a small circle of initiates.

The study and teaching of Lurianic Kabbalah continued throughout the seventeenth century in Jerusalem and Damascus. The form in which we know it today was presented in Sefer Etz ha‑Hayyim ("Book of the Tree of Life") by Hayyim Vital, Luria's greatest disciple. This version of the Kabbalah was disseminated in Italy at the end of the sixteenth century by Israel Sarug, and from there spread to the rest of Europe. By the end of the following century, this corpus of teachings, edited by Vital and his successors, was a major influence on kabbalists everywhere.

Lurianic Kabbalah, mostly as a philosophical system, became known to the Christian world in a Latin translation, Kabbala denudata (1677‑1684),by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth. Meanwhile, in the Jewish world, the Kabbalah broke out of the narrow circles of mystic intellectuals and became the property of ever-growing numbers of people, affecting the behavior, attitudes and beliefs of a large part of the Jewish nation.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University