Data Entry by: Griffin
Taken from: "Kabbalah." by Charles Ponce
The Nature & Origin of Kabbalism
There are two main branches of Kabbalistic thought: the specul-
ative & the practical. The speculative branch concerns itself solely
with the operations of the spiritual dimension of the universe, in an
attempt to discover how it meshes with this world. Speculative
Kabbalism aims also at revealing how man may find a place in both
dimensions at one & the same time. The practical Kabbalah is
primarily concerned with winning the energies of the spiritual world
for the purposes of magical control. By employing the names &
offices of the angels one may control the whole of nature & its
powers. Practical Kabbalism greatly influenced the magic of Western
Europe during the Mediaeval period, with the ambiguous results which
were discussed in the introduction.
The roots of these branches may be traced back to two schools of
mystical activity: that which concerned itself with the `Maaseh
Bereshith' (History of Creation) & that which concentrated on the
`Maaseh Merkabah' (History of the Divine Throne or Chariot). The
latter, as has been seen, centered around the mystical adoration of
the throne chariot of God as described in the first chapter of
Genesis. These doctrines were carefully guarded during the Talmudic
period (135 b.c.e. - 1035 c.e.), lest they be revealed to the
uninitiated & in doing so lead to misunderstandings which could only
lead to heresy. It is mentioned that rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai was
the father of `Merkabah' mysticism, & Rabbi Akiba that of `Maaseh
Bereshith' mysticism. By the time of the establishment of the Gaonic
Institution the city of Palestine had become the chief centre of
`Merkabah' mysticism, & Babylon the centre of `Bereshith' specu-
`And above the firmament... was the likeness of a throne, as the
appearance of a sapphire stone: & upon the likeness of the throne was
the likeness as the appearance of a man above it... This was the
appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw
it, I fell upon my face, & I heard a voice of one that spake.'
(Ezekiel i, 26-8).
This scriptural passage was to serve as the keystone for the first
& longest phrase of Jewish mysticism, `Merkabah' mysticism, covering
roughly the period 100 b.c.e. (before christian era) to 1000 c.e.
The term `Merkabah' means God's throne-chariot, and refers us to
the chariot of Ezekiel's vision. The `Merkabah' mystic, or
`Merkabah'-rider as he was sometimes called, had one goal: entry into
the throne world of the `Merkabah', but this was no simple task, for
the devotee had to pass through his ends but through seven
`hekhaloth', heavenly halls or mansions, before reaching the
`Merkabah' itself in the seventh and last `hekhaloth'.
The preperation for this journey was the simplest of shamanistic
techniques - fasting & repetitious recitation of hymn & prayer. Once
a state of trance was achieved, the `Merkabah'-rider then had to send
his soul upwards - `downwards' according to later `Merkabah'
mystics - in an attempt to pierce the veil surrounding the
`Merkabah'. In order to protect himself from the demons & evil
spirits which would attempt at every turn to destroy him, the devotee
had to have prepared beforehand talismans, seals & magical
incantations. Each successful passage through one of the seven
palaces demanded yet more magical devices, & the devotee had to have
at hand, in memory, incredibly long & difficult incantations to
insure his safety.
Throughout the entire experience he was threatened with death. At
one point he is caused to stand erect in space without his feet. The
gatekeepers he would meet standing before each palace were enormous
beings, taller then mountains, with lightning flashing from their
eyes, scorching coals falling from their mouths & spheres of
brilliant fire roaring from their nostrils, their dragon-like horses
standing by drinking their fill from rivers of fire. It was to these
beings that the devotee had to present his amulets, seals & secret
Much of the magical rituals of later Kabbalism had their origin in
this early mysticism. `Merkabah' mysticism is the simplest form of
Jewish mysticism we will discuss. It is quite simply a mysticism of
ecstasy. The devotee sought nothing more than the vision of the
`Merkabah'. No explicit doctrinal statements beyond accounts of
their journeys into the heavens grew out of the experience, nor do
we find the slightest hint of a developed system beyond that of
simple shamanism & the later involvement with magic. The `Merkabah'
rider did not attempt to see beyond the throne-kingdom or question
its nature & origin. It was there. It was to be experienced, &
nothing more. Clearly, the successful entry into the deepest realms
of the seventh `hekhaloth' was efficacious for the spiritual
development or completion of the devotee. However, no specific
mention is made about the precise nature of the transformation which
the `Merkabah' rider underwent.
No one in fairness can point to the sophistications of later
Jewish mysticism & say this mystical school was a small event in the
history of Jewish mysticism. These men who threw themselves headlong
into the fire of the universe for no other reason than the desire to
experience the Divine in all of its radiance set a courageous example
which later mystics would have to follow. Lacking in philosophical
or eschatological theories through `Merkabah' mysticism may be, it is
not without that knowledge of the love of God which runs like a
thread of fire through all later Kabbalism. That for close to a
thousand years men were content to risk their lives & their minds for
so seemingly simple a reason as the confirmation of a small passage
in Biblical scripture only emphasizes the need man has to witness the
It was out of the mystical tradition of the `Merkabah'-riders &
their involvement with angelology, talismans & magical incantations,
not to mention the ritual putting on & taking off of sacramental
robes, that the brance of practical Kabbalism originally sprang.
According to Eleazar of Worms (1165 - 1238), one of the earliest
German Kabbalists, the literature of practical Kabbalism was
introduced to Italy in 917 c.e. by a Babylonian scholar, Aaron ben
Samuel. Almost immediately upon his arrival he imparted his mystical
knowledge to the scholary Kalonymus family. When they moved to the
Rhineland in 917 c.e. they established what is now referred to as
German Kabbalism by some, and Early Hasidism by others. Until the
time of Eleazar of Worms, the mystic doctrine transmitted by Aaron
ben Samuel had been considered the private property of the
Kalonymides. It was Judah ha-Hasid, the Pious (died 1217), a member
of the Kalonymides family, who directed his pupil Eleazar to reveal
the oral & written doctrine of practical Kabbalism to a larger
The German branch of Kabbalism, practical Kabbalism, was ecstatic
in nature & used as its primary vehicle prayer, supplementing it with
meditation & contemplation, & adorning it with magical ritual. Here
we must remember that this branch of Kabbalism had its beginnings in
`Merkabah' mysticism & that much of its symbolism & theory was taken
directly from that tradition. The important difference between
`Merkabah' mysticism & practical Kabbalism is that the latter no
longer concerned itself with the mystic's ascent to the throne of
God, but on prayer. The magical efficacy of the `word' took
precedence in this mysticism. The `Merkabah' mystic had not
concerned himself exclusively with fixed formulae, but had instead
lent himself to the spontaneous expression of his feelings while in
trance. Admittedly, magical incantations had to be learned & recited
by heart, but such practices were subsidiary to the central objective
of meditating on the divine throne itself.
The German Kabbalists were, in contrast, concerned primarily with
the esoteric meanings of fixed terms, & so much so that their
counting & calculating of every word in their prayers & hymns
eventually gave rise to three techniques of mystical speculation
familiar to every student of Kabbalism: `Gematria', `Notarikon', &
`Temura', about which we will have much to say in a later chapter.
All in all, German Kabbalism, or Early Hasidism, was essentially an
attempt to bring to the `Merkabah' tradition a new interpretation &
The essential doctrines of this German school of mysticism may be
broken down into three theories.
The first element in their thinking was the idea that God is too
exalted for the mind of man to even begin to comprehend. His
holiness & greatness is thought of as formless & may only be com-
prehended as that presence of God which is `hidden' in all things.
But in order that he might be visible to angels & those men who have
cultivated a constant awareness of God's presence, he allowed his
glory to take shape in the form of a divine fire or light which only
the prophets or mystics may know. This glory of God is called the
`Kavod' & is understood by the mystics of this period to be not the
creator himself, but the first creation, the `Shekhinah'.
Unable to approach God himself directly, the mystic could unite
himself with his glory. The most striking point of this theory is
that the `Kavod' was two-fold: one aspect was invisible & the other
visible or `inner', believed to be present in all creatures but
without form, existing only as a voice.
The second element in German Kabbalism was the characterization of
the figure believed to be seated on the Chariot Throne of the
`Merkabah' mystics: the cherub. This cherub is the `emanation' of
God's invisible glory, his `Shekhinah', whose flame encircles God &
causes to come into being not only the cherub & the throne upon which
he sits, but the human soul. Master of all forms, it was from the
cherub's transformation into a human form that the model of man in
the likeness of God was made.
Finally, the German mystics held that there were four worlds or
domains: the domain of God's glory, the domain of angels, the domain
of the animal soul & the domain of the intellectual soul.
These mystical pleasures could only be enjoyed if the devotee led
a life of saintliness & humility & conducted his life in the path of
self-abnegation & altruism. His duties to God were at no time
allowed to supersede his duties to the community. Because of his
connection with the `Kavod' he became all the more responsible to the
spiritual needs of his people. The dynamism of this branch of Jewish
mysticism lasted from about 1150 - 1250.
Speculative Kabbalism had its origins in Babylonia but the spark
which lit its fuse was the `Sefer Yetsirah' or `Book of Creation'.
There were other works important to speculative Kabbalism, but none
so dynamic in its effects as this one. Twelfth century Provence was
the birthplace of this branch of Kabbalism, which attained its height
in Spain during the fourteenth century.
Whereas the Jews of Germany sought refuge in the practical
application of their mysticism from the devastating oppression &
serfdom they were forced to suffer, the Jews of Provence & Spain
during this period were much less deprived & so far better able to
enjoy the luxuries of speculation. They had no need to turn to
talismanic & ecstatic arts in an attempt to transform their
Modern scholarship has had considerable difficulty in tracing the
sources of speculative Kabbalism in Provence. What is known is
limited & obscured by traditional Kabbalistic legend which names
Issac the Blind as its originator. The arguments for & against the
truth of this legend will not be rehearsed here. What is known for
certain is that the earliest literary product of speculative
Kabbalism was a work entitled `Masekheth Atsiluth', (`Treatise on
Emanation'), written by Jacob ha-Nazir sometime during the beginning
of the twelfth century. At this time of this book's appearance, the
Kabbalah was not a topic of general study. Only the elect had access
to its secret doctrines, to the limited stock of which the `Treatise
on Emanation' added the doctrine of the four worlds through which God
manifested Himself; (the first three of which had already been
intimated in the `Sefer Yetsirah'.) The presentation of this
doctrine in the `Treatise on Emanation' is a simple one, but because
of the intricate embellishments added by the later Kabbalists, &
because of its central position in Kabbalistic thought, I will here
present the doctrine as it is generally understood today & not as
first laid down by Jacob ha-Nazir.
The cause of the world's material manifestation is understood by
the Kabbalists to be the immanent activity of God. This materiali-
zation took place on four planes, or worlds, simultaneously.
The first world is called `'atsilith', the world of emanation in
which God manifests himself in the form of archetypes. It is in this
first world that the `Sephiroth' originally manifest themselves &
reside. Just as the system of the `Sefiroth' is explained as a
process occuring eternally in God, so too must the four worlds,
inasmuch as they are the materialization of God's activity, be
understood as a process taking place within him. The first world
represents the hidden God's first form of activity: a raying-out of
his inexhaustable energy in the form of ideal or archetypical
representations which will in time become the models for all things
in the world.
It is in this world that the union of God & his `Shekhinah', his
feminine counterpart takes place. The three worlds which follow are
fruit of their union. The first world takes its name, `'atsiluth',
from the Hebrew verb in Numbers xi, 17: `And I `will take' of the
spirit which is upon these, & will put it upon them.'
The second world is called `heri'ah', the world of creation in
which the `Merkabah' takes form from the emanations of the lights of
the `Sefiroth' which stream from the first world. Here reside the
pure spirits of the truly pious & the highest ranking angels of the
universe. When the emanation of the unformed `Shekhinah' penetrates
this world from above these are the angels who joyously gather them-
selves about her light to form her body. The name of this world, &
those of the two worlds to follow, are taken from the three Hebrew
verbs in Issiah `xliii', 7: `I have created him for my glory, I have
formed him; yea, I have made him.'
The third world is called `yetsirah', the world of formation, & is
the abode of ten angelic hosts: Malachin, Arelim, Chajoth, Ophanim,
Chashmalim, Elim, Elohim, Benei Elohim, Ishim & Seraphim. These
angels are presided over by the great Metatron, the Prince of the
World, the Angel of Presence. Although this angel's name is nowhere
to be found in the Old Testament, the rabbis tell us that he is the
one referred to in the following passage from Exodus xxiii, 20.1:
`Behold, I sent an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, &
to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.
`Beware of him, & obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not
pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.'
The rabbis tell us that the name contained in this angel is
`Shaddai' (Almightly) & that because its numerical value of 314
corresponds with those Hebrew letters which form the name Metatron,
it is this angel that has been sent to keep order in the world. This
angel, legend tells us, was originally the pious man Enoch, who was
raised after his death to the highest rank among the angels. His
eyeballs were turned to torches, eyelashes to lightning, veins to
fire & his flesh to brilliant flame. God place him next to the
throne of glory which he protects to this day. The throne he
protects is the second world, `heri'ah', & the world he stands guard
in is the place where are found the `hekhaloth', the seven heavenly
halls through which the `Merkabah' mystics had to journey in their
attempt to reach the throne of God.
Each of the preceding worlds diminishes in quality as the original
emanation which began their formation becomes grosser. Eventually
the ensuing impurities of its passage gather to form the fourth
world, which is the world of matter & of the evil `kelippoth', the
world of nature & human existence. The name of this world is
`asiyah'. This term translates into the world of making, & not into
the world of action by which it has commonly come to be known. It is
in this last world where the `Shekhinah' lives in exile - among men
& the evil spirits which constantly vie for their souls.
Union of God
The schema for the four worlds is presented in the figure above.
There are other schemes used in this tradition. We shall mention &
provide diagrams of two of them.
The first alternative scheme of the four worlds has as its major
difference the idea that the ten `Sefiroth' appear again in each one
of the four worlds, their qualities & essences diminishing as they
approach their final formation in the fourth world.
The second alternative scheme is more complex but far more
rewarding from a speculative & meditative point of view. In this
scheme the `Sefiroth' are distributed throughout the four worlds:
`Kether', `Hokhmah' & `Binah' in `'atsiluth', the first world;
`Hesed', `Gevurah' & `Tifereth' in `heri'ah', the second world;
`Netsah', `Hod' & `Yesod' in `yetsirah', the third world; &
`Malkuth', comprising `'asiyah', the fourth world.
/ | \
Binah ----+---- Hokmah
| | | `ATSILUTH
______________________ | | | ______________________
Gevurah ---+---- Hesed
| \ | / |
| Tifereth | BERI'AH
________________________ | | | _____________________
Hod -----+----- Netsah
| \ | / |
| Yesod | YETSIRAH
__________________________ \ | / _________________________
\ | /
The Distribution of the ten `Sefiroth' through the Four Worlds.
The principle triple division of the soul also figures in this
scheme. The highest degree of the soul, `Neshamah', corresponds to
the `Sefirah Kether', & therefore with the world of `'atsiluth'
which in this instance would correspond with the intellectual world.
The second aspect of the soul, `Ruah', the moral element which
determines the nature of good & evil, corresponds to the `Sefirah
Tifereth' located in the moral world. `Nefesh', that aspect of the
soul which corresponds to animal life and desires, corresponds to
`Yesod', located in the third world, the material & sensuous world,
with the `Sepher Malkuth' located in the fourth world.
Malkuth World Four
The Four Worlds & their correspondence with the divisions
of the Soul.
Another topic which figures in this doctrine is the emanation of
the `Torah' as an instrument of creation. In our section on the
relevance of the `Torah' to the Kabbalah it was mentioned that the
book was thought of as a living organism. Its order & organization
were reflected in the created world. All things have as their
prototype the `Torah'. The unfolding of this divine order is of
course traceable in the unfolding & progression of the four worlds
In the beginning, when the hidden God first considered revealing
himself through the agencies of both the oral & written `Torah', all
the linguistic possibilities were gathered in germ. In this form
the `Torah' existed as a sequence of all possible combinations &
permutations of the consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. It is in
this seemingly chaotic order that the `Torah' exists in `'atsiluth',
the world of divine emanation.
In the second world, the world of creation, that combination of
the consonants contained in the first world which would best reveal
the holy names of God were selected & made fast along with the pious
souls residing there.
The angelic names & powers of the third world, the world of
formation, compose the `Torah' in its third immaterial & invisible
form. Up until this time the word of the book is but an intricate
pattern of emanations woven into a fabric of beatitude accessible
only to those mystics & masters capable of reaching beyond the limits
It is not until the fourth world, the world of making, `'asiyah',
that the `Torah' becomes what we know know.
Adam, too, figures in this plan of the four worlds. In the first
world we find him as the upper Heavenly Man, the archetype not only
of the forms to follow but of man himself. The second world reveals
Adam as he first appears in Genesis i, 27. The third world contains
the Adam of the Garden, when he was composed of a garment of light
instead of flesh. The Adam of these first three worlds was
androgynous. The Adam of the fourth world is the Adam of the
expulsion, the Adam of flesh traversing the desert of his exile, &
the Adam capable of reproducing himself now that he is no longer
androgynous. The four Adams outlined in the four worlds in turn
compose the universal man, the `animus mundi'. In this schema his
brain is located in the first world, his heart in the second world,
his breath in the third world & his genitals in the fourth world.
The next work of speculative Kabbalism of considerable prominence
was the `Book Bahir' which appeared in Provence around 1180. Some
ascribe it to Issac the Blind but this ascription appears to be
composed of more legend than fact. It is in this work that two
doctrinal statements of speculative Kabbalism appear which in the
centuries following it will effect all Kabbalistic thought: the
relating of the `Sefiroth' to a clearly delineated structure of
intelligible primal principles, & the identification & deification of
a feminine principle in God, the `Shekhinah', who not only represents
the spiritual body of Israel, but the soul of man itself.
Many scholars have commented on the book's poor writing & badly
organized structure, leaving some to find in the author's statement
that the `Sefiroth' emanate all at once to be a contradiction of the
very theory of emanation originally allegedly professed by the
author. How on the one hand can we have a series of gradual
transitions or emanations from the infinite to the finite, & on the
other an instantaneous emanation? The answer to this question is to
be found in chapter I, verse 6 of the `Sefer Yetzirah' where we are
told that the ten `Sefiroth' have the appearance of a lightning
flash. The author has simply taken a meterological observation &
applied it to metaphysics. Any child will tell you that lightning
travels from above to below but that its movement is so swift its
appearance in the sky is instantaneous. So too if a series of bulbs
on a single circuit are turned on, regardless of the fact that we
know that electricity travels `through' points A, B & C, they light
up instantaneously. Again, one will immediately, without thought,
pull back one's hand from a hot stove without giving thought to the
very intricate & graduated series of chemical impulses which conspire
to effect the reflex. What the author was trying to suggest, & what
all Kabbalists have known since the suggestion was made, is that as
God himself is invisible, so too is his `process' of emanation.
In Hebrew, `Shekhinah' simply means indwelling, & refers us to the
Biblical usage of the word to indicate the presence of God, the
manifestation of his divine presence in the world & in man. It was
most probably thought of as the type of feeling one has of another's
presence in a room one had thought to be empty. That feeling could
be thought of as a synonym for the feeling of the presence of God -
In the `Book Bahir' things take a new turn. The `Shekhinah' is
not only spoken of as a divine entity in its own right, a `portion'
of God himself, but as a feminine power. Furthermore, the mystical
`Ecclesia' of Israel, the religious community, `is' the `Shekhinah'
as well. The community of Israel had always been thought of as a
divine community of individuals, & though always seperate from God,
`under' God. Here, the author tells us that not only is the
`Ecclesia' a part of God, but by virtue of the fact that Israel had
always been personified as a daughter & bride, the community is also,
in spiritual reality, both his wife & daughter!
The ramifications of this identification of the `Ecclesia' with
the `Shekhinah' as a divine personage in its own right has been
brought out by Scholem where he points out that the `Talmud'
explicity states that whenever the children of Israel were put into
exile God's `Shekhinah' was with them. In the original sense it
simple meant that God's presence was there with them. In the light
of the statement from the `Book Bahir' it comes to mean that whenever
the children of Israel went into exile, a portion of God himself went
into exile as well.
The `Shekhinah', moreover, is the `neshamah', the soul of man.
Because we shall discuss the soul in a separate chapter all that we
need point out here is that all mediaeval Jews thought of the soul as
having been hewn from the Throne of Glory & that by being sent down
into the body of man it not only suffered the state of finiteness,
but of possible contamination through mortal sin. Through the eyes
of the `Bahir's' author a portion of God himself became finite & open
The `Book Bahir' in its entirety is only thirty to forty pages
long, but its doctrinal statements altered the course of Jewish
Another significant product of the speculative branch of Kabbalism
was `The Commentary on the Ten Sephiroth', by Azriel ben Menachem (c.
1160-1238), the leading disciple of Issac the Blind of Provence. The
historical research on this period is not complete & it is difficult
to say with any certainty that the concept of the `En-Sof', or of God
as absolute infinity, appears for the first time in this work. I am
tempted, however, to attribute Azriel with the creation of this
According to Azriel, the world & all of its manifestations was
contained in God, the absolute & infinite being, the `En-Sof'. But
because of the imperfections & finite state of the world, the world
cannot be thought of as having directly come into being out of the
perfection of the Absolute. The Infinite, by definition, is perfect
& without end. How, then, could something finite & imperfect have
been born of it? Through the medium of the `Sefiroth' was Azriel's
answer. The `En-Sof' emanates the qualities which compose the
universe in much the same way that the sun radiates its light & heat
without diminishing its essence. This energy then filters through
the `Sefiroth' who then emanate it through the world.
THE REVIVAL OF PRACTICAL KABBALISM
In the midst of this speculative activity there appeared a mystic
whose aim was the supplanting of speculative Kabbalism with the
doctrines of the earlier practical Kabbalists of Germany. This
mystic's name was Abraham Abulafia. Abulafia not only railed against
the doctine of the `Sefiroth' & their emanations but swore to
reinstate the prophetic, visionary system of letter & number
mysticism. Because we shall refer to his doctrines in this chapter
on number & letter system later in this work, I take the opportunity
here of outlining his life. It is a typical visionary's life & one
that the reader should keep in mind while reading mysticism in
general. There is a tendency to think of visionary mystics as
recluses, hidden away in small rooms, refusing to deal with life's
difficulties. When we read the writings of these men we tend to
forget that they actually lived in the world, sometimes with feverish
& frightening courage. Their lives have inevitably been tragic.
Abraham be Samuel Abulafia was born in Spain in 1240. The
immediate impression one recieves of this visionary prophet is one of
extreme uprootedness. He was constantly on the move either because
he was being pursued by those who wanted to destroy him, or because
he himself was in constant pursuit of redemption. He first left
Spain & journeyed to the Near East in the hope of finding the stream
Sambation where legend had it the ten lost tribes of Israel might be
found. He returned from this search shortly afterwards & for a space
of ten years lived first in Greece, & then in Italy. By the time he
returned to Spain in 1270 he had already become fully competant in
the doctrines of Kabbalism. He reports that in the year 1271 he was
granted visions by which he learned the nature of God's true name.
This then must be regarded as the turning point of his life. All
of his doctrines grew out of the experiences of that year. We find
him returned to Italy after three years after what must have been a
singularly solitary career of proselytizing in his homeland. He was
never to set foot in Spain again, & once can only wonder if the years
spent attempting to find hearts & ears sympathetic to the doctrine
revealed to him in vision had been bitter enough to make him renounce
his birthplace forever.
The streetcorners on which he stood proclaiming the message of his
Lord were in Christian lands. His own people turned to the rabbis
for the word of the law. Those without rabbinic training were looked
upon as heretics, if not madmen. Either or both were dangerous.
It is necessary, however, that such restraints as religious orders
be established. There are few who can survive the blast of the
cosmos. Even Abulafia shows symptoms of having suffered from this,
& there must, somehow, be a balance or limit. If everyone were to
experience the Divive, no one would experience the mundane. The
mundane is the place to which we have all been exiled. The mundane
is in its own right a `sacred' place because it is an Other.
Inasmuch as it is `not' divive it too is distinctive & unique.
Continuing his efforts to put forth the word of God Abulafia
published, in Urbino, Italy, in 1270, his conversations with God. It
must have been shortly after this time that it was revealed to
Abulafia that `he' was the promised Messiah. One of the first tasks
the Messiah was to perform upon his arrival on this earth was the
release of his people from bondage. This involved a direct
confrontation with the Pope & Abulafia accordingly set out for Rome.
Pope Nicholas III received news of the imminent approach of this
self-styled Messiah & issued an order that when the man who called
himself Raziel (Abulafia has adopted the name) arrived in the Holy
City he was to be led out of town & burned.
Abulafia learned of the Pope's plans in advance but set out on the
road to Rome anyway, certain of his task & of its completion.
Shortly before reaching Rome he had a vision in which he saw two
mouths growing on the Pope. He felt it was not necessary for him to
fathom the meaning of this vision, but its meaning was revealed the
next evening upon his arrival at the city-gate, where he learned that
the Pope had mysteriously & quite suddenly died the evening before.
There must have been a great deal of confusion, for what was done
with Abulafia in no way met with the Pope's orders. He was
imprisoned for twenty-eight days, & then set free. The imprisonment
gave him time to think things over. Upon his release he left Rome &
never again tried to confront a Pope.
After this episode he set out with a band of his disciples for
Sicily where God gave him the final word on his messiahship.
Abulafia had this message published in 1274. One might have assumed
that people would have grown accustomed to him by this time & that
another of his numerous pamphlets would have gone unnoticed. But
this pamphlet contained a prophecy close to every Jew's heart, one
which caused hope to override sensibility: the restitution of Israel.
Abulafia promised that this would come about sometime in 1296, a
short twelve years away. Thousands prepared themselves for the
There were others, however, who had grown weary of Abulafia, his
doctrines & his newly won power over the people. Having had much
opportunity in his life to know danger when he saw it, Abulafia
decided that he had arrived at the end of his good fortune. He set
sail for the island of Cominio where he settled down to a peaceful
life of contemplation & writing. Death came to him sometime around
1292, four years short of his prophecy. We can be sure that he died
in the certainty that it would come about on schedule.
The bizarre & seemingly psychopathic side of Abulafia's
personality is something we must leave to the probings of historians
of medicine & psychopathology. What is of value to use here, & to
the study of the Kabbalah in general, are the doctrinal statements of
Abulafia which so incensed many of his contemporaries. They
contradict & appear to balance his fanaticism. They make of his
personal loneliness a small payment to the powers which quickened his
native intelligence with the light of wisdom.
LATER DEVELOPMENTS IN KABBALISM
It is not until the appearance of the Zohar in Spain sometime
between 1280-1290 that the two branches of Kabbalism - practical &
speculative - became united. When people mistakenly speak of the
Kabbalah they inevitably have this work in mind.
When the Jews were exiled from Spain the Zohar was carried by them
to all the countries they were forced to settle in. But it was at
Safed in Palestine that the teachings of the Zohar became firmly
established. The tomb of rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the scholar to whom
Moses de Leon ascribed the creations of the Zohar, was close at hand.
There, in Safed, we find two of the most prominent Kabbalists in the
history of Kabbalism: Moses Cordovero & Issac Luria.
Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) was born in Cordova where he became
one of Europe's leading Kabbalists & exponents of the Zohar. His
brother-in-law, Solomon ben Moses ha-Levi Alkabetz, was the primary
instrument in his mystical education. Cordovero was a Kabbalistic
poet of considerable stature, & his Lekhah Dodi (`Come my Beloved')
was one of the last poems to be included in the Hebrew Prayer book.
It is still recited in synagogues at the beginning of the Sabbath.
along with many other Kabbalists, made Safed his home after the
terror of the Spanish Inquisition. He was strictly a speculative
Kabbalist & his major concern was the relation of the En-Sof to the
Sefiroth. Cordovero's insistance that God is in all things influ-
enced Spinoza's theory of pantheism.
There is a legend in Safed according to which Moses Cordovero was
one of three angels of the Lord of Hosts - the other two were Joseph
Caro & Issac Luria - sent to this world to help mankind with secret
teachings. At his death it is said that a pillar of fire shot up
from his bier.
The other Safed Kabbalist of prominence was Issac Luria
(1533-1572) whose speculations gave birth to moderm Kabbalism. It
was his doctrine that the later Hasidim employed in the construction
of their system. While being an exponent of the Zohar he was
primarily interested in the practical side of Kabbalism in direct
contrast to Moses Cordovero. As the influence of his school spread,
so too did the creation of amulets, the juggling of numbers &
letters, & the conjuration of devils. Aside from all this Lurianic
Kabbalism contains some of the most exciting & far-reaching doctrines
in the whole of Kabbalism. The most striking of which is the concept
The term tsimtsum originally meant `contraction' or `concen-
tration,' & appeared in the Talmud where it was used to describe
God's projection & concentration of his divine presence, his
Shekhinah, at a single point. In Luria's use of the word tsimtsum
means withdrawl or retreat from a single point. The original
concept appears in a few Kabbalistic treatises prior to Luria's
reformulation of it. It does not, however, appear in the Zohar.
This voluntary contraction on the part of God, the En-Sof in this
case, is the act which causes creation to come into existence.
Without this act there would have been no universe. Because the
En-Sof was limitless, in all things & all places, a plenum of
divinity, it was necessary that a primordial space, tehiru, be
established. It was necessary therefore that the En-Sof's first
creative act be a withdrawl or contraction into Himself. In so doing
He permitted to come into being the primordial space which was
necessary for the creation of the finite world. But the space
created was not entirely empty. In much the same way that the
fragrance of perfume lingers in an empty bottle, so too did a divine
presence remain behind in primordial space. Once this space existing
outside of & separate from the En-Sof was established, the second act
of creation began to take place.
The first act of creation was an act of limitation: the second,
that of emanation. At this time the En-Sof rayed out a single beam
of light to form the first configuration ever fashioned, the body of
Adam Kadmon (the primordial man), from which there then burst forth
from his eyes, mouth, nose & ears the lights of the Sefiroth. The
Sefiroth, themselves light concentrated from the original beam, were
at this stage totally undifferentiated, without the qualities
presently assigned to them. In this form they did not require
special light-made bowls to contain them. The plan of creation that
the En-Sof had in mind demanded that the Sefiroth become differen-
tiated & contained so that they might receive the more heavily
concentrated beams of light emanating from the eyes of Adam Kadmon.
Since these bowls or vessels were constructed out of varying mixtures
of light, the heavier lights streamed forth from the primordial man's
eyes & were received without difficulty into the first three
Sefiroth: Kether, Binah, & Hokmah. When it came time to fill the
bowls of the lower Sefiroth the light suddenly burst forth with such
intensity that it broke the vessels designed to contain it.
This brings up to Luria's second doctrinal principle: the
shevirah, or breaking of the vessels, which has its roots back in an
Aggadahic saying that before the creation of this world God had
created & destroyed many others which had not been to his liking.
Moses de Leon employed the information of this saying as an
explanation of Genesis xxxvi, 31: `And these are the Kings that
reigned in the land of Edom, & who died.' According to Moses de
Leon's interpretation there was a time when God employed only the
forces of Gevurah, the Sefirah of stern judgement, & by so doing
caused the destruction of those worlds by the excessive weight of
the Sefirah. As he points out, the world may only exist in a state
of balance, a condition of equilibrium brought about by the modifying
of stern judgement with the compassion of mercy or grace, represented
by Sefirah Hesed. This is the state of things as they are now.
In this doctrine, Issac Luria equates the bursting of the vessels
with the death of the primordial kings of Edom. This death, Luria
adds, came about because of a lack of harmony between the masculine
& feminine elements of the Sefiroth. That is, the feminine & passive
Sefirah of stern judgement, Gevurah, did not allow itself to be
approached by the masculine & active Sefirah Hesed, Mercy or Grace.
When the light pouring out of the eyes of Adam Kadmon shattered the
vessels of the Sefiroth, the light which composed the vessels
themselves shattered into sparks & fell into the realm of the demonic
kelippoth or shells, the evil powers created out of the residual
waste of the primordial kings.
With the breaking of the vessels everything suddenly fell into a
state of chaos. The lights from the eyes of Adam Kadmon rebounded
upward or crashed downward into the realm of the shells. The divine
machinery came to a stop & a new blast of light issued forth from
the En-Sof. This light then burst forth from the forehead of Adam
Kadmon in an attempt to stop the chaos from blossoming & re-order the
elements which had been torn asunder by the catastrophe.
Instead of the original plan, therefore, according to which the
whole of creation would have been illuminated by the light of En-Sof,
now only certain portions are lit by the sparks, & other portions are
left in total darkness. This darkness is the realm of the shells,
the evil in creation which would have been redeemed if all had gone
as planned, Instead, the sparks which fell into the darkness become
ensnarled by the shells. This mingling of the sparks led to the
present reality where there is no evil which does not contain some
good, no good which does not contain some evil. It is at this point,
the point where the En-Sof streams forth again, that the Sefiroth
take on the attributes they now have. This reformation of the
Sefiroth begins the work required of the tikkun, the restoration.
The only way in which the sparks may be retrieved from the dark
realm of the shells is by the work of tikkun, part of which is
undertaken by God. But the restoration of the original order became
complicated by the Fall of Adam. All the souls that were ever to
exist existed in Adam's soul, & after the Fall his size was
diminished to the size of man. His soul was exiled from his body; so
too are our souls in a state of exile. They are the sparks hidden in
the darkness of the shells. The recovery of the original unity
cannot come about without the aid of man, for which purpose he was
created & sent down into the place of the shell which is our world.
The restoration of the original unity is a collective venture each
individual must set out & accomplish for himself, for the restoration
of his exiled soul is his own responsibility.
These are the bare outlines of Lurianic Kabbalism. Even in as
simple a presentation as this one cannot escape being struck by the
scope of Luria's vision. This Kabbalism is the most exciting of the
many systems. The works of Luria's foremost disciple, Hayyin Vittal
Calabrese (1543-1620) spread the doctrine of Lurianic Kabbalism
throughout the world. What is needed now is the translation of the
major Lurianic works & a commentary.
At about this time the study of the Kabbalah began in Poland, but
with considerable opposition on the part of the Talmudic authorities.
The spirit of Kabbalism which had been sparked centuries earlier was
all but dead & would not be revived in Germany until the arrival of
the Kabbalists coming out of Poland in the eighteenth century. By
that time the Kabbalah had spread throughout Poland to such a degree
that no rabbi could think of neglecting Kabbalistic studies. The
doctrine studied in Poland was Luranic Kabbalism.
In eighteenth-century Europe, Judaism operated solely on Talmudic
prescription. The academies of learning spent their time on &
applauded the successful performance of pilpul, hair-splitting. The
intellectual fervor associated with Talmudic studies left little room
for the emotional undercurrent of Judaism & had little to do with
reality. Those who were not Talmudic scholars, the Am Aratzim or
uncultured & crude masses, were looked upon with extreme contempt.
The last thing the scholars of that period would have expected would
be the emergence of a mystical theology parented by a peasant whose
sole possession was a horse given him by his brother-in-law, & who
supported himself & his family by digging lime out of ravines.
Israel ben Eliezer, the famed Baal-Shem Tov (Master of the Holy
Name), after years of humble praying & sporadic teaching in the heart
of the Carpathians, returned to the `Civilized' living of Miedzyboz &
unobtrusively established a following. Perhaps not so unobtrusively,
however, for it did draw the attention of the Talmudic authorities
who were quick to express their dislike of his doctrine. The arid
scholasticism of the rabbinical tradition, avaliable to the
privileged few, was challenged by the Baal-Shem's proposal that joy &
prayer alone united one with God.
The hair-splitting arguments of the scholar could not lead one to
God's presence; `where we find much learning, there we shall find
little piety.' This revival of Hasidism was the revolt of the
unlearned multitude who had been shut out of the garden of rabbinical
Judaism by their `ignorance.' In short, the entire movement
symbolized the democratic idea that God is not the sole property of
an aristocracy but of the people. This, coupled with the idea that
study was worthless, eventually led to the subordination of learning
to ritual after the Baal-Shem's death. Fervor replaced devotion.
This branch of Jewish mysticism remains with us today as a legimated
form of Jewish religion. Even though these two branches of mysticism
are technicaal at odds with one another, many Hasidic scholars adhere
to certain Kabbalistic Doctrines.
The central concept in the new Hasidism (from hasidim or pious
ones) has to do with the idea that God is present in all things &
that meditation on the theological proposition `There is no place
empty of him,' is all that is necessary to dispel sadness & fear.
Once one understands that God is in all things one can then come to
understand that the evil & unhappiness existing in the world is only
man's faulty view of things & not in the things themselves. The joy
& celebrating through prayer of the Hasidim has to do with their
recognition of God being everywhere. One must live fearlessly &
cheerfully for in all things, no matter how incomprehensible they may
be to our intellect, God works. To the hard-pressed peasant of the
period this doctrine was a salve which served to kindle the spirit of
As central as this pantheistic concept of God is to Hasidism, that
of Zaddikism is even more prominent. The idea of the zaddik
(righteous) was not new to Judaism. It referred simply to a man who
was in some mysterious was united or connected with God in such a way
that he was present to not only his mystery, but capable of acting in
his behalf. The true zaddik was a righteous man, one who is beloved
by God because of his firm adherance to his faith & prayer & who in
every instance has his prayers answered. In Hasidism this general
concept became extended. There we find the zaddik as one who has
lost his sense of individuality in attaining union with God. Endowed
with the gift of prophecy which such an act affords, the zaddik was
thought of & treated as a prophet. The Zaddikim were holy beings
capable of acting as intermediaries between God & the community of
Israel. Believing them to be endowed with miraculous powers of
healing, the diseased, infirm, childless, & impoverished approached
them for their blessings, paying them with either money or goods for
their services. This practice eventually led to excesses on the part
of some of the Zaddikim. Some of them lived in opulence which was
excessive in the eyes of their own people. In addition to this, the
institutionalizing of the zaddik's office as a gift of heredity
inevitably brought about the appearance of many false Zaddikim. All
of this resulted in a growing distrust of the office of the zaddik &
gave cause for the rabbinical fathers to become actively hostile to
the Hasidic community in general.
Scholem has pointed out<> that the major development in Jewish mysticism
to be found in Hasidism lies in the fact that all of the secrets of
the divine realm are presented as a mystical psychology. It is
though a descent into one's own self that a person penetrates the
spheres seperating man from God. The Kabbalistic doctrines which the
Hasidim included in their mysticism become aspects of a suprisingly
accurate system of psychological analysis. On the other hand,
regardless of the inclusion of many Kabbalistic doctrines, Hasidism,
as Martin Buber in his book, Hasidism, has pointed out,<> may in no way be compared with Kabbalism.
Kabbalistic doctrine is looked upon by its practitioners as esoteric
dogma, for those who have ears & eyes to see in a special way, for
those with gnosis. The Hasidim, with their belief that God & his
mysteries are open & avaliable to all men, could not, therefore,
think of themselves as Kabbalists. Nor could they side with the
Kabbalists in their practice of freeing themselves from the
contradiction of the opposites by seeing through it with the aid of
gnosis. For the Hasidic master it is his duty to endure & survive
the tension of the world's contradictions & in that way alone redeem
During the eighteenth century the Jews of Western Europe began to
put aside their mysticism. It was fortunately kept alive for them by
Christian mystics who, as early as the thirteenth century, had become
attracted to its teachings. The list is long - beginning with the
Spanish mystic Raymond Lully & ending with the English scholar E. A.
Waite.<> Admittedly, most of
the interest was more with the practical side of Kabbalism than with
the speculative side. The exceptions are the geniuses of mysticism
like Jacob Boehme. The most famous of the the practical Christian
Kabbalists - those who concerned themselves exclusively with the
magical aspects - was Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim
(1487 - 1535) whose chief work, De Occulta Philosophia, is still
referred to today by those who work in this particular area of