Post: 351 of 371
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Colin Low)
Subject: Notes on Kabbalah (Introduction)
Date: 9 Jan 92 22:05:47 GMT
Organization: Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, Bristol, UK.
Notes on Kabbalah
The author grants the right to copy and distribute these Notes provided
they remain unmodified and original authorship and copyright is retained.
The author retains both the right and intention to modify and extend
Copy date: 9th. January 1992
Copyright Colin Low 1992 (email@example.com)
If a chemist from the twentieth century could step into a time-machine
and go back two-hundred years he or she would probably feel a deep
kinship with the chemists of that time, even though there might be
considerable differences in terminology, underlying theory, equipment
and so on. Despite this kinship, chemists have not been trapped in the
past, and the subject as it is studied today bears little resemblance to
the chemistry of two hundred years ago.
Kabbalah has existed for nearly two thousand years, and like any living
discipline it has evolved through time, and it continues to evolve. One
aspect of this evolution is that it is necessary for living Kabbalists
to continually "re-present" what they understand by Kabbalah so that
Kabbalah itself continues to live and continues to retain its usefulness
to each new generation. If Kabbalists do not do this then it becomes a
dead thing, an historical curiousity (as was virtually the case within
Judaism by the nineteenth century). These notes were written with that
intention: to present one view of Kabbalah as it is currently practised
in 1992, so that people who are interested in Kabbalah and want to learn
more about it are not limited purely to texts written hundreds or
thousands of years ago (or for that matter, modern texts written about
texts written hundreds or thousands of years ago). For this reason
these notes acknowledge the past, but they do not defer to it. There
are many adequate texts for those who wish to understand Kabbalah as it
was practised in the past.
These notes have another purpose. The majority of people who are drawn
towards Kabbalah are not historians; they are people who want to know
enough about it to decide whether they should use it as part of their
own personal mystical or magical adventure. There is enough information
not only to make that decision, but also to move from theory into
practice. I should emphasise that this is only one variation of
Kabbalah out of many, and I leave it to others to present their own
variants - I make no apology if the material is biased towards a
particular point of view.
The word "Kabbalah" means "tradition". There are many alternative
spellings, the two most popular being Kabbalah and Qabalah, but Cabala,
Qaballah, Qabala, Kaballa (and so on) are also seen. I made my choice
as a result of a poll of the books on my bookcase, not as a result of
deep linguistic understanding.
If Kabbalah means "tradition", then the core of the tradition was the
attempt to penetrate the inner meaning of the Bible, which was taken to
be the literal (but heavily veiled) word of God. Because the Word was
veiled, special techniques were developed to elucidate the true
meaning....Kabbalistic theosophy has been deeply influenced by these
attempts to find a deep meaning in the Bible.
The earliest documents (~100 - ~1000 A.D.) associated with Kabbalah
describe the attempts of "Merkabah" mystics to penetrate the seven halls
(Hekaloth) of creation and reach the Merkabah (throne-chariot) of God.
These mystics used the familiar methods of shamanism (fasting,
repetitious chanting, prayer, posture) to induce trance states in which
they literally fought their way past terrible seals and guards to reach
an ecstatic state in which they "saw God". An early and highly
influential document (Sepher Yetzirah) appears to have originated during
the earlier part of this period.
By the early middle ages further, more theosophical developments had
taken place, chiefly a description of "processes" within God, and a
highly esoteric view of creation as a process in which God manifests in
a series of emanations. This doctrine of the "sephiroth" can be found
in a rudimentary form in the "Yetzirah", but by the time of the
publication of the book "Bahir" (12th. century) it had reached a form
not too different from the form it takes today. One of most interesting
characters from this period was Abraham Abulafia, who believed that God
cannot be described or conceptualised using everyday symbols, and used
the Hebrew alphabet in intense meditations lasting many hours to reach
ecstatic states. Because his abstract letter combinations were used as
keys or entry points to altered states of consciousness, failure to
carry through the manipulations correctly could have a drastic effect on
the Kabbalist. In "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" Scholem includes a
long extract of one such experiment made by one of Abulafia's students -
it has a deep ring of truth about it.
Probably the most influential Kabbalistic document, the "Sepher ha
Zohar", was published by Moses de Leon, a Spanish Jew, in the latter
half of the thirteenth century. The "Zohar" is a series of separate
documents covering a wide range of subjects, from a verse-by-verse
esoteric commentary on the Pentateuch, to highly theosophical
descriptions of processes within God. The "Zohar" has been widely read
and was highly influential within mainstream Judaism.
A later development in Kabbalah was the Safed school of mystics headed
by Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria. Luria was a highly charismatic
leader who exercised almost total control over the life of the school,
and has passed into history as something of a saint. Emphasis was
placed on living in the world and bringing the consciousness of God
through *into* the world in a practical way. Practices were largely
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Judaism as a whole
was heavily influenced by Kabbalah, but by the beginning of this century
a Jewish writer was able to dismiss it as an historical curiousity.
Jewish Kabbalah has vast literature which is almost entirely
untranslated into English.
A development which took place almost synchronously with Jewish Kabbalah
was its adoption by many Christian mystics, magicians and philosphers.
Renaissance philosophers such as Pico della Mirandola were familiar with
Kabbalah and mixed it with gnosticism, pythagoreanism, neo-platonism and
hermeticism to form a snowball which continued to pick up traditions as
it rolled down the centuries. It is probably accurate to say that from
the Renaissance on, virtually all European occult philosophers and
magicians of note had a working knowledge of Kabbalah.
It is not clear how Kabbalah was involved in the propagation of ritual
magical techniques, or whether it *was* involved, or whether the ritual
techniques were preserved in parallel within Judaism, but it is an
undeniable fact that the most influential documents appear to have a
Jewish origin. The most important medieval magical text is the "Key of
Solomon", and it contains the elements of classic ritual magic - names
of power, the magic circle, ritual implements, consecration, evocation
of spirits etc. No-one knows how old it is, but there is a reasonable
suspicion that its contents preserve techniques which might well date
back to Solomon.
The combination of non-Jewish Kabbalah and ritual magic has been kept
alive outside Judaism until the present day, although it has been
heavily adulterated at times by hermeticism, gnosticism, neo-platonism,
pythagoreanism, rosicrucianism, christianity, tantra and so on. The
most important "modern" influences are the French magician Eliphas Levi,
and the English "Order of the Golden Dawn". At least two members of the
G.D. (S.L. Mathers and A.E. Waite) were knowledgable Kabbalists, and
three G. D. members have popularised Kabbalah - Aleister Crowley,
Israel Regardie, and Dion Fortune. Dion Fortune's "Inner Light" has
also produced a number of authors: Gareth Knight, William Butler, and
An unfortunate side effect of the G.D is that while Kabbalah was an
important part of its "Knowledge Lectures", surviving G.D. rituals are
a syncretist hodge-podge of symbolism in which Kabbalah plays a minor or
nominal role, and this has led to Kabbalah being seen by many modern
occultists as more of a theoretical and intellectual discipline, rather
than a potent and self-contained mystical and magical system in its own
Some of the originators of modern witchcraft drew heavily on medieval
ritual and Kabbalah for inspiration, and it is not unusual to find
witches teaching some form of Kabbalah, although it is generally even
less well integrated into practical technique than in the case of the
The Kabbalistic tradition described in the notes derives principally
from Dion Fortune, but has been substantially developed over the past 30
years. I would like to thank M.S. and the T.S.H.U. for all the fun.