You Are At: AllSands Home > Religious > Jewish > The kabbalah and its history
Kabbalah came into the world out of Judaism-in fact, it is widely considered to be Jewish mysticism. Beginning in the late 12th century in medieval Europe, it grew steadily in practice and notoriety, evolving through the years. Still considered very much a minority pursuit among Jews, it is nevertheless gaining in popularity today among people of non-Jewish faiths.

Kabbalists-those who study the Kabbalah-are considered somewhat of a paradox among philosophical and esoteric circles. They are loyal to the past, looking to tradition and ancient scripture as their guide, but are at the same time profoundly radical in their beliefs and worldview.

The term kabbalah is a Hebrew word meaning, literally, "receiving," or "that which has been received." It is a Jewish mystical tradition that looks to ancient texts that are often amazingly obscure and impenetrable. Students often devote their lives to the study and inner journey of the Kabbalah.

In the 12th century, mysticism among the learned rabbis began to gain appeal. Provence, with its strong Jewish community, became a center of learning that focused on rabbinic law, philosophy and mysticism. In 1280, a Spanish Jewish mystic named Moses de Leon began circulating a small booklet among his fellow seekers. Filled with tales and teachings that were captivating and yet profound, it quickly gained a following among de Leon's peers.

De Leon claimed that he had not written the booklet, but had served only as a scribe for the visions and teachings of a famous rabbi, long since dead. This booklet became the first part of an immense work that came to be known as the Sefer ha-Zohar, or The Book of Radiance. This book became canonized by the Jewish mystics, and serves even today as the foundation of all Kabbalistic teachings.

The two basic foundations of Kabbalistic study lie in the ideas of Ein Sof, and the sefirot. Ein Sof is described as the radical transcendence of God. It is the power that lies in and around everything we see, it is the force of creation and birth. The Kabbalah explains:

When you contemplate the Creator, realize that his encampment extends beyond, infinitely beyond, and so, too, in front of you and behind you, east and west, north and south, above and below, infinitely everywhere. Be aware that God fashioned everything and is within everything. There is nothing else.

This "everything" is Ein Sof. It is impossible to explain, in finite terms, that which extends into infinity. The sefirot are the ten divine attributes of God, which help create and infuse Ein Sof. They constitute a roadmap, so to speak, for the student of Kabbalah.
The sefirot (plural for the singular sefirah) are explained briefly as follows:

1) Ayin (Nothingness) or Keter, the Crown.
2) Hokhmah (Wisdom)
3) Binah (Understanding) - this is the womb, the Divine Mother. This sefirah, combined with the first two, constitute the "head" of the divine body. The remaining seven sefirot are their children.
4) Hesed (Love, or Mercy)
5) Gevurah (Power, or Judgment) - Hesed and Gevurah form the right and left arms of the divine body. They are both necessary, but balance must be achieved between them, with neither one taking on more strength than the other.
6) Tif'eret (Beauty, or Compassion) - this sefirah is the child of Hesed and Gevurah, the balance and equanimity achieved by combining the two opposites - this is also considered the human soul - the center of the divine body
7) Netsah (Eternity)
8) Hod (Splendor) - Netsah and Hod form the right and left legs of the divine body
9) Yesod (Foundation) - represents the phallus, and the procreative force of God
10) Malkhut (Kingdom) - this is also representative of Shekhinah, which is considered the female counterpart to God

These terms and explanations are never to be taken literally; rather, they are merely organic symbols of a spiritual reality beyond normal and finite comprehension. Ein Sof and the sefirot work together, form a unity, and are each part of the other. As the Kabbalah says, "It is they and they are it."

When a student delves into the study of the Kabbalah, he begins with the sefirot. From Malkhut to Ayin, they constitute a ladder of ascent "back to the One." Each seeker gains insights on the sefirot, one by one, and as they go up the divine body, they get closer and closer to knowing God. The writings of Kabbalah rarely discuss meditation or mystical experience, but rather focus on the interplay of the sefirot and human experience.

In the past, study of the Kabbalah was hidden because of its radical views and departure from strict Jewish observance. Teachings and insights were passed on orally from master to student, and were typically done in very small groups. Limits and restrictions were also put on study of the Kabbalah in the past, ranging from age requirements to moral codes and standards. This was not to keep Kabbalah from the people, but rather to protect the unwary or naïve from the Kabbalah. Delving into mystical teachings can be enticing and powerful, but can ultimately prove dangerous to those who are not strong enough to liberate themselves from their traditional notions of God and self. For those who truly seek, however, the Kabbalah can be a rich and vibrant source of deep interior knowledge and an entrance into the understanding of God.