What Is Kabbalah?Be prepared for thy God, oh Israelite! Make thyself ready to direct thy heart to God alone. Cleanse the body and choose a lonely house where none shall hear thy voice. Sit there in thy closet and do not reveal thy secret to any man. . . . Cleanse thy clothes, and, if possible, let all thy garments be white, for all this is helpful in leading the heart toward the fear of God and the love of God.
--Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (ca. 1240-1291)
The very word Kabbalah
implies something sinister and furtive. Cabals (see page 2) hatch conspiracies behind closed doors; cabbalistic matters are by definition dark and obscure. But what exactly is Kabbalah? If you have a smattering of religious literacy, you know that it has something to do with Judaism (though it is not a denomination or movement, like Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist). If you've spent any time browsing the shelves in the New Age section of your local bookstore, you'll know that it pertains to magical beliefs and practices, everything from palmistry, numerology, astrology, time travel, and reincarnation to summoning demons and raising the dead, but mostly to mysticism--the felt conviction that there is a sacred, underlying unity to the world and that the divine presence can be experienced directly, rather than through the intermediary of organized religion. To that end, Kabbalah involves meditation, ecstatic dance, chanting, and other practices that are reminiscent of Sufism (the mystical form of Islam) and many Eastern religions.How Come?Are Cabals Kabbalistic?
Some people claim that the word cabal
(meaning a small group of secret plotters) originated in Restoration England as an acronym for Charles II's hated inner circle of advisors: C
lifford of Chudleigh, A
shley (Lord Shaftesbury), B
uckingham (George Villiers), A
rlington (Henry Bennet), and L
auderdale (John Maitland). Indeed, this group was referred to by that name, but the word had already acquired its meaning. It entered the English language in the early sixteen hundreds by way of the French, who took it from cabala
, the Latin spelling of the Hebrew word Kabbalah, which means "tradition" or "receiving."
Type the word Kabbalah
into an Internet search engine and you'll be directed to hundreds of websites expounding halakhic (meaning it's in strict conformity with biblical law), Chassidut
(meaning it's in conformity with Hasidic beliefs and practices), feminist, and modern Kabbalah, speculative and practical Kabbalah, Christian and Gnostic Cabala, and Hermetic Qabala, to name only a few of the available varieties and spellings. Bearded, black-hatted rebbes teach "kosher Kabbalah" as an essential facet of strictly Orthodox Jewish observance; other teachers--Jewish and non-Jewish alike--explore Kabbalah in the context of Buddhism, Tantric meditation, political activism, and even ecology. Practitioners of Qaballah are as likely as not to be pagans or Wiccans. Kabbalah Centres all over the world teach Kabbalah as a "spiritual technology" that "creates order out of chaos," while healing the body and soul. The "New Kabbalah" endeavors to integrate the teachings of the medieval Jewish sage Isaac Luria (1534-1572) with modern secular thinkers like Freud and Derrida; a tiny organization in California is attempting to revive Shabbetainism, the seventeenth-century movement that believed that a kabbalistic rabbi named Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) was the Messiah.
Kabbalah looms large in high and low secular culture. It figures in literary classics like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
(which was probably inspired by a Jacob Grimm story about a Kabbalistic sorcerer) and the visionary poems of William Blake (who would have learned about it through its Christian permutations, particularly in the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg), and in popular contemporary novels like Myla Goldberg's Bee Season
. In 1997 a bestseller, The Bible Code
, purported to use state-of-the-art computer technology wedded to kabbalistically inspired algorithms (see page 4) to derive terrifying apocalyptic prophecies from the Bible. A few years ago Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek
's Mr. Spock, created a small scandal when he published a book called Shekhinah
(after the Hebrew appellation for the divine presence), which featured his gauzy photographs of scantily clad female models wrapped in tefillin
(leather boxes containing quotations from the Bible that Orthodox Jews strap to their arms and head for morning prayers) and talliths (prayer shawls). And of course there's Madonna, whose embrace of Kabbalah has drawn so much controversy and who has adopted a Jewish name, "Esther." The former Material Girl uses kabbalistic symbols in her videos, has written a series of children's books based on kabbalistic themes, and sends her daughter to a Kabbalah after-school program. We've all seen those ubiquitous red string bracelets (page 5) sold by the Kabbalah Centre, jewelry stores, and other purveyors of fine religious and fashion accessories--and worn by Madonna, Paris Hilton, Demi Moore, and Britney Spears in photographs.How Come?Mystical Numerology
The characters used for Hebrew letters are also used to represent numbers. When biblical words and passages are read as numbers instead of words, another level of meaning can be revealed. This has inspired an entire school of biblical exegesis known as Gematria
. This practice long predates Kabbalah--its origins, in fact, are not even Jewish. The first recorded number-letter substitution was an eighth-century b.c.e. inscription of the Babylonian king Sargon II, which declared that a wall had been built a certain length to correspond with the numerical value of his name. One of the most famous Gematria
can be found in the Christian Bible, in Revelation: When "Nero Caesar" is written in its seven Hebrew consonants, they yield a value of 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200, which adds up to 666, the so-called "Number of the Beast." The medieval German Kabbalists (Hasidei Ashkenaz
) made great use of Gematria
, in prayers and meditations, in commentaries on laws--and for making amulets and performing magic.
Many Jews regard Gematria
with discomfort as something more ingenious than profound--if the numerical codes are elaborate enough (à la The Bible Code
) the interpreter can derive almost any meaning at all from a given Hebrew text. In general, numerology plays a much more central role in Christian and Hermetic versions of Kabbalah.How Come?What's with the Red String?
Stars like Demi Moore, Winona Ryder, Madonna--and even Madonna's daughter Lourdes--wear a braided "Kabbalah bracelet" made out of red string to protect them from the evil eye--"the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us," as the Kabbalah Centre, which sells the string for twenty-six dollars a length, defines it.
The evil eye is a common superstition throughout the Mediterranean region. It is believed to be a sort of curse that is transmitted, often inadvertently or unconsciously, when someone looks at you or your possessions (or especially your children) with envy. The Italians call it mal occhio
, the Spanish mal ojo
. It is jettatore
in Sicilian, and bla band
in Farsi. In Yiddish the red string is called a roite bendel
. One nonsupernatural explanation of its efficacy is that it reminds its wearer to bear himself or herself with humility, so as not to attract envy.
There are biblical traditions associated with the red string as well. In Genesis, when Tamar was in labor with her twins Pharez and Zarah, the midwife tied a red string around Zarah's wrist to identify him as the firstborn. A red string was tied around the horn of the scapegoat on Yom Kippur; after the animal was killed, tradition tells us, the thread would miraculously turn white.
And there is an ancient tradition of wrapping a red string around the matriarch Rachel's tomb seven times. Properly blessed, this string is supposed to have powers to protect pregnant women and, indeed, to ward off the evil eye. In the Zohar
, Rachel's tomb is explicitly associated with the Shekhinah
, the Kabbalistic term for the divine presence.The Essence
Which of these Kabbalahs is authentic? Although there are important kabbalistic texts, there has never been one canonical "Book of Kabbalah," nor are there synagogues or temples that practice it exclusively (though Kabbalah plays a large role in all Hasidic sects). There is no formula of faith, no credo that boils it down to a well-turned phrase.
So what is
Kabbalah? It is not simply Jewish mysticism. There have been many Jewish mystics who were not kabbalists; there have even been a few kabbalists who weren't mystics. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word kabbalah
is "tradition" or "receiving." The name suggests doctrines that were received by revelation in the ancient past and handed down through the generations; also that its teachers transmitted it one-on-one to select students. Joseph Dan, the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, offers a fairly precise definition: "The
Kabbalah is a Jewish esoterical tradition of contemplation of divine secrets, believed to have been given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which includes spiritual expressions of a variety of disciplines and characteristics."
Kabbalists believe that if we learn how to open ourselves up, to think beyond the surfaces of things, if we master meditative techniques that allow us to break out of the daily world, we can experience the presence of God. By far the most important Kabbalistic practice, just as in traditional Judaism, is study of ...