A Jewish mystical tradition based on an esoteric interpretation of the Old Testament and other texts, or a system which incorporates kabbalistic principles; any secret, occult or mystical doctrine.
The kabbalah, also spelled cabala, cabbala, kabala, kabbala and qabalah, is an ancient tradition of Jewish mysticism and occult knowledge. The word ‘kabbalah’, which means ‘received doctrine’, was first applied in the 11th century to secret, oral mystical teachings passed on from adepts to initiates, although it later came to be used of all Jewish mystical practices. One story claims that Moses received its teachings on Mount Sinai, another that God taught it to some of his angels, and that they passed it on to mankind after the Fall. However, it is generally agreed that the kabbalah originated around the 11th century as a development of earlier Jewish esoteric and occult traditions.
In the early Middle Ages there appeared the first of two mystical written texts which formed the cornerstone of kabbalistic philosophy – the Sepher Yetzirah or ‘Book of Creation’. In this brief and cryptic work, which is thought to have been written some time between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the process of creation is described through the symbolism of letters and numbers; the anonymous author sets out a vivid and concise series of meditations on the Hebrew alphabet and details the 32 hidden paths by means of which God created the universe – the ten emanations of God known as the sephiroth, and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The concepts of what came to be known as the Classical Kabbalah were developed extensively by Spanish Hebrews in the 13th century, and the second primary text of the kabbalah, the zohar or ‘Book of Splendour’, was published at this time. A Spanish Jew called Moses de Leon claimed to have discovered the text, which he attributed to the 2nd-century rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, and it was widely accepted throughout the Jewish world, although later a number of scholars asserted that it was written by de Leon himself. It elaborates on much of the material found in the Sepher Yetzirah, focusing primarily on the sephiroth. Medieval Jewish mystics created various visual structures of the sephiroth to show the relations between them, the most well-known of these being the tree of life, which was a means of uniting the ten sephiroth and the 22 Hebrew letters. Medieval kabbalists speculated on 22 ‘pathways’ between the ten sephiroth, with each pathway corresponding to a letter.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 helped to spread the Spanish kabbalah to the rest of Europe, and the German kabbalah, which began in the 16th century, emphasized the magical use of words of power and fuelled the development of kabbalistic techniques such as gematria, the study of the numerical values of letters and words. The kabbalah dwells deeply on the symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet; it teaches that every Hebrew letter, word and number contains a hidden meaning, and gives methods for interpreting these meanings. The Western or Christian kabbalah developed largely from the German kabbalah; medieval ceremonial magicians adopted the use of words of power, and in the late 15th and 16th centuries, Western kabbalists combined aspects of Christian theology and alchemy with kabbalistic knowledge. In the 18th century there was an explosion of new interest in the kabbalah, and the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a major development of the Western kabbalah by occultists such as éliphas lévi and various Western magical traditions, particularly the hermetic order of the golden dawn. In the 1770s a link between the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 cards of the major arcana in the tarot was suggested by Antoine Court de Gébelin, and later, éliphas Lévi set the tarot into a coherent kabbalistic system which was fully developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; although there is no historical evidence to support the claim that the tarot is based on the kabbalah, the connection between the two has since then formed the basis of the main symbolic interpretation of the tarot.
Kabbalah has been a fundamental element of Jewish thought and belief for centuries, and is now studied even in conservative rabbinical seminaries. In recent years, knowledge of the kabbalah has spread throughout the world. The controversial Kabbalah Centre, founded in Los Angeles in 1984, has sparked off a modern revival of interest in this esoteric tradition, and has gained many high-profile celebrity adherents. Reactions to this new development from organized Jewish groups has so far been almost universally negative, and the debate over the kabbalah’s meaning and its intended audience continues to this day.
The term has also come to be used in a general sense to refer to any secret knowledge or mystic art.
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