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What is Kabala?
While cabalistic speculation and mystical symbolism were crystallized in the 13th century, the origins of kabala date back to antiquity. From the 12th century, Jewish mystics have used the term to denote this continuity of thought from the beginnings of Judaism. Jewish history reveals that from early times there was a trend in Judaism toward speculation about the mysteries of God and the universe. In the days when the Talmud was being compiled (edited 500 A.D.) there were warnings against the tendency to delve into uncontrolled speculation that might lead to a misinterpretation of true religious knowledge and understanding. Although the term "kabala" is not specifically used in the Bible or the Talmud, there is evidence that its spirit pervaded some sections of the Bible, notably the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, as well as the schools and academies of post-Biblical days.
For centuries, the currents of mysticism and religious ecstasy were fused with other metaphysical doctrines including Gnosticism and Neoplatonism as the cabalistic tradition of divergence from formalistic, legalistic modes of religious thought was extended from the Middle East to Germany, Italy, and Provence. In these centers, the teachings of the renowned 12th century cabalists, Abraham ben David and his son Isaac the Blind, were established in the forefront of cabalistic thought. Kabala reached its greatest expression, however, in a 13th century work called The Zohar (Book of Brightness).
It is generally acknowledged that The Zohar was compiled in Spain by Moses de Leon at the end of the 13th century. De Leon was influenced by the 12th century mystics who viewed kabala as an unbroken tradition in Jewish thought. Thus, in order to give an aura of sanctity and acceptance to the cabalistic speculation of The Zohar, he ascribed its philosophy to Rabbi Simon ben Yohai, who lived during the 2d century a. d. Legend tells that Rabbi Simon, forced to hide from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, occupied himself with the mysteries of heaven and earth. It is clear, however, that Simon ben Yohai was not the author of The Zohar, nor was Moses de Leon its sole author. Rather, de Leon gathered together the mystical knowledge of several generations, and added his own thinking. That this greatest of all cabalistic books contains chapters varying in style and content is cited as proof of multiple authorship.
Purposes of the Cabalistic System
Kabala, then, is an attempt, in spite of man's limited knowledge, to peer beyond the seen, the touched, the heard.
All peoples have such cravings and seek to penetrate the mysteries of heaven and earth. The Jewish mystics, who were part of this movement, wanted to understand the nature of God and how man relates to the Deity. As a result of their meditation and inner groping, they sought answers to questions that to this day perplex the world. How does an infinite being deal with a material world, with men and women of flesh and blood? What is the destiny of human existence? Are the historical and legal contents of the Bible, as well as the essence and practices of the Jewish religion, the only keys to the answers to these questions? Or, are there deeper, hidden teachings that go beyond the Torah (both the laws of Moses and the moral foundation of Judaism), which they passionately loved and to which they were so intensely devoted? These mystics concluded that there are esoteric and mystical values inherent in the Bible, in Jewish law, and in Jewish religious practice that they must seek out.
The cabalistic system dealt with the nature of God and his contacts with man. This relationship could be established and maintained through 10 intermediary emanations, or Sefirot. These Sefirot, among them Keter (highest thinking or striving), Hokhmah (wisdom), and Binah (understanding), are manifestations of the power of God. When these three are harmonized with the moral qualities Hesed (kindness), Gevurah (inner strength and discipline), and Tiferet (glory or a sense of worth) that operate in the natural universe consisting of Nezah (victory or fruition), Hod (beauty), and Yesod (the natural foundations of the tangible world), and when all of them are joined together by Malkhut (the kingship of God), then creation from earliest times to the end of days is continual. And in all the aspects of creativity, including the lives of saintly people and those who carry out Mitzvot (divine commandments), God reveals Himself.
Kabala delves also into the nature of God's emissaries, sometimes called angels; what happens when people die; the magical significance of numbers and letters of the alphabet; and the coming of the Messiah, one whose talents are so spiritually superior as to eliminate the evils of war, disease, and destruction, and to herald a glorious era for all mankind. Indeed, men claiming this messianic mande through understanding of the wonders of kabala arose in different ages. The most famous of diese mystical leaders, one who attracted many followers, was the 17th century leader Sabbatai Tzevi.
Kabala tried to establish the thesis that reason alone cannot give us all the answers to questions about God and physical existence. It is obscure in parts, and not accepted by all Jews, but it points up die role of emotion and poetry in any understanding of religion. Through some of its symbolism and imagery it intensified faidi and gave those Jews who subscribed to its ideas a sense of the divine and a feeling of purpose. Its influence is felt in dynamic fashion by the modern Hassidic movement and in a lesser way by all forms of modem Jewish religion.