There are elements of kabbalah in the Bible, for example, in the opening chapter of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes his experience of the divine: " I looked and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north-a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of the fire, a gleam as of amber" ,4. The prophet then describes a divine chariot and the throne of God.
The rabbis of the Talmud regarded the mystical study of God as important yet dangerous. A famous talmudic story tells of four rabbis, Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Akiva who would meet together and engage in mystical studies. Azzai, the Talmud records, "looked and went mad [and] Ben Zoma died. Rabbi Akiva alone "entered in peace and left in peace. The medieval rabbis wanted the study of kabbalah limited to people of mature years and character. The most famous work of kabbalah, the Zohar , was revealed to the Jewish world in the thirteenth century by Moses De Leon, who claimed that the book contained the mystical writings of the second-century rabbi Simeon bar Yochai.
Almost all modern Jewish academic scholars believe that De Leon himself authored the Zohar, although many Orthodox kabbalists continue to accept De Leon's attribution of it to Simeon bar Yochai. Indeed, Orthodox mystics are apt to see Bar Yochai not so much as the Zohar's author as the recorder of mystical traditions dating back to the time of Moses.
The intensity with which Orthodox kabbalists hold this conviction was revealed to me once when I was arguing a point of Jewish law with an elderly religious scholar. He referred to a certain matter as being in the Torah , and when I asked him where, he said: "It's in the Zohar. Is that not the same as if it was in the Torah itself? The Zohar is written in Aramaic the language of the Talmud in the form of a commentary on the five books of the Torah.
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Whereas most commentaries interpret the Torah as a narrative and legal work, mystics are as likely to interpret it "as a system of symbols which reveal the secret laws of the universe and even the secrets of God" Deborah Kerdeman and Lawrence Kushner, The Invisible Chariot , p. To cite one example, Leviticus 26 records "a carrot and a stick" that God offers the Jewish people. If they follow his decrees, He will reward them.
But if they spurn them, God will "set His face" against the people: "I will discipline you sevenfold for your sins At the chapter's conclusion, God says: "Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them, for I am the Lord, their God" A parable: There was a king who had a single son who kept misbehaving. One day he offended the king. The king said, 'I have punished you so many times and you have not [changed].
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Now look, what should I do with you? If I banish you from the land and expel you from the kingdom, perhaps wild beasts or wolves or robbers will attack you and you will be no more.
Kabbalah: An Overview
What can I do? It appears that Zevi was often seized by heights of ecstatic emotion, at certain points declaring himself the messiah.
After these attacks, he would collapse into dark and introspective moods in which he would profoundly regret his previous public actions. He was eventually expelled from the local Jewish community for his behavior. Sabbatai Zevi by Storkk Public Domain. In CE Zevi traveled to the land of Israel, where a young and gifted thinker named Nathan of Gaza proclaimed him the promised messiah.
Already prepared for such a figure by Lurianic mysticism, much of the Jewish world enthusiastically embraced the new object of their hopes and pledged their fealty to the new messiah. Eventually, Zevi was arrested and imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities, and the Turkish Sultan presented him with an ultimatum: death or conversion to Islam. Zevi chose the latter, shattering his followers' faith in him. Though most of the Jewish world reacted with shock and crushing disappointment to the supposed messiah's apostasy, small groups of adherents continued to follow him.
Sabbatai Zevi - had to descend to the lowest level of the Lurianic klippot in order to raise the final divine sparks and bring about the tikkun , thus explaining Zevi's apostasy. This doctrine has come to be called ha'mitzvah sh'baah b'averah lit.
One such sect, the Donmeh, still exists today. In the wake of Sabbatai Zevi's apostasy, the messianic idea was once again suppressed, though Lurianic Kabbalah itself remained popular. Its final incarnation as a mass movement and one that proved far more successful than its predecessors, Hasidism or Hasidic Judaism was ostensibly founded by an 18th-century CE itinerant mystic and faith-healer who came to be called the Baal Shem Tov "owner of the good name". Somewhat in the fashion of a Zen monk, he traveled the large Jewish communities of Eastern Europe preaching a pietistic and populist doctrine that emphasized an immediate emotional experience of God as opposed to what he saw as the dry legalism of the traditionalist establishment.
He emphasized the ecstatic joy of celebration and the ideal of devekut "cleaving to" , i. The Baal Shem Tov began to gain large numbers of followers, who organized themselves into schools or rabbinical courts based in specific Jewish communities. The most prominent of them came to be referred to as tzaddikim "righteous ones". While the tzaddik was similar to the traditional role of the rabbi in the sense that he was a teacher and leader of the community, he also took on a new aspect as the direct conduit of the divine to his followers.
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Though none of the tzaddikim claimed to be messiahs themselves, the messianic aspects of the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah remained strong. In particular, Hasidism adopted the ideas of the klippot , the tikkun , and the divine "sparks" as essential to its theology. Through the ecstatic experience, adherence to the law, and the devekut of individual prayer, the Hasidim believed that the repair of the broken vessels and redemption of Israel and the world could be achieved.
Hasidism proved to be an enormously popular movement, though it aroused profound hostility among the more traditionally-minded, who came to be called mitnagdim "opponents". While its numbers were decimated in the Holocaust, Hasidism proved to have remarkable regenerative powers, and its centers in the United States and Israel have shown enormous growth in recent decades.
In the modern age, the Kabbalah has gone through successive cycles of popularity and widespread rejection. When the haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries CE, the Kabbalah was derided as absurd and slightly embarrassing by the emerging secular and rationalist movements in the Jewish community. By the 20th century CE, however, the Kabbalah had come to be seen as an important religious, theological, and sociological phenomenon in Jewish history, and the academic study of it came into its own with the works of Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel, and many others.
On a popular level, aspects of the Kabbalah remain widely practiced today by traditionally-minded Jews. This sometimes involves the use of magical amulets and the singing of Kabbalistic liturgy, most famously the mystical hymn "Lecha Dodi. While the messianic idea remains alive, it is far less widespread in the Jewish community. Perhaps most remarkably, a movement has also emerged that for the first time teaches a form of Kabbalah to non-Jews.
Given today's fascination with various forms of mystical thought and the Kabbalah's remarkable historical malleability, it seems likely that it will continue to play an enormous if sometimes overlooked role in Jewish thought, practice, and spirituality for the foreseeable future.
The Breslov Kabbalah Series: Part 1 – Intro
Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication. Kerstein, B. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Kerstein, Benjamin. Last modified September 27, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 27 Sep This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms. Please note that content linked from this page may have different licensing terms.
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