Kabbalah (Cabala)

authored by Alan G. Hefner

The Kabbalah (also Cabala, Kabala, Qabalah) is system of thought which was originally included in Jewish theosophy, philosophy, science, magic and mysticism. 'Kabbalah' is Hebrew for "that which is received" and refers to a secret oral tradition of teaching which extends from teacher to pupil.


Kabbalah, which is the spelling usually preferred by scholars, specifically refers to oral mystical teaching not normally revealed to the general population, but passed on from the adepts to the initiates.

The term "Kabbalah" itself was first applied to secret mystical teachings in the eleventh century by Iba Gabriol, a Spanish philosopher, and has since become applied to all Jewish mystical practice.

Although the Kabbalah is founded on the Torah, the Jewish scriptures and other sacred writings, it is no intellectual discipline; and the mystic is not to practice it in solitude, but is to employ it to enlighten humanity. The Kabbalist seeks two things: an union with God while maintaining a social, family, and communal life within the framework of traditional Judaism. Those who have adopted the Kabbalistic teachings have modified these latter aims.

In legend God taught the Kabbalah to some angels, who in turn after the Fall taught it to Adam. The Kabbalah was to help humankind to return to God. It then passed to Noah, to Abraham and Moses. Moses included the first four books of the Pentateuch, leaving out Deuteronomy, in the Kabbalah before he initiated seventy Elders into it. The Elders initiated others into it. It is thought that David and Solomon were Kabbalistic adapts. Eventually the oral tradition ended and the knowledge was written down.

Many of the basic ideas and principles found in the Kabbalah are also found in Gnosticism because both were in the Eastern Mediterranean near the time of Christ.

Both attach an importance to knowledge, called the 'gnosis' or the knowledge of God. This knowledge does not come from rational thinking but is inspired by God. As in Gnosticism, sin is not considered to be wrong doing but ignorance which separates humankind from God. The knowledge, specifically the 'gnosis', unites humankind to God--to know God is to be God. Those sharing this 'gnosis' are the elect; they are the enlightened ones who share the knowledge of God, although they may not lead perfect lives.

The Kabbalists share similar goals as did the Gnostics: each group set out to answer the religious paradoxical questions of life. Such as why does the world possess both good and evil characteristics when it was created by a God Who is all good? Why is the world finite when it was created by an infinite God? Similar questions which are asked concerning the world can also be asked of humankind. Of all of the questions concerning God's relationship with the world and humankind, there seems to be one ultimate question: God, by his very nature of being infinite, all good and knowing, seems unknowable; then, how is it possible for humankind to know him?

The Kabbalah seems to serve to answer this question in two ways: the first is in the explanation that every idea contains its own contradiction, and God Who is the sum of all ideas contains all contradictions. Therefore God is both good and evil, just and unjust, merciful and cruel, limitless and limited, unknowable and knowable. All things, which contain their contradictions or opposites, unite to form a greater whole which is God.

From this first answer comes the Kabbalah's second answer which indirectly relates God to the world. God is seen as a mirror from which shines a brilliant light. This brilliant light is then reflected onto a second mirror, then onto a third, then to a fourth, and so on. With each succeeding reflection the light loses some of its brilliancy until when it finally reaches the finite world it shines very dimly.

Within this concept of the reflection of light lies the Kabbalist's theory for the creation of the world. In the begin- ning there was just God, and from himself he sent an emanation, often described as light. From this first emanation evolved nine more, ten in all, called the "sephiroth."

The ancient Kabbalists taught that the brilliant lights of the sephiroth constitute the sacred name of God. Their reasoning was that the sephiroth was the world, or universe, and God is the world. Therefore, the sephiroth are the facets or parts of God, and they also are facets of the universe.

The origin of the Kabbalah centers around a short book titled "Sefer Yetzirah" (Book of Creation). The origin dating of the book is unknown but it is known to have been used in the tenth century, but may have been composed as early as the third century. The book tells that God created the world by the means of thirty-two secret paths of knowledge which are the ten "sephirots" and the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It is believed the ten sephirots were originally thought as referring to numbers but later representing emanations from which the cosmos was formed.

Each of the ten emanations within the sephiroth is called a "sephirot," and together they form what is called the Tree of Life. This Tree is the central image of Kabbalistic meditation; for again, each sephirot describes a certain aspect of God, and taken together as the sephiroth they form the sacred name of God. The Tree also describes the path by which the divine spirit descended into the material world, and the path by which humankind must take to ascend to God.

Another basic teaching shared by Gnosticism and the Kabbalah was that the divine spirit, or the soul, had descended from God and became trapped in the human body or matter. This was a prevalent theory shortly after time of Christ within the Mediterranean area. This and other religious teachings exemplify how such teachings can reflect the beliefs of the peoples of the time.

The first nine sephirots form three triangles with the sephiroth with the tenth sephirot forming the foundation or base. When meditating upon the sephiroth the Kabbalist can concentrate upon any one of the three images which the triangles are said to represent. The images are analogous to God's relationship to humakind and the world. The first triangle represents in impregnation of the female by the male thus creating the world and child, the second triangle represents the development of the world and child, and the third triangle is the adult person or the finished product of the world.

The triangles also depict the human body: the first triangle is the head, the second is the trunk and arms, the third being the legs and reproductive organs which is based on the analogy of the relation between man and God.

An illustration of the sephiroth or Tree of Life is as follows:


  1. Kether, the supreme crown, (God)
  2. Chokmah, wisdom
  3. Binah, understanding
  4. Chesed, mercy, greatness
  5. Geburah, strength, rigor
  6. Tiphareth, beauty, harmony
  7. Netzach, victory, force
  8. Hod, splendor
  9. Yesod, foundation
  10. Malkuth, kingdom (world)

With the help of the sephiroth humankind ascends to God by gaining the meaning of each sephirot one at a time. The accomplishment of ascending from one sephirot to the next is an attainment of knowledge.

Making one's way through the sephiroth is exceedingly difficult. Because each sephirot is said to be divided into four sections that run the Four Worlds that compose the cosmos. They are Aziluth, the world of archetypes, from which come all manifestation of forms; Briah, the world of creation, here the archetypal ideas become patterns; Yetzirah, the world of form, here the patterns are expressed; and Assirah, the material world.

Also within the sephirot is the sacred, unknowable and unspeakable name of God: YHVH (Yahweh), or the Tetragrammaron. The Tetragrammaron is so sacred that other names pertaining to God such as Elohim, Adonai and Jehovah are substituted in scripture for it. The letters YHVH correspond to the Four Worlds.

The second description of the sephiroth pictures the world or universe made up of layers, or outer skins such as surrounding an onion. This was generally how the world was viewed from ancient times to the sixteenth century. God was thought to reside in the outer layer, and things closely related to God were within the next outer layers. The most inner layer of this configuration contained the material world. The spiritual soul of humankind descended from the outer layer, or God, to the inner layer, or the material world.

This onion-skin configuration of the world is definitely shared with Gnosticism whose chief teaching was that the divine spirit was entrapped in matter, especially the soul in humankind. It is only through the attainment of knowledge that the spirit can escape its material confinement.

The Kabbalah, which is based on the theory of the soul's descent from and ascent to God, is made up of ten sephirots instead of nine which is due to the influence of the Pythagorean theory. Earth has a separate sphere to itself. Above this the next seven sephirots correspond to the planets, with the top two corres- ponding to the stars and the Prime Mover or God.

Each sephirot is guarded by angels who determinedly try to turn climbers back on their ascent to God. On the bottom sephirots there are plenty sinister intelligences who can easily trapped a soul in ignorance. The Kabbalist hold that some persons can achieve an union with God even before death.

There were many modifications and interpretations made of the Kabbalah through the centuries. In the tenth century the practi- cal Kabbalah was introduced in Italy and then spread to Germany. In it was contained ecstatic practices, magic rituals and mainly techniques of prayer, contemplation and meditation. From it came such techniques as gematria, notarikon and temura.

The thirteenth century saw the birth of the classical Kabbalah in Provence, France. It moved into Spain where it was developed more extensively by the Spanish Hebrews. The primary work was the "Sefer ba-Zohar (Book of Splendor). The development progressed until the Jews seemed to lose their spirituality. Then after a year in a cave meditating upon this situation a rabbi heard a voice which told him to teach those ready to learn, and let the ordinary people go on their way. From this revelation seemed to have developed the "Zohar," the teachings recorded by disciples.

Chiefly, the Zohar describes God as "Em-Sof" ("without end"). God is unknowable beyond representation. He created the world out of himself. The chief aim of humankind is to achieve complete union with the Divine. All things are reflected in a higher world, and nothing is independent of everything else. "Thus human beings, by elevating their souls to unite with God, also elevate all other entities in the cosmos."

The nine sephirots configured the three triangles in the sephiroth with the tenth forming the base. The triangles may be aligned vertically or horizontally. Each has the male (a positive) and female (a negative) principle with a milder principle between them to create a balance between the two. The male principle is always on the right side or at the top of each triangle while the female principle is always on the left side or at the bottom of the triangle. For instance, the first triangle embodies Kether, Chokmah and Binah.

The three principles with each sephirot are aligned from right to left because Hebrew is written from right to left. Each principle functionally participates according to its characteristics or nature. In general the male principles, sometimes called forces, are characterized as being positive, active, dynamic or thrusting. The female principles are said to be a combination of good traits which are joined with evil or ominous ones which makes the female principle complex. The feminine principle can be both passive and active at times, it can be both passionate and cold, also tender and cruel. The principle residing between each male and female principle is thought to be bisexual, which serves to harmonize the opposites.

For example in the first triangle Chokmah, the male principle, is opposed by Binah, the female principle. These principles are thought of as the Father and Mother respectively. Chokmah, also called the active Wisdom of God, acts upon Binah, the passive Understanding of God. Kether is the harmonizing principle which keeps a balance between the two. But, modern Kabbalists say that it is the thrusting and compliance between these opposing principles which brings about creation.

In the second triangle where the father, mother and child are represented the sephirots are Chesed, Geburah and Tiphareth. Chesed (male) is the kind and merciful father who guides and protects the child. Geburah (female) is the strict, authoritarian mother who tears down what Chesed builds up. The balancing principle in this triangle is Tiphareth. Tiphareth, in the sphere of the sun, is often compared to the sun.

The functions of Tiphareth, that combines the characteristics of both Chesed and Geburah, are frequently compared to those of Nature. Tiphareth can be both the warming sun that gently shines on humankind, beasts and crops; and it can also be the fierce heat which suffocates humankind and kills animals and crops. Christian Kabbalists compare Christ to Tiphareth for Tiphareth is thought of as the son of Kether (God) as being directly descended from it on the Tree. Tiphareth is the life-force which brings forth physical life as Christ is said to give the promise of eternal life. There has been a symbolic association between Christ and the sun since the earliest days of Christianity.

The third triangle represents the child's emergence into adulthood. Its sephirots symbolize the struggle between the forces of animality and mentality. Netzach (male) is said to represent the Endurance and the Victory of God. These traits are thought to stand for the all-enduring drives of Nature which allow humankind to act naturally instead of by contrivance. The opposing sephirot is Hod (female) which contains the good qualities of imagination, inspiration, insight and intutition which the Kabbalists admire; but Hod also had the powers of reason and logic which are distrusted by the Kabbalist. Reasoning is thought to repress humankind's natural abilities.

Yesod is the child fully grown, and the harmonizing sephirot between Netzach and Hod. Sexually mature Yesod is able to produce both sexually and mentally. Also, it is in the sphere of the moon. So within the struggle between Netzach and Hod Yesod bring about the best results.

The results may not be produced by the best assets within a person, because as the moon is the ruler of the night and the light of the darkness, Yesod is the dark depths of personality which often lie hidden but suffice.

Yesod is the potential magic power within oneself bringing together the magician's highest mental abilities and the animal or sexual drive to succeed at what he wishes to accomplish.

Yesod is thought to be the link between Tiphareth (the sun or the life-force) and Malkuth (the earth or the body).

Malkuth being the base of the sephiroth or Tree is the Earth. This is appropriate because within Earth are found all things of God. It is therefore the kingdom of God because every principle found with each of the sephirots is found within Earth. All ideas and their contradictions are found on Earth.

It might be noted that within the third triangle, and particularly in the struggle between Netzach and Hod, one can see the distinct difference of attitude between the Kabbalist and the rest of the world. The same can be said of the Gnostic. Within both of these teachings, the Kabbalah and Gnosticism, reason and logic are distrusted. The reasons given for such distrust is similar: that they inhibit the abilities of natural man.

Viewing such an attitude from the present day viewpoint one might say that their idea of God is even different from that of the average person's. To Kabbalists and Gnostics God does not restrict man but lets him improve himself through knowledge. Whereas, to the average person God does the restricting, or is it the person who makes God do the restricting?

The Kabbalah has been accepted into Western occult ceremonies and practices, and vice versa. In the sixteenth century symbols of alchemy were embodied into the Christian Kabbalah. The Christian Kabbalah is said to have been used to prove the divinity of Christ.

Aleister Crowley adapted the ranks or grades in his magical organization, the A.A., or Astrum Argentium, the Silver Star, to correspond to the sephirots of the sephiroth. The Kabbalah has also been related to numerology, the Tarot and astrology although some criticize the relationship is not a perfect match.

The Kabbalistic idea that God contains all ideas and their contradictions definitely forms the bases for the magical laws of polarity and synthesis. Both laws are based on the theoretical assumption that all ideas or conceptions contain their opposites, examples of these are: white and black, up and down, right and left. The essence of each thing also contains the essence of its opposite. A typical clear, but not too magical, illustration is that a black ink pen does not show up too good on a black or dark colored background. It requires a white or light background to bring out the illustrious nature of the black ink. Here the opposites compliment each other to produce the writing or drawing. A.G.H.

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