Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Kabbalah- Misunderstood mysticism

Today we often see references to Kabbbalah in the media.  From the cult of Phillip Berg promulgated to Madonna to practitioners of magick who see it as yet another form of hermetic magic from the middle ages.  References abound, misinformation streams forth and the inevitable scams and cults are birthed: from the cult of Phillip Berg to those selling bits of red string for astronomical prices and other bits and pieces of “Kabbalah Jewelery”.  So just what is Kabbalah?  I hope to demystify what it is and bring some rationality back to this subject.

So to start off- an introduction and foundation: Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai from God.  The Torah consists of two parts
1) The written part, the Chamishe Sifrei Torah (the five books of the Torah- Five books of Moses)
2) The oral law, Mishnah, which was written down after the destruction of the Second Temple so it would not be forgotten or altered through inaccurate transmission.

The rest of the Tanach (Torah, Nevi’im(prophets) and Ketuvim(Writings)) came later. The two main subjects in Kabbalah are usually referred to as “Ma’aseh Bereishis” (The matter of the first things i.e. the creating of the world) and “Maaseh Merkavah” (The matter of the Chariot i.e. the vision of the heavenly chariot)  The origins of the Kabbalah are in there, the creation of the of the world and the description of the heavenly chariot.  These are  considered some of the major mystical portions and from which a lot of Kabbalah is learned, and some claim that the entire book of Job is one of Sod (literally secret and referring to Kabbalistic meanings).   These are far from the only sections of Kabbalah in the Torah- the entire Torah can be studied for Kabbalistic insights (see below).  Later, the Sefer HaYesod was written down (though its origin was much earlier) as was Sefer Behar which was then complemented with a far more complete work, the Zohar.  But these books are not complete, some things are not written down.   The Zohar was composed based on what Rabbi Shimon Bar pchai taught on these subjects though only committed to paper much later.  These form the basis of what is known as Lurianic Kabalah, named after Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ha’arizal) who is considered one of the greatest Kabbalist in history.  A competing school of Kabballah is based around the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the originator of the chassidic movement, and summarised in the Tanya, written by Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement (Chabad literaly stands for “Chochmah, Binah and Da’at- the three main sefirot in the tree of life)

Now, when Jews study the Torah it is looked at in various ways, and in each way, a word, or even a letter can mean something different or teach something different.
1) Pshat- this is the plain, easily understood meaning (yeah right- sometimes even this is difficult!)
2) Remez – the alluded to meaning.  The meanings we learn from alternative understanding of the words, what a difference from normal spelling can be, why a long vowel instead of a short vowel is used. This also includes things like gematria (the numerical values of words and phrases, sometimes compared to other words and phrases with the same values and thus teaching something) and the studying of grammar etc to understand the text better
3) Midrash – The meanings from “Drash”, expositions. . This is where you get the alluded to meanings from the oral histories and things passed down. Some of these are aggadot, tales which seem fantastical but which are there to teach insights rather than being taken literally.  Some are stories passed down orally which supplement and complete the text of the Torah.
4) Sod- secret or what is known today as Kabbalah. This level of study is the most difficult and is not common.  Studying at this level is usually only done by a student and teacher in an one on one session and is not taught in large groups or classes.  The reason for this is that the teacher has to make sure that the student fully understands what is being taught, or the student may be led astray.  A story in the Talmud, masechta Chagigah, is told of Rabbi Akivah, one of the greatest sages who entered into Pardes (literally “the Orchard”- but actually the Hebrew acronym of the four levels of Torah study discussed here thus stating he taught the students with him the Kabbalistic insights into the text)  with three students, each a great sage in their own right.  One student who was pure, did not guard himself and died from the view, a second went mad, and the third became an apostate and left Judaism competely.  The Talmud brings this story to teach 1) that this should never have been done in a group and 2) as a general warning that studying Kaballah is not for everyone.  As a side note, the text in the Talmud notes that the reson the student became an apostate was because he studied the texts of other religions and was thus led astray.  For this reason we find that Rabbi Akivah states in Masechta Sanhedrin, Chapter 11 Mishnah 1 that someone who studies the texts of other religions in order to learn from them is amongst those who lose their place in the world to come.

So let us now look at Sod- the area in which Kaballah is found.
a) The earliest written work of Kabbalh is the TORAH.  We just need to learn how to read and understand the Torah to gather these insights.  The Shlah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) in his commentary on the Torah known as “Shnei Luchot Habrit” (The two tables of the covenant) states in the introduction that the two tablets of Moshe do not refer to the written and oral law as many interpret it, but rather that the Written and oral law are one, and the hidden meanings are the second- making the study of them essential in order to understand the Torah properly

b)The next earliest written work of Kaballah is generally stated as being the Book of Job. Some of the Rabbinical commentaries do not view this book literally but rather as an allegory in which many Kaballistic insights are taught (Talmud masechta Baba Basra).

b) The earliest oral source of Kaballah is stated as being the Sefer Yetzira, which tradition states was authored by Abraham and passed down orally until it was written down around 200CE since it was in danger of being corrupted or forgotten.  Similarly, Sefer Behar is a very early written work discussing many Kabbalistic insights

c) The vision of the divine Chariot

d) The Zohar – Tradition states that this was a compilation of lessons that Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai collated and organised while he was hiding from the Romans around 200CE. Because it is in the realm of Sod- people were always reluctant to write down- but it was finally written down around the 1600s.

e) There are many other books, some predating the Zohar, others after of varyign levels of authority.  Not all are accurate, not all are good sources of study.

Who studies it?

Basically the majority of Orthodox Jews accept Kaballah as worthwhile studying, though there is a rule that we never alter the halachah (Jewish law) because of what is found in the Kaballah.  The Torah, written and oral, takes primacy.  In theTtalmud in Masechat Chagigah the rules for studying the Merkavah (Divine Chariot) are written down and taken as a model for the rest of the Kabbalah.  So what are the rules given in Masechta Chagigah?

1) The person must have a complete knowledge of Judaism- Torah, Tanakh, Midrash, aggadata

2) The person must have children

3) The person must be observant of the mitzvot

4) The teacher must only teach one student at a time

5) The teacher does not teach the details- but only the chapter headings

6) The student must have the potential to be a great sage, equivalent to the nasi of the Sanhedrin (obviously not everyone can be the head of the Sanhedrin- but this requirement is that essentially the person should be studying and have the requirements to one day be a great sage in their own right).

7) The person must be old enough, and mature enough, to understand and incorporate the lessons.  This is generally taken to be at the age of 40, though sometimes younger people are taught (the arizal (compiler of the Zohar) died in his 30’s,  as did the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto) so evidently their teachers must have started teaching them at a very young age.)

So- how do we see these laws being applied?  Judaism is focused on action: not belief; in doing, not in studying for the sake of studying, (though a proviso on this- doing without believing is seen as a meaningless action.  One must know they do something because G-d desires them to do it- not just because it seems like a good idea!)  Thus the requirement that the student first be knowledgeable in the rest of Shas (an abreviation for Shisei Sidrei Mishnah- the six orders of Mishnah and used to refer to the entirety of Jewish law);  together with all the laws and how to perform them properly, before studying anything to do with the Kaballah.  The requirement for children comes from this as well, one must know the laws and carry them out, all of them (obviously not all 613 mitzvot apply to everyone, but as the Shlah teachers and as is taught in the Talmud in masechta Sanhedrin- studying and teaching others is the same as doing) , including the law of “pru u’revu” (be fruitful and multiply). So we see laws one to three applied

We also know that for a long time no Kabbalah was written down, except for in extreme allegorical form (such as the book of Iyov (Job))  it was only directly taught by teacher to student in an one on one fashion.  Today, the written works of the Kaballah do not contain everything, there are major elements that are only taught by teacher to student.  As such, finding a teacher is paramount and it is not easy to do.  Teachers generally find students, not the other way around.   Thus we see points four and five: the books contain what are essentially the discussion points  which the teachers teach from, and not enough detail for the student to be able to use just the book to get a true knowledge of Kabbalah.  Studying Kaballah outside of Judaism is a bizarre concept to those knowledgeable enough to study it properly.  Much of Kaballah is direct commentary on the Torah and Tanach (such commentary is “midrash” and refers to the hidden meanings in the verses as opposed to the p’shat (direct) meaning).   Other major sources of learning midrash are the Midrash Rabbah, Midrash Tanchumah, Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer, Midrash Talpiot, Sifrei, Sifri and various other collections of Midrashim.  The commentaries of the Ramban and Ba’al Haturim are largely based on Midrash (though the Baal HaTurim also uses a lot of remez as he makes substantive usage of gematria and the grammatical notes in the Masoretic text)  as compared to Rashi who explictly went out to only give the p’shat meaning of the Tanach.

Whether a person has the personal merits, well, that is for the teacher to decide and the age requirement is normally adhered to by most teachers, though there are exceptions (particularly in the Chassidic movements where Kabbalah receives far more focus.)

So Kaballah can be genuine but most of the time what is taught is far from genuine Kabalah.  The Kabalah centre of Philip Berg is a scam and cult.  (I don’t refer to him as Rabbi since the place he claims to have gotten semicha (ordination) from states he never got semicha!  Considering what he is doing, I believe them- not him!)  Red strings, holy water, reciting verses without understanding them are all nonsense.  The other people teaching Kaballah out there are just as fake (though not all of them are as destructive as Berg’s cult).  Madonna might be happy there- good for her, but what she is studying is just something made up by someone with a very superficial understanding of but a few issues and then elaborated on in a huge labyrinth of fakery to part people from their money!

What is my personal recommendation to people that want to study Kabbalah?  From the above it should be obvious: don’t bother.  If you are going to go to a scam like Phillip Berg’s kabbalah centre, you will just loose your money to deception.  If you are going to go and study the books of “Rav” Michael Laitman (Yet another kabbalah teaching Rabbi that has never received semichah) or study through his Beni Brak institute- well,it takes longer before it is as destructive as Berg’s cult so maybe you will escae without too much damage.  There is only one way to learn genuine Kabbalah, and that requires years of preparation before you will be ready, and then you may well find that while it is interesting to contemplate studying it, it is not necessary.  This is where I am sitting now. I have read enough hints in the writings of Rambam, Ramban and the Kli Yakar in their open writings to know that Kabbalah is interesting, that it will enhance my study of the Torah, but at the same time that I am not ready for it.  There are still vast areas of Halachah I need to study and understand before I delve into areas that, while interesting, are not essential to my ability to serve Hashem or to carry out the mitzvot in the Torah.

Note:  As always comments, corrections, questions and debates re welcomed.

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February 2, 2009 - Posted by | Other Torah, Torah | , , , ,

16 Comments »

  1. What are your opinions on the books by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan? You seem fairly dismissive of most public works that discuss Kabbalah

    Comment by Chaim | February 2, 2009 | Reply

    • I haven’t read them, but from what I understand they are well written and explain various Kabbalistic thoughts in language for the layman to understand. There is a difference between this kind of book (which is helping people to understand things at a simpler level) and books/teachers that claim to be teaching the innder concepts and truths behind Kabbalah to a mass market. R’ Aryeh Kaplan’s books aren’t sold as manuals to people to become experts on Kabbalah, or as a means to entice them to enroll in expensive classes or courses of study.

      Comment by marcl1969 | February 2, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the article. I had the misfortune of attending a lecture/book signing Wednesday evening by Philip (Yehuda) Berg, and to THIS Yiddische kopf, it reeked of fakery and had what I always imagined a cult would feel like. Berg got up and rambled about garbage for about 45 minutes before my companion and I had to leave. I had never heard of Berg before and as a consequence had an expectancy that he would somehow go straight to something in the Zohar that he found interesting. Instead, I was treated to a simplistic exposotion of the world’s ills without a mention of the Jewish or Toraitic basis for Kabbalah. He wears a baseball hat instead of a kippa, I presume in order not to scare anyone away who might be offended by overt signs of Judaism though his entourage, some with Israeli accents, did wear identical black leather kippot. I had been invited by a Catholic friend of mine and have since told him what I thought. It is horrible to see Judaism bastardized for profit. Anyone who wants to study Kabbalah should start with Torah. Anything else is a shortcut, a waste of time and in the hands of Yehuda Berg, money. People should be warned against the notion that he is peddling anything worth listening to or paying for. Thanks again and Shabbat Shalom. I’m grateful for your post which I have forwarded to my friends.

    Comment by Randy Shiner | July 3, 2010 | Reply

    • Sadly, while Berg’s is the most visible and succesful of these cults, his is not the only one. It is probably one of the most destructive and some, like the “Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Centre” are just peddlers of nonsense ripping people off one book at a time.

      Comment by marcl1969 | July 5, 2010 | Reply

      • Marci –

        Thanks for your note. This is a sad situation. I am more concerned for Judaism with these jokers than I am with Messianic Jews. At least you know what you’re getting up front with the latter. I rued the day I would run into these “Joel Osteen for Jews” types, though I think Osteen hews more to real Christianity (from what I understand) than Yehuda Berg does to HIS religion, Judaism, though what he is peddling isn’t Judaism nor is it anything resembling Kabbalistic thought on a par with, say, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s writing or others which have been noted.

        Comment by Randy Shiner | July 7, 2010 | Reply

        • Berg is peddling a cult and a money making machine. what is sad is how many people he has been able to fool and how many lives and families have been damaged by his cult. It gets worse everytime madonna opens her mouth to punt him further as; a bunch of people, hoping to emulate her, get dragged in. Sadly, celebrities being taken in by cults and then punting them is hardly anything new- how long have Travolta and Cruise been punting the “Church” of Scientiology?

          As for knowing what you are getting with “messianic jews”- I would disagree with you. Their target market does not know what they are up to and thus the need to educate people to what they are and how they operate. In many ways they are as bad as Berg; his is a cult, “messianic judaism” is basically a spiritual “bait and switch” scam!

          Comment by marcl1969 | July 8, 2010 | Reply

  3. I recently created a blog about the Kabbalah.
    What Daf on Hagigah is this on?
    http://kabbalah-torah.blogspot.com/

    Comment by Gavriel | July 8, 2010 | Reply

    • Gabi, you have claimed to be 13 and studying in Kollel- you don’t seriously expect me to provide you with information to run a blog on Kabbalah do you?

      Note; Gabi has also claimed to be a Rabbi in the past- and seems unaware that a Kollel is for MARRIED students and unmarrried bochrim study in yeshivahs. its possible that somewhere out there he has found a Kollel for teenagers… possible, but unlikely

      Comment by marcl1969 | July 9, 2010 | Reply

  4. With all due respect, I don’t need your info on Kabbalah- I know the basics myself.
    I learn in Kolel, it’s not really that I’m in kolel.

    Comment by Gavriel | July 9, 2010 | Reply

  5. […] Kabbalah- Misunderstood mysticism February 2009 9 comments 3 […]

    Pingback by 2010 in review « Musings of an Orthodox Jew | January 2, 2011 | Reply

  6. Please Rabbi, can you please tell which page this is on Chagiga? I have learned it before, is it 13b?

    Comment by Rav Modrechai | January 5, 2011 | Reply

    • Hmm, not sure what you are referring to:
      The rules about who can be taught the Ma’aseh Bereishis and Merkavah are on 13A
      The story of R’ Akivah and the 3 sages is on 14B

      Comment by marc | January 5, 2011 | Reply

  7. I am curious about further details regarding Bnei Baruch and Michael Laitman – if you ever happen to read this.

    You make it sound as if his is more authentic than Berg’s – but this isn’t really saying much. BB’s books can be gotten for free, same with video lessons (pretty much daily), but I accept that he has no semichah. Is this part of the ruling in Chagigah? What is he teaching wrong, and what isn’t he teaching that he should be?

    It was actually Laitman that drew me towards Torah (as but one step along a larger walk), which, being a goy, eventually brought me to the Sheva Mitzvot (actually consideration of gerut first, as the Sheva Mitzvot were less advertised).

    Anyhow, what I essentially get from Laitman and his crew is the importance of kavannah lishmah, and this is pretty much it, garbed in a thousand and one tales and metaphors. I cannot see how this is anything less than beneficial – even if it neglects the performance of mitzvot, it appears to uplift one’s desire to serve the Creator for the Creator’s sake.

    Comment by Chad | August 28, 2013 | Reply

    • Laitman is no better than Phillip Berg, he is just as fake. Trying to recreate Kabbalah from being a commentary in Torah teaching the deeper lessons hidden within the text (don’t forget the original name for Kabbalah in Jewish sources is Sod, literally meaning hidden) to being a “spiritual science” shows a complete lack of understanding of what Kabbalah is. HIs lack of proper learning in Kaballah is obvious to anyone with even a basic knowledge of Kaballah texts.

      As for Kavanah Lishmah- it is replete in multiple Jewish sources, most of them NOT Kabbalistis. There is an excellent discussion on this topic from R’ Yitzchak Blazer in his introduction R’ Salanter’s work, “Or Yisrael”, R’ Shimshon Hirsch discusses this in his book “Horeb”, and it is also discussed in the Talmud. Nothing Kabbalistic in this concept- it is one of the most basic concepts in Judaism!

      If this was all that Laitman taught, it would be harmless, but unfortunately he distorts and teaches a lot of falsehood. And while initially everything ius for free-after a while his cult starts taking a LOT of money from his victims. It is known for destroying lives much the same as many other cults. Do some research on the internet and it is not hard to find evidence of this darker side of his cult

      Comment by marc | August 29, 2013 | Reply

  8. Search on internet for Live Kabbalah Tzfat and there is Kabbalah school available for online learning by CHABAD/Chassidus Rabbi Amichai Cohen real Kabbalist from famous lineage taking his students online with no need for student previous knowledge or requirements.

    Comment by Dovber | March 29, 2017 | Reply

    • It is better than most, but personally I advise people to steer away from any Kabbalah lectures being done across the internet. If the person is a genuine teacher they are going to be giving a very carefully worded version which avoids the issues that could lead to apikorsus. If the person is not a genuine teacher then it is pointless learning from them. I have no knowledge Rabbi Amichai Cohen and cannot say one way or another, but would just give the general precaution to beware of things across the internet and that Kabbalah is something best learned face to face with a teacher.

      Comment by marc | March 30, 2017 | Reply


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