Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Do you believe in (Jewish) Magic?

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis
• Thu, Sep 27, 2012
What do Uriel, Metatron and Peniel have in common? It’s an esoteric question. Yet, Judaism is one of the oldest living esoteric traditions in the world.

“The term esoteric really means ‘inter-meaning.’ It is related to the occult, the hidden,” Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis explained. “Fundamentally, it’s traditions that are not shared, which are contained within a circle of people. So, national security information is technically esoteric in that only a limited number of people are allowed to have access to the information.

“Jewish esoteric literature is ironic in that you find works in literature and teachings that say, ‘This is a secret; now I’m going to share it with you.’ The Jewish tradition is full of esoteric literature that you can read. But, there’s a built-in element of gapping. You can read it, but unless you understand the rules of the assumptions and underlying principles or metaphysics, they are not completely spelled out.”

Rabbi Dennis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. He teaches Kabbalah and Rabbinic Literature in the Jewish studies program at the University of North Texas. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism.” He blogs on all aspects of Jewish esoteric traditions and occult lore at

Myths, said Rabbi Dennis, are archetypal tales told to help us fathom important truths. And, magic is part of a naturalistic worldview.

“Oftentimes, when people ask what my book is about, I say it is an encyclopedia of Jewish folklore, because folklore is an easy catch-all term for the pre-modern ways of looking at the world. My publishers wanted myth, magic and mysticism in the book title because it brings together people who come with a specific point of interest. Thus, I end up talking to a wide variety of people, because one of the three words means something to them.”

For many Jews, the idea of Jewish myth, magic and mysticism is unsettling. We’re products of a modern age. Our point of view is rational. We think of myths simply as stories of supernatural beings.

But, if you understand myths as “master stories,” stories that articulate or describe the underlying structure or order that pervades all things, then you can understand myths as stories that invoke realities not accessible to direct human experience.

And, magic? That’s even more problematic for us moderns. Magic is dismissed as mere superstition or condemned (especially in Christianity) as satanic.

“The Talmud describes making artificial creatures and, through a ‘seed of wonder,’ creating an entire field of cucumbers,” said Rabbi Dennis. “Did those things really happen? It seems doubtful from my modern perspective. However, just as many laws in the Torah were not meant to be literally applied, these stories have heuristic value. They tell us about human potential and what is possible. What they describe is not science. What these stories are about is human empowerment and the human capacity, like G-d, to be creative and rework our world in desirable ways.”

Thus, when Rabbi Dennis speaks to university students at North Texas State or his congregants, people whose experience and orientation towards rational thinking may be opposed to myth and magic, he must first bridge a gap of understanding.

“I spend a great deal of time prepping them,” said Rabbi Dennis. “I say we’re going to read this text, and I want you come at it with an attitude of critical sympathy. Try to understand what the author wants to say. Then, you can say: This bothers me. First, give us a chance to tease out together the implications and ideas. You’d be surprised how much of mythology makes sense.

“In our culture, we are burdened by a kind of polar, two-sided argument about traditional religious literature like the Bible. People who love the Bible insist it is literally true. Those who hate the Bible also insist we read it literally. That allows one side not to think deeply about it and the other side to simply dismiss it.

“A third way, lingering over the text, dissecting and then re-assembling it, is a very Jewish way of reading. It’s also very demanding. Jews don’t read texts. We study them. It requires that you don’t leap to conclusions, which is what we all love to do. So, that’s my prep work.”

Now that you’ve been prepped, let’s go back to Uriel, Metatron and Peniel. They are all angels. In Jewish tradition, an angel is a spiritual entity in the service of G-d. These three angels, along with many others who are named, appear in the apocryphal books of III Enoch, Tobit and IV Ezra.

By referencing the extensive “Angels and Angelology” entry in Rabbi Dennis’ encyclopedia, we can see the prominent role that angels have played in Jewish thought throughout the centuries.

Now, here’s where it starts to get interesting. Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet), celebrated as a hero in the Bible, also appears in numerous other Jewish esoteric writings as having been elevated to the status of an angel. Cross-reference “Elijah” in the encyclopedia. In one tradition, Eliyahu was the angel Sandalfon, who briefly took on human form.

“If you go to the Elijah entry, you would learn something about all these traditions about Elijah that had to be teased out of different sources. Then, you could understand the logic in the different Elijah traditions. According to Jewish mythology, he starts out as an angel, becomes transubstantiated into a man, a sort of proto-Jesus. Then, he returns to his angelic state. So, he shares an important quality of bridging a role between the mortal and the divine in some of the ways, with critical differences, that an angel usually does. If you understand what the tradition is assuming about Elijah, then the mythological stories about him make a lot more sense.”

Rabbi Dennis argues that once you start looking at the tradition through the lens of mythology or archetypal tales, much of our anxiety to force reading it as a modern text, defending it literally, misses the point.

“It’s a fabulous way of looking at the world. You can see the ancient, the medievalism and the modern, all side by side. And, it creates this beautiful mosaic.

“In doing research for this book, I learned there’s something precious in looking at the world as a mysterious place. As moderns, we de-mythologize the world. But, to borrow [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s phrase, ‘we must learn to see the world with eyes of wonder.‘ That is, wonder is just as precious and important as understanding how to master the world.”

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Jewish Meditation

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Portrait of a praying unknown man by Correggio, c. 1525.
Jewish meditation can refer to several traditional practices of contemplation, ranging from visualization and intuitive methods, or forms of emotional insight in communitive prayer, to intellectual analysis of philosophical, ethical or mystical concepts. It often accompanies unstructured, personal Jewish prayer that can allow isolated contemplation, or sometimes the instituted Jewish services. Its elevated psychological insights can give birth to dveikus (cleaving to God), particularly in Jewish mysticism.
Through the centuries, some of the common forms include the practices in philosophy and ethics of Abraham ben Maimonides; in Kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia, Isaac the Blind, Azriel of Gerona, Moses Cordovero, Yosef Karo and Isaac Luria; in Hasidism of the Baal Shem Tov, Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Nachman of Breslov; and in the Musar movement of Israel Salanter and Simcha Zissel Ziv.[1]
In its esoteric forms, "Meditative Kabbalah" is one of the three branches of Kabbalah, alongside "Theosophical" Kabbalah and the separate Practical Kabbalah. It is a common misconception to include Meditative Kabbalah in Practical Kabbalah, which seeks to alter physicality, while Meditative Kabbalah seeks insight into spirituality, together with the intellectual theosophy comprising "Kabbalah Iyunit" ("Contemplative Kabbalah")[2]



[edit] History

There is evidence that Judaism has had meditative practices from the earliest times. For instance, in the Torah, the patriarch Isaac is described as going "lasuach" in the field - a term understood by all commentators as some type of meditative practice (Genesis 24:63).[3]
Similarly, there are indications throughout the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) that Judaism always contained a central meditative tradition.[4]

[edit] Meditation in early Jewish mysticism

Historians trace the earliest surviving Jewish esoteric texts to Tannaic times. This "Merkavah-Heichalot" mysticism, referred to in Talmudic accounts, sought elevations of the soul using meditative methods, built around the Biblical Vision of Ezekiel and the Creation in Genesis. The destinctive conceptual features of later Kabbalah first emerged from the 11th century, though traditional Judaism predates the 13th century Zohar back to the Tannaim, and the preceding end of Biblical prophecy. The contemporary teacher of Kabbalah and Hasidic thought, Yitzchak Ginsburgh, describes the historical evolution of Kabbalah as the union of "Wisdom" and "Prophecy":
Historical Kabbalistic practice focused on Kavanot (meditations) of Divine names. Angels elevated or blocked prayers in the ascending Worlds. The names were seen as keys to gates in Heaven for elevated people, though simple tears of others could also open gates
The numerical value of the word Kabbalah (קבלה-"Received") in Hebrew is 137...and is the value of the sum of two very important words that relate to Kabbalah: Chochmah (חכמה-"Wisdom") equals 73 and Nevuah (נבואה-"Prophecy") equals 64. Kabbalah can therefore be understood as the union (or "marriage") of wisdom and prophecy. Historically, Kabbalah developed out of the prophetic tradition that existed in Judaism up to the Second Temple period (beginning in the 4th century BCE). Though the prophetic spirit that had dwelt in the prophets continued to "hover above" (Sovev) the Jewish people, it was no longer manifest directly. Instead, the spirit of wisdom manifested the Divine in the form of the Oral Torah (the oral tradition), the body of Rabbinic knowledge that began developing in the second Temple period and continues to this day. The meeting of wisdom (the mind, intellect) and prophecy (the spirit which still remains) and their union is what produces and defines the essence of Kabbalah.

In the Kabbalistic conceptual scheme, "wisdom" corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom, otherwise known as the "Father" principle (Partsuf of Abba) and "prophecy" corresponds to the sefirah of understanding or the "Mother" principle (Parsuf of Ima). Wisdom and understanding are described in the Zohar as "two companions that never part". Thus, Kabbalah represents the union of wisdom and prophecy in the collective Jewish soul; whenever we study Kabbalah, the inner wisdom of the Torah, we reveal this union. It is important to clarify that Kabbalah is not a separate discipline from the traditional study of the Torah, it is rather the Torah’s inner soul (nishmata de’orayta, in the language of the Zohar and the Arizal). Oftentimes a union of two things is represented in Kabbalah as an acronym composed of their initial letters. In this case, "wisdom" in Hebrew starts with the letter chet; "prophecy" begins with the letter nun; so their acronym spells the Hebrew word "chen", which means "grace", in the sense of beauty. Grace in particular refers to symmetric beauty, i.e., the type of beauty that we perceive in symmetry. This observation ties in with the fact that the inner wisdom of the Torah, Kabbalah is referred to as "Chochmat ha’Chen", which we would literally translate as the wisdom of chen. Chen here is an acronym for another two words: "Concealed Wisdom" (חכמה נסתרה). But, following our analysis here, Kabbalah is called chen because it is the union of wisdom and prophecy...[5]

[edit] Meditation in Medieval Kabbalah

[edit] Abraham Abulafia

Abraham Abulafia (1240–1291), leading figure in the history of "Meditative Kabbalah", the founder of the school of "Prophetic/Ecstatic Kabbalah", wrote meditation manuals using meditation on Hebrew letters and words to achieve ecstatic states.[6] His work is surrounded in controversy because of the edict against him by the Rashba (R. Shlomo Ben Aderet), a contemporary leading scholar. However according to Aryeh Kaplan, the Abulafian system of meditations forms an important part of the work of Rabbi Hayim Vital, and in turn his master the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria[citation needed]. Kaplan's pioneering translations and scholarship on Meditative Kabbalah[7] trace Abulafia's publications to the extant concealed transmission of the esoteric meditative methods of the Hebrew prophets. While Abulafia remained a marginal figure in the direct development of Theosophical Kabbalah, recent academic scholarship on Abulafia by Moshe Idel reveals his wider influence across the later development of Jewish mysticism.

[edit] Moshe Cordovero

Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570 CE), central historical Kabbalist in Safed, taught that when meditating, one does not focus on the Sefirot (Divine emanations) per se, but rather on the light from the Infinite ("Atzmut"-essence of God) contained within the emanations. Keeping in mind that all reaches up to the Infinite, his prayer is "to Him, not to His attributes." Proper meditation focuses upon how the Godhead acts through specific sefirot. In meditation on the essential Hebrew name of God, represented by the four letter Tetragrammaton, this corresponds to meditating on the Hebrew vowels which are seen as reflecting the light from the Infinite-Atzmut.
The essential name of God in the Hebrew Bible, the four letter Tetragrammaton (Yud- Hei- Vav-Hei), corresponds in Kabbalistic thought to the 10 sefirot. Kabbalists interpret the shapes and spiritual forces of each of these 4 letters, as reflecting each sefirah (The Yud-male point represents the infinite dimensionless flash of Wisdom, and the transcendent thorn atop it, the supra-conscious soul of Crown. The first Hei-female vessel represents the expansion of the insight of Wisdom in the breadth and depth of Understanding. The Vav-male point drawn downward in a line represents the birth of the emotional sefirot, Kindness to Foundation from their pregnant state in Understanding. The second Hei-female vessel represents the revelation of the previous sefirot in the action of Kingship). Therefore, the Tetragrammaton has the Infinite Light clothed within it as the sefirot. This is indicated by the change in the vowel-points (nekudot) found underneath each of the four letters of the Name in each sefira. " Each sefira is distinguished by the manner in which the Infinite Light is clothed within it". In Jewish tradition, the vowel points and pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton are uncertain, and in reverence to the holiness of the name, this name for God is never read. In Kabbalah many spiritual permutations of different vowel notations are recorded for the Tetragrammaton, corresponding to different spiritual meanings and emanations.
SefirahHebrew Vowel
Keter (Crown)Kametz
Hochmah (Wisdom)Patach
Binah (Understanding)Tzeirei
Hesed (Kindness)Segol
Gevurah (Severity)Sheva
Tiferet (Beauty)Holam
Netzach (Victory)Hirik
Hod (Glory)Kubutz *
Yesod (Foundation)Shuruk *
Malchut (Kingship)No vowels
* Kubutz and Shuruk are pronounced indistinguishably in modern Hebrew and for this reason there is reason to be skeptical as far as the association of Kubutz with Hod rather than Yesod and vice versa.

[edit] Hayim Vital and Lurianic Kabbalah

Rabbi Hayim Vital (c. 1543-1620 CE), major disciple of R. Isaac Luria, and responsible for publication of most of his works. Here he presents the method of R. Yosef Karo.
Meditate alone in a house, wrapped in a prayer shawl. Sit and shut your eyes, and transcend the physical as if your soul has left your body and is ascending to heaven. After this divestment/ascension, recite one Mishna, any Mishna you wish, many times consecutively, as quickly as you can, with clear pronunciation, without skipping one word. Intend to bind your soul with the soul of the sage who taught this Mishna. " Your soul will become a chariot. .." Do this by intending that your mouth is a mere vessel/conduit to bring forth the letters of the words of this Mishna, and that the voice that emerges through the vessel of your mouth is [filled with] the sparks of your inner soul which are emerging and reciting this Mishna. In this way, your soul will become a chariot within which the soul of the sage who is the master of that Mishna can manifest. His soul will then clothe itself within your soul. At a certain point in the process of reciting the words of the Mishna, you may feel overcome by exhaustion. If you are worthy, the soul of this sage may then come to reside in your mouth. This will happen in the midst of your reciting the Mishna. As you recite, he will begin to speak with your mouth and wish you Shalom. He will then answer every question that comes into your thoughts to ask him. He will do this with and through your mouth. Your ears will hear his words, for you will not be speaking from yourself. Rather, he will be speaking through you. This is the mystery of the verse, "The spirit of God spoke to me, and His word was on my lips". (Samuel II 23:2)[8]

[edit] Meditation in Hasidism

[edit] The Baal Shem Tov and popular mysticism

Hasidic prayer left aside previous focus on Kabbalistic Kavanot (mental visualisation) of Divine names, in favour of innate dveikut (cleaving to God) of the soul
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, took the Talmudic phrase that "God desires the heart" and made it central to his love of the sincerity of the common folk. Advocating joy in the omnipresent Divine immanence, he sought to revive the disenfranchised populance in their Jewish life. The 17th century destructions of Jewish communities, and wide loss of ability to access learning among the simple unlettered shtetl Jews, left the people at a spiritual low. Elite scholars felt distant from the masses, as traditional Judaism saw Talmudic learning as the main spiritual activity, while preachers could offer little popular solace with ethical admonishment. The Baal Shem Tov began a new articulation of Jewish mysticism, by relating its structures to direct psychological experience.[9] His mystical explanations, parables and stories to the unlearned encouraged their emotional deveikus (fervour), especially through attachment to the Hasidic figure of the Tzaddik, while his close circle understood the deep spiritual philosophy of the new ideas. In the presence of the Tzaddik, the followers could gain inspiration and attachment to God. The Baal Shem Tov and the Hasidic Masters left aside the previous Kabbalistic meditative focus on Divine Names and their visualisation, in favour of a more personal, inner mysticism, expressed innately in mystical joy, devotional prayer and melody, or studied conceptually in the systemised classic works of Hasidic philosophy. A traditional story typifies this:
On his 16th birthday, the Baal Shem Tov wandered into the open fields to meditate on the significance of the day. He had been lodging at a local inn in a nearby village, managed by Aaron Shlomo the innkeeper and his wife Zlata Rivka. The simplest Jews, they were barely literate in daily prayers. but both were God fearing, and praised God at every opportunity. "Blessed is He forever!" offered the innkeeper, while his wife would say, "Blessed be His Holy Name." In the fields the Baal Shem Tov recited Psalms with great feeling, concentrating on the various mystical intentions associated with each verse, that his mentor the hidden Tzadik Rabbi Chaim had imbued him with. Immersed in spiritual thought, he suddenly saw Elijah the Prophet standing before him. Although he had merited such visions before with the other mystics, he was humbled by this first vision alone, a smile on the Prophet's countenance. Said the Prophet, "You invest such effort in meditation, trying to attain lofty levels, while the hearfelt words said by Aaron Shlomo and his wife cause a delight in Heaven, more than the commotion caused by the esoteric meditations of the righteous. When God is blessed, this causes great satisfaction on High, particularly when offered by simple folk, whose sincere faith unites them constantly with the Creator." The Baal Shem Tov later shared this revelation with the circle of hidden mystics, and suggested they inquire after the welfare of the common folk in their travels. This will cause them to praise God, and if they are not faring well, our concern will cause them to arouse Divine mercy with their supplications.[10]

[edit] Chabad Hasidism: Hisbonenus - Chochma, Binah, and Daat

Habad differed from mainstream Hasidism in its preparation for prayer by intellectual contemplation of Hasidic philosophy. Nonetheless, an aim of this is to reveal simplicity of soul, which all possess. The Rebbes of Habad were envious of the sincerity of the simple folk
Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, the "Mitler Rebbe," the second leader of the Chabad Dynasty wrote several works explaining the Chabad approach. In his works, he explains that the Hebrew word for meditation is hisbonenus (alternatively transliterated as hitbonenut). The word "hisbonenut" derives from the Hebrew word Binah (lit. understanding) and refers to the process of understanding through analytical study. While the word hisbonenut can be applied to analytical study of any topic, it is generally used to refer to study of the Torah, and particularly in this context, the explanations of Kabbalah in Chabad Hasidic philosophy, in order to achieve a greater understanding and appreciation of God.
In the Chabad presentation, every intellectual process must incorporate three faculties: Chochma, Binah, and Daat. Chochma (lit. wisdom) is the mind's ability to come up with a new insight into a concept that one did not know before. Binah (lit. understanding) is the mind's ability to take a new insight (from Chochma), analyze all of its implications and simplify the concept so it is understood well. Daat (lit. knowledge), the third stage, is the mind's ability to focus and hold its attention on the Chochma and the Binah.
The term Hisbonenut represents an important point of the Chabad method: Chabad Hasidic philosophy rejects the notion that any new insight can come from mere concentration. Chabad philosophy explains that while "Daat" is a necessary component of cognition, it is like an empty vessel without the learning and analysis and study that comes through the faculty of Binah. Just as a scientist's new insight or discovery (Chochma) always results from prior in-depth study and analysis of his topic (Binah), likewise, to gain any insight in Godliness can only come through in-depth study of the explanations of Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy.[11]
Chassidic masters say that enlightenment is commensurate with one's understanding of the Torah and specifically the explanations of Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy. They warn that prolonged concentration devoid of intellectual content can lead to sensory deprivation, hallucinations, and even insanity which all can be tragically mistaken for "spiritual enlightenment".
However, a contemporary translation of the word hisbonenut into popular English would not be "meditation". "Meditation" refers to the mind's ability to concentrate (Daat), which in Hebrew is called Haamokat HaDaat. Hisbonenut, which, as explained above, refers to the process of analysis (Binah) is more properly translated as "in-depth analytical study". (Ibid.)
Chabad accepts and endorses the writings of Kabbalists such as Moshe Cordevero and Haim Vital and their works are quoted at length in the Hasidic texts. However, the Hasidic masters say that their methods are easily misunderstood without a proper foundation in Hasidic philosophy.
The Mitler Rebbe emphasizes that hallucinations that come from a mind devoid of intellectual content are the product of the brain's Koach HaDimyon (lit. power of imagination), which is the brains lowest faculty. Even a child is capable of higher forms of thought than the Koach HaDimyon. So such imaginations should never be confused with the flash intuitive insight known as Chochma which can only be achieved through in-depth study of logical explanations of Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy.

[edit] Breslav Hasidism: Hisbodedus and communitative prayer

Breslov Hasidim spend time in secluded communication of their heart to God. In Jewish communities they often seek this solitude in Nature at night
Hisbodedus (alternatively transliterated as "hitbodedut", from the root "boded" meaning "self-seclusion") refers to an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation taught by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. The goal of hitbodedut is to establish a close, personal relationship with God and a clearer understanding of one's personal motives and goals. However, in Likutey Moharan I, Lesson 52, Rebbe Nachman describes the ultimate goal of hisbodedus as the transformative realization of God as the "Imperative Existent," or Essence of Reality. See Hisbodedus for the words of Rabbi Nachman on this method.

[edit] Meditation in the Musar Movement

The Musar (Ethics) Movement, founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the middle of the nineteenth-century, encouraged meditative practices of introspection and visualization that could help to improve moral character. Its truthful psychological self-evaluation of one's spiritual worship, institutionalised the preceding classic ethical tradition within Rabbinic literature as a spiritual movement within the Lithuanian Yeshiva academies. Many of these techniques were described in the writings of Salanter's closest disciple, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv. Two paths within Musar developed in the Slabodka and Novardok schools.

[edit] See also


[edit] References

  1. ^ Scholem, G.G. (1974) Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York, Schocken Books.
  2. ^ What is Practical Kabbalah? from Distinction of the two forms and three branches of Kabbalah explained further in What You Need to Know About Kabbalah, Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Gal Einai publications, section on Practical Kabbalah; and Meditation and Kabbalah, Aryeh Kaplan, introduction
  3. ^ Kaplan, A. (1978), Meditation and the Bible, Maine, Samuel Weiser Inc, p101
  4. ^ Kaplan, Aryeh (1985). Jewish Meditation. New York: Schocken Books. pp. 40–41. ISBN 0-8052-1037-7.
  5. ^ Article "Five stages in the historical development of Kabbalah" from
  6. ^ Jacobs, L. (1976) Jewish Mystical Testimonies, Jerusalem, Keter Publishing House, pp56-72
  7. ^ Meditation and the Bible and Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan
  8. ^ Mishna Meditation
  9. ^ Overview of Chassidut from
  10. ^ The Great Mission: the life and story of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, Eli Friedman, Kehot pub, p. 16-17
  11. ^ Active vs.Passive_Meditation

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] External links

Understandings of Kabbalah


Kabbalah comes from the Hebrew word kbl and this means to receive or accept, so it demonstrates that Kabbalah is about revelation or knowledge but it also needs tradition. It is rabbinical, conservative and regards text as fixed, its meaning always the same but to be found (through faithful interpretation). It combines revelation with the occult in terms of secret extractable knowledge by those who have the literate and numerical key. Some say the Torah was made by God before creation and Kabbalah's methods reveals the universe. For Kabbalists the Torah is the secret life of the Divine and truth is infinite. By one account at least (the Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, quoted in Berg, 2003, 60), the Universe came from nothingness called the Endless World of infinite light contracted into a single point of primordial space which took a ray of light from the Endless World that expanded rapidly in space. This is the creative divine and it produced the Four Worlds.
A core concept that gives rise to Kabbalah is in how the voice of God is heard. Some say the Torah was first heard by Adam himself, capable of understanding its deepest meanings, as were the prophets. According to the likes of Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov, the Chassidic Kabbalist, Moses had the mystical insight of the restricted sound of God that gave knowledge of the alphabet and communication, an understanding that ordinary people around him receiving the commandments did not have. This can include the Oral Torah. He was aware of the deepest meanings locked into the language. Others have trained to gain technique to find the deep meanings. So in a learned fashion Kabbalah extracts knowledge from the Hebrew Bible based principally on the numerical method called gematrion, along with other methods notarikon and temurah.
Kabbalah therefore involves numerology. Pythagoras said that all relationships can be represented by numbers. The Greeks pursued this idea, as did the Babylonians, the Egyptians and, in Kabbalah, the Jews, as well as others. Joining language (and the importance of sound) and number joins revelation and the occult.
Western occult deals with 9 numbers because of the Hindu-Arabic number system (the zero gets discarded when it appears) in first making letter to number associations (A to I is 1 to 9 and so is J to R, and S to Z reaches 8) and repeatedly adding together hundreds, tens and units until a single number is produced, being called the root number. These root numbers mean characteristics of people. It may offer insight or be little other than a party game, for example finding one's lucky number.
Jewish numerology connected revelation to the mystical power given to the Hebrew language, specifically the used twenty two consonants.

There are many numbers resulting from added up individual words, but different words can lead to the same number. This suggests correspondences of meanings.
There are seventy two Names of God, being rather seventy two sequences of three letters at a time (Berg, 2003, 195), shown below.

As well as the literate - numerological element there is the hierarchy of spiritual and material as represented by the Kabbalah mandala, itself expandable into Jacob's Ladder.
In Kabbalah's structure the spiritual stands above the material. First of all the Ayin or No thing and Ayin Sof or The Limitless (these meaning God) decided to create existence in order to reflect back its image. The space for existence was made by God withdrawing a portion of his volume for existence to have space. Light was projected into this existence, representing the Divine Will, producing four universes held together by the Divine Will. This is represented in Jacob's Ladder. From this action came the Tree of Life of ten sephirot, twenty-two connecting paths (the same number as the consonants), and sixteen triads. So God, known by the unspeakable sacred name YHVH, but substituted by Elohim and Jehovah, is the purely spiritual and unknowable creator who made himself more and more materially manifest through the stages of sephirot. The sephirothic Tree of Life mandala displays this range between the spiritual and material going down the tree. Going up the tree by means of contemplation and meditation involves gaining higher spiritual knowledge. The creation always works back up to the root (just as words relate to their root) and that root is the spiritual Divine. Going down there are the four worlds of the created cosmos in order of realisation:
  • Emanation - Atziluth (in the Supernal Triangle)
  • Creation - Briah (in the space around Daath)
  • Formation - Yetzirah (in the space around Tiferet, strongest above)
  • Action/ Making - Assiyah (in the space around Yesod, strongest above)

Sometimes an extra semi-sephirah of Daath or Knowledge is placed just below the junction between Binah and Chakhmah horizontally and Keter and Tiferet vertically. Otherwise knowledge can be how Binah is described.

In the diagram above yellow and grey text is additional to the tradition in Judaism. Red text is Hebrew transliteration (spelling is almost inevitably inconsistent) and green text is a translation. The smaller blue circle is semi-sephirotic only, the addition of knowledge. Small yellow text names twenty two Tarot cards. Orange arrows point labels to the central pillar. The body outline indicates that Kabbalah is represented in the human being, and gives a suggestion of chakras (including the Crown), the body representing the micro nature of the universe.
Here is a likely interpretation of the sephirot. Nine of the ten sephirot are so arranged in the Tree of Life that they are in triangles of two opposing and one neutral force. Malkut varies from this structure. Each sephirah controls its part of the cosmos. The first sephirah has the crown as the position of contact with the divine for unity, healing and peace. It is the Prime Mover. A lightning flash produces Binah, which is divine understanding (for example, of laws), and Chakhmah, which is revelation and a divine wisdom that can mean active and profound change. These three make up the Supernal Triad. The often missing Daath is a gnosis or direct knowledge without doubt: in a lesser sense it is facts. Gevurah can be harsh and relates to the will (fighting for) and focusses as judgment on coming to a view and truth-protecting energy. Chesed is fatherly love and is about passionate involvement and showing mercy. Teferet is as the sun, the centre, description of the whole, a life force into the personality and contributing to the sense of self as one. Hod is the mental realm: intuition, the shine of the essence, and information processing and communication all together. Neztach is nature and its forces, which can translate as fight or flight and other rapid instincts as well as more simply putting things into action. Yesod is as the moon, and concerns matters of depth, often about getting things right and before moving on; but as foundation it is also about primary needs like survival and personal security and the base of matter. Malkut is about the whole object, being grounded on the earth and in present time, the grounding being within the Divine. It can also be seen as almost pantheistic (but panentheistic), because its number ten means all things.
The question is, how might it work dynamically. This is called Lightning (it going through the whole Tree). It brings the Tree to crativity. Here I go to my own interpretation because some, for example that by Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi (1997, 33-34), do not seem to work given what the Tree is trying to do (and his are not the only example)

We can imagine painting a picture. There is the source or Crown, that of what art is at the highest philosophical point of the activity and where it merges into all other activities. It is not approached in ignorance, for there is Binah or wisdom as built up through the traditions (such as why the Golden Mean was used, some of the higher insights of the great masters, or matters of the colour wheel in the science of colour). This wisdom has to be passed on and applied, but not before collecting from Daat the totality of relevant knowledge. The process of application means coming to a judgment. In any painting this means decisions are made at Gevurah forming the approach. The process considering the painting involves considering application at Chesed with honesty and compassion and with full account of the audience and any one else involved (a sitter, for example). Then there is the painting conceived at Yesod, where the whole is held at united to its fundamental level ready to release. Finally the painting is executed at Malkut. This sequence can be adopted for all kinds of creative activities, and other sequences are suggested. The dynamic should continue down the Tree so that adjustments are always made: the higher elements are either unchanged (source) or very little accumulated (wisdom).
What facilitated Kabbalah was the sacredness of the Hebrew language that happened when it ceased to be the venacular in the Babylonian exile period. In 722 BCE Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israelites and took them into exile. In 586 BCE the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and the Jews went to exile in Babylon. They were able to return when in 538 BCE Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, conquered Babylon, but this involved persuasion and religious revival as the Jews were doing quite well in Babylon (there was considerable learning in Babylon too). That revival raised the religious role and mystery of Hebrew whilst the people spoke Aramaic. Further contact with Greek and Egyptian cultures added further mystery and exotic ideas due to philosophical learnings. Yet it was many centuries before the Kabbalah appeared. It apparently developed first in southern France and in written form possibly in the 1100s and 1200s (there may be earlier origins but these are generally given as supernatural and magical explanations about prophets and apparent deep discoveries). The clearest starting point is that about 1290 a main book (collection) was written called Zohar - The Book of Light (or Radiance) - by Moses de Leon. Zohar was written as an invented tradition in a deliberately antiquated manner. It intersected with Islamic ideas and touched Christianity. However, Kabbalah really took off in use with the stresses of the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1495) and therefore altogether it was of Sephardic, Mediterranean and Mediaeval culture. Moses Cordovero wrote Pardes Rimmonim (Garden of Pomegranites) in 1548 giving Kabbalah an even more thoroughgoing treatment. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov simplified the understanding of Kabbalah in the 1700s.
For the Jews, the totality of the techniques was initially transmitted orally amongst groups of priests and later was reserved for married men of over forty (on the claim that it would send others mad). There was always the stress on limiting mystical insight to those well versed in the Talmud; the tradition has rejected those without prior deep learning. However, some rejected this condition: the Chassidic movement was in its origins not always learned in this manner.
Pagans use the Jewish structure and implications are drawn. The first vertical represents the Pillar of Severity, which is female (negative forces in Judaism), the second the Pillar of Mildness and Equilibrium (ambivalent forces in Judaism) and the third is the Pillar of Mercy, which is male (positive forces in Judaism). For Pagans this naturally leads to characteristics of the Divine Mother and the Divine Father as represented in the Goddess and God. Horizontal levels also have meanings, from the Spiritual at the second to top level, to the Mental, to the Emotional, and to the Physical. This follows on from the Jewish order of the Divine to the created. Pagans also have the Qabalistic cross.
War and peace are represented by Gevurah and Chesed respectively. This follows the left column being regarded as active and the right regarded as passive whereas the central column is the Divine Will projecting downwards (midway between active and passive).
Following the micro-universe idea, a human being in the diagram has certain chakra like implications on the basis of there being very many chakras (otherwise the regular chakras of Root, Hara, Solar Plexus, Heart, Throat, Brow and Crown do not always fit well). Weak chakras related to animal instincts are in the legs, like Malkut, which are of no impact to humans. The Yesod is about ordinary functioning so chakras come into play when above this level. Netzach and Hod are areas of temptation and turbulence. Tiferet is about having energy and will and going forward to successes, but it can go wrongly into greed rather than to the good. Gevurah is the difficulty of negative wishes so Chesed is needed for positive wishes as generated in meditation or art (again there is this negative and positive relationship). In the top triad Binah is higher knowledge and Chakhmah is the higher spiritual journey. Keter is the Crown (a good fit with the Crown chakra), the point of complete awareness and spiritual enlightenment if realised. Humankind has the purpose of being conscious of the created order: all of Kaballah should reside in human beings with our imaginative and reasoning powers.
Tarot attaches its cards to the twenty two pathways between the ten sephirot. Eliphas Levi (real name: Alphonse Louis Constant), who was an occultist, made the connection from Tarot to Kabbalah in two books in 1855 and 1856 although the Kabbalah never dealt with Tarot itself. Claims are made about Kabbalah realising Tarot - but not outside the Tarot community. There is no origin of the Tarot in the Kabbalah. Incidentally, invention in religion and magic is not a ground for rejection: arguably all of this Kabbalah is invention and it is just a question of time and expansion of ideas for the various imaginative developments. In the currently most popular pack called the Venetian or Piedmontese Tarot there are seventy eight cards, and twenty two of these are in the Major or Greater Arcana (Arcana translates as secrets or mysteries). These provide twenty two pathways to the Divine along the connections on the Tree of Life (in Tarot order starting at 0 and ending at XXI, mixing the number systems:
0. The Fool
  1. The Magician
  2. The High Priestess
  3. The Empress
  4. The Emperor
  5. The Hierophant
  6. The Lovers
  7. The Chariot
  8. Strength
  9. The Hermit
  10. Wheel of Fortune
  11. Justice
  12. The Hanged Man
  13. Death
  14. Temperance
  15. The Devil
  16. The Tower
  17. The Star
  18. The Moon
  19. The Sun
  20. Judgment
  21. The World

The Isis Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (that became a major deposit of magick) was where Dr. W. W. Westcott, S. L. MacGregor Mathers and Dr. W. R. Woodman set up a hierarchy using ten grades or degrees in three orders reflecting the ten sephirot of the Tree of Life. Arthur Edward Waite and Alistair Crowley developed this connection. The Oxford Golden Dawn Occult Society (a revival body after many schisms; there is one in Florida using the registered name The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) retains its interest in Crowley and Kabbalah amongst other magick based traditions.
Then there is Astrology, where the impact of each sefirah is altered by time as the planetary systems alter by time. Indeed just as astrological charts vary day by day, so does the Tree of Life although for different collectivities and intentions the rate of change varies from moments to very long periods. Of course there are the Ages of 2000 years: Aries becoming Pisces (around the time of Christ) meaning the development of the monotheistic principle in near Eastern faiths, and now there is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. This dynamic of varied change involves a process of creation and destruction, with principal opposites being Gevurah and Chesed (as elsewhere they represent war and peace). Other processes involve sephirot in death and renewal, one sepherah becoming another, or a sephira disappearing to reappear anew. Which becomes what seems to be open to the imagination and interpretation, and one can look at qualities that become higher, lower or other qualities. This means that Trees of Life have a history, and just as countless varieties have existed into the past so they will into the future. People who want to do something find, according to this view, their outcomes affected by the active effects of the sephirot they encounter according to what they seek.
It should be said about magick and magical religion that it is all based around Luck, and added meaning given to randomness and the denial of the random. It looks for detailed forces and causes which constrain. It arguably reduces freedom and ethical decision making, and, again arguably, one of the purposes of religion is to increase freedom (even by initial adherence: depending on how freedom is defined) and ethical decision making. Of course all religion is to some extent magical. Kabbalah in some contrast to magick is suggesting pathways to travel, to make ethical decisions, at least in terms of the Tree of Life if not in the numerology, which could be regarded as diversionary as a way to search meanings.
Then there is the Masonic tradition, its monotheism and Renaissance thought and how these work with Kabbalah. The limitless monotheistic God reflects himself in earthly experience by what comes down to human personal revelation. Masonic imagery can be connected by creative interpretation to Jacob's Ladder and the Kabbalah. God, of course, is the great architect, so there is knowledge fixed and mathematical in the creation to be found and passed on. This process needs journeying, and the parallel is with journeying through Jacob's Ladder and the Kabbalah. There is the journey within and its spiritual development: coming in (especially to a sacred Temple or chamber) and climbing stairs. The stairs also represent masonic authority as well as higher consciousness, the soul rising towards God. Journeying and movement also involves going east to receive knowledge and then west to give it to others as well as carry out charitable activities (including teaching). So going east and west, especially east, means rising up the Kabbalah and the Masonic system.
Kabbalah has stretched across faiths and magick systems. Jewish Kabbalah has developed with incantations, seals, amulets and demonology to add to its letter and number mysteries. It has given some using interpretive knowledge the claim that they are messianic. Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76) was a self proclaimed mystical messiah but his successor Jacob Frank (1726-91) converted to Christianity. Another religious connection outward is the Donmeh movement that converted to Islam. There is a Roman Catholic version of Cabala based on Latin and the New Testament and adds the Old Testament and Hebrew. There is the Pagan Qabalah of magick drawing on Jewish insights and its alchemy, and there is a recent contemporary training version with the shallow attraction of American celebrities. For Islam, Arabic was declared so pure and complete in revelation that additional numerology was made redundant but of course there is calligraphic meaning and the sound of chanting the surahs. For Jews and Christians, there have been attempts at producing Bible code, as in random number regular letter positions using computers where predictions are made regarding world events.
Kabbalah is its own tradition of pursuing meanings of the Jewish faith, deepening its concepts of revelation, the divine light, the divine sound, the holiness and organic nature of language that has numerical depth, and the divine root of the created universe. It is such an attractive and developed concept for those who seek an extra-universe reality that it has been developed by others in a process of colourful invention of traditions.


Berg, Y. (2003), The Power of Kabbalah, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Halevi, Z'ev ben Shimon (1997), Tree of Life: An Introduction to the Kabbalah, Bath: Gateway Books.
Geddes and Grosset (1999), Dictionary of the Occult, New Lanark: Geddes and Grosset, 125-127, 162-165, 218-220, 226.
Geddes and Grosset (1999), Fate and Fortune, New Lanark: Geddes and Grosset, 89-188.

Adrian Worsfold