Kabala (or Kabbalah or Cabbalah or Cabbala
or Cabala)
A Hebrew and Jewish system of Gnosticism or Theosophy.
The word means ‘‘doctrines received from tradition.’’ In ancient
Hebrew literature the name was used to denote the entire
body of religious writings, the Pentateuch excepted. It was only
in the early Middle Ages that the mystical system known as Kabalism
was designated by that name.
The Kabala deals with the nature of God and with the sephiroth,
or divine emanations of angels and man. God, the En Soph,
fills and contains the universe. As in Gnosticism, God is boundless,
inconceivable, and distantly transcendent. In a certain
mystical sense, God can be thought of as nonexistent or preexistent.
To justify existence the deity had to become active and
creative, and this was achieved through the medium of the ten
sephiroth, intelligences that emanated from God like rays proceeding
from a luminary.
The first sephiroth was the wish to become manifest, and
this contained nine other intelligences or sephiroth, which
again emanated one from the other—the second from the first,
the third from the second, and so forth. These ten sephiroth
were known as the ‘‘Crown,’’ ‘‘Wisdom,’’ ‘‘Intelligence,’’
‘‘Love,’’ ‘‘Justice,’’ ‘‘Beauty,’’ ‘‘Firmness,’’ ‘‘Splendor,’’ ‘‘Foundation,’’
and ‘‘Kingdom.’’ From the junction of pairs of sephiroth
other emanations were formed; thus from Wisdom and Intelligence
proceeded Love or Justice and from Love and
Justice, Beauty.
The sephiroth were also symbolic of primordial man and
heavenly man, of which earthly man was the shadow. They
formed three triads, representing intellectual, moral, and
physical qualities the first was Wisdom, Intelligence, and
Crown; the second, Love, Justice, and Beauty; the third, Firmness,
Splendor, and Foundation.
The whole was encircled or bound by Kingdom, the ninth
sephiroth. Each of these triads symbolized a portion of the
human frame the first, the head; the second, the arms; the
third, the legs. Although those sephiroth were emanations
from God, they remained a portion of God, simply representing
different aspects of the One Being.
Kabalistic cosmology posits the existence of four different
worlds, each forming a sephirotic system of a decade of emanations
generated thusly from the world of emanations, or the
heavenly man, came a direct emanation from the En Soph.
From the emanation was produced the world of creation, or the
Briatic world of pure nature, less spiritual than the world of the
heavenly man. The angel Metatron inhabited the Briatic world
and constituted a world of pure spirit. He governed the visible
world and guided the revolutions of the planets. From the
world of pure nature was created the world of formation or the
Yetziratic world, the abode of angels.
Finally, from these three worlds emanate the world of action
or matter, the dwelling of evil spirits. It is said to contain ten
hells, each becoming lower until the depths of diabolical degradation
are reached. The prince of this region is the evil spirit
Samuel, the serpent spoken of in the book of Genesis, otherwise
known as ‘‘the Beast.’’
The universe was incomplete, however, without the creation
of man. The heavenly Adam (the tenth sephiroth) created the
earthly Adam, each member of whose body corresponds to a
part of the visible universe. The human form is said to be
shaped according to the four letters that constitute the Jewish
tetragrammaton YHWH.
Souls preexist in the world of emanations, and are all destined
to inhabit human bodies, according to the Kabala. Like
the sephiroth from which it emanates, every soul has ten potencies,
consisting of a trinity of triads—spirit, soul, and elemental
soul, or neptesh. Each soul, before its entrance into the world,
consists of male and female united into one being, but when it
descends to earth, the two parts are separated and animate different
The destiny of the soul upon earth is to develop from the
perfect germ implanted in it, which must ultimately return to
En Soph. If the soul does not succeed in acquiring the experience
for which it has been sent to earth, it must reinhabit the
body three times so that it becomes duly purified. When all the
souls in the world of the sephiroth have passed through this period
of probation and returned to the bosom of En Soph, the
Jubilee will begin. Even Satan will be restored to his angelic nature,
and existence will be a Sabbath without end. The Kabala
states that these esoteric doctrines are contained in the Hebrew
Scriptures but cannot be perceived by the uninitiated; they are,
however, plainly revealed to persons of spiritual mind.
The Kabala is sometimes regarded as occult literature, and
it has been stated that the philosophical doctrines developed
in its pages have been perpetuated by a secret of oral tradition
from the first ages of humanity. As British Hebrew and biblical
scholar Christian D. Ginsburg notes (1863)
‘‘The Kabala was first taught by God Himself to a select company
of angels, who formed a theosophic school in Paradise.
After the Fall the angels most graciously communicated this
heavenly doctrine to the disobedient child of earth, to furnish
the protoplasts with the means of returning to their pristine nobility
and felicity. From Adam it passed over to Noah, and then
to Abraham, the friend of God, who emigrated with it to Egypt,
where the patriarch allowed a portion of this mysterious doctrine
to ooze out. It was in this way that the Egyptians obtained
some knowledge of it, and the other Eastern nations could introduce
it into their philosophical systems. Moses, who was
learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, [as] first initiated into the
Kabala in the land of his birth, but became most proficient in
it during his wanderings in the wilderness, when he not only
devoted to it the leisure hours of the whole forty years, but received
lessons in it from one of the angels. By the aid of this
mysterious science the lawgiver was enabled to solve the difficulties
which arose during his management of the Israelites, in
spite of the pilgrimages, wars, and frequent miseries of the nation.
He covertly laid down the principles of this secret doctrine
in the first four books of the Pentateuch, but withheld them
from Deuteronomy. . . . Moses also initiated the seventy Elders
into the secrets of this doctrine, and they again transmitted
them from hand to hand. Of all who formed the unbroken line
of tradition, David and Solomon were most deeply initiated
into the Kabala. No one, however, dared to write it down till
Simon Ben Jochai, who lived at the time of the destruction of
the second Temple. . . . After his death, his son, Rabbi Eliezer,
and his secretary, Rabbi Abba, as well as his disciples, collated
Rabbi Simon Ben Jochai’s treatises, and out of these composed
the celebrated work called Sohar, i.e., Splendor which is the
grand storehouse of Kabalism.’’
This legendary account of kabalistic origins, however, has
found little support from historians. The mysticism of the
Mishna and the Talmud, the older Hebrew literature, must be
carefully distinguished from that of the kabalistic writings.
At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth
century, the Kabala found an audience among Protestant biblical
scholars who turned to the Hebrew text for their biblical
translations. From writers such as Johannes Reuchlin, Old Testament
professor at Wittenburg, a Christian Kabala (usually
spelled Cabala or Qabala) developed and was passed into nonJewish
occult circles.
Non-Jewish occultism and magic became deeply indebted to
kabalistic combinations of the divine names for the terms of its
rituals, deriving from the Kabala the belief in a resident virtue
in sacred names and numbers. Certain rules were employed to
discover the sublime source of power resident in the Jewish
scriptures. Thus the words of several verses in the Scriptures
that were regarded as containing an occult meaning were
placed over each other and the letters were formed into new
words by reading them vertically. Often the words of the text
were arranged in squares so they could be read vertically or
Words were joined together and redivided, and the initial
and final letters of certain words were formed into separate
words. Every letter of the word was reduced to its numerical
value, and the word was explained by another of the same
value. Every letter of a word was also taken to be an initial of
an abbreviation of that word. The 22 letters of the alphabet
were divided into two halves, one half placed above the other,
and the two letters that thus became associated were interchanged.
Thus a became l, b became m, and so on. This cipher
alphabet was called albm, from the first interchanged pairs. The
commutation of the 22 letters was effected by the last letter of
the alphabet taking the place of the first, the next-to-last the
place of the second, and so forth. This cipher was called atbah.
These permutations and combinations are much older than the
Kabala and were recognized by Jewish mystics from time immemorial.
During the nineteenth century a revival of magic—based in
large part upon the Kabala and the identification of the 22 letters
of the Hebrew alphabet with the tarot—occurred in
France, primarily around Éliphas Lévi. From Lévi a new appreciation
of the Kabala passed to the magicians of the Hermetic
Order of the Golden Dawn and through it to Aleister
Crowley, a dominant practitioner of magic in the twentieth
century. It would be difficult to think of modern magic without
the Kabala and its related practices of gematria and path workings.
Within the Jewish community study of the Kabala revived in
the eighteenth century with the development of the Hassidic
movement under the leadership of the Baal Shem Tov
(1700–1760). This form of Judaism was seen as a competitor by
the orthodox Jews, who organized efforts to suppress it during
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hasidim (Jewish
mysticism) in Europe was largely wiped out during the Holocaust,
but has survived in the United States and Israel. Some
Jewish Kabalists have resented the Kabala being appropriated
by non-Jewish occultists. Most, however, have participated in
what has become an active dialogue with contemporary occultists.
Jews and non-Jews alike, for example, appreciate the
scholarship of Gershom Scholem, the greatest Kabala scholar
of this century.
Abelson, Joshua. Jewish Mysticism An Introduction to Kabbalah.
New York Sepher-Hermon Press, 1981.
Achad, Frater [Charles S. Jones]. The Anatomy of the Body of
God Being the Supreme Revelation of Cosmic Consciousness. Chicago
Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum, 1925. New York Samuel
Weiser, 1969.
Bension, Ariel. The Zohar in Moslem and Christian Spain. New
York Sepher-Hermon Press, 1932.
Berg, Phillip S. Kabbalah for the Laymen. New York Research
Center of Kabbalah, n.d.
Franck, Adolphe. The Kabbalah. New Hyde Park, N.Y. University
Books, 1967. Reprint, New York Citadel, 1979.
Gaster, Moses. The Origin of the Kabbalah. New York Gordon
Press, 1976.
Halevi, Z’ev Ben Shimon. An Introduction to the Cabala—Tree
of Life. New York Samuel Weiser, 1972.
Kalisch, Isidor, trans. Sepher Yezirah. New York, 1877. Reprint,
San Jose, Calif. Rosicrucian Press, 1950. Reprint, North
Hollywood, Calif. Symbols and Signs, n.d.
Lévi, Éliphas. The Book of Splendors. New York Samuel
Weiser, 1973.
Luzzatto, Moses. General Principles of the Kabbalah. New York
Research Center of Kabbalah, 1970.
Meltzer, David, ed. The Secret Garden An Anthology of the Kabbalah.
New York Seabury Press, 1976.
Pick, Bernhard. The Cabala. LaSalle, Ill. Open Court Publishing,
Rauchlen, Johannes. On the Art of the Kabbalah. Translated by
Martin Goodman and Sarah Goodman. New York Abaris
Books, 1983.
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York Quadrangle, 1974.
———. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York Schocken,
———, ed. Zohar—The Book of Splendor Basic Readings from
the Kabbalah. New York Schocken, 1963.
Sperling, Harry, and Maurice Simon, trans. The Zohar. 5
vols. New York Rebecca Bennet Publishing, n.d.
Waite, Arthur E. The Holy Kabbalah. New Hyde Park, N.Y.
University Books, 1960. New York Citadel, 1976.