What is Kabbalah?

The Ramban in his introduction to his Torah commentary says that every field of knowledge – whether it be science, agriculture, medicine of palmistry – can be learned from the Torah.

The Torah given to Moshe at Mount Sinai consists of the Written Law (the Five Books of Moses) and the four levels of the Oral Law (some of which was recorded in the Talmud):

Peshat – the straight – forward meaning of verses;

Remez – deeper meanings hinted at through numerical value of letters, acronyms and the like;

Derash – homiletic exegesis;

Sod – the kabalistic interpretation.

Collectively, these are known by their Hebrew acronym pardes, which literally means “orchard.” Indeed, a single Torah thought is like a beautiful, delicious, fragrant fruit; the Torah fully explained in all four ways is like an entire orchard filled with all varieties of luscious fruits.

Through Kabbalah, “the hidden wisdom,” truths hidden from human intellect can be known. Kabbalah is the study of:

Divine inspiration and prophecy;

Ways of approaching G-d and cleaving to Him;

G-d’s uniqueness, Providence and Hanhagah – how he reacts to our deeds in this world through His attributes of Loving-Kindness (Chesed), Stern Judgment (Din), and Mercy (Rachamim);

How a human being perfects the worlds by performing mitzvot.

Kabbalah teaches that corresponding to the 613 mitzvoth are 613 limbs and sinews in man’s body, as well as 613 divisions in the soul and 613 divisions in the upper worlds, all of which must be rectified and perfected. Each soul has a root in the upper worlds. When a person sins, he blemishes this root as well as the corresponding limb in his body; through repentance and tikkunim (Kabalistic rectifications), he rectifies the blemish. Each mitzvah also has a root in the upper worlds. When a person prays or performs a mitzvah – be it shaking a lulav, speaking words of Torah or refraining from gossip – he rectifies and perfects the parts of his body, his soul, and the upper worlds that correspond to that mitzvah. The mitzvah ascends to G-d, the Source of Perfection, and brings perfections (haspa’ah) from Him back down into the worlds.

Kabbalah is correct, perfect knowledge as opposed to philosophic speculation, for it stems from Divine inspiration and revelation. Kabbalah is therefore called “true wisdom.” It consists of abstract concepts far removed from the under-standing of the human mind, which is limited by human experience and senses.

Kabbalah has two main branches: Ma’aseh Bereshit (“The Creation”) and Ma’aseh Merkavah (The Divine Chariot).

Ma’aseh Bereshit describes all the upper and lower worlds; explains how they were created, how they are directed and how they may be corrected and brought to the peak of perfection; and reveals the mystery of G-d’s Unity as well as the secret meaning of the Torah and it’s laws. Ma’aseh Merkavah teaches the various methods by which a person may sanctify and elevate himself until he attains a prophetic vision.

These methods include: praying and performing mitzvot with concentration and special intentions (kavvanot), purifying his body, and rectifying the roots of his soul until he becomes fit to serve as a chariot for the Shechinah.

G-d created four spiritual worlds, which conceal His light in stages until it enters our material world. “Light” is a metaphor for the Attributes of Loving-Kindness, Stern Judgment and Mercy, which react to our deeds. We can perceive these attributes only after they have undergone stages of concealment. The four worlds are, in descending order:

Atzilut (Nearness);

Beriah (Creation);

Yetzirah (Formation);

Asiyah (Action) – the lowest level of which is our material world.

These are four levels of Divine inspiration, each rooted in one of the four worlds. Prophecy stems from the highest world, Atzilut. The prophecy of Moshe was revealed to him in Beriah; that of the early prophets was clothed even further in Beriah; and that of the later prophets was clothed still further in Yezirah. The inspiration of the Tanna’im (scholars of the Mishnah), which is referred to as “entering the Orchard,” was drawn directly from Yetzirah. In later generations, the only inspirations attainable was derived from the world of Asiyah, which is called Kabbalah Ma’asit or “Practical Kabbalah” (Sha’arei Kedushah 3:6)

Practical Kabbalah is the study of the forces appointed over the lowest world, Asiyah. A person who has achieved an extremely high spiritual level may, under appropriate conditions, use Practical Kabbalah to direct the forces of nature at will. The Creator gave this power to the Tzadikim for doing His Will and sanctifying His Name.

The Tanna’im had a period of divine grace, in which mysteries were revealed in a clearer and more developed form to the Tanna R. Shimon bar Yochai, who learned Kabbalah from Rabbi Akiva. The newly revealed knowledge was taught to his disciples and was recorded in the Zohar for all of Klal Yisroel, when they are ready to receive it. As we find in Numbers 33:1, where the Torah not only lists the various stops in the desert that the Jews made after the Exodus from Egypt, but at each point states, they traveled from one place and camped at another place.

Why was it necessary to state where they came from? Rambam explains that the 40 years in the desert were a period of spiritual growth to prepare the Jews to enter the Holy Land. Each encampment symbolizes another step in the process of spiritual development and growth. While studying the Kabbalah is the supreme goal, it must proceed gradually. In enumerating the journey of the Jews in the desert, the Torah therefore states in Parshas Masei, “They traveled from…and camped at.” It was only after they solidified their spiritual growth at a particular encampment that they were ready and able to travel on to the next point. However, if they regressed in their spiritual development, they had to go back and recapture the spirituality they had lost before they were able to progress further. The desire to attain spiritual heights through Kabbalah is indeed commendable, but we must be aware that there is no instant spirituality. We must be patient and use all the steps, just as the Jews did; after the Exodus, in the 42 stops on their way to the Holy Land.

Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem. Read more at www.rabbisprecher.com

 

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What is Kabbalah?

The Ramban in his introduction to his Torah commentary says that every field of knowledge – whether it be science, agriculture, medicine of palmistry – can be learned from the Torah. The Torah given to Moshe at Mount Sinai consists...

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