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Kabbalah, also spelled Kabala or Cabala (Hebrew: קַבָּלָה‎ literally "receiving"), is a variegated esoteric method, discipline and school of thought. Its definition varies according to the tradition and aims of those following it,[1] from its religious origin as an integral part of Judaism, to Christian, New Age, or Occultist syncretic adaptions. Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (no end) and the mortal and finite universe (his creation). While it is heavily used by some denominations, it is not a religious denomination in itself. Inside Judaism, it forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation. Outside Judaism, its scriptures are read outside the traditional canons of organised religion. Kabbalah seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions. It also presents methods to aid understanding of these concepts and to thereby attain spiritual realisation.

Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought and kabbalists often use classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional Rabbinic literature, their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.[2]

Traditional practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date world religions, forming the primordial blueprint for Creation's philosophies, religions, sciences, arts and political systems.[3] Historically, Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th-13th century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th century Ottoman Palestine. It was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century onwards. 20th century interest in Kabbalah has inspired cross-denominational Jewish renewal and contributed to wider non-Jewish contemporary spirituality, as well as engaging its flourishing emergence and historical re-emphasis through newly established academic investigation.

According to the Zohar, a foundational text for kabbalistic thought, Torah study can proceed along four levels of interpretation (exegesis).[4][5] These four levels are called pardes from their initial letters (PRDS).

  • Peshat (lit. "simple"): the direct interpretations of meaning.
  • Remez (lit. "hint[s]"): the allegoric meanings (through allusion).
  • Derash (from Heb. darash: "inquire" or "seek"): midrashic (Rabbinic) meanings, often with imaginative comparisons with similar words or verses.
  • Sod (lit. "secret" or "mystery"): the inner, esoteric (metaphysical) meanings, expressed in kabbalah.

Kabbalah is considered by its followers as a necessary part of the study of Torah – the study of Torah (the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature) being an inherent duty of observant Jews.[6] Kabbalah teaches doctrines that are accepted by some Jews as the true meaning of Judaism while other Jews have rejected these doctrines as heretical and antithetical to Judaism. After the Medieval Kabbalah, and especially after its 16th century development and synthesis, Kabbalah replaced Jewish philosophy (hakira) as the mainstream traditional Jewish theology,[citation needed] both in scholarly circles and in the popular imagination. With the arrival of modernity, through the influence of haskalah, this has changed among non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, although its 20th century academic study and cross-denominational spiritual applications (especially through Neo-Hasidism) has reawakened a following beyond Orthodoxy.

The origins of the term "kabbalah" are unknown and disputed to belong either to Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021–1058) or else to the 13th century Spanish kabbalist Bahya ben Asher. While other terms have been used in many religious documents from the 2nd century up to the present day, the term "kabbalah" has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices.[citation needed] Jewish mystical literature, which served as the basis for the development of kabbalistic thought, developed through a theological tradition inherent in Judaism from Antiquity, as part of wider Rabbinic literature. Its theoretical development can be characterised in alternative schools and successive stages. After the Hebrew Bible experience of prophecy, the first documented schools of specifically mystical theory and method in Judaism are found in the 1st-2nd centuries, described in the heichalot (supernal "palaces") texts and the earliest existent book on Jewish esotericism, Sefer Yetzirah. Their method, known as Merkabah (contemplation of the Divine "Chariot") mysticism lasted until the 10th century, where it was subsumed by the Medieval doctrinal emergence of the Kabbalah in south-western Europe in the 12th-13th centuries. Its teachings, embodied in the Zohar, became the foundation of later Jewish mysticism, becoming re-interpreted in the early-modern developments of 16th century Safed in the Galilee, through the new system of Isaac Luria. Lurianic Kabbalah became popularised as a social mysticism for the whole Jewish community through 18th century Hasidism in eastern Europe, and its new notions of mystical leadership.

Modern academic-historical study of Jewish mysticism reserves the term "kabbalah" to designate the particular, distinctive doctrines that textually emerged fully expressed in the Middle Ages, as distinct from the earlier Merkabah mystical concepts and methods.[7] According to this descriptive categorisation, both versions of Kabbalistic theory, the medieval-Zoharic and the early-modern Lurianic together comprise the theosophical tradition in Kabbalah, while the meditative-ecstatic Kabbalah incorporates a parallel inter-related Medieval tradition. A third tradition, related but more shunned, involves the magical aims of Practical Kabbalah. Moshe Idel, for example, writes that these 3 basic models can be discerned operating and competing throughout the whole history of Jewish mysticism, beyond the particular Kabbalistic background of the Middle Ages.[8] They can be readily distinguished by their basic intent with respect to God:

  • The Theosophical tradition (the main focus of the Zohar and Luria) seeks to understand and describe the divine realm. As an alternative to rationalist Jewish philosophy, particularly Maimonides' Aristotelianism, this became the central component of Kabbalah
  • The Ecstatic tradition of Jewish meditation (exemplified by Abulafia and Isaac of Acre) strives to achieve a mystical union with God. Abraham Abulafia's "Prophetic Kabbalah" was the supreme example of this, though marginal in Kabbalistic development, and his alternative to the program of theosophical Kabbalah
  • The Magico-theurgical tradition of Practical Kabbalah (in often unpublished manuscripts) endeavours to alter both the Divine realms and the World. While some interpretations of prayer see its role as manipulating heavenly forces, Practical Kabbalah properly involved white-magical acts, and was censored by kabbalists for only those completely pure of intent. Consequently it formed a separate minor tradition shunned from Kabbalah

According to traditional belief, early kabbalistic knowledge was transmitted orally by the Patriarchs, prophets, and sages (hakhamim in Hebrew), eventually to be "interwoven" into Jewish religious writings and culture. According to this view, early kabbalah was, in around the 10th century BC, an open knowledge practiced by over a million people in ancient Israel.[9] Foreign conquests drove the Jewish spiritual leadership of the time (the Sanhedrin) to hide the knowledge and make it secret, fearing that it might be misused if it fell into the wrong hands.[10] The Sanhedrin leaders were also concerned that the practice of kabbalah by Jews of the Jewish diaspora, unsupervised and unguided by the masters, might lead them into wrong practice and forbidden ways. As a result, the kabbalah became secretive, forbidden and esoteric to Judaism (Torat Ha’Sod תורת הסוד) for two and a half millennia.[citation needed]

It is hard to clarify with any degree of certainty the exact concepts within kabbalah. There are several different schools of thought with very different outlooks; however, all are accepted as correct.[11] Modern halakhic authorities have tried to narrow the scope and diversity within kabbalah, by restricting study to certain texts, notably Zohar and the teachings of Isaac Luria as passed down through Hayyim ben Joseph Vital.[12] However even this qualification does little to limit the scope of understanding and expression, as included in those works are commentaries on Abulafian writings, Sefer Yetzirah, Albotonian writings, and the Berit Menuhah,[13] which is known to the kabbalistic elect and which, as described more recently by Gershom Scholem, combined ecstatic with theosophical mysticism. It is therefore important to bear in mind when discussing things such as the sefirot and their interactions that one is dealing with highly abstract concepts that at best can only be understood intuitively.[14]

According to Lurianic cosmology, the sefirot correspond to various levels of creation (ten sefirot in each of the Four Worlds, and four worlds within each of the larger four worlds, each containing ten sefirot, which themselves contain ten sefirot, to an infinite number of possibilities),[35] and are emanated from the Creator for the purpose of creating the universe. The sefirot are considered revelations of the Creator's will (ratzon),[36] and they should not be understood as ten different "gods" but as ten different ways the one God reveals his will through the Emanations. It is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes.

Altogether, eleven sefirot are named. However Keter and Daat are unconscious and conscious dimensions of one principle, conserving 10 forces. The names of the sefirot in descending order are:

  • Keter (supernal crown, representing above-conscious will)
  • Chochmah (the highest potential of thought)
  • Binah (the understanding of the potential)
  • Daat (intellect of knowledge)
  • Chesed (sometimes referred to as Gedolah-greatness) (loving-kindness)
  • Gevurah (sometimes referred to as Din-justice or Pachad-fear) (severity/strength)
  • Rachamim also known as Tiphereth (mercy)
  • Netzach (victory/eternity)
  • Hod (glory/splendour)
  • Yesod (foundation)
  • Malkuth (kingdom)

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