The Magick Kabbalah FAQ

This Kabbalah FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) was prepared for the Usenet/Internet newsgroup "alt.magick". It is intended to provide a brief introduction to Kabbalah, and pointers to additional sources of information. This FAQ may be freely copied as long as this header is retained. The contents are copyright and may not be abridged or modified without the written permission of the author. Printed copies may be made for personal use. Copyright Colin Low 1993 (INET: ) The author would appreciate feedback on the accuracy of the material, modulo variations in the Anglicised spellings of Hebrew words. **********************************************************************


Section 1: General Q1.1 : What is Kabbalah Q1.2 : What does the word "Kabbalah" mean, and how should I spell it? Q1.3 : What is the "Tradition"? Q1.4 : How old is Kabbalah? Q1.5 : Do I need to be Jewish to study Kabbalah? Q1.6 : Is there an obstacle to a woman studying Kabbalah? Q1.7 : I've heard that one shouldn't study Kabbalah unless one is over forty years old? Is this true? Q1.8 : Do I need to learn Hebrew to study Kabbalah? Q1.9 : Is non-Judaic Kabbalah really Kabbalah? Q1.10 : How can I find someone who teaches Kabbalah? Section 2: Specifics Q2.1 : What is the Great Work? Section 3: A Potted History of Kabbalah Section 4: Reading List Section 5: Information on the Internet


Section 1: GENERAL


Q1.1 : What is Kabbalah? ------------------------ Within Judaism, Kabbalah is an integral part of Jewish religion. It consists of a large body of speculation on the nature of divinity, the creation, and the role of human beings. It consists also of meditative, devotional, mystical and magical practices which were taught only to a select few and for this reason Kabbalah is regarded as an esoteric offshoot of Judaism. Kabbalah has been studied and used by non-Jews for several hundred years. +++ Q1.2 : What does the word "Kabbalah" mean, and how should I spell it? --------------------------------------------------------------------- The word "Kabbalah" means "tradition". No-one with the slightest interest in Kabbalah can fail to notice that there are many alternative spellings of the word, the two most common being Kabbalah and Qabalah. Cabala, Qaballah, Qabala, Kaballah (and so on) are also seen. The reason for this is that some letters in the Hebrew alphabet have more than one representation in the English alphabet, and the same Hebrew letter can be written either as K or Q (or sometimes even C); some authors choose one spelling, and some choose the other. Some (the author for example) will even mix Q and K in the same document, spelling Kabbalah and Qlippoth (as opposed to Qabalah and Klippoth!). A random selection of modern Hebrew phrase books and dictionaries use the K variant to represent the letter Kuf, so anyone who claims that the "correct" spelling is "Qabalah" is on uncertain ground. The author takes the view (based on experience) that the spelling "Kabbalah" is recognised by a wider selection of people than the "Qabalah" variant, and for this purely pragmatic reason it is used throughout the FAQ. +++ Q1.3 : What is the "Tradition"? ------------------------------- According to Jewish tradition, the Torah (Torah - "Law" - the first five books of the Old Testament) was created prior to the world and she advised God on such weighty matters as the creation of human kind. When Moses received the written law from God, tradition has it that he also received the oral law, which was not written down, but passed from generation to generation. At times the oral law has been referred to as "Kabbalah" - the oral tradition. The Torah was believed to be divine, and in the same way as the Torah was accompanied by an oral tradition, so there grew up a secret oral tradition which claimed to possess an initiated understanding of the Torah, its hidden meanings, and the divine power concealed within it. This is a principle root of the Kabbalistic tradition, a belief in the divinity of the Torah, and a belief that by studying this text one can unlock the secrets of the creation. Another aspect of Jewish religion which influenced Kabbalah was the Biblical phenomenon of prophecy. The prophet was an individual chosen by God as a mouthpiece, and there is an implication that God, far from being a transcedental abstraction, was a being whom one could approach (albeit with enormous difficulty, risk, fear and trembling). Some Kabbalists believed that they were the inheritors of practical techniques handed down from the time of the Biblical prophets, and it is not impossible or improbable that this was in fact the case. These two threads, one derived from the study of the Torah, the other derived from practical attempts to approach God, form the roots from which the Kabbalistic tradition developed. +++ Q1.4 : How old is Kabbalah? --------------------------- No-one knows. The earliest documents which are generally acknowledged as being Kabbalistic come from the 1st. Century C.E., but there is a suspicion that the Biblical phenomenon of prophecy may have been grounded in a much older oral tradition which was a precursor to the earliest recognisable forms of Kabbalah. There is no clear point at which a distinct Kabbalistic tradition "began", and its origin is more a matter of definition than anything else. The origin of the word "Kabbalah" as a label for a tradition which is definitely recognisable as Kabbalah is attributed to Isaac the Blind (c. 1160-1236 C.E.), who is also credited with being the originator of the idea of sephirothic emanation. Prior to this (and after) a wide variety of terms were used for those who studied the tradition: "masters of mystery", "men of belief", "masters of knowledge", "those who know", "those who know grace", "children of faith", "children of the king's palace", "those who know wisdom", "those who reap the field", "those who have entered and left". +++ Q1.5 Do I need to be Jewish to study Kabbalah? ---------------------------------------------- No. The Law of Gravitation was formulated by Isaac Newton, who was English. You do not need to be English to fall on your face. You do not need to be English to study the physics of gravitation. However, if you choose to study Kabbalah by name you should recognise that Kabbalah was and is a part of Judaism, and an important part of the history of Jewish people, and respect the beliefs which not only gave rise to Kabbalah, but which are still an essential part of Jewish faith. +++ Q1.6 : Is there an Obstacle to a Woman studying Kabbalah? --------------------------------------------------------- Within Judaism the answer is a resounding "Yes!": there are many obstacles. Perle Epstein relates some of her feelings on the subject in her book on Kabbalah (see the Reading List below). Outside of Judaism the answer is a resounding "No!": there are no obstacles. For the past one hundred years women have been active both in studying and in teaching Kabbalah. +++ Q1.7 : I've heard that one shouldn't study Kabbalah unless one is over forty years old? Is this true? --------------------------------------------------------------------- This idea appears to have come from the great Kabbalist R. Isaac Luria (1534-1572), who began the study of Kabbalah at the age of seventeen and died at the age of thirty-eight! His equally famous contemporary R. Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) began at the age of twenty. Many other famous Kabbalists also began the study early. The historical basis for the "rule" comes from opponents of Kabbalah within Judaism who (successfully) attempted to restrict its study (e.g. the excommunication of the Frankists in Poland in 1756). At the root of this was the heresy of false messiah Shabbatai Levi (17th. C) which resulted in large numbers of Jews leaving the orthodox fold. This heresy had deep Kabbalistic underpinnings, and in the attempt to stamp out Shabbateanism, Kabbalah itself became suspect. A further factor was the degeneration of 18th. century Hasidism (which had roots both in Kabbalah and Shabbateanism) into "wonder working" and superstition; the rationalist faction in Judaism triumphed, and the study of Kabbalah became largely discredited. +++ Q1.8 : Do I need to learn Hebrew to study Kabbalah? --------------------------------------------------- Do you need to learn French in order to visit France? Should you learn French if you intend to visit France regularly? These are questions you need to answer for yourself. The author of this FAQ visits France regularly and does a lot of pointing and grunting - it all comes down to deciding whether asking for food in colloquial French is more important than simply getting the food and eating it. The author takes the latter view; the realities of mysticism and magic can be pointed at, and the accmpanying grunts can be found in many traditions and many different languages. However, there is no question that a knowledge of French (or Hebrew) will enrich the experience. Thousands of important Kabbalistic texts have not been translated out of Hebrew or Aramaic. The difficulties in trying to read the archaic and technically complex literature of Kabbalah should not be discounted, but it is well worthwhile to acquire even a superficial knowledge of Hebrew. Two useful books are: Levy, Harold, "Hebrew for All", Valentine, Mitchell 1976 Harrison R.K. "Teach yourself Biblical Hebrew", NTC Publishing Group 1993 Many Kabbalists view the Torah as the literal word of God and Hebrew as the language of creation. In this view the alphabet and language are divine and have immense magical power. +++ Q1.9 : Is non-Judaic Kabbalah really Kabbalah? ---------------------------------------------- This is a matter of definition. Jewish writers on the subject tend to downplay aspects of Kabbalah which conflict with orthodox rabbinic Judaism, so that we do not see the heretic Nathan of Gaza classed as an important Kabbalist, despite the fact that he was very influential for almost two hundred years. We hear little about the non-rabbinic "Baal Shem" or "Masters of the Name" who used Kabbalah for healing and other practical purposes. There is ample evidence that the many magical practices currently associated with non-Judaic Kabbalah were widely used and well understood by some of the most famous rabbinic Kabbalists. It is the author's opinion that non-Jewish Kabbalah has preserved up to the current day not only a large part of the authentic spirit of Kabbalah, but many practical techniques, and the greatly esteemed R. Aryeh Kaplan makes the following significant comment: "It is significant to note that a number of techniques alluded to in these fragments also appear to have been preserved among the non-Jewish school of magic in Europe. The relationship between the practical Kabbalah and these magical schools would constitute an interesting area of study." One should not read too much into this, but it does seem clear that it would be unwise to be too hasty in deciding what is "real" Kabbalah and what is not. The Kabbalah has been many different things over the past 2000 years. Q1.10 : How can I find someone who teaches Kabbalah? ---------------------------------------------------- It is not possible to recommend specific people or organisations as what is right for one person may not be right for another. In general, (good) teachers of Kabbalah are not easy to find and never have been, and the search for a teacher proceeds in the Micawberish belief that when the time is right "something will turn up". The difficulty in finding a teacher can be viewed as a nuisance or a positive part of learning Kabbalah. A thing is valued more when it is hard to find. Associate with people who share your interests, go to lectures and public meetings, go to workshops, go to whatever happens to be available, (even if it is not entirely to your taste), and sooner or later someone will "turn up". Most Kabbalists are likely to be people with strong personal beliefs of a religious nature, and may see their teaching as a personal obligation (see "What is the Great Work?"). Such people are unlikely to charge money for their teaching, but may require a strong commitment from pupils, and are unlikely to welcome "flavour of the month" mystical aspirants. A word of advice: a genuine teacher of Kabbalah will help you to develop your own personal relationship with God. Beware of any teacher who has preconceived and well-developed ideas about what is good for you. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Section 2: SPECIFICS ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Q2.1 : What is the Great Work? ------------------------------ "Do not pray for your own needs, for your prayer will not then be accepted. But when you want to pray, do so for the heaviness of the Head. For whatever you lack, the Divine Presence also lacks." "This is because man is a "portion of God from on high." Whatever any part lacks, also exists in the Whole, and the Whole feels the lack of the part, You should therefore pray for the needs of the Whole." The term "the Great Work" has many definitions, and is not a term from traditional Kabbalah, but it has a modern usage among some Kabbalists. The quotation above, from a disciple of the Kabbalist R. Israel Baal Shem Tov, is a traditional Kabbalistic view: that the creation is in a damaged and imperfect state, and the Kabbalist, by virtue of his or her state of consciousness, can bring about a real healing. A name for this is "tikkun" (restoration). There are many traditional forms of "tikkun", most of them prescriptions for essentially magical acts designed to bring about a healing in the creation. This view of the Great Work also exists outside of Judaic Kabbalah and survives today, namely that the creation is in a "fallen" state, and each person has an individual role to play in bringing about a general restoration. "When someone stands in the light but does not give it out, then a shadow is created." This is a modern restatement of an old Kabbalistic idea. In this view, God gives life to the Creation: from second to second the Creation is sustained by this giving, and if it were to cease even for an instant, the Creation would be no more. If someone wants to know God then they have to resemble God, and this means they must give to others. Kabbalah is not a self-centred pursuit; it pivots around the Kabbalist's relationship with all living beings. +++ --------------------------------------------------------------------- Section 3: A POTTED HISTORY OF KABBALAH --------------------------------------------------------------------- The earliest documents associated with Kabbalah come from the period ~100 to ~1000 A.D. and describe the attempts of "Merkabah" mystics to penetrate the seven halls (Hekaloth) of creation in order to reach the Merkabah (throne-chariot) of God. These mystics appear to have used what would now be recognised as familiar methods of shamanism (fasting, repetitious chanting, prayer, posture) to induce trance states in which they literally fought their way past terrible seals and guards to reach an ecstatic state in which they "saw God". An early and highly influential document, the "Sepher Yetzirah", or "Book of Formation", originated during the earlier part of this period. By the early Middle Ages further, more theosophical developments had taken place, chiefly a description of "processes" within God, and the development of an esoteric view of creation as a process in which God manifests in a series of emanations, or sephiroth. This doctrine of the sephiroth can be found in a rudimentary form in the "Sepher Yetzirah", but by the time of the publication of the book "Bahir" in the 12th. century it had reached a form not too different from the form it takes today. A motive behind the development of the doctrine of emanation can be found in the questions: "If God made the world, then what is the world if it is not God?" "If the world is God, then why is it imperfect?" It was necessary to bridge the gap between a pure and perfect being and a manifestly impure and imperfect world by a series of "steps" in which the divine light was successively diluted. The result has much in common with neoplatonism, which also tried to resolve the same difficulty by postulating a "chain of being" which bridged the gap between the perfection of God, and the evident imperfection of the world of daily life. One of most interesting characters from this early period was Abraham Abulafia (1240-1295), who believed that God cannot be described or conceptualised using everyday symbols. Like many Kabbalists he believed in the divine nature of the Hebrew alphabet and used abstract letter combinations and permutations ("tzeruf") in intense meditations lasting many hours to reach ecstatic states. Because his abstract letter combinations were used as keys or entry points to altered states of consciousness, failure to carry through the manipulations correctly could have a drastic effect on the Kabbalist. In "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" Scholem includes a fascinating extract from a description of one such experiment. Abulafia is unusual because (controversially) he was one of the few Kabbalists to provide explicit written details of practical techniques. The most influential Kabbalistic document, the "Sepher ha Zohar" or "Book of Splendour", was published by Moses de Leon (1238-1305), a Spanish Jew, in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The Zohar is a series of separate documents covering a wide range of sub- jects, from a verse-by-verse esoteric commentary on the Pentateuch, to highly theosophical descriptions of processes within God. The Zohar has been widely read and was highly influential within mainstream Judaism. An important development in Kabbalah was the Safed school of mystics headed by Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and his successor Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Luria, called "The Ari" or Lion, was a highly charismatic leader who exercised almost total control over the life of the school, and has passed into history as something of a saint. Emphasis was placed on living in the world and bringing the consciousness of God through *into* the world in a practical way. Practices were largely devotional. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Judaism as a whole was heavily influenced by Kabbalah, but two influences caused its decline. The first event was the mass defection of Jews to the cause of the heretic and apostate pseudo-messiah Shabbatai Levi (1626-1676), an event Scholem calls "the largest and most momentous messianic movement in Jewish history subsequent to the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt." The Shabbateans included many prominant rabbis and Kabbalists, and from this point Kabbalah became inextricably mired with suspicions of heresy. A second influence was the rise in Eastern Europe of a populist Kabbalism in the form of Hasidism, and its eventual decline into superstition, so that by the beginning of this century a Jewish writer was able to dismiss Kabbalah as an historical curiousity. Jewish Kabbalah has vast literature which is almost entirely untranslated into English. A development which took place almost synchronously with the translation and publication of key texts of Jewish Kabbalah was its adoption by many Christian mystics, magicians and philosphers. Some Christians thought Kabbalah held keys that would reveal mysteries hidden in the scriptures, others tried to find in Kabbalah doctrines which might be used to convert Jews to Christianity. There were some who recognised in Kabbalah themes with which they were already familiar in the literature of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. Renaissance philosophers such as Pico della Mirandola were familiar with Kabbalah and mixed it with gnosticism, pythagoreanism, neo- platonism and hermeticism to form a snowball which continued to pick up traditions as it rolled down the centuries. It is probably accurate to say that from the Renaissance on, virtually all European occult philosophers and magicians of note had a working knowledge of Kabbalah. Non-Jewish Kabbalah has suffered greatly from having only a limited number of source texts to work from, often in poor translations, and without the key commentaries which would have revealed the tradition associated with the concepts described. It is pointless to criticise non-Jewish Kabbalah (as many writers have) for misinterpreting Jewish Kabbalah; it should be recognised as a parallel tradition with many points of correspondence and many points of difference. Very little information has survived about the Practical Kabbalah, but there is abundant evidence that it involved a wide range of practices and included practices now regarded as magical - the fact that so many Kabbalists denounced the use of Kabbalah for magical purposes is evidence in itself (even if there were no other) that the use of these techniqes was widespread. It is highly likely that many ritual magical techniques were introduced into Europe by Kabbalists or their less scrupulous camp followers. The most important medieval magical text is the "Key of Solomon", and it contains the elements of classic ritual magic - names of power, the magic circle, ritual implements, consecration, evocation of spirits etc. No-one knows how old it is, but there is a reasonable suspicion that its contents preserve tech- niques which might well date back to Solomon. The combination of non-Jewish Kabbalah and ritual magic has been kept alive outside Judaism until the present day, although it has been heavily adulterated at times by hermeticism, gnosticism, neoplatonism, pythagoreanism, rosicrucianism, christianity, tantra and so on. The most important "modern" influences are the French magician Eliphas Levi, and the English "Order of the Golden Dawn". At least two members of the Golden Dawn (S.L. Mathers and A.E. Waite) were knowledgable Kabbalists, and three Golden Dawn members have popularised Kabbalah - Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, and Dion Fortune. Dion Fortune's "Order of the Inner Light" has also produced a number of authors: Gareth Knight, William Butler, and William Gray to name but three. An unfortunate side effect of the Golden Dawn is that while Kabbalah was an important part of its "Knowledge Lectures", surviving Golden Dawn rituals are a syncretist hodge-podge of symbolism in which Kabbalah seems to play a minor or nominal role, and this has led to Kabbalah being seen by many modern occultists as more of a theoretical and intellectual discipline, rather than a potent and self-contained mystical and magical system in its own right. Some of the originators of modern witchcraft (e.g. Gerald Gardner, Alex Saunders) drew heavily on medieval ritual and Kabbalah for inspiration, and it is not unusual to find modern witches teaching some form of Kabbalah, although it is generally even less well integrated into practical technique than in the case of the Golden Dawn. To summarise, Kabbalah is a mystical and magical tradition which originated nearly two thousand years ago and has been practiced continuously during that time. It has been practiced by Jew and non- Jew alike for about five hundred years. On the Jewish side it has been an integral and influential part of Judaism; on the non-Jewish side it has created a rich mystical and magical tradition with its own validity, a tradition which has survived despite the prejudice generated through co-existing within a strongly Christian culture. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Section 4: READING MATERIAL The choice of texts for a reading list is always contentious - there are too many books on Kabbalah to recommend all of them. If you feel strongly that a book should be included in this list then mail its details and some (relatively) factual comments on its contents to --------------------------------------------------------------------- Crowley, Aleister, "777", Metaphysical Research Group 1977 [Tables of Kabbalistic correspondences, some from the Golden Dawn, some from Crowley, many traditional] Epstein, Perle, "Kabbalah", Shambhala 1978 [Information on traditional Jewish Kabbalah by a student of Aryeh Kaplan. It contains many biographical details, and useful information on practical techniques.] Fortune, Dion, "The Mystical Qabalah", Ernest Benn Ltd, 1979 [One of the first books to relate the Sephirothic Tree to everyday experience, and for this reason a useful beginners' book. It contains many digressions on matters circa 1930 which now appear extremely dated. Dion Fortune was strongly influenced by Theosophy and Esoteric Christianity as well as Kabbalah, and it shows.] Kaplan, Aryeh, "The Bahir Illumination", Weiser 1989 [A key Kabbalistic source text with an extensive and informed commentary by Kaplan] Kaplan, Aryeh, "Meditation and Kabbalah", Weiser 1992 [Essential reading for the experienced Kabbalist. Not an introductory text. Many biographical and historical details worth reading for their own sake.] Kaplan, Aryeh, "The Sepher Yetzirah", Weiser 1991 [A key Kabbalistic source text with an extensive and informed commentary by Kaplan.] Kaplan, Aryeh, "The Living Torah", Maznaim 1981 [A key Kabbalistic source text with an informed commentary by Kaplan. Contains both Kaplan's translation and the Hebrew source text of the five books of Moses.] Knight, Gareth, "A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism", Vols 1 & 2, Helios 1972 [Volume 1 provides an introduction to the Tree of Life and the sephiroth, and follows the correspondences of the Golden Dawn and Dion Fortune. Volume 2 covers the paths on the Tree, draws on the same basic correspondences, but contains more personal meditational material. At the level of a personal commentary it provides many insights into the G.D. correspondences.] Levi, Eliphas, "Transcendental Magic", Rider, 1969. [A key text by an important and influential magician. Levi's factual information should not be taken at face value] Mathers, S. L., "The Kabbalah Unveiled", Routledge & Kegan Paul 1981 [A translation of a translation of three texts from the "Zohar", with an introduction by both Moina and Samuel Liddel Mathers, which is interesting not only for what it says about Kabbalah but also as a source of insight into two key members of the Order of the Golden Dawn.] Mathers, S. L., "The Key of Solomon the King", Routledge & Kegan Paul [Classic magical grimoire with a Kabbalistic flavour.] Mathers, S. L., "The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage", Dover 1975 [The authenticity of this text has been questioned, but its influence on 20th. century magic and practical Kabbalah cannot be. It may be based on an authentic technique for acquiring a "Maggid" or angelic teacher, something widely employed by Jewish Kabbalists in the past.] Ponce, Charles, "Kabbalah", Garnstone Press, 1974. [A straightforward and not too fanciful introduction to Kabbalah with a Jewish flavour.] Regardie, I., "The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic", Falcon Press 1984 [Essential reading for anyone interested in the development of non- Jewish Kabbalah this century.] Scholem, Gershom G. "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism", Schoken Books 1974 [Essential reading for anyone with an interest in the historical basis for Kabbalah.] Scholem, Gershom G., "Origins of the Kabbalah", Princton 1990 [Traces the origins of Kabbalistic thought through the book "Bahir", the Kabbalists of Provence, and the Kabbalistic circle of Gerona. Gripping stuff for the academically and historically minded] Scholem, Gershom G. "Kabbalah", Dorset Press 1974 [Essential reading for anyone with an interest in the historical basis for Kabbalah.] Simon, Maurice & Sperling, Harry, "The Zohar", Bennet 1959 (also recently reprinted by Soncino) [A translation a major part of a key Kabbalistic text. Oh, that Kaplan had lived long enough to translate The Zohar!] Tishby, Isaiah, & Lachower, Yeruham Fishel, "The Wisdom of the Zohar" Oxford University Press 1989 [An anthology of texts systematically arranged and rendered into Hebrew by Fischel Lachower and Isaiah Tishby ; with extensive introductions and explanations by Isaiah Tishby; English translation by David Goldstein.] Waite, A.E., "The Holy Kabbalah", Citadel. [A large volume on Kabbalah by a key member of the Golden Dawn, greatly diminished by Waite's verbose and circumlocutious writing style.] ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Section 5: INFORMATION AVAILABLE ON THE INTERNET ---------------------------------------------------------------------- FTP Sites: ( has an ftp archive on various occult and magical topics. Some material on Kabbalah can be found in pub/magick/qabalah ( has an archive from soc.culture.jewish in pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism. A very useful reading list for Jewish Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism can be found in pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism/reading-lists/chasidism Usenet Newsgroups: Useful information and discussion on Jewish sources and Judaism in general can be found in soc.culture.jewish Information and discussion on Kabbalah as a part of the framework for modern (non-Jewish) ritual or ceremonial magic can be found in alt.magick