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What Is Kabbalah?

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

I recently heard a story of a celebrity in L.A. who wanted to learn Kabbalah, so she invited a prominent Hollywood Rabbi to her home. When he got there, he entered a room with floor pillows, candles, incense, and Indian music playing. The star shimmied her way over to the Rabbi and said, “Is this spiritual enough for you?” When I heard this story I laughed, because this is not spirituality. There is a lot of misconception about spirituality in our fast-paced consumer culture, as well as Kabbalah, the ancient mystic Jewish tradition. I wanted to take this time, with Lag Ba’Omer approaching, to talk about these subjects.

On Lag Ba’Omer, we celebrate the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who revealed the Kabbalistic tradition (which was passed down orally from Moses throughout the generations) to his students in a way that they were able to transcribe it into the Zohar – the fundamental Kabbalistic text we have today.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding Kabbalah, which is the deepest mystical teachings of the Torah. What do these teachings consist of? In one sentence, “the kabbalah comes to teach us about how Hashem is One, how He created the world, and the purpose of creation.” [1] More specifically, Kabbalah “gives us an understanding into the hidden meaning of every word in the Torah, the meaning of the mitzvot and their effect on the universe. It enables us to appreciate the purpose of creation, the reasons for man’s existence and the scope of his duties here in this world. The Kabbalah teaches us all this and more.” [2]

The world Kabbalah means “receiving,” which refers to the fact that “it is wisdom which cannot be learned on one’s own but must be received from a teacher as part of the tradition. The reason for this is that the kabbalists used a secret terminology whose words must not be taken literally.” [3] Rav Yaakov Hillel, one of the foremost Kabbalist in the Jewish world today, explains that the ancient Kabbalists created a secret terminology to ensure that the wisdom of Kabbalah would remain hidden except to those who could receive it.

Who can open the Zohar and learn Kabbalah? Very few people. First, a person must be learned in all of the written and oral Torah to understand Kabbalah. Accordingly, the general practice was that one must be at least 40 years old before he even begins learning Kabbalah. In addition, a person must be extraordinarily refined in his character, even beyond the requirements of the Torah, which is a very high level. (Think: No gossip or lying, honoring one’s parents, giving charity, and much more).

Rav Hillel emphasizes the danger of attempting to open a book of Kabbalah like the Zohar if one is not really learned in Torah: “[W]ithout receiving the tradition, one cannot approach works of Kabbalah, because they will certainly be interpreted out of context, resulting in consequences verging on heresy [due to misinterpreting the fundamentals of our faith].” [4]

So what about places like the Kabbalah Centre? It is not possible to teach Kabbalah itself to the general public because again, only a handful of people in the world can really learn actual Kabbalah. Rather, these classes share simplified concepts that may be based on Kabbalistic concepts. Yet due to the ancient Jewish tradition of reserving Kabbalistic teachings for a select few, among other reasons, mainstream Orthodox Judaism does not endorse places like the Kabbalah Centre. There are reputable organizations in the Jewish world, like Aish or Chabad, which might give a “Kabbalistic” class, but again, only simplified mystical concepts are being taught. (In general, it is good to be discerning about who to learn Torah from. If unsure, consult your local Orthodox Rabbi.)

Rav Hillel explains, “This study is not to be made available at every street corner, inviting all and sundry elements to come and learn Kabbalah…There is no jumping up the rungs of this ladder. If a person jumps, he will find that he has nothing to hold onto and has no place on which to stand.” [5] This is an important point. Some people think of spirituality as consuming “spiritual things,” like wearing an evil eye bracelet or visiting a so-called Kabbalist who can fix their problems. From a Jewish perspective, real spirituality requires work on our part. In consistently working on ourselves through learning Torah and doing mitzvot, we climb our spiritual ladders, rung by rung.

The main point is that we should always be growing in relation to ourselves, others, and G-d. It may be intriguing, but we do not need to dabble in Kabbalah to achieve this. The Torah is like a vast ocean and has plenty of depth and wisdom to sustain many lifetimes, before even approaching Kabbalah. Learning and working on ourselves each day may not be as exciting as incense and evil eye bracelets, but it is far more effective.

Book suggestion: Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, Ascending Jacob’s Ladder (In a deep, yet approachable way, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, a renowned Rabbi and Kabbalist, discusses fundamental topics such as the holidays, Shabbat, prayer, the study of Kabbalah, and the role of Jewish women)

[1] Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, “Understanding Kabbalah,” p. 228 (quoting the Ramchal, Hoker U’Mekkubal).

[2] Id. at 222.

[3] Id. at 214.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 225-226, 229-231.

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