History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Development of Kabala.

While much mystic literature preceded the Zohar and certainly a voluminous literature followed it, the Zohar as such came to be known as the Kabala, the Bible, as it were, of mysticism. The name Kabala implies, as already indicated, a divinely transmitted revelation (a claim made, by the way, for the sacred books of all religions).

In now presenting an outline of its teaching, its main doctrines will be presented, not as in the Zohar only, but in the Bahir also; likewise in later Kabalistic works — a composite picture of many stages in its development.

1. God.

God is called the En Sof (endless) the Infinite, we might almost say the Indefinite, for no attributes can be described to Him. He transcends even life and thought and in Him there is no distinction between subject and object. The old difficulty encountered by each philosophical school — how to bridge the chasm between perfect abstract divinity and the finite, material world — is answered here somewhat in the Neo-Platonic fashion: God's formal Will (thought) contained in itself the universe. He radiates from His infinite light spiritual forces called Sephirath (a word meaning both number and sphere) emanations of His unchangeable self, but through which change can take place. A series of ten Sephirath varyingly reflect the divine light. From the first — which is co-eternal with God, the first effect of His will — there emanate the other nine Sephirath, or, to give them a later name, Intelligences. Each successively flows from the preceding — the third from the second, the fourth from the third, and so throughout.

They are grouped in threes (triads) and are contrasted as positive — male, negative; female, as indicated in the following diagram:


In their totality they represent the original type of the heavenly man, of whom the earthly man is a faint copy. All things in the lower world have their original type in the higher world. The union of the Sephirath produces the universe and reveals the En Sof — the infinite God.

The universe consists of different worlds. The highest world contains angels, realm of light and good; the lower is the real of action and of matter. The lowest is the world of evil spirits, with Samael (Satan) as Prince of Darkness. Each has again its triple group of Sephirath.

2. Man.

Man is the highest product of creation, a microcosm — i.e., little world. The members of his body correspond to the visible universe. The body is but the garment of the soul.

The Sephirath idea, the main teaching of Kabala, runs through its entire system. The soul in turn having its ten powers, subdivides into triple groups. There is first the seat of the animal instincts (Hebrew nefesh); second, the moral — good and evil (Hebrew, ruach); third, the highest — pure intelligence (Hebrew, neshamah), direct emanation of divine wisdom.

The soul, so runs the Kabalistic theory, inhabits the realm of the Sephirath prior to its entrance upon earth, where it takes on a bodily form at birth. As it pursues a worthy career, it increases the flow of divine grace through all the intermediary Sephirath, thus furthering the world's salvation. (This was more particularly the function of Israel to whom the Law was revealed and whose fulfilment of its precepts brings blessing.) If the Soul's earthly pilgrimage has been worthy, it returns at the death of the body, enrobed in heavenly vesture, to bask in the joy of the divine presence. But if the earthly career has been sinful and unrepentant, it must enter another body and go a second time, and even a third, through the earthly ordeal. This corresponds to the Hindoo belief in transmigration of the soul. A strong soul may be united with a weaker to support and enrich it. Purified by earthly discipline, it may at last again reach heavenly bliss. Whatever be our modern view of Kabala, here are some very suggestive ideas.

All Souls were created from the beginning. But not all have entered bodily earthly life, and only when they have and all have regained the heavenly Sephirath realm, will the world's redemption be complete. Thus the pious hasten the good day. There will be no more sin, and life will be an endless Sabbath, and all souls will be united with the highest Soul,

3. The Messiah.

The soul of the Messiah will enter earthly life last. So in its general plan, Kabala follows the lines of Judaism, ending in the grand Messianic climax. Different Kabalists prefigure the coming of the Messiah in different ways. In the Zohar it will be preceded by gigantic conflict between Cross and Crescent and heralded by supernatural signs. But it was the fondly cherished hope of each Kabalist in turn that the advent of the Messiah was at hand. This explains why so many Kabalists claimed to be Messiahs and also why communities deeply stirred by Kabalistic expectations usually produced Messianic uprisings.

4. Evil.

Evil in man was the taking of semblance for substance. (Compare this idea of evil with that of Maimonides, p. 193.) It is unreal — the reverse of the divine. But repentance can raise the sinner to the highest. At the time of the Messiah, man's original glory will be restored and Satan will renounce sin.

5. Prayer.

Perhaps Kabala's most valuable contribution lays in the new importance given to prayer in the Kabala. It is a mystical progress toward God, demanding as prerequisite a state of ecstasy. Such a prayerful condition, which the prophets most completely attained, brings down divine blessing upon earth. It moves the Sephirath, making them conscious of beneficent influences. Here is the very essence of mysticism. Not unnaturally, Kabala produced the best prayers and changed a mechanical recital of words, to which prayer had largely degenerated, into true divine worship. It exalted and enriched the ritual of the synagogue, though its reflections at times drifted into fantasy.

6. Providence.

Nor was this Kabala's only merit. Its theory of Providence was more intimate and closer than that of the Maimunistic school. Every individual comes under the benign light of divine protection, not only the intellectual (or prophetic) few. Immortality is the reward, not merely of the intellectual genius, but of all men of morality and virtue. Man's love of God, together with his knowledge of the Law, unite heaven and earth. So man's good deeds exercise their far-reaching influence on all the world, even as his sins are equally baneful. This exalted conception of man's place and power must have been very entrancing to Kabalistic disciples and doubtless roused their enthusiasm.

Much space has been given to the theories of Kabala, because it so largely influenced not only the theology, but the whole religious outlook of so many of the Jews of the Middle Ages. It checked cold rationalism at the one extreme and dry formalism at the other.

Defects of Kabala.

Though it deepened a sense of awe, this awe was marred by a superstitious association. The belief that spirits and imps were found in all elements opened the door to magic. The belief in mystical meanings in every biblical expression based on the numerical value of its words and the theory of a heavenly alphabet of the stars gave further encouragement to the false science of astrology.

Among its abuses, Kabala introduced some heresies: For example, it accepted some of the favorite tenets of the Church — such as the Fall of Man, the existence of evil spirits, and Hell as a place of punishment for sin. All these Judaism, without absolutely abrogating, had cast into the background, until they became dead letters in Jewish doctrine and certainly in the practical consideration of the synagogue. Its group of triple Sephirath came dangerously near playing with the Trinity. No wonder that Kabala had a fascination for many sons of the Church.

Still Kabala was often accepted by conservative Talmudists and was not altogether opposed to the Talmudic spirit.

Owing to the legitimate religious function it really served as already indicated, the movement readily spread from Spain to Italy and thence acquired legitimacy and canonicity for a large portion of the house of Israel. It gave rise to many movements and sects — which will be considered as they occur.


Kabala:—The philosophy of Kabala was an eclecticism — fragments gathered from many sources. Here are the ecstatic intuitions of Gnosticism, a movement in vogue in the first century a.c.e.; the dualism of Ormuzd and Ahriman (Zoroastrianism); the Neo-Platonic gulf between abstract and concrete; with the metempsychosis of Brahminism.

Longfellow's "Sandalphon" came not "from the Talmud of old," but from Kabala.

Tradition:—For a full exposition of what Tradition (Kabala) really is in the legitimate sense, and as accepted by the synagogue in contradistinction to Kabala so-called, the reader is referred to "The History of Jewish Tradition," in Schechter's Studies in Judaism. J. P. S. of A.

Dr. Ginzberg has a most informing article on Cabala (a variant spelling) in volume iii of the Jewish Encyclopedia, giving a complete survey of the history and philosophy of mysticism. Funk and Wagnalls, N. Y.

Themes for Discussion:—The distinction between Tradition in the orthodox acceptation and in the Kabalistic.