1902 Encyclopedia > Kabbalah


KABBALAH is now used as the technical name for the system of theosophy which began to be developed among the Jews in the 10th century, and which has also played an important part in the Christian church since the Middle Ages. The term primarily denotes "reception" and then "doctrines received by tradition". In the older Jewish literature the name is applied to the whole body of received religious doctrine with the exception of the Pentateuch, thus including the Prophet and Hagiographa as well as the oral traditions ultimately embodied in the Mishnah. It is only since the 11th or 12th century that Kabbalah has become the exclusive appellation for the renowned system of theosophy which claims to have been transmitted uninterruptedly by the mouths of the patriarchs and prophets ever since the creation of the first man.

The cardinal doctrines of the Kabbalah embrace the nature of the Deity, the Divine emanations or Sephiroth, the cosmogony; the creation of angels and man, their destiny, and the import of the revealed law. According to this esoteric doctrine, God, who is boundless and above everything, even above being and thinking, is called En Soph (apeiros, Gk.
) ; He is the space of the universe containing to pan (Gk., the all), but the universe is not his space. In this boundlessness He could not be comprehended by the intellect or described in words, and as such the En Soph was in a certain sense Ayin, non-existent (Zohar, iii. 283). To make his existence known and comprehensible, the En Soph had to become active and creative. As creation involves intention, desire, thought, and work, and as these are properties which imply limit and belong to a finite being, and moreover as the imperfect and circumscribed nature of this creation precludes the idea of its being the direct work of the infinite and perfect, the En Soph had to become creative, through the medium of the Sephiroth or intelligences, which emanated from him like rays proceeding from a luminary.

Now the wish to become manifest and known, and hence the idea of creation, is co-eternal with the inscrutable Deity, and the first manifestation of this primordial will is called the first Sephira oremanation. This first Sephira, this spiritual substance which existed in the En Soph from all eternity, contained nine other intelligences or Sephiroth.These again emanated one from the other, the second from the first, the third from the second, and so on up to ten.

Archetypal Man (Kabbalah) drawing

The Archetypal Man

The ten Sephiroth, which form among themselves and with the En Soph a strict unity, and which simply represent different aspects of one and the same being, are respectively denominated (1) the Crown, (2) Wisdom, (3) Intelligence, (4) Love, (5) Justice, (6) Beauty, (7) Firmness, (8) Splendour, (9) Foundation, and (10) Kingdom. Their evolution was as follows : "When the Holy Aged, the concealed of all concealed, assumed a form, he produced everything in the form of male and female, as things could not continue in any other form. Hence Wisdom, the second Sephira, and the beginning of development, when it proceeded from the Holy Aged (another name of the first Sephira) emanated in male and female, for Wisdom expanded, and Intelligence, the third Sephira, proceeded from it, and thus were obtained male and female, viz., Wisdom the father and Intelligence the mother, from whose union the other pairs of Sephiroth successively emanated " (Zohar, iii. 290). These two opposite potencies, viz., the masculine Wisdom or Sephira No. 2 and the feminine Intelligence or Sephira No.3 are joined together by the first potency, the Crown or Sephira No. 1 ; they yield the first triad of the Sephiric decade, and constitute the divine head of the archetypal man, as will be seen in the accompanying figure.

From the junction of Sephiroth No. 2 and 3 emanated the masculine potency Love or Mercy (4) and the feminine potency Justice (5), and form the junction of the latter two emanated again the uniting potency Beauty (6). Beauty, the sixth Sephira, constitutes the chest in the archetypal man, and unites Love (4) and Justice (5), which constitute the divine arms, thus yielding the second triad of the Sephiric decade. From this second conjuction emanated again the masculine potency Firmness (7) and the feminine potency Splendour (8), which constitute the divine legs of the archetypal man ; and these sent forth Foundation (9), which is the genital organ and medium of union between them, thus yielding the thiad in the Sephiric decade. Kingdom (10), which emanated from the ninth Sephira, encircles all the other nine, inasmuch as it is the Shechina, or divine halo, which encompasses the whole by its all-glorious presence.

In their totality and unity the ten Sephiroth are not only denominated the World of Sephiroth, or the World of Emanations, but, owing to the above representation, are called the primordial or archetypal man (= protogonos, Gk.) and the heavenly man. It is this form which, as we are assured, the prophet Ezekiel saw in the mysterious chariot (Ezek. i. 1-28), and of which the earthly man is a faint copy.

As the three triads respectively represent intellectual, moral, and physical qualities, the first is called the Intellectual, the second the Moral or Sensuous, and the third the Material World. In the figure of the archetypal man it will be seen that the three Sephiroth on the right are masculine, and represent the principle of rigour, that the three on the left are feminine and represent the principle of mercy, and that a four central or uniting Sephiroth represent the principle of mildness. Hence the right is called " the Pillar of Judgment," the left "the Pillar or Mercy," and the center " the Middle Pillar." The middle Sephiroth are synecdochically used to represent the worlds or triads of which they are the uniting potencies. Hence the Crown, the first Sephira, which unites Wisdom and Intelligence World. So Beauty is by itself described as the Sensuous World, and in this capacity is called the Sacred King or simply the King, whilst Kingdom, the tenth Sephira, which unites all the nine Sephiroth, is used to denote the Material World, and as such is denominated the Queen or the Matron. Thus a trinity of units, viz., the Crown, Beauty, and Kingdom, is obtained within the trinity of triads. But further, each Sephira is as it were a trinity in itself. It (1) has its own absolute character, (2) receives from above, and (3) communicates to what is below. " Just as the Sacred Aged is represented by the number three, so are all the other lights Sephiroth) of a threefold nature" (Zohar, iii. 288). In this all-important doctrine of the Sephiroth, the Kabbalah insists upon the fact that these potencies are not creations of the En Soph, which would be a diminution of strength; that they form among themselves and with the En Soph a strict unity, and simply represent different aspects of the same being, just as the different rays which proceed from the light, and which appear different things to the eye, are only different manifestations of one and the same light ; that for this reason they all alike partake of the perfections of the En Soph; and that as emanations from the Infinite, the Sephiroth are infinite and perfect like the En Soph, and yet constitute the first finite things. They are infinite and perfect when the En Soph imparts his fullness to them, and finite and imperfect when that fullness is withdrawn from them.

The conjunction of the Sephiroth or, according to the language of the Kabbalah, the union of the crowned King and Queen, produced the universe in their own image. Worlds came into existence before the En Soph manifested himself in the human form of emanations, but they could not continue, and necessarily perished because the conditions of development which obtained with the sexual opposites of the Sephiroth did not exist. These worlds which perished are compared to sparks which fly out from a red-hot iron beaten by a hammer, and which are extinguished according to the distance they are removed from the burning mass. Creation is not ex nihilo ; it is simply a further expansion or evolution of the Sephiroth. The world reveals and makes visible the Boundless and the concealed of the concealed. And, though it exhibits the Deity in less splendour than its Sephiric parents exhibit the En Soph, because it is farther remove from the primordial source of light than the Sephiroth, still, as it is God manifested, all the multifarious forms in the world point out unity which they represent. Hence nothing in the whole universe can be annihilated. Everything, spirits as well as body, must return to the source whence it emanated (Zohar, ii. 218 The universe consists of four different worlds, each of which forms a separate Sephiric system of a decade of emanations. They were evolved in the following order. (1) The World of Emanations, also called the Image and the Heavenly or Archetypal Man, is, as we have seen, a Heavenly or Archetypal Man, is, as we have seen, a direct emanation from the En Soph. Hence it is most intimately allied to the Deity, and is perfect and immutable. From the conjunction of the King and Queen (i.e., these ten Sephiroth) is produced (2) the World of Creation, or the Briatic world, also called " the throne." Its ten Sephiroth, being farther removed from the En Soph, are of a more limited and circumscribed potency, though the substances they comprise are of the purest nature and without any admixture of matter. The angel Metatron inhabits this world. He alone constitutes the world of pure spirit, and is the garment of Shaddai, i.e., the visible manifestation of the Deity. His name is numerically equivalent to that of the Lord (Zohar, iii. 231). He governs the visible world, preserves the harmony and guides the revolutions of all the spheres, and it is the certain of all the myriads of angelic beings. This Briatic world again gave rise to (3) the World of Formation, or Yetziratic World. Its ten Sephiroth, being still farther removed from the Primordial Source, are of a less refined substance. Still they are yet without matter. It is the abode of the angels, who are wrapped in luminous garments, and who assume a sensuous form when they appear to men. The myriads of the angelic hosts who people this world are divided into ten ranks, answering to ten Sephiroth, and each one of these numerous angels is set over a different part of the universe, and derives his name from the heavenly body or element which he guards (Zohar, i. 42). From this world finally emanated (4) the World of Action, also called the World of Matter. Its ten Sephiroth are made up of the grosser elements of the former three worlds; they consist of material substance limited by space and perceptible to the senses in a multiplicity of forms. This world is subject to constant changes and corruption, and is the dwelling of the evil spirits. These, the grossest and most deficient of all forms, are also divided into ten degrees, each lower than the other. The first two are nothing more than the absence of all visible form and organization; the third degree is the abode of darkness; whilst the remaining seven are " the seven infernal hall," occupied by the demons, who are the incarnation of all human vices. These seven hells are subdivided into innumerable compartments corresponding to every species of sin, where the demons torture the poor deluded human beings who have suffered themselves to be led astray whilst on earth. The prince of this region of darkness is S_m_el, the evil spirit, the serpent who seduced Eve. His wife is the Harlot or the Woman of Whoredom. The two are treated as one person, and are called " the Beast" (Zohar, ii.255-259, with i. 35).

The whole universe, however, was incomplete, and did not receive its finishing stroke till man was formed, who is the acme of the creation and the microcosm. "The heavenly Adam (i.e., the ten Sephiroth) who emanated from the highest primordial obscurity (i.e., the En Soph) created the earthly Adam" (Zohar, ii. 70). "Man is both the import and the highest degree of creation, for which reason he was formed on the sixth day. As soon as man was created everything was complete, including the upper and nethere worlds, for everything is comprised in man. He unites in himself all forms" (Zohar, iii. 48). Each member of his body corresponds to a part of the visible universe. "Just as we see in the firmament above, covering all things, different signs which are formed of the stars and the planets, and which contain secret things and profound mysteries studied by those who are wise and expert in these things; so there are in the skin, which is the cover of the body of the son of man, and which is like the sky that covers all things above, signs and features which are the stars and planets of the skin, indicating secret things and profound mysteries whereby the wise are attracted who understand the reading of the mysteries in the human face" (Zohar, ii. 76). The human form shaped after the four letters which constitute the Tetragrammation. The head is in the shape of _ (Hebrew character), the arms and the shoulders are like _ (Hebrew character), the breast like _ (Hebrew character), and the two legs with the back again resemble _ (Hebrew character)(Zohar, ii. 72). The souls of the whole human race pre-exist in the World of Emanations, and are all destined to inhabit human bodies. Like the Sephiroth from which it emanates, every soul has ten potencies, consisting of a trinity of triads. (1) The Spirit (_ , Hebrew word), which is the highest degree of being, corresponds to and is operated upon by the Crown, which is the highest triad in the Sephiroth, and is called the Intellectual World; (2) the Soul (_ , Hebrew word), is the seat of the moral qualities, corresponds to and is operated upon the Beauty, which is the second triad in the Sephiroth, and is called the Moral World; and (3) the Cruder Soul (_ , Hebrew word), which is immediately connected with the body, and is the cause of its lower instincts and the animal life, corresponds to and is operated upon the by Foundation, the third triad in the Sephiroth, called the Material World. Each soul, prior to its entering into this world, consists of male and female united into one being. When it descends on this earth the two parts are separated and animate two different bodies. " At the time of marriage the Holy One, blessed be he, who knows all souls and spirits, unites them again as they were before; and they again constitute one body and one soul, forming as it were the right and the left of the individual … This union, however, is influence by the deeds of the man and by the ways in which he walks. If the man is pure and his conduct is pleasing in the sight of God, he is united with that female part of the soul which was his component part prior to his birth" (Zohar, i. 91). The soul’s destiny upon earth is to develop those perfections the germs are eternally implanted in it, and ultimately must return to the infinite source from which it emanated. Hence, if, after assuming a body and sojourning upon earth, it becomes polluted by sin and fails to acquire the experience for which it descends from heaven, it must three times reinhabit a body, till it is able to ascend in a purified state through repeated trials. If, after its third residence in a human body, it is still too weak to withstand the contamination of sin, it is united with another soul, in order that by their combined efforts it may resist the pollution which by itself it was unable to conquer. When the whole pleroma of pre-existent souls in the world of the Sephiroth shall have descended and occupied human bodies and have passed their period of probation and have returned purified to the bosom of the infinite Source, then the soul of Messiah will descend from the region of souls; then the great Jubilee will commence. There shall be no more sin, no more temptation, no more suffering. Universal restoration will take place. Satan himself, " the venomous Beast," will be restored to his angelic nature. Life will be an everlasting feast, a Sabbath without end. All souls will be united with the Highest Soul, and will supplement each other in the Holy of Holies of the Seven Halls (Zohar, i. 45; ii. 97).

According to the Kabbalah all these esoteric doctrines are contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. The uninitiated cannot perceive them; but they are plainly revealed to the spiritually minded, who discern the profound import of this theosophy beneath the surface of the letters and words of Holy Writ. " It the law simply consists of ordinary expressions and narratives, such as the words of Esau, Hagar, Laban, the ass of Balaam, or Balaam himself, why should it be called the law of truth, the perfect law, the true witness of God? Each word contains a sublime source, each narrative points, not only to the single instance in question, but also to generals" (Zohar, iii. 149, cf. 152).

To obtain these heavenly mysteries, when alone make the Torah superior to profane codes, definite hermeneutical rules are employed, of which the following are the most important. (1) The words of several verses in the Hebrew Scriptures which are regarded as containing a recondite sense are placed over each other, and the letters are formed into new words by reading them vertically. (2) The words of the text are ranged is squares in such a manner as to be read either vertically to boustrophedon. (3) The words are joined together and redivided. (4) The initials and final letters of several words are formed into separate words (5) Every letter of a word is reduced to its numerals value, and the word is explained by another of the same quantity. (6) Every letter of a word is taken to be the initial or abbreviation of a word. (7) The twenty-two letters of the alphabet are divided into two halves; one half is placed above the others; and the two letters which thus becomes associated are interchanged. By this permutation, Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, becomes Lamed, the twelfth letter; Beth becomes Mem, and so on. This cipher alphabet is called Albam, from the first interchangeable pairs. (18) The commutation of the twenty-two letters is effected by the last letter of the alphabet taking the place of the first, the last but one the place of the second, and so forth. This cipher is called Atbash. These hermeneutical canons are much older than the Kabbalah. They obtained in the synagogue from time immemorial, and were used by by the Christian fathers in the interpretation of Scripture. Thus Canon V., according to which a word is reduced to its numerical value and interpreted by another word of the same value, is recognized in the New Testament (comp. Rev. xiii. 18). Canon VI. is adopted by Irenaeus, who tells us that, according to the learned among the Hebrews, the name Jesus contains two letters and a half. and signifies that Lord who contains heaven and earth [_ , Hebrew word] (Against Heresies, ii. xxiv., vol. i p.205, ed. Clark). The cipher Atbash (Canon VIII.) is used in Jeremiah xxv. 26, li. 41, where Sheshach is written for Babel. In Jer. li. 1, _ , Hebrew word, Leb-Kamai (A.V., " the midst of them that rise up against me"), written for _ , Hebrew word, Chaldaea, by the same rule.

It is necessary to advert to the relation between the Kabbalah and Christianity in order to account for the extraordinary part which this theosophy played in the Christian church, especially at the time of the Renaissance. We have already seen that the Sephiric decade, or the archetypal man, like Christ, is considered to be of a double nature, both infinite and finite, perfect and imperfect. More distinct, however, is the doctrine of the Trinity. On Deut. vi. 43, where Jehovah occurs first, then Elohenu, and then again Jehovah, we are told " The voice though one, consists of three elements, fire (i.e., warmth), air (i.e., breath), and water (i.e., humidity), yet all three are one in the mystery of the voice and can only be one. Thus also Jehovah, Elohenu, Jehovah, constitute one – three forms which are one" (Zohar, ii. 43; compare iii. 65). Discussing the thrice holy in Isaiah vi. 3, one codex of the Zohar had the following remark : " The first holy denotes the Holy Father, the second the Holy Son, and the third the Holy Ghost" (comp. Galatinus, De Arcanis Cathol., lib. ii. c. 3, p. 31; Wolf, Bibliotheca Hebraica, i. 1136). Still more distinct is the doctrine of the atonement. " The Messiah invokes all the sufferings, pain, and afflictions of Israel to come upon Him. Now if He did not remove them thus and take them upon Himself, no man could endure the sufferings of Israel, due as their punishment for transgressing the law; as it is written (Isa. liii. 4), Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (Zohar, ii. 12). These and similar statements favouring the doctrines of the New Testament have made many Kabbalists of the highest position in the synagogue embrace the Christian faith, and write elaborate books to win their Jewish brethren over to Christ. As early as 1450 a company of Jewish converts in Spain, at the head of which were Paul de Heredia Vidal de Saragosa de Aragon, and Davila, published compilations of Kabbalistic treatises to prove from them the doctrines of Christianity. They were followed by Paul Rici, professor at Pavia, and physician to the emperor Maximilian I. Sharing the conviction of his fellow converts that the doctrines of the Kabbalah are the doctrines of Christianity, this eminent Hebraist translated into Latin the Kabbalistic work entitled The Gates of Light, which he dedicated to the emperor (1516). It was from this work that Pico de Mirandola and John Reuchlin learnt the true secrets of the Kabbalah. Prominent among the " nine hundred theses" which Mirandola had placarded in Rome, and which he undertook to defend in the presence of all European scholars, whom he invited to the Eternal City, promising to defray their traveling expenses was the following: " No science yields greater proof of the divitnity of Christ than magic and the Kabbalah." Mirandola so convinced Pope Sixtus of the paramount importance of the Kabbalah as an auxiliary to Christianity that his holiness exerted himself to have Kabbalistic writings translated into Latin for the use of divinity students. With equal zeal did Reuchlin act as the apostle of the kabbalah. His treatises exercises an almost magic influence upon the greatest thinkers of the time. Pope Leo X. and the Early Reforms were alike captivated by the charms of the Kabbalah as propounded by Reuchlin, and not only divines, but statesmen and warriors, began to study the Oriental languages in order to be able to fathom the mysteries of Jewish theosophy.

Though the followers of this theosophy claim two works as their codes, viz, the Book of Creation and the Zohar, it is really only the latter which is the Bible of the Kabbalists. The renowned Zohar is written in Aramaic, and is a commentary on the Pentateuch, according to its division into fifty-two hebdomadal lessons. It derives its name _ , Hebrew word i.e., Light, from the words "Let there be light" (Gen. i. 4), with the exposition of which it begins. Interspersed throughout the Zohar, either as parts of the text with distinct titles or in separate columns, are the following eleven dissertations: -- (1) "Additions and Supplements" ; (2) "The Mansions and Abodes," describing the structure of paradise and hell ; (3) " The Mysteries of the Pentateuch," describing the evolution of the Sephiroth, &c. ; (4) "The Hidden Interpretation." Deducing esoteric doctrine from the narratives in the Pentateuch ; (5) " The Faithful Shepherd," recording discussions between Moses the faithful shepherd, the prophet Elijah, and R. Simon b. Yochi, the reputed compiler of the Zohar; (6) " The Secret of Secrets," a treatisè on physiognomy and psychology ; (7) "The Aged," i.e., the prophet Elijah, discoursing with R. Simon on the doctrine of transmigration as evolved from Exod. Xxi. 1-xxiv. 18 ; (8) " The Book of Secrets," discourses on cosmogony and demonology ; (9) " The Great Assembly," discourses of R. Simon to his numerous assembly of disciples on the form of the Deity and on pneumatology ; (10) " The Young Man," discourses by young men of superhuman origin on the mysteries of ablutions ; and (11) " The Small Assembly," containing the discourses on the Sephiroth which R. Simon delivered to small congregation of six surviving disciples.

The Zohar pretends to be a compilation made by R. Simon b. Yochi, who flourished about 70-110 A.D., of doctrines which God communicated to Adam in Paradise, and which have been received uninterruptedly from the mouths of the patriarchs and prophets. Amongst the many facts, however, established by modern criticism which prove the Zohar to be a compilation of the 13th century, the following are the most prominent : -- (1) the Zohar itself praises most fulsomely R. Simon, its reputed author, and exalts him above Moses ; (2) it mystically explains the Hebrew vowel points which did not obtain till 570 ; (3) the compiler borrow two verses from the celebrated hymn called " The Royal Diadem," written by Ibn Gebirol, who was born about 1021 ; (4) it mentions the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders and the retaking of the Holy City by the Saracens ; (5) it speaks of the comet which appeared at Rome, July 15, 1264, under the pontificate of Urban IV.; (6) by a slip the Zohar assigns a reason why it contents were not revealed before 5060-66 A.M., i.e., 1300-1306 A.D.; (7) the doctrine of the En Soph and the Sephiroth was not known before the 13th century ; and (8) the very existence of the Zohar itself was not known prior to the 13th century. Hence it is now believed that Moses de Leon (ob. 1305), who first circulated and sold the Zohar as the producing of R. Simon, was himself the author. That eminent scholars both in the synagogue and in the church should have been induced to believe in its antiquity is owing to the fact that the Zohar embodies many opinions and doctrines which obtained among the Jews prior to the time of Christ. The undoubted antiquity of these has served as a lever in the minds of these scholars to raise the late speculations about the En Soph, the Sephiroth, &c., to the same age

Literature. -- The Zohar, frequently published in 3 vols., the pagination of which, like that of the Talmud, is always the same; Baron von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata, Sulzbach, 1677-78, Frankfort, 1684 ; Azariel, Commentary on the Doctrine of the Sephiroth, Warsaw, 1798, Berlin, 1850 ; Id., Commentary on the Song of Songs, Altona, 1763; Franck, La Kabbale, Paris, 1843 (trans. By Jellinek, Leipsic, 1844) ; Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, vol. vii. 442-459 ; art. " Cabbalah," in Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Biography, &c. ; Ginsburg, The Kabbalah, its Doctrines, Development, and Literature, London, 1865. (C. D. G.)

The above article was written by the Rev. Christian David Ginsburg, LL.D.; one of the Old Testament Revisers; author of Commentaries on the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Critical Text on the Hebrew Bible, The Kabbalah: its Doctrine, Development, and Literature; contributed articles to Kitto's Encyclopaedia of Biblical Literature and Smith's Dictionary of Christian Biography and Antiquities.

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