In essence, the Kabbalah is basically just an ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of holy scriptures. That is to say, it allows for the decoding of passages in the Torah, and other sacred texts. Like most mystery schools, at first, the teachings were all transmitted orally. However, since then, they have been written down in a number of different forms, using sophisticated esoteric methods, including complex ciphers. In Hebrew, the term Kabbalah means “receiving”, in every sense of the word. It is a time-honored occult method for attaining enlightenment, that originated in Judaism, and has been handed down from master to apprentice for generations. According to Talmudic legend, it all began in the 2nd century, when Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai became a critic of Roman society. Then, fearing persecution and execution, he fled and hid for more than a decade in a cave in occupied Israel. The issue was that the Romans were violently anti-Semitic and would kill Jews for practicing their faith, so mystics had to remain hidden and their teachings had to become more and more encoded over time. As part of this, the rabbi meditated on the Torah and became a formative figure in the history of the Kabbalah.
Much later, in the 11th century, the Crusades brought forth an attempted genocide of Jews, as the Christians fought for control of the Holy Land. This created an exodus of people, who brought the Kabbalah with them in both written and oral traditions. By the 13th century, Jewish mystical teachings had spread throughout much of Europe, including what is now Spain, France, and Germany. In 1280, an influential Spanish rabbi revealed a very important Kabbalistic text entitled the Zohar, meaning “splendor” or “radiance”, depending on the translation. In many ways, this is a magnum opus of the Kabbalah, but it is written primarily in Aramaic, not Hebrew. The work combines numerology, alchemy, Bible verses, Jewish mysticism, and many other concepts, to create one of the cornerstones of Kabbalistic teachings. However, during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, the Jews were forced into exile yet again. As a result, the persecution brought about more secret teachings among Kabbalists. Many of those refugees migrated to the Holy Land where Orthodox Jews went to Jerusalem, while Kabbalists settled in Safed, where many believed the Messiah would someday be born.
As part of this, the Kabbalists brought with them the idea that there is inherent power in spoken and written words, particularly regarding the Semitic languages. In line with this, Kabbalists know the various names of God and the angels. They use these to perform theurgical rites, using letters and numbers as talismans to become one with the divine. As part of this, the Book of Creation, or Sepher Yetzirah, describes how God made the world from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Of course, not everyone agrees with this. The Kabbalists who study the Zohar believe that when God said “Let there be Light” He spoke in Aramaic, whereas those who study the Sepher Yetzirah think He spoke in Hebrew. Along with this, the Tree of Life is central to Kabbalistic Jews. Furthermore, the influence of the Kabbalah has extended far beyond the boundaries of Judaism. As early as the 15th century, learned thinkers of the Italian Renaissance sought to unify the Kabbalah with Christian theology, as well as natural philosophy. Of course, it’s very rare for a Kabbalist to actually believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Instead, Kabbalists are far more likely to think that the “Body of God” is symbolized by the Tree of Life, which is made up of ten different spiritual principles, known as sephirot, or “emanations”. This emerged when the 4th sephirah became the 10th, and Da’ath, or Truth, fell to the position of Malkuth, the Kingdom of Man. This is when the Tree of Knowledge became the Tree of Life, and God was cut off from humanity in an unbalanced cosmos.
One of the most intriguing Kabbalists to ever study the Tree of Life was that of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived in 16th century Israel. He began teaching in Safed in the year 1570, having moved there from Jerusalem to work as a full-time Kabbalist. It is said that in his youth, he meditated on the Zohar in Egypt and received revelations and visions of God and the angels. He was also known to chant holy scriptures to achieve altered states of awareness, which brought him closer to the divine. Rabbi Luria even believed in reincarnation. As part of this, he thought that our past lives influenced our present ones. This made Isaac and his followers part of a fringe sect of Kabbalists, who were already marginalized among the Jews. Nonetheless, to this very day, there are still Kabbalists in Safed who honor the traditions of Rabbi Luria. According to his unique teachings, we can reunite the fragments of the divine spirit in our immortal souls with God through good deeds. This, he taught, brings forth true redemption. Either way, as time went on, a number of Kabbalists sought to achieve more and more transcendent states, through greater levels of understanding. If God would not come to them, then they were going to go to Him. According to Kabbalistic folklore, the forces they unleashed could even be lethal. It is said that there are those who have gone mad, or have even died, from the power of the teachings. In reality, many Kabbalists just want to recreate the peak experience that the Israelite Ezekiel had in Babylon in the sixth century BCE.
Of course, whether it was too dangerous for the masses or not, after the advent of the printing press, the Kabbalah spread like wildfire. That was the first time it ever went mainstream. By the 16th century, there were Kabbalists across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Soon the Zohar and other books were translated into different languages, like Latin for Christian philosophers, among others. In no time at all, decipherment techniques that had been established by the Kabbalists were even being used to examine Ancient Greek writings like that of Pythagoras. Later, in the 18th century, Hasidism grew out of the work of yet another significant Kabbalist. This made the teachings more accessible to everyday people. It also helped preserve the Kabbalah for future generations. The problem is that the Kabbalah eventually fell into the hands of the uninitiated. After having survived the dangers of the Holocaust, the teachings found their way into the New Age movement, starting in the mid-twentieth century. Then, simplified interpretations and explanations began to circulate, both in and out of Jewish circles, just as a number of rabbis had warned. Of course, things really took the biggest turn for the worse when the American rabbi Philip Berg went mainstream with the Kabbalah in California, during the 1980s. Currently, the Kabbalah Center has a congregation of millions of followers. This has even attracted the attention of desperate celebrities like Madonna and Britney Spears, who have received spiritual guidance from Yeluda and Michael Berg, the sons of Philip. Unfortunately, this kind of superficial postmodern spirituality is a far cry from the ancient mystical wisdom of the true Kabbalah. Thankfully, there are still those who understand the old ways.