Kabbalah

cabala. The broad stream of Jewish mysticism, and more especially those schools which flourished in parts of Europe and in Palestine between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. The Hebrew word qabbalah denotes “tradition,” and by it the mystics meant both Jewish oral tradition in general and also their own esoteric lore. The roots of such mysticism lay in intertestamental developments, evidenced in the Qumran scrolls and the apocalyptic literature; in the rabbinical period, moreover, there was a considerable amount of speculative and mystical thought, influenced by Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. The Sepher Yetsirah (seventh or eighth century) already testified to a speculative interest in the nature of God and of the universe, and posited ten mediating emanations from God (called sephiroth). In due course a distinction was made between theoretical and practical kabbalah, the latter approximating to white magic. The movement, though tending to heterodoxy, was nevertheless deeply attached to the Hebrew Bible, which it interpreted both literally and cryptically (by ciphers, numerology, etc.); its authoritative work, the thirteenth-century Zohar (by Moses de Léon of Granada), purports to be a commentary on the Pentateuch. The movement became popular in the late Middle Ages, due partly to the historical stresses to which European Jewry was subjected. Hasidism is the linear descendant of the kabbalah.

The chief figures of the movement included Eleazar of Worms in Germany (thirteenth century) and Isaac Luria and Hayim Vital in Safed in upper Galilee (sixteenth century). Nahmanides and Joseph Caro were much influenced by the kabbalah, and so were some Christian thinkers, e.g., J. Reuchlin and Paracelsus.

J.L. Blau, The Christian interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (1944); C.D. Ginsburg, The Essenes... the Kabbalah (1863-64; rep. 1955); A.J. Heschel, “The mystical element in Judaism,” in L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (3rd ed., 1960), ii, pp. 932-53; G.G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (ET, 3rd ed., 1961) and On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (ET 1965).