Debunking 6 Big Myths About Kabbalah

In this week’s double parasha of Nitzavim and Vayelekh we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) One of the common explanations for the “hidden things”, nistarot, is that it refers to Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Unfortunately, the term “Kabbalah” is among the most misunderstood and misused today. Some people think it refers to a religion of its own, or some sort of cult. Others think it is a secret book. Many more associate it with black magic or witchcraft (God forbid). It has given rise to the English word “cabal” (a sinister or conspiratorial group). None of these things are even remotely true.

Kabbalah simply refers to the more complicated, esoteric teachings of the Torah. As is well-known, the Torah can be studied on four levels: peshat, “simple”; remez, “allusions” (reading between the lines); drash, “allegory” and metaphor; and sod, “secret”. Kabbalah is primarily concerned with the latter category. Like other mystical systems, its purpose is to guide the person into a deeper understanding of God, the universe, and one’s soul. It involves a great deal of metaphysics and cosmogony, prayer and meditation, along with a heavy emphasis on penance and tikkun, “spiritual rectification”. A large part of Kabbalah is about understanding God’s mitzvot on a deeper level. Reincarnation and related spiritual migrations play a sizeable role, as does the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Ultimately, Kabbalah is about elevating ever-higher and drawing as close to God as possible.

What follows is six big myths about Kabbalah, and why they are totally wrong.

Myth #1: Kabbalah Has No Origins in the Torah

Some critics argue that Kabbalah has no origin in the Torah and emerged independently from Judaism. Even in the Orthodox Jewish world, there are those who claim to “avoid” Kabbalah (more on this below) or believe it has no relation to the Talmud or Midrash. In reality, everything in Kabbalah is somehow rooted to in the Tanakh, and most of the key principles of Kabbalah are already discussed in the Talmud and Midrash.

For example, the central concept of five levels of soul comes from the five different terms used for a soul throughout the Tanakh (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, yechidah). It is further alluded to by the five times that King David said barchi nafshi, “may my soul bless” God in Psalms. This is discussed briefly in the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) and in more detail in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:9 and Devarim Rabbah 2:37).

The notion of four “universes” or levels of Creation is based on Isaiah 43:7, where God says “Everything that is called by My name, I have created for My glory, I have also formed it and I have made it.” God says He creates [bara], forms [yotzer], and makes [‘ose] everything for His glory. These allude to the mystical dimensions or levels of Creation in Kabbalah, called Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut (“Emanation”, the highest manifestation of God’s Glory).

The “Tree of Life” depicting the Ten Sefirot, intertwined with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Together, they make up the 32 Paths of Wisdom.

The concept of 32 Paths of Wisdom is based on the 32 times that God’s name appears in the account of Creation (Genesis 1), and the categories within the 32 neatly parallel the types of verbs used in relation to God (as explained here). Similarly, the 50 Gates of Understanding are based on the 50 times that the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah, as well as the 50 questions God posed to Job, among other things. The 50 Gates are first discussed in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 21b). Meanwhile, the 620 Pillars of Light derive from the 620 mitzvot in the Torah (613 for Jews, and the 7 Noahide Laws for gentiles), and correspond to the 620 letters that make up the text of the Ten Commandments.

The key concept upon which nearly all of Kabbalah is built is that of the Ten Sefirot. These are ten divine energies through which God created the universe, and also represent ten major aspects of God through which He reveals Himself within Creation. The Sefirot are clearly alluded to throughout the Tanakh. For example, we read in I Chronicles 29:11:

To You, God, is the greatness [Gedulah], and the might [Gevurah], and the glory [Tiferet], and the victory [Netzach], and the majesty [Hod]; for all [ki kol] that is in the Heaven and in the Earth is Yours; Yours, God, is the kingdom [Mimlakhah] and You are exalted as head above all.

Anyone who has dabbled in Kabbalah will recognize the names of the seven lower Sefirot here, in the appropriate order. (“Gedulah” is another name for Chessed;ki kol” is a code for—and has the same gematria as—Yesod, and “Mimlakhah” has the same meaning as Malkhut.) The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) further derives each of the Ten Sefirot with a proof-verse from the Tanakh:

Rav Zutra bar Tuviah said in the name of Rav: With ten things was the world created: With wisdom [Chokhmah] and with understanding [Tevunah, or Binah] and with reason [Da’at] and with strength [Koach] and with rebuke [Ga’arah] and with might [Gevurah], with righteousness [Tzedek] and with judgment [Mishpat], with kindness [Chessed] and with compassion [Rachamim]. With wisdom and understanding, as it is written: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; and by understanding established the heavens.” [Proverbs 3:19] By reason, as it is written: “By His reason the depths were broken up. [Proverbs 3:20] By strength and might, as it is written: “Who by His strength establishes the mountains, Who is girded with might.” [Psalms 65:7] By rebuke, as it is written: “The pillars of heaven were trembling, but they became astonished at His rebuke.” [Job 26:11] By righteousness and judgment, as it is written: “Righteousness and judgment are the foundation of Your throne.” [Psalms 89:15] By kindness and compassion, as it is written: “Remember, God, Your compassions and Your mercies; for they have been from old.” [Psalms 25:6]

As the Talmud points out, the Sefirot are the things with which God created the universe, and represent major aspects of the Infinite, Unknowable God, which leads us to the next big myth.

Myth #2: Kabbalah is Polytheistic

Sadly, I’ve witnessed people berating Kabbalah because, supposedly, it is “polytheistic” or has some kind of pantheon of gods. This is a horrible misunderstanding of the Sefirot. The Sefirot are not independent entities whatsoever. They are simply the major expressions of God within Creation, formed by God to help us understand Him. In Kabbalah, God is always One. And one of the most common ways that God is referred to in Kabbalistic texts is Ain Sof, literally “Without End” or “the Infinite One”, to remind the student that God is entirely one, all-encompassing, all-powerful, with no divisions of any kind.

Comically, I’ve seen someone claim (with all seriousness) that Kabbalists worship a false idol named “Ain Sof”, God forbid! In reality, Ain Sof is just another appellation for God. The Torah itself gives many different names for God to help us understand Him and relate to Him (such as El, Elohim, El-Shaddai, El-Elyon, Adonai, Makom, and, of course, the Tetragrammaton). The fact that there are multiple names and titles does not in any way mean that there is a multiplicity of gods. Ain Sof is just another term for God to remind us of His endless eternity.

The same is true about the Shekhinah, the “Divine Presence”, which is always described in feminine terms. It is not some kind of separate deity or divine consort, God forbid, but the feminine expression of God within Creation (corresponding to the Sefirah of Malkhut). I think the concept of the Shekhinah can actually go a long way in helping women relate to God more closely, for God is usually described in male terms, as a “He”. Kabbalah provides a feminine path to God as well. (Of course, an infinite God is neither male nor female.)

Finally, there are those who have argued the Sefirot represent independent divine entities. This is not the case at all. Each Sefirah may be associated with a particular name (or aspect) of God only. For example, we find in the Torah that the name Elohim is always the one used when God is bringing about retribution. It is therefore known as the name of din, “judgement”, an aspect of God’s severity. So, Elohim is associated with the Sefirah of Gevurah, “strength” or “severity”. That does not mean there is some kind of independent entity called Gevurah.

Any good kabbalist will recite Patach Eliyahu daily, and it is found in most prayer books right at the beginning. Patach Eliyahu is one of the most important passages in the Zohar (more on the Zohar below), and affirms right from the start that God is totally one. God is so unified and infinite that it is impossible for man to grasp Him (leit machshava tefisa bakh klal). Therefore, He created asar tikkunin, “ten garments”, to help us relate to Him and to see His fingerprints within Creation. These ten, by the way, parallel the Ten Utterances of Creation (there are ten instances of “God said…” in the account of Creation, as first pointed out in the Mishnah, Avot 5:1) as well as the Ten Commandments, among other things.

Ultimately, not only is Kabbalah not polytheistic, it is quite the opposite: it is all about seeing the wonderful unity within Creation, and about becoming one with God. For the kabbalist, essentially every mitzvah or prayer or ritual begins with the recitation of a kavanah, an “intention” or meditation, and all start with the same words: l’shem yichud, “for the purpose of unification…”

Myth #3: Kabbalah is the Zohar

People often confuse Kabbalah with the Zohar. I’ve seen people define Kabbalah as a “book of Jewish mysticism” and I’ve seen people define the Zohar as “the book of Jewish mysticism”. Kabbalah is not a book, and the Zohar itself is a collection of many different manuscripts (such as Idra Zuta, Ra’aya Mehemna, Sitrei Torah, and Midrash HaNe’elam) that were compiled, edited, and published for the first time in the 13th century. There were many Kabbalistic works before the publication of the Zohar, such as the Heikhalot, Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer haBahir, and Sefer haTemunah. The Heikhalot and Sefer Yetzirah date back to the Mishnaic period, and the latter is mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a).

More Kabbalistic texts came after the Zohar’s publication, many of which explain the Zohar and synthesize it with the other mystical texts, as well as provide further explanation and derivation from the Tanakh and Talmud. Such works include those of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) and the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). The latter’s teachings later gave rise to three parallel mystical schools within Judaism: that of the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746, mainly in Southern and Western Europe), the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760, founder of the Hasidic movement, in Eastern Europe), and the Rashash (Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, 1720-1777, in the Sephardic-Mizrachi world).

It is pretty much impossible to study the Zohar on its own; it is vital to have the systematic explanations of the Ramak and the Arizal. Similarly, one cannot be a good kabbalist without having in-depth knowledge of the earlier published works like Sefer Yetzirah. Most importantly, one won’t understand anything at all without command of the Tanakh. Essentially every passage in the Zohar begins with an exposition on a verse in the Tanakh. In fact, one of the greatest kabbalists of all time, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), studied only Tanakh after a certain age, for he knew how to derive everything from it. It is important to remember that in the Talmud, whenever the Sages refer to the Tanakh (specifically to the Nevi’im and Ketuvim), they call it “Kabbalah”! After all, Kabbalah is (or should be) nothing more than the sod, the esoteric level, of Scriptural study.

Myth #4: Kabbalah is Forbidden

One of the most common myths about Kabbalah is that its study is forbidden. This originates in the Mishnah (Chagigah 2:1), which states that one may not expound upon “the Work of Creation in the presence of two. Nor [the Work of] the Chariot in the presence of one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” Kabbalah was traditionally divided into two areas of study: Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation”, and Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. The former was focused on Genesis 1 and its secrets of the creation of the universe. The latter was focused on Ezekiel 1 and the prophet’s vision of God’s Divine “Chariot”. The former is about understanding God and the world; the latter about means of communicating with the Heavens. The Sages warn that these things cannot be taught publicly, and may only be relayed from teacher to disciple one-on-one. The Talmud (Chagigah 13a) adds that only the “headings” are actually relayed to the student. The student needs to figure it out on his own! One who is truly wise in Torah and knows how to extract its secrets will get it. An initiate only needs a little push in the right direction.

Throughout those ancient times, Kabbalah was indeed kept hidden and relayed in secret from teacher to worthy disciple. However, it was long prophesied that a time would come when Kabbalah would have to be revealed to the public to prepare the world for the End of Days, the Messianic Era, and beyond. The great kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azulai (c. 1570-1643) wrote in his Or HaChamah, that

the heavenly decree prohibiting the study of Kabbalah in public was valid only until the end of the year 5250 [1490]. Thereafter it would be called the “last generation”. The decree was abrogated and permission was granted to study the Zohar. From the year 5300 [1540] onward it will be accounted an end of special merit to both old and young to study [Kabbalah] in public…

Rabbi Azulai derives this partly from the Zohar itself. For example, Zohar III, 124b (Ra’aya Mehemna) states that “…Israel shall taste of the ‘Tree of Life’, which is this book of the Zohar, and by this means shall they go forth from the exile in mercy.” Study of the Zohar is necessary to end this difficult stage of exile and usher in the Messianic Era.

Meanwhile, the Arizal taught that one who does not study Kabbalah does not fulfil the mitzvah of Torah study (see the Introduction to Sha’ar HaMitzvot). It is necessary to study the Torah on all four levels of peshat, remez, drash, and sod. (In Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 16, it is said that one who does not study Torah on all four levels will have to reincarnate again and again until they do!) To explain why Kabbalah study is so important, we turn to the next myth.

Myth #5: Kabbalah is Not Useful

Some people wrongly believe that Kabbalah is just lots of philosophy, metaphysics, and numerology that leads to nothing good or practical. This, too, is completely false. Kabbalah is heavy on practical tools for self-development, and it is where some of the biggest questions of life and existence are addressed. In our generation especially, these are critical questions to answer. Kabbalah may not have been so vital to study before the 15th century because in those days, atheism was not really an option and pretty much everyone agreed that there is a God who created the universe. Religion was a part of daily life for all, and usually mandated by the government, while communities were organized entirely around their places of worship. Today, that is so no longer the case.

The Zohar foresaw that a time like this would come (as did the Tanakh and the Talmud). So, it isn’t a coincidence that right around the time of the Renaissance and the beginnings of the Enlightenment, the study of Kabbalah started to spread publicly. It is within the Kabbalistic texts that one can find the best answers for those big questions regarding the origins of the universe, the purpose of life, why bad things happen to good people, and so on. As we’ve pointed out in the past, it is in Kabbalah that Torah and science no longer contradict, but actually harmonize. One of the great Hasidic leaders, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, once famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.” Without it, he would have abandoned his faith entirely.

Within Kabbalah, too, are the tools for repairing one’s character and becoming a better person. The Kabbalah of the Arizal is especially focused on tikkun—rectifying one’s self. A major part of that, of course, is rectifying one’s relationships with others. The Arizal placed the greatest priority on brotherly love and coexistence. In fact, shortly before his untimely death he relayed to his students why it had been decreed in the Heavens that his time had come. One of the two reasons was because he could not foment enough love between his disciples! In fact, it was the Arizal that instituted the practice of reciting each morning that “I take upon myself the mitzvah of ‘love your fellow as yourself…’” now commonly found in most Jewish prayer books. In a world of so many societal, emotional, and psychological ills, Kabbalah has the power to be hugely therapeutic.

Myth #6: Kabbalah is Distinct from Judaism

There are some Jews that say they stay away from anything “Kabbalistic”. This is impossible! Much of regular Jewish practice is based on Kabbalistic principles. This includes washing netilat yadayim in the morning, wearing a kippah, staying up all night to learn Torah on Shavuot, welcoming the ushpizin on Sukkot, and even reciting the mourner’s kaddish. If you sing “Lecha Dodi” or “Shalom Aleichem” on Friday evenings, that comes out of Kabbalah. Meanwhile, the holidays of Hoshanah Rabbah and Simchat Torah are entirely mystical. In fact, so too is the whole Jewish prayer service. It is modeled on the mystical experiences of the prophets (most clearly illustrated during the Kedusha), arranged according to the four Kabbalistic “universes” mentioned above, and peppered with kavanot, meditations, and meaningful gematriot. In short, Kabbalah is not something separate from Judaism, but simply its inner dimension.

Having said all of the above, it is of vast importance to also say that many people and books claim to be “Kabbalistic” but are truly not. How do you know if something is authentic Kabbalah? Perhaps we can use the above to formulate a simple set of guidelines. Kabbalah should be:

  1. Scripture-based. If you find that a particular teaching has no foundation of any kind in the Tanakh (and the book or teacher cannot provide one), tread carefully.
  2. Monotheistic. If something smells even a little bit idolatrous or “magical” in any way, avoid it. It is not authentic Kabbalah. (Charms and amulets are particularly problematic.)
  3. Constructive. Remember that Kabbalah is meant to be about rectifying the self, elevating the soul, and connecting to God. It is inherently positive and meaningful. If it appears to you that a certain teaching is the opposite, take the time to investigate its origins.

Wish you and your family a sweet and happy new year!