Tag Archives: Four Worlds of Kabbalah

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. Continue reading

What Does It Really Mean to Be “Sephardi”?

The Haftarah of this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, ends with these words (Ovadiah 1:20-21):

And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Tzarfat, and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad shall inherit the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.

This verse happens to be the origin of the term “Sephardic Jew”. By the 13th century, Jews on the European continent were divided into four groups: the Ashkenazis were those in the Germanic lands, the Sephardis in the Iberian Peninsula, the Tzarfatis in France, and the “Canaanites” in Bohemia and Moravia (roughly what is today the Czech Republic). Those last two groups have been forgotten in our days. Yet, Jewish texts from that era make it clear that Tzarfati Jews were once a distinct category, as were the Canaani Jews (which in some texts appear to refer to those Jews living in all Slavic lands). These divisions were based on the verse above from this week’s Haftarah, which describes the Jewish people exiled as far as Tzarfat and Sepharad, and dwelling among distant Canaanites. (It is important to remember that in the Tanakh the word “Canaan” does not always refer to the ethnic Canaanites, but can also mean “merchant” more generally.)

Today, the Jewish world is often divided more simply among Ashkenazi and Sephardi lines. Having discussed the origins of Ashkenazi Jews in the past, we now turn to the Sephardis. However, I don’t want to focus here on the history of Sephardic Jewry. (In short: Jews arrived in Iberia at least as far back as Roman times, and began to migrate on mass after the Muslim conquest in 711.) The big question is: what makes a person “Sephardi” today, considering that Spain expelled all of its Jews in 1492—and didn’t officially rescind that decree until 1968!

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Understanding the 5 Afflictions of Yom Kippur

Tonight we begin to observe Yom Kippur and take upon ourselves five afflictions, as taught in the Mishnah: abstaining from eating and drinking, bathing, anointing with oils, wearing shoes, and sexual intimacy (Yoma 8:1). Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (c. 1445-1515) comments, as the Sages explain, that these prohibitions are derived from the five times that the Torah speaks of afflicting one’s soul on Yom Kippur. The number five is most significant when it comes to Yom Kippur. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on Leviticus 16:14 that the five services performed in the Temple on Yom Kippur parallel the five prayer services that we recite on Yom Kippur (Arvit, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah, Neilah), as well as the five times that the Kohen Gadol would immerse in the mikveh, and the five souls of a person which are purified on this day. (For an explanation of these five souls, see A Mystical Map of Your Soul.)

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