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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Samuel Augustus Binion (1853–1914)

By The Kabbalah

THE MASS of literature and of learning which the word Kabbalah designates is abstruse and difficult; but a knowledge of it is essential to an understanding of the Hebrew thought in the middle centuries of our era, and also of its influence in Europe during the same and later periods. The fascination which the doctrines grouped under the name Kabbalah had for the mystic, the theologian, and the philosopher, has hardly yet passed entirely away. The reason for this is obvious. This Hebrew esoteric philosophy sought to explain the INFINITE in terms comprehensible to men. The sublime names of God in the Old Testament awed the world, and the attributes attached to those Divine names enriched it. A study of the doctrines of the Kabbalah opened and illuminated the Bible. It enlarged the religious conception of the Christian world.

That the pure theosophy of the Kabbalah shared the fate of other theosophies, and was prostituted to wonder-working and to “practical” uses, was to be expected. It is the common fate of all theosophies.

My subject divides itself into two branches: first, the Theoretical Kabbalah, an esoteric theosophy; and second, the Practical Kabbalah, the various treatises on which comprise the great majority of the books belonging to the subject: and I will try to state broadly what the Kabbalah is, and indicate its various stages and the uses made of it. The word Kabbalah (also spelled Cabala and Qabalah) is derived from the Hebrew verb kabbal (to receive). In addition to the received Hebrew Scripture designated as ‘Torah Shebikthabh’ (the Written Law), there is the ‘Torah sheb’al pĕh’ (the Oral or Traditional Law). The Rabbis affirm that both laws were derived from the same source, having been communicated to Moses by the Almighty on Mount Sinai.

The Talmud declares (Tract. ‘Pirke Abhoth’ or Patristic Chapters, Chap, i., 1) that Mosheh kibbel (Moses received) the Law from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; that Joshua transmitted it to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets to the “Men of the Great Congregation,” who flourished from the end of the sixth century B.C. till the time of Rabbi Shimeon Hatsadik (Simeon the Just), who was the last of the line, and died 300 B.C.

The famous Hebrew philosopher Maimonides, who died in the earlier part of the thirteenth century A.D., gives us the names of the receivers of the ‘Oral Law’ since Simeon the Just, as follows:—Simeon the Just bequeathed the tradition to the Sophrim (Scribes); the Scribes to the Hakhamim (Wise Men) or Tanaim (Repeaters). The Hakhamim flourished between 70 and 220 A.D., and were the composers of the ‘Mishna’ (Repetition), which was compiled by Rabbi Jehudah the Holy, about the close of the second century A.D. By them it was transmitted to the Amorāïm (Speakers), the authors of the voluminous commentary on the ‘Mishna’ called ‘Gemara’ (Completion). The ‘Mishna’ and ‘Gemara’ form the great Jewish National Code of laws, ethics, and traditions known as the Talmud. This great work was completed by Rabina, Rab Ashi, and the latter’s son Mar, the last of the Amorāïm, 365–427 A.D. The Amorāïm were succeeded by the Sabboraïm, or Rabbanan Sabboraï (Reasoners), who arranged, sifted, and gave the final touch to the great work. The Sabboraïm period is 500–689 A.D., followed by the Geônim (Magnificent or Eminent Men). The latter made no alteration in the letter nor in the text of the Talmud, but confined themselves to writing many works explanatory of it. The Geônim period is from 689 to 895 A.D.

Maimonides’s reason for the composition of his magnum opus called ‘Yad Hahazakah’ (Mighty Hand), or ‘Mishnah Torah’ (the Repeated Law), is as follows (Preface):—“On account of the troubles and persecutions, the wisdom of our learned men is lost and the knowledge of our sages is hidden; so that certain parts of the exposition of the ‘Talmud’ by the Geônim became obscured, and great confusion had arisen in their interpretation…. Therefore,” he adds, “since the Rabbis in captivity cannot communicate on account of war and distance,… with the help of my Creator, and being well versed in all those works, I have endeavored to collate and explain in the clearest possible manner all that which was said since the time of our Rabbi Jehudah the Holy” (i.e., since the compilation of the ‘Mishna,’ to the last of the Geônim).

Thus in the writings of the Rabbis, the entire ‘Oral Law,’ including the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds, Midrashim, etc., is designated as ‘Kabbalah’ (the Received Doctrines): but the name is now applied to that part of tradition which treats, first, of the “Heavenly Chariot” and throne as described by the Prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah (Ezek. i.; Isaiah vi. 1–4); second, of the Work of Creation, embodied in the first chapter of Genesis; and third, of the whole system of the symbolic interpretation of Scripture adopted by the ‘Zohar’ and its commentaries.

The Kabbalah is the technical name of the Jewish Esoteric Philosophy. It is divided into two principal parts: the ’Iyūnith (Theoretical or Speculative), and the Ma’asiyoth (Active or Practical). It was also denominated Hakhmah Nistarah (Hidden Wisdom), because its study was hidden from the profane, and known only to the few “elect” who received it by tradition. As the initials of Hakhma Nistarah, H. N., form the Hebrew word H e N (Grace), the modern Kabbalists designate the Kabbalah by that short but meaning cryptogram.

Separating from its principal dogmas the accretions which modern Kabbalistic writers added, and freeing it from its parasite, the pretended wonder-workings of the ‘Practical Kabbalah,’ we shall behold in the principal doctrines of the ‘Theoretical Kabbalah’ a pure theosophy far superior to the Trimūrti (the triad of the Vedas), and in many respects not conflicting with the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.


The Principal Dogma of the Kabbalah
The starting-point of the ‘Theoretical Kabbalah’ is the nature of the Deity prior to the creation of the universe. The Kabbalists designate him as the EN-SOPH (the Infinite), without any Dimyon (shape or form) whatsoever. He was above being. He was the Aïn (nothing). Yet in that non-existent state he is designated as the ’Ilath Kol Ha-’Iloth … Sibath Kol Hassiboth (the Cause of all Causes).  

This doctrine according to our understanding is paradoxical, since, as the Hindu philosophy has it, Nāvastuno vastu siddhih (Nothing is made of nothing); the terms “manifestation” or “will” imply “being.” The Kabbalists nevertheless affirm that he willed to become known, and the Concealed of all Concealed manifested himself by means of Ten Sephīroth (Emanations).


The Ten Sephīroth
The exact meaning of the Hebrew word Sephīrah, plural Sephīroth, is in dispute. According to some it is derived from the Hebrew verb saphar (to count); while others render it “declaration,” from sapēr (to declare) as in Psalm xix. 1, Hash-shamaim Mesaprim,… “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Others again translate it “sphere” or “sapphire.” This name, the Kabbalists affirm, was given by no less an authority than the Prophet Elijah himself: in addressing himself to the Deity he exclaimed, “Thou art he who hast brought forth the ten things which we call Sephīroth, in order to illuminate the world.” (Second pref. of ‘Tikûnē Zohar.’)  

In order to introduce the reader into the maze of the Sephīritic Spheres and facilitate his progress therein, a diagram of the Ten Sephīroth is inserted below. This will assist to a clearer understanding of their emanation, their coming into existence, their Divine Scriptural names, their functions in the “worlds,”—Briah (Creation), Yetsirah (Formation), and ’Asiyah (Action),—and their position in the Adam-Kadmon (the Archetypal Man); or the ’Olam Ha-Atsilôth (the World of Emanations). A complete understanding of this diagram will reward the reader and give him the key to the foundation of the whole theosophy. It is very easy of comprehension, if followed by the description and guided by the arrows shown.

The first “Emanation,” or “Intelligence,” is designated the Nekūdah (point); which the Kabbalah identifies with the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Yod (’), the first letter of the Tetragrammaton I H V H, the numerical value of which is equal to 10 (see diagram of values), symbolizing the Ten Sephīroth by which the world was created. The ‘Zohar’ (i. 15a and 16b) describes the manifestation of the first “Intelligence” thus; “The air surrounding the ‘Concealed of all Concealed’ (the En-Soph), was cleft and it was not cleft. He was absolutely unknown until from the midst of the cleft a luminous Nekūdah appeared. After this he (the Concealed) continued in his unknown state. This point is therefore designated the Rēshith (beginning), because it is the primordial word of all.”

Thus it follows that since the Nekūdah Rishônah (the first luminous point) directly emanated from the En-Soph, it must possess the same nature as the source whence it proceeded. This “luminous point” the Kabbalists call the “First Sephīrah,” out of which nine other Sephīroth emanated in succession. It was by the agency of these Ten Sephīroth, called the Adam Kadmon (the Archetypal Man), that the universe was created.

Rabbi Simeon opens his mystic discourse on this subject as follows: “What is meant by the words, ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is towards me’? (Canticles, vii. 10). It means that all the days that we are joined together in this world we are united by one bond with the Holy One, blessed be he. Therefore is it written, ‘And his desire is towards me.’”

While thus expounding the Divine truth, the ‘Zohar’ relates (iii. 288a): “The Deity and his holy company came to listen to the exposition of the secret words and the praises of the Ancient Holy One.” These secret words were as follows:—“The Mystery of all Mysteries has been and is separated from all; yet he is not separated. Everything is attached to him, for he is everything. He is the Ancient of all ancient; the Unknown of all unknown. He assumed a form, yet he is without form. He assumed a form in order to maintain all, and yet he has no form because he is incomprehensible [literally, because He does not exist]. When he assumed a form [the Nekūdah] he caused to emanate from it nine flaming lights; and those lights that proceeded from him diffused their [constantly increasing] luminosity in every direction. Just as a burning lamp spreads its glow to all sides; but if one approach to examine the diffused light, nothing is found but the burning lamp. So also is he the Ancient Holy [One]. He is the Heavenly light, the Mystery of all Mysteries. If we try to comprehend him we cannot [because] he does not exist, except in those diffused lights which are visible and [at the same time] hidden; and these are called the Holy Name,—they are all in one.”


The Explanation of the Adam Kadmon
The uppermost Sephīrah is called Kether (the Crown). It emanated, as already stated, directly from the En-Soph, and is styled Nekūdah Rishônah (the First Point). This Nekūdah existed from all eternity. Hence its Divine appellation in Scripture, A H I H, Ehyeh: rendered “I Am” (Exodus iii. 14). It is also variously known as the Arikh Anpin (the Great, or Long-Faced); ’Atiqa (the Ancient); Rēsha Hivra (White-head); Rôm Ma’ālah (the Most High). In the Heavenly Chariot it is represented by the Hayoth Hak-Koddesh (the Holy Creatures), and the Archangel Metatron; its position in the Adam-Kadmon is the Head.  

From Kether (the Crown) emanated the second Sephīroth, Hakhmah (Wisdom). It is of the masculine nature. Its position in the Adam-Kadmon is the right shoulder or breast, and it is represented by the Divine name Y a H (the Lord—Isaiah xxvi. 4; Exodus xvii. 16), the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton I H V H (Jehovah—the Eternal).

Out of “Wisdom” sprung up the third Sephīrah, Binah (Intelligence). Its Divine name in Scripture is the whole Tetragrammaton I H V H (Jehovah), and in the Heavenly Hosts it is represented by Arēlim, rendered in the Authorized Version “the Valiant Ones” (Isaiah xxxiii. 7), and the Archangel Raziel. Its position in the Adam Kadmon is the left shoulder or breast, and it is of the feminine nature. Hence it has another appellation A M (Em—Mother, or Supernal Mother), out of which the following seven intelligences were developed. Thus the full name of Jehovah was not known until the third Sephīrah appeared, and the first Trinity of three triads, which embraces the ’Olam Habriah (World of Creation) as typified by Em (mother), was completed. The Talmud (Tract. Berachoth, ix. 57a) renders the Hebrew word A M in Proverbs ii. 3, “Thou shalt call ‘Intelligence’ (Binah) thy ‘mother.’” The Authorized Version reads I M, meaning “if”—“If thou criest for knowledge….”

From the third Sephīrah is derived the fourth, the name of which is Hesed (Mercy or Love). Its position in the Archetypal Man is the right arm. Its Divine name in Scripture is El (Mighty God); it is the first syllable of Elohim—Almighty. In the Heavenly Host it is represented by Hashmālim (Ezekiel i. 4) and the Archangel Zadkiel. It is of the same nature as Hakhmah (Wisdom).

The fifth Sephīrah is of the feminine principle. It emanated from the fourth Sephīrah; and is called Gebhūrah (Strength), also Dīn (Justice), and Pahad (Fear). Its Divine name is E L H—Eloha (Almighty God). In the Heavenly Host it is represented by the Seraphim and the Archangel Kamael, and forms the left arm of the Adam-Kadmon.

The sixth Sephīrah represents in the Adam-Kadmon the region embracing the chest and downward. Its name is Tiphereth (Beauty). Its divine name is Elohim (Almighty), and in the Heavenly Host it is represented by Shinanim or Malakhim (Ps. lxviii. 17), and the Archangel Michael. These three, Justice, Mercy, and Beauty, form the “Second Trinity,” called Olam Murgash (Sensuous World—literally, the world which is felt), because it represents moral faculties.

The seventh Sephīrah is the first of the third Trinity, and is called Netsah (Victory, or Perpetuity). Its principle is like its immediate predecessor’s, and it corresponds to the right leg of the Adam Kadmon. Its Divine name is Jehovah Zebhaoth (Eternal of Hosts); among the Heavenly Hosts it is represented by Tarshishim and the Archangel Haniel. From the seventh emanates the eighth Sephīrah, which is called Hôd (Glory, or Splendor), and—like Gebhūrah and Binah—it is of feminine nature. Its Divine name is Eloha Zebhaoth (Almighty God of Hosts). Among the Heavenly Hosts it is represented by B’nē Elohim (Sons of the Almighty) and the Archangel Raphael; and out of this beamed forth the ninth, called Yesod (Foundation), the position of which in the Adam-Kadmon is in the part comprising the reproductive sphere. This, with the previous two, forms the third Trinity of the Adam-Kadmon, and is called the ’Olam Hamutb’a (the Natural or Material World). Its Scriptural name is Shaddai (the All-Sufficient), or El-Hai (the Living God); and in the Heavenly Hosts it is represented by the Kerûbim (Cherubim) and the Archangel Gabriel.

The tenth is the lowermost Sephīrah, and it is said to possess all the life principles of the preceding nine. It is called Malkhuth (Kingdom), and is known as the Sh’khinah (the Tabernacling Deity). Its Scriptural name is Adonai (the Lord). In the Heavenly Host it is represented by the Cherubim and the Archangel Metatron, the same as of the first Sephīrah.

The Angel Metatron, whose name is equivalent to the name of God by Gematria (that is, by numerical value), is represented in the first Sephīrah (the Crown) as well as in the last (Kingdom). His functions therefore are not only in the highest spheres of the Briatic and Yetsiratic (creative and formative) worlds, but he also governs the Asiyatic (active) world. The harmony of the universe is caused by HIM. Christian Kabbalists identify him with Christ, the “Angel of the Lord,” the Sar Ha-panim (Zechariah iii. 1). Its place in the Adam-Kadmon is the feet, and also comprises the harmony of the complete Adam-Kadmon.

It will thus be seen that each of the ten Sephīroth emanated from each other in regular succession, and in their totality form the ’Olam Ha-Atsiloth (the “world of emanations” or “derivations”). The meaning of “Atsiloth” is in dispute. The word occurs only once in the Bible, Jeremiah xxxviii. 12, where its translation “arm-holes” is doubtful. Some scholars variously render it “wrists,” or “knuckles,” or “the juncture of the fingers with the hand.” (Cf. Gesenius, sub voce “Atsil.”) The last rendering, however, seems to be more in accordance with the adopted word “emanation,” i.e., “separation,” just as the united phalanges separate and form ten fingers. (Cf. ‘Sepher Yetsirah,’ Mishnah 3, where the ten Sephīroth are actually compared to the ten fingers, “five and five,” of the hands.) It was this form of the “Archetypal Man,” the Kabbalists affirm, which the Prophet Ezekiel beheld in his vision on the river Chebar (Ezek. i.).

The Adam-Kadmon is also sometimes designated as the Ets Hayim (the Tree of Life). The branches of the tree are three in number. They are called ’Amūdim (Pillars). The pillar on the right is composed of the three Sephīroth possessing the masculine nature, and is called the “Pillar of Mercy.” It is also named Jachin (as in the Temple at Jerusalem, 1 Kings vii. 21). The pillar on the left is composed of the three Sephīroth possessing the feminine nature, and is called the “Pillar of Judgment,” also Boaz (ibid.); while the four Sephīroth between the two side pillars (Crown, Beauty, Foundation, and Kingdom), form the “Middle Pillar.”

The Ten Sephīroth in their complete state are designated as the “World of Emanations,” and are also known as the “King and Queen.” They are typified by the masculine and feminine potencies in the right and left pillars and by the four middle Sephīroth which unite them. The Adam-Kadmon, in his complete state, becomes the connecting link between the non-creative En-Soph and creation, by means of four worlds which evolved from him, and of which I have spoken heretofore, namely:—

  • ’OlamHa-Atsiloth(The World of Emanation)
  • “Ha-Briah( “““ Creation)
  • “Ha-Yetsirah( “““ Formation)
  • “Ha-’Asiyah( “““ Action)


The Universe was Created
The Kabbalists further teach that each of the three worlds Creation, Formation, and Action, is composed like the World of Emanation, and has Ten Sephīroth of its own. The farther the worlds are removed from the En-Soph, the less divine are the beings which evolved from them. For instance, the Pure Spirits which are of a higher category than the Angels belong to the World of Action, while the Angels inhabit the world below it. The less ethereal of comprehensible and material substance, including the K’lipoth (a name given to the Prince of Darkness and his hosts, literally meaning shells or refuse), belong to the lowermost decade of Sephīroth, the World of Action.  

Now the question arises, since the Adam-Kadmon emanated from the En-Soph, how is it that He (the En-Soph) permitted the creation of the material world and the K’lipoth (Demons) in the Olam Ha’Asiyah? The Kabbalists get over this difficulty by the theory of Tsimtsum (contraction or concentration), which explains that when the material world was about to be created the En-Soph was in a “tsimtsum” condition (i.e., contracted himself): an explanation which is as difficult to understand as the original question. The promoter of this doctrine is Rabbi Mosheh ben Jacob Cordovero (1522–1570), the author of the famous Kabbalistic work ‘Pardēs Rimmonim’ (The Garden of Pomegranates).

Whether the present statement of the fundamental doctrines of the Ten Sephīroth was known or not prior to the tenth century A.D., cannot be positively stated. It appears, however, that the ‘Sepher Yetsirah’ (The Book of Creation) is the first book from which the author (or compiler) of the ‘Zohar,’ and subsequent commentators, have drawn their main information.

It is to be regretted that several important Kabbalistic works are attributed to fictitious authors. Tradition asserts that the author of the ‘Sepher Yetsirah’ is the Patriarch Abraham, and the author of the book called ‘Sepher Raziel Hamalach’ the First Adam. This, Kabbalists never doubted, yet scientific investigation demonstrated that neither the first nor the second was entitled to such antiquity. They belong to a much more recent period: the ‘Sepher Yetsirah’ to the Geônim period (after the fifth century A.D.); and the author of ‘Raziel the Angel’ is Rabbi Eliezer of Worms.

Another authority, called ‘Sepher Habahir’ (The Book of Brilliant Light), is attributed to Rabbi Nehunyah ben Hakanah (of the first century); but it has also been demonstrated (cf. Winter and Wünsche, ‘Die Jüdische Literatur,’ Vol. iii., 257) that this is a pseudonym, and its real author is Isaac “The Blind” of the eleventh century, or one of his disciples.

There are several Kabbalistic Midrashim (see Jellinek’s ‘Beth Ha-Midrash’) supposed to be contemporaries with Midrash Rabbah and Tanhumah, etc.; but most of them have likewise been proven to be apocryphal. Considering these things, the student of the Kabbalah can do no better than to refer to authorities beginning with the twelfth century.

The book called ‘Zohar’ is ascribed to Rabbi Simeon, the son of Yohaī (Yochaī), who was contemporary with the famous Rabbi Akiba (second century A.D.). Modern critics, however, believe they have discovered some elements in the text which tend to prove that it is of a later date (cf. Ginzburg, ‘The Kabbalah,’ pp. 78–94), and attribute it to Rabbi Moses ben Shem Tob de Leon (born 1250, died 1305).

Notwithstanding those criticisms, the ‘Zohar’ continues to be the corner-stone upon which the whole structure of the Kabbalah rests. It is the fountain-head from which all modern Kabbalistic writers have drawn their material; and no true adherent to its doctrines has ever disputed its authorship. The most recent edition (Wilna: 1882), now before me, bears the same title as the first edition published by Da Padova and Jacob ben Naphtali (Mantua: 1558–1560). The title is as follows: ‘Sēphēr Ha-Zohar ’al Hamishah Humshē Torah mehatana ha-Elokē Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohaī [Yochaī] (The Book of Zohar, [a Commentary] on the Pentateuch by the Tana, the Divine Rabbi Simeon ben Yohaī).

Whilst it cannot be denied that there are numerous additions and interpolations, probably whole treatises, in the ‘Zohar’ which might be ascribed to a later period than the second century of our era, it is nevertheless certain that the greater part of the work belongs to an early period. What Moses de Leon might have done (if he ever did anything) was to compile the disjecta membra of various Midrashim and add them to the Midrash Y’hi Ôr (the Exposition “Let there be Light,” Gen. i. 3); thus changing Ôr (Light) into the more significant name Zohar (shining Light).

The ‘Zohar,’ like the Hebrew Pentateuch, is divided into fifty-two Parshioth (sections) and contains several treatises, which are for the most part a Kabbalistic exposition of the Pentateuch. One of the dissertations (Vols. ii. and iii.), called ‘Ra’āya Mehemna’ (the Faithful Shepherd), contains the discussions of Moses (the Faithful Shepherd), the prophet Elijah, and Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. Another treatise, the ‘Book of Secrets,’ discusses Demonology, Psychology, Metempsychosis, and kindred subjects.


Hermeneutical Rules of the Kabbalah
We have space only to explain a few of the more important rules so frequently used in the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Scriptures. The most important exegetical rule in the Kabbalah is called Gematria (formed by metathesis from the Greek [Greek]), according to which every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. There are in the Hebrew alphabet, including the finals, twenty-seven characters, which are divided into nine groups of threes. The first letters of each group from right to left are the units from 1 to 9; the second represent the tens from 10 to 90; the third represent the hundreds, from 100 to 900. This arrangement of the 27 letters in nine groups is called the A I KB K R (the Ayak Bekhar) alphabet, being the six letters contained in the first two chambers of the diagram.  



By this ingenious but illogical mode many Hebrew verses, words, or letters are computed and compared with other verses, words, or letters; and if their numerical value happens to correspond, which not infrequently happens, their affinity is held to be established. For example, the numerical value of the three Hebrew letters forming the word T/9 V/6 B/2 (Tobh), “good,” amounts to 9+6+2=17; reduce 17 to its component figures thus: 1+7=8; then compare this reduced number with the numerical equivalent of the Tetragrammaton I/10 H/5 V/6 N/5 10+5+6+5=26; reduce 26 into its component parts thus: 2+6=8: ergo, it is plain, to the Kabbalist, that whenever the word Tobh (good) occurs in the Scriptures the Deity is meant (I H V H—Jehovah).

Some of these deductions are very interesting. See for instance the exposition of Exodus ii. 2, in the ‘Zohar,’ ii. 11b. When Moses was born, it is said: “And she [the mother] saw him that he was a goodly [literally, good] child.” Rabbi Jose said that “the mother beheld the light of the Shekhinah shining within him”; and according to both the Talmud and the Midrash, “the house was filled with Ôr [light].” It was by this same method that the author of the Kabbalistic work ‘Shelah’ discovered that the reduced number of the letters composing the Hebrew En-Soph (Infinite) amounts to 207=9: precisely the same as that of Ôr (Light) and of Adon ’Olam (the Lord of the Universe).

When one considers these exhaustless means of interpretation at the disposal of the Kabbalists, it is not in the least surprising that they could twist and interpret any text of Scripture to suit their own purposes.

Another rule which the Kabbalists often employ is the Notarikôn. According to this the initials or finals of a whole phrase make one word, and vice versa; for instance, war—We Are Ruined.

It is narrated of a certain Rabbi Abner (of the fifteenth century), a skeptic and disbeliever in the symbolic interpretation of the Scriptures, that disputing with a Kabbalist who maintained that by means of the exegetical rules of the Kabbalah one could trace the past, present, and future of men from the beginning to the end of the world, he challenged his opponent to indicate the verse in the ‘Torah’ wherein his own name and fortune occurred. The Kabbalist pointed out Deuteronomy xxxii. 26, where we read:A M a R T IA P h A H e mA S h B I T H aM’ A N O S hZ i K h R a M(“I said … I would make the remembrance of them to cease among men”). “Your name and fortune,” said the Kabbalist, “are indicated in the third consonant of each of the five words—R(abbi) Abn(e)r.” What impression this argument made on Rabbi Abner is not stated; but the story is often quoted by the Kabbalists as a convincing proof that every letter, yea, each scintilla, has some secret meaning understood by the “qualified,” but unknown and invisible to the profane and uninitiated.

Besides these inexhaustible means, there are several additional rules; so that if the point in dispute cannot be settled by any one of the above-named rules, others may be brought forward. Thus, if the Gematria and Notarikôn should fail to produce the desired effect, the Temurah (Permutation) is resorted to, by which means each and every one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet may be substituted for another. There are about twenty-eight alphabets of that category. The At-Bash alphabet—formed by pairing the first Hebrew letter, Aleph (A), with the last, Tau (T); the second letter, Beth (B), with the last but one, Shin (Sh); etc.—is the most frequently used. By this canon the Aleph (A) can assume the character of Tau (T), and vice versa, Beth (B) the character of Shin (Sh), etc., as here shown (read from right to left):—


The At-bash Alphabet

Permutation of letters seems to have been in practice centuries before our present era. We meet traces of its use as early as the time of Jeremiah, when (Jerem. xxv. 26) B a B e L (Babylon) is called She Sha K. Now if the letters B B L are placed above S S K, we see that Jeremiah made use of the At-Bash alphabet. If this were the only instance, we might call it an accident; but there is another example (ibid., li. 1), where the Chaldeans (Hebrew K a S D I M) are called L’B K a M I, by the same permutation process of the At-Bash alphabet.

Considering the number of their alphabets, we understand how easy it is for the Kabbalist to predict anything and everything. But copious and all-sufficient as this system would seem to be, the Kabbalists have yet another resource: by this last, the alphabet is divided into three sections forming triads composed of three letters, and the letters of the same triad (see diagram, above) are interchanged one with the other.


The Practical Kabbalah
The ‘Practical Kabbalah’ is the immediate outcome of—first, hermeneutical interpretation of Scripture; second, the use for practical purposes of the Shem-Hamphorash (the unutterable name of God—I H V H) and his numerous attributes; third, the introduction of heterogeneous elements proceeding from heathen sources and alchemist enthusiasts; and fourth, the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages.  

It was then that the esoteric theosophy (hitherto exclusively in the hands of the Jewish “elect”) became public property. This publicity was owing to the internecine contention among the ranks of the Spanish Hebrew philosophers of the thirteenth century, which caused a split in the synagogue. The war was carried on between the two factions. One, the most intellectual, was championed by the famous Maimonides; who did not renounce the philosophical bearing of the Sephīroth, but was opposed to the mystical interpretation of Scripture by the successors of Rabbi Isaac the Blind. The other, the most numerous and influential faction, had for their champion the youthful but famous Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, called Nachmoni or Nachmonides.

Maimonides was denounced by his opponents as a heretic; and the hatred which kept smoldering among them was fanned into an open conflagration, which compelled the Gentile world also to inquire into the subject.

The persecution and forced conversions of the Jews have also contributed to the publicity of the Hebrew esoteric philosophy. Many of the learned Rabbis embraced the Christian faith, and the principal books were translated into Latin. Christian philosophers embraced the Kabbalah as a godsend. At first they were somewhat hampered by the doctrine of “Three Trinities”; but since the doctrine of three is the basis of the Sephīroth, and since it deals also with “Father” and “Mother,” the Makroprosorpon (Great Face), the Mikroprosorpon (Small Face), the “Infinite,” etc.,—they overlooked the impediments and accepted the essential points.

This foreign doctrine found additional friends among the “practical” scientists of that age, and it enrolled among its admirers men of great learning,—physicians, metaphysicians, alchemists, mathematicians, etc.,—as the learned works of that period (1300–1700) testify; from the famous scholastic Raymond Lully, who died 1315, to the most eminent Christian scholar Baron C. Knorr von Rosenroth, of the seventeenth century.

Whilst the Kabbalah was making rapid strides in these new quarters, and absorbed in its progress not a few of the heterogeneous doctrines entirely foreign to the Sephiritic system, it did not remain idle in its former abode. The check it received from Maimonides’s followers was counteracted by the formidable array of Nachmonides and his disciples. The number of “elect” and “saints” multiplied, and the ‘Zohar’ came to be considered as a Holy Book on the same level with the ‘Torah.’ The Gentile Kabbalists who engaged in the Practical Kabbalah were ignored by the Hebrew “elect.” The Rabbis declared that their “wonder-workings” were accomplished by means of the Shem Hamphorash (the ineffable name of God), his attributes, and the Angels, whilst the Gentiles performed them by means of Satan and his hosts.

The principal Hebrew colleges for the study of the Kabbalah were located in Spain; but after the expulsion of the Jews (1492) from that country, various schools were opened in France, Germany, and Palestine.

Whilst the Gentile alchemists endeavored to discover the philosopher’s stone by means of the ‘Practical Kabbalah,’ the Rabbis, on the other hand, by help of the all-powerful Prophet Elijah, tried to obtain saintly virtues, in order to become the possessors of the Divine teachings (Grace); and there were not a few who even attempted the liberation of the Jews from their captivity by means of the Shem Hamphorash, and even assumed the title of “Messiah.” Abraham Abulafia in the thirteenth century, born in Zaragosa, and the famous Sabbathai Zebhi in the seventeenth century, born in Smyrna, are examples of those who tried it, but who failed miserably. It was not long before the latter pseudo-Messiah proclaimed himself King of the Jews. Plans to march on Constantinople and subdue the Gentiles—of course not by the sword, but by miraculous deeds—were laid. The globe was portioned out among his immediate disciples and relatives, reserving for his own dominion the Holy Land, with Jerusalem for his own residence. The day for the capture of Constantinople was already appointed. But the unusual multitude which gathered around him attracted the attention of the authorities, and the intended uprising was quelled in its inception. Sabbathai Zebhi and his disciples were cast in prison. His adherents still confided in him, and waited for Divine intervention when the gates of the prison should open. This drama ended in the total discomfiture of the pseudo-Messiah and his followers. Sabbathai Zebhi embraced the Moslem faith, and died in prison. In his belief he was a follower of Isaac Loria’s Kabbalistic doctrines, and considered himself able to perform miracles; his right-hand disciple was Nathan of Gaza, who assumed the title of “Prophet.” The fame of Sabbathai Zebhi spread among the Jews in all parts of the world, and he proclaimed himself to be the long-expected Messiah. Deputations were sent from various centers of Hebrew learning to ascertain the truth as to his claims of the Messiahship. The deluded Kabbalist had succeeded in convincing some of them that certain Messianic passages in the Scriptures (by means of the above-named Gematria, Notarikôn, etc.) point directly to himself. For instance, the three Hebrew consonants S B T, forming the word ShēBheT (sceptre), mentioned in Balaam’s prophecy, “There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre (ShēBheT) shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers xxiv. 17), amount to the number 5, the same as the Hebrew letters of his own name; a slender foundation for the Messiahship.

Notwithstanding the efforts of those modern occultists who attempt to infuse new life into the ‘Practical Kabbalah’ by means of heterogeneous materials, it is, like sorcery, doomed to become a thing of the past. As a matter of fact, its incantations, charms, and exorcisms are nothing more than sorcery. There are numerous books on this subject, some of them written by eminent Kabbalists. One of the most curious of these is the production of Rabbi Israel Baalshem, called ‘Miph’aloth Elohim’ or ‘Elokim’ (Workings of the Almighty). This book is the storehouse of Kabbalistic therapeutics, and among the numerous recipes are directions how to expel unfamiliar spirits from the possessed by means of exorcisms and charms; how to draw wine from the wall, how to create wine, etc. The vade mecum of the modern Baalshem is the book called ‘Shimûsh Tehilim,’ which teaches how to cure all diseases, put out fires, become a favorite, conquer enemies, counteract an evil eye, discover hidden treasure, etc., by means of certain Psalms. Each Psalm, yea, verse or word, is asserted to contain the name or attributes of God and the Heavenly Hosts. The injunctions to the postulants are of the most severe nature. A worldly man, even if he chances to learn the doctrinal part of the theosophy, can penetrate no further. The Keeper of those secrets is Elijah the Prophet, who will never permit the ungodly to acquire them. Not only is the unworthy student threatened with dire punishment, but the betrayer of the Divine secrets must meet the same fate.

The Kabbalists believe that Moses acquired these heavenly secrets, the Shem ’A B (Seventy-two Name), at the “burning bush.” Whosoever utters the holy name of the “Seventy-two,” the Kabbalists declare, “will surely die.” The name of the “Seventy-two” proceeds from the Hebrew letters of the verses in Exodus xiv. 19–21, beginning with Vayis’a, Vayabho, Vayēt. These verses speak of the doings of the “Angel of the Lord” and Moses at the Red Sea. Each verse has seventy-two letters, and is by the Kabbalists written in three lines; the first from right to left, the second from left to right, and the third again from right to left. The verses, placed horizontally and in juxtaposition so as to correspond exactly letter for letter, if vertically divided form seventy-two triads of letters; each triad is supposed to represent one of the attributes of the Deity, and to possess a recondite meaning.

The Prophet Elijah never tasted death (2 Kings ii. 11). He is, according to the Kabbalists, a ubiquitous personage engaged in the same mission now as when he was on earth. This assertion they base on quasi-Scriptural authority, as in Malachi iv. 5–6: “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Many stories of his exploits are related in the ‘Talmud,’ the ‘Midrash,’ and the ‘Zohar’: how he relieves the needy and suffering, chastises the godless, etc. But his main mission is to assist the ascetic saints when they are engaged in the study of the Divine secrets.

Not only the Hasidim sect, but even many orthodox Hebrews, repeat every Saturday evening songs and hymns wherein are cited the deeds of Elijah, as related in the Bible and tradition. Saturday evening is specially a propitious time for those who keep the Sabbath holy; for Elijah sits then under the Ets Hayim (Tree of Life), and records the good deeds of the pious. Elijah’s name is then repeated one hundred and thirty times. The five Hebrew letters in “Elijah” are transposed one hundred and twenty times, in the following manner:—

  • EIHAL, EIAHL, EIALH, Etc., Etc.,
corresponding to the numerical value of the Hebrew letters composing “Eliahu Hanabhi” (Elijah the Prophet): 1+30+10+5+6+5+50+2+10+1=120. In addition to these 120 transpositions they repeat ten times the regular untransposed name of ELIAH (Elijah), making the total 130. Those who are unable to pronounce these difficult transpositions repeat 130 times “Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Prophet,” etc. This points to the Hebrew word K a L= 130 (Swift), and hints also at ’A B=72 (Cloud); both words are mentioned in Isaiah xix. 1: “Behold the Lord rideth upon a ‘Swift’ (K a L, 130) ‘Cloud’” (’A B, 72).  

Among those who chiefly distinguished themselves (since 1550) and who are designated by the title Elohe or Eloke (Divine), and could perform miracles, are Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522–1570), author of the Kabbalistic work ‘Pardes Rimonim’ (The Garden of Pomegranates); Jesaiah Horwitz (1570–1630), author of the ‘Sh L a H’; Isaac Loria, author of ‘Ets Hāïm’ (Tree of Life), and ‘Sepher Haguilgulim’ (Metempsychosis); and his disciple Haim Vital (Vidal), and Israel Baal Shem, born in 1750, at Medziborze, Poland.

The number of the Hebrew books and commentaries on the Kabbalah amounts to thousands. The following are the most important and accessible:—

  • The ‘Talmud,’ Tract. Chagigeh (Haguigah), Chap, ii., fols. 11–16.
  • The ‘Zohar,’ attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohaï. First edition, Cremona and Mantua, 1560. (There are numerous later editions.)
  • ‘Sepher Tiküne Ha-Zohar’ (attributed to the same). Leghorn, 1842.
  • ‘Sepher Yetsireh’ (The Book of Creation), with ten Commentaries. Warsaw, 1884.
  • ‘Sepher Habahir’ (The Book of Brilliant Light). Amsterdam, 1651. (There are several editions.)
  • ‘Pardes Rimônim’ (The Garden of Pomegranates), by Rabbi Moses Cordovero.
  • ‘Sha’arē Örah’ (Gates of Light), by Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilia. (There is a Latin translation by P. Ricius, 1516.)
  • ‘Ets Hayim’ (The Tree of Life), compiled by Hayim (Chayim) ben Joseph Vital (Vidal). Korzec, 1784.
  • ‘Sh’nē Lühoth Habrith’ (The Two Tables of the Covenant), by Jesaiah Horwitz.
  • ‘Beth Ha-Midrasch,’ a collection of apocryphal midrashim, mostly treating of Jewish folk-lore and Kabbalah; compiled and translated by Adolph Jellinek. Leipzig, 1853–55.
  • ‘Guinzē Hakhmath Hakaballah: Auswahl Kabbalistischer Mystik’ (A Selection of Kabbalist Mystic). Jellinek, Leipzig, 1853.
  • ‘Beiträge zur Geschichte der Kabbala’ (Contributions toward the History of Kabbalah). Jellinek, Leipzig, 1852.
  • ‘Kabbalah Denudata’ (Latin). By Baron C. Knorr von Rosenroth. Sulzbach, 1677. English translation, with Preface by S. L. MacGregor Mathews. London, 1887.
  • ‘The Kabbalah, An Essay,’ by C. D. Ginzburg, 1865, and articles by the same author with S. A. Cook in ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (Eleventh Edition, 1911), and with K. Kohler in ‘The Jewish Encyclopædia’ (1902).
  • ‘La Kabbale, ou la Philosophie Réligieuse des Hebreux,’ by Adolphe Frank (new ed.). Paris, 1889.
  • ‘Midrash Hazohar: Die Religionsphilosophie des Zohar: Eine Kritische Beleuchtung der Frank’schen “Kabbala”’ (The Religious Philosophy of the ‘Zohar’: A Critical Examination of Frank’s ‘Kabbalah’). By D. H. Joel, Leipzig, 1849.
  • ‘Le Livre des Splendeurs,’ by Eliphaz Lévi, Paris, 1894.
  • ‘Doctrines and Literature of the Cabbalah’ (1907) and ‘The Secret Doctrine in Israel’ (1913), by A. E. Waite.
  • ‘Introduction to the Study of the Kabbalah’ (1910), by W. Wynn Westcott.
  • ‘Cabbala: Its Influence’ (Chicago, 1912), by Bernhard Pick.
  • ‘Die Elemente der Kabbalah’ (Berlin, 1913), by Bischoff.
  • ‘A Preliminary Investigation of the Cabala Contained in the Coptic Gnostic Books and of similar Gematria in the Greek text of the New Testament,’ by Frederick Bligh Bond and Thomas Simcox Lea. Oxford, 1917.
  • ‘Geschichte der Juden’ (History of the Jews), Graetz, Vol. viii., pp. 96–98, 219–221, 242.