Section 3: A Potted History of Kabbalah
Kabbalists and scholars disagree on the date of the origins of the Kabbalah. Many
Kabbalists trace the tradition back to 1st. century A.D. Palestine. Scholars tend to
identify Kabbalah with specific ideas which emerged in 12th. century Provence in the
school of R. Isaac the Blind, who has been called "the father of Kabbalah". What
is abundantly clear however is that there is a continuous thread of Jewish mysticism
running from early times, and these strands have become so intertwined with Kabbalah that
it is difficult to know where one ends and another begins. For example, the highly
influential text, the Sepher Yetzirah, was the subject of widespread commentary by
medieval Kabbalists but the text may have been written as early as the 1st. century.
Again, ideas from Jewish Gnosticism from the 2nd. and 3rd. centuries have also become
deeply embedded in Kabbalah.
The earliest documents associated with Kabbalah come from the period ~100 to ~1000 A.D.
and describe the attempts of "Merkabah" mystics to penetrate the seven halls
(Hekaloth) of creation in order to reach the Merkabah (throne-chariot) of God. These
mystics appear to have used what would now be recognised as familiar methods of shamanism
(fasting, repetitious chanting, prayer, posture) to induce trance states in which they
literally fought their way past terrible seals and guards to reach an ecstatic state in
which they "saw God". An early and highly influential document, the Sepher
Yetzirah, or "Book of Formation", originated during the earlier part of this
By the early Middle Ages further, more theosophical developments had taken place,
chiefly a description of "processes" within God, and the development of an
esoteric view of creation as a process in which God manifests in a series of emanations,
or sephiroth. This doctrine of the sephiroth can be found in a rudimentary form in the
"Sepher Yetzirah", but by the time of the publication of the book
"Bahir" in the 12th. century it had reached a form not too different from the
form it takes today.
A motive behind the development of the doctrine of emanation can be found in the
"If God made the world, then what is the world if it is not God?"
"If the world is God, then why is it imperfect?"
It was necessary to bridge the gap between a pure and perfect being, and a manifestly
impure and imperfect world, by a series of "steps" in which the divine light was
successively diluted. The result has much in common with Neoplatonism, which also tried to
resolve the same difficulty by postulating a "chain of being" which bridged the
gap between the perfection of God, and the evident imperfection of the world of daily
One of most interesting characters from the early period was Abraham Abulafia
(1240-1295), who believed that God cannot be described or conceptualised using everyday
symbols. Like many Kabbalists he believed in the divine nature of the Hebrew alphabet and
used abstract letter combinations and permutations (tzeruf) in intense meditations
lasting many hours to reach ecstatic states. Because his abstract letter combinations were
used as keys or entry points to altered states of consciousness, failure to carry through
the manipulations correctly could have a drastic effect on the Kabbalist. In Major
Trends in Jewish Mysticism Scholem includes a fascinating extract from a description
of one such experiment. Abulafia is unusual because (controversially) he was one of the
few Kabbalists to provide explicit written details of practical techniques.
The most influential Kabbalistic document, the Sepher ha Zohar or "Book of
Splendour", was published by Moses de Leon (1238-1305), a Spanish Jew, in the latter
half of the thirteenth century. The Zohar is a series of separate documents
covering a wide range of subjects, from a verse-by-verse esoteric commentary on
the Pentateuch, to highly theosophical descriptions of processes within God.
The Zohar was highly influential within mainstream Judaism (in some communities
it was ranked as highly as the Talmud as a source of interpretation on the
Torah), and within the more orthodox sects it still is.
An important development in Kabbalah was the Safed school of mystics headed by Moses
Cordovero (1522-1570) and his successor Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Luria, called "The
Ari" or Lion, was a highly charismatic leader who exercised almost total control over
the life of the school, and has passed into history as something of a saint. Emphasis was
placed on living in the world and bringing the consciousness of God through into
the world in a practical way. Practices were largely devotional.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Judaism as a whole was heavily
influenced by Kabbalah, but two influences caused its decline. The first event was the
mass defection of Jews to the cause of the heretic and apostate pseudo-messiah Shabbatai
Tzevi (1626-1676), an event Scholem called "the largest and most momentous messianic
movement in Jewish history subsequent to the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba
Revolt." The Shabbateans included many prominent rabbis and Kabbalists, and from this
point Kabbalah became inextricably mired with suspicions of heresy.
A second factor was the rise in Eastern Europe of a populist Kabbalism in the form of
Hasidism, and its eventual decline into superstition, so that by the beginning of this
century a Jewish writer was able to dismiss Kabbalah as an historical curiousity. Jewish
Kabbalah has vast literature which is almost entirely untranslated into English.
A development which took place almost synchronously with the translation and
publication of key texts of Jewish Kabbalah was its adoption by many Christian mystics,
magicians and philosophers. Some Christians thought Kabbalah held keys that would reveal
mysteries hidden in the scriptures, and others tried to find in Kabbalah doctrines which
might be used to convert Jews to Christianity. There were some who recognised in Kabbalah
themes with which they were already familiar in the literature of Hermeticism and
The key figure in what has been called "Christian Kabbalah" is Giovanni Pico,
Count of Mirandola. The liberal atmosphere in Florence under the patronage of the Medici
family provided a haven for both Jewish scholars (usually employed as translators or
physicians) and humanist philosophers. The fall of Byzantium provided a rich source of
Greek texts such as works of Plato and the Corpus Hermiticum. Della Mirandola not
only popularised Kabbalah, but influenced humanist scholars such as Johannes Reuchlin to
learn Hebrew and study important source texts. Kabbalah was progressively bundled with
Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism to form a snowball which
continued to pick up traditions as it rolled down the centuries. It is probably accurate
to say that from the Renaissance on, virtually all European occult philosophers and
magicians of note had a working knowledge of some aspect of Kabbalah, and we are not
talking about obscure individuals - there was a time when science, philosophy,
metaphysics, theology and so-called "occult sciences" intermingled in a way
which baffles the compartmentalised modern mind, and biographers of Isaac Newton still
have difficulty in accepting the things he studied when not laying the foundations of
modern theoretical physics!
Non-Jewish Kabbalah has suffered greatly from having only a limited number of source
texts to work from, often in poor translations, and without the key commentaries which
would have revealed the tradition associated with the concepts described. It is pointless
to criticise non-Jewish Kabbalah (as many writers have) for misinterpreting Jewish
Kabbalah; it should be recognised as a parallel tradition with many points of
correspondence and many points of difference. Its strength is that a practical tradition
has evolved, which many find effective and worthwhile, and the original Renaissance
humanism out of which it grew has remained intact, so that while it is broadly
Judeo-Christian in background, it is largely free of dogma, and places the task of
self-actualisation firmly in the hands of human beings.
Very little information has survived about the Practical Kabbalah in the Jewish
tradition, but there is abundant evidence that it involved a wide range of practices and
included practices now regarded as magical - the fact that so many Kabbalists denounced
the use of Kabbalah for magical purposes is evidence in itself (even if there were no
other) that the use of these techniques was widespread. It is highly likely that many
ritual magical techniques were introduced into Europe by Kabbalists or their less
scrupulous camp followers.
The most important medieval magical text is the Key of Solomon, and it contains
the elements of classic ritual magic - names of power, the magic circle, ritual
implements, consecration, evocation of spirits etc. No-one knows how old it is, but there
is a reasonable suspicion that its contents preserve techniques which might well date back
The combination of non-Jewish Kabbalah and ritual magic has been kept alive outside
Judaism until the present day, although it has been heavily adulterated at times by
Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, Rosicrucianism, Christianity,
Tantra and so on. The most important "modern" influences are the French magician
Eliphas Levi, and the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At least
two members of the Golden Dawn (S.L. Mathers and A.E. Waite) were knowledgeable
Kabbalists, and three Golden Dawn members have popularised Kabbalah - Aleister Crowley,
Israel Regardie, and Dion Fortune. Dion Fortune's Order of the Inner Light
has also produced a number of authors: Gareth Knight, William Butler, and William Gray
to name but three.
An unfortunate side effect of the Golden Dawn is that while Kabbalah was an important
part of its "Knowledge Lectures", surviving Golden Dawn rituals are a syncretist
hodge-podge of symbolism in which Kabbalah seems to play a minor or nominal role, and this
has led to Kabbalah being seen by many modern occultists as more of a theoretical and
intellectual discipline, rather than a potent and self-contained mystical and magical
system in its own right.
Some of the originators of modern witchcraft (e.g. Gerald Gardner, Alex Saunders) drew
heavily on medieval ritual and Kabbalah for inspiration, and it is not unusual to find
modern witches teaching some form of Kabbalah, although it is generally even less well
integrated into practical technique than in the case of the Golden Dawn.
To summarise, Kabbalah is a mystical and magical tradition which originated nearly two
thousand years ago and has been practiced continuously during that time. It has been
practiced by Jew and non- Jew alike for about five hundred years. On the Jewish side it
has been an integral and influential part of Judaism. On the Hermetic side it has created
a rich mystical and magical tradition with its own validity, a tradition which has
survived despite the prejudice generated through existing within a strongly Christian