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CABALA. The commonly used term for the mystical, magical, and theosophic teachings of Judaism from the twelfth century onward, the cabala (also cabbala, kabbala, or kabbalah) was considered the esoteric and unwritten portion of the revelation granted to Adam and again to Moses, while the Bible represented the exoteric revelation. (Although the term is often spelled with a 'k' when referring to the Jewish tradition and with a 'c' in the Christian version, it is spelled here with a 'c' for simplicity's sake.) The word means "that which is received" or "tradition," implying that the cabala was a body of knowledge that passed orally from generation to generation. A distinction is generally made between theoretical and practical cabala, the first dealing with theosophical issues, and the second with producing specific practical and eschatological effects (healing the sick, hastening the advent of the Messiah, attaining an ecstatic state) through the use of divine names and Hebrew letters.

The cabala proper developed from diverse esoteric and theosophical currents among Jews in Palestine and Egypt during the first Christian centuries. Early strands of Jewish apocalypticism and Merkabah (throne) and Hekhalot (palaces) mysticism were influenced by Hellenistic, Iranian, and gnostic thought, although scholars disagree about the extent and importance of these external influences. Merkabah and Hekhalot mysticism was devoted to descriptions of the dangerous ascent through various worlds and palaces that culminated in the vision of the divine throne described in Ezekiel. The Sefer Yezirah (Book of formation), a major source of later cabalistic speculation, belongs to the same period (second to sixth century). It describes the creative power of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sefirot (numbers or manifestations of God) through whom the world came into being.

During the Middle Ages these traditions of early Jewish mysticism were fused with Christian and Islamic (Sufism) mysticism and Islamic and Christian Neoplatonism to produce the German Hasidic movement (Ashkenazi Hasidism), which peaked between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries. Its leading figures were Judah he-Hasid (d. 1217) and his pupil Eleazar of Worms (d. 1238), who produced popular works combining elements of Merkabah mysticism and theurgy with mystical speculations about letters and numbers.

The cabala originated simultaneously from these same sources in southern France in the twelfth century. Among its most important proponents were Rabbi Abraham ben David and his son Rabbi Isaac the Blind (d. c. 1235). The Sefer ha-Bahir, composed in the late twelfth century, circulated among these cabalists. It elaborated on the idea of the ten sefirot, describing them as divine powers emanating from the hidden God (En Soph). This became a dominant motif in later cabala. Cabalist centers developed in Burgos, Toledo, and Gerona. Azriel of Gerona applied Neoplatonic philosophy to cabalist concepts. For Gerona cabalists the highest human goal was to attain Devekut (communion with God) through prayer and meditation on the sefirot. Nachmanides (c. 11941270) was the most famous member of this group. Many of the ideas of Ashkenazi Hasidism were absorbed by cabalists in Spain and southern France, who established new schools of cabala in Europe, Italy, and the East. Although there were considerable differences between the teachings of the various mystical and cabalistic groups in the medieval period, a common theme was the idea of the Godhead as a unity of dynamic forces.

A school of prophetic Cabala arose in connection with the teachings of Abraham Abulafia (c. 12401292), who devised "the science of combination," a mystical technique of meditating on the divine names and the Hebrew letters in order to draw down the divine spirit and attain ecstatic experiences. The main product of Spanish Cabala, however, was the Sefer ha-Zohar (The book of splendor), written largely between 1280 and 1286. More of a library than a book, the Zohar consists of some twenty independent works. While it was attributed to the second-century Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a renowned sage of the school of Rabbi Akiva, the actual author was the contemporary Spanish cabalist Moses de Leon. The whole thrust of the Zohar, and the Cabala in general, is to understand the nature of God and man's relation to him, but the picture that emerges is different from that found elsewhere in Judaism. Instead of the lawgiver and ruler of halakhah (Jewish law), the merciful father of aggadah (allegorical rabbinic literature), the awesome king of Merkabah and Hekhalot mysticism, or the necessary being of the philosophers, the Zohar envisions God as ten sefirot joined in a dynamic, organic unity. Each represents a distinct attribute of God, such as "wisdom," "understanding," "power," "beauty," "endurance," and "majesty."

Humanity is accorded tremendous power in the Zohar. Because people are made in the image of God and originate from the Godhead, they have the power to influence and act in the divine realm for good and ill. Through devotion in prayer and by fulfilling the commandments, people become active participants in the "mystery of unification" (sod hayihud), the process through which the divine forces are united, perfected, and return to their source. The notion that man can participate in the restoration, repair, and amendment of this world is stressed throughout the Zohar in the notion of Tikkun, which literally means 'restoration'.

In the sixteenth century a new form of Cabala appeared, derived from the teachings of Isaac Luria (15341572). Where the Zohar and earlier cabalistic works concentrated on cosmology, the Lurianic Cabala focused on exile, redemption, and the millennium. Luria reasoned that in order for there to be a place for the world, God had to withdraw from a part of himself. This doctrine of Tsimsum (withdrawal) was both profound and ambiguous. It provided a symbol of exile in the deepest sense, within the divinity itself, but it also implied that evil was intrinsic to the creation process and not attributable to man alone. Two other doctrines are crucial to Luria's radical theology, the Shevirat-ha-Kelim (breaking of the vessels) and Tikkun (restoration). Both explain how the evil that emerged with creation represented a temporary state that would eventually end with the perfection of all things.

According to the complex mythology of the Lurianic cabala, after God withdrew from himself, traces of light were left in the void. These were formed into the image of the primordial man, Adam Kadmon, who was the first manifested configuration of the divine. However, at this point a catastrophe occurred. Further divine lights burst forth from Adam Kadmon, but the "vessels" meant to contain them shattered. With "the breaking of the vessels" evil came into the world as sparks of light (souls) became sunk in matter.

In the Lurianic cabala man is given an even more central role than in the Zohar, for it is only through human actions (observing the commandments, studying the Torah, and mystical meditation) that the souls, trapped among the shards of the broken vessels, can be reunited with the divine light. Luria viewed history as an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil played out by the same cast of characters, who experience repeated reincarnations (Gilgul ) until they become perfect. Although the process of Tikkun will be long and arduous, restoration will eventually occur as each exiled being moves up the ladder of creation, becoming better and increasingly spiritual until finally freed from the cycle of rebirth. The Lurianic cabala transformed mysticism into an activist historical force, involving individuals in a cosmic millennial drama in which their every action counted. The Lurianic cabala was the first Jewish theology to envision perfection in terms of a future state, not in terms of some forfeited ideal past.

Gershom Scholem believed that the Lurianic cabala became "something like the true theologia mystica of Judaism" from 1630 onward (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 284). He attributed the emergence of the heretical movement connected with Shabbetai Tzevi (also Sabbatai Sevi; 16261676) to the messianic ideas inherent in Lurianic cabala. In Scholem's view, Shabbetai Tzevi's eventual apostasy and conversion to Islam led to a crisis in Judaism that precipitated the Haskalah, or secular Enlightenment. The cabala thus played a key role in transforming Jewish history and culture. Not all scholars agree. Idel and others deny that Messianism was a significant element of Lurianic cabala. In their view the Sabbatean movement was an outgrowth of popular apocalyptic Messianism and secularization that was largely the result of increased social and intellectual contact with Christians.

The last stage in the development of Jewish cabala occurred with the emergence of the modern Hasidic movement, founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, in the mid-eighteenth century. This movement created a serious rift within Judaism between Hasids and their rationalist opponents (the Mitnagedim ), who claimed that Hasidism ignored important aspects of the Jewish law, especially Torah study and prayer, and placed too much emphasis on the redeeming role of the Hasidic rabbi, or Tsaddik (holy one).


Christian interest in the cabala emerged at the end of the fifteenth century in the Platonic Academy at the Medici court in Florence. The cabala was seen as a source for retrieving the prisca theologia, or ancient wisdom, but being Jewish and not pagan in origin, cabalistic writings were regarded as the purest source of this divine knowledge. This was the view of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494), who studied the cabala with the assistance of several Jewish teachers, Samuel ben Nissim Abulfaraj, Yoseph Alemano (14351504) and the converted Jew Raymond Moncada, also known as Flavius Mithradites (fl. 14701483). Pico's cabalistic studies were aimed at converting the Jews by showing them that their own ancient wisdom supported the truth of Christianity. Forty-seven of his famous nine hundred theses were taken directly from the cabala, while another seventy-two were based on his speculations about the cabala. As a result of his study, he concluded that "no science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the cabala," an opinion the Catholic Church condemned. Pico's work influenced the German Christian Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin (14551522), who wrote De Verbo Mirifico (1494; On the miracle-working name) and De Arte Cabalistica (1517; On the science of the cabala). Reuchlin claimed that God revealed himself in three stages: first, to the Patriarchs through the three-letter name Shaddai (shin, dalet, yod); then in the Torah as the four-letter Tetragrammaton (yod, he, vav, he); and finally as the five-letter name Yehoshua (yod, he, shin, vav, he) or Jesus. Pico's and Reuchlin's work encouraged other Christians to explore the cabala. Cornelius Agrippa included discussions of the practical cabala in De Occulta Philosophia (1531), which led to the association of the cabala with magic and witchcraft. Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo (14651532) wrote a treatise on the Hebrew letters. The Franciscan Francesco di Giorgio (1460/661540) incorporated material from the Zohar in his De Harmonia Mundi (1525) and Problemata (1536). Guillaume Postel (15701581) translated the Sefer Yetzirah and parts of the Zohar into Latin with annotations. A fusion between the cabala and alchemy emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, appearing in Heinrich Khunrath's Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (1609) and the writings of Robert Fludd (15741637) and Thomas Vaughan (16221666).

During the seventeenth century Jakob Boehme's (15751624) work was noted for its affinity to the cabala, and the German Jesuit Athansius Kircher drew a parallel between Adam Kadmon and Jesus. The most influential Christian cabalist, however, was Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (16361689), whose Kabbala Deundata (1677, 1684) offered the Latin-reading public the largest collection of cabalistic texts available before the nineteenth century. This collection was especially important because it included selections from the Zohar (with annotations and commentaries) and translations and synopses of treatises written by Luria's disciples Hayyim Vital and Israel Sarug. Scholars have recently begun to investigate the way in which this work and the cabala in general influenced such thinkers as Henry More, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, contributing to the modern idea of scientific progress and the concept of toleration. The German Pietists led by Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (17021782) were also influenced by von Rosenroth's translations, and he in turn influenced Franz von Baader, Martines de Pasqually, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich von Schelling. Georg von Welling published his popular Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum et Theosophicum in 1735. The last great work of Christian cabala was Franz Josef Molitor's (17791861) Philosophie der Geschichte oder Ueber die Tradition, which in spite of its Christological approach received high praise from Scholem, influencing his own view of the cabala. The theosophical systems of eighteenth-century Freemasons, Illuminati, and Rosicrucians also reflect cabalistic concepts and symbolism. This connection unfortunately played into the hands of anti-Semites, who claimed that a Jewish "cabale" of revolutionary Freemasons and cabalists were infiltrating European institutions and destroying them from within. The legacy of the cabala in Europe is thus Janus-faced: on the one hand it contributed to ideas at the heart of the Enlightenment: scientific progress, the ability of man to shape his own destiny, and religious toleration; on the other hand, it fed into the anti-Semitic rhetoric that laid the foundation for genocide.

See also Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Enlightenment ; Freemasonry ; Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) ; Jews and Judaism ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; More, Henry ; Newton, Isaac ; Shabbetai Tzevi ; Vaughan, Thomas.


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Blau, Joshua. The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance. New York, 1944.

Cohn, Norman. Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Chico, Calif., 1981.

Coudert, Allison P. The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century: The Life and Thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont, 16141698. Leiden, 1999.

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Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven, 1988.

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Katz, Jacob. Jews and Freemasons in Europe, 17231939. Translated by Leonard Oschry. Cambridge, Mass., 1970.

Krabbenhoft, Kenneth. "Kabbalah and Expulsion: The Case of Abraham Cohen de Herrera." In The Expulsion of the Jews 1492 and After, edited by Raymond B. Waddington and Arthur H. Williamson, pp. 127146. New York, 1994.

Liebes, Yehuda. Studies in the Zohar. Translated by Arnold Schwartz, Stephanie Nakache, and Penina Peli. Albany, N.Y., 1993.

Ruderman, David. Kabbalah, Magic and Science: The Cultural Universe of a Sixteenth Century Jewish Physician. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

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. "Zur Geschichte der Anfänge der christlichen Kabbala." In Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, pp. 158193. London, 1954.

Secret, François. Le Zohar chez les Kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance. Paris, 1958.

Tishby, Isaiah. The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts. Arranged and rendered into Hebrew by Fischel Lachower and Isaiah Tishby; with introductions and explanations by Isaiah Tishby. Translated by David Goldstein. 3 vols. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford and New York, 1991.

Wirszubski, Chaim. Pico della Mirandola's Encounter with Jewish Mysticism. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Allison P. Coudert

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Cab·a·la • n. variant spelling of Kabbalah.

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cabala: see kabbalah.

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