QABBALAH . The term Qabbalah is derived from the Hebrew root qbl, which means "to receive"; in early medieval texts, qabbalah commonly signified "reception," namely a received tradition, mainly concerning halakhic matters. Since the early thirteenth century it has become the main term for Jewish mystical traditions, which deal almost exclusively with (1) a theosophical understanding of God combined with a symbolic view of reality and the theurgical conception of religious life, and (2) the way to attain a mystical experience of God through the invocation of divine names. These two traditions had much earlier roots, but the term Qabbalah refers in general to Jewish mysticism from the twelfth century onward. The following presentation will discuss the history of Qabbalah and its phenomenological aspects.
The first written evidence of the existence of theosophical and theurgical thought in Judaism comes from Provence, in southern France, in the second half of the twelfth century. A series of well-known halakhic authorities, beginning with Avraham ben David of Posquières and Yaʿaqov the Nazirite and later including Moses Nahmanides and his principal student, Shelomoh ben Avraham Adret, were full-fledged qabbalists, though their literary output in Qabbalah was minimal compared to their voluminous halakhic writings. Doubtless this situation is the result of a deliberate policy to keep Qabbalah an esoteric lore limited to a very small elite. However, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the veil of esotericism began to disappear. Yitsḥaq Sagi Nahor (Yitsḥaq the Blind), Avraham ben David of Posquières's son, is known as the teacher of several qabbalists, of whom the best known are Yitsḥaq's nephew Asher ben David and ʿEzraʾ of Gerona. They committed to writing the first qabbalistic documents, which consist of commentaries on the cosmogonical treatise Sefer yetsirah and on maʿaseh bereʾshit (the biblical account of creation), and explanations of the rationale for the commandments. During the same period, an important treatise called Sefer ha-bahir (The book of brightness), falsely ascribed to Ne unyaʾ ben ha-Qanah, a second-century mystic, began to circulate among Yitsḥaq's students. Although the qabbalistic doctrines incorporated into these works are presented in a fragmentary and obscure manner, it seems highly reasonable that they reflect more complex systems whose sources predated them by decades and even centuries.
In the middle of the thirteenth century, more extensive works were produced by Spanish qabbalists, who continued the major trends of their predecessors; the most important among them were ʿAzriʾel of Gerona and Yaʿaqov ben Sheshet. After flourishing briefly in Catalonia, the center of qabbalistic creativity passed to Castile, where it underwent a renaissance. In Castile a circle of anonymous qabbalists produced a series of short treatises, known as the ʿIyyun (speculation) literature, that combined ancient Merkavah literature (commentaries on the chariot vision in Ezekiel ) with a Neoplatonic mysticism of light. Another group became interested in the theosophy of evil and described in detail the structure of the "other side," the demonic world. This circle included the brothers Yaʿaqov and Yitsḥaq, the sons of Yaʿaqov ha-Kohen; Mosheh of Burgos; and Ṭodros Abulafia. The quintessential ideas of these qabbalistic schools appear in the most important work of Qabbalah, the Zohar, a collection of mystical writings that was circulated among the Castilian qabbalists beginning in 1280. Subsequently, between 1285 and 1335, the qabbalists produced many translations, commentaries, and imitations of the Zohar, mainly extant in manuscript, that contributed to the eventual acceptance of the Zohar as a canonic book.
Because of fierce controversy between the representative of the more conservative form of Qabbalah that preserved and transmitted older traditions, Shelomoh ben Avraham Adret, and Avraham Abulafia, the most important exponent of ecstatic Qabbalah, the creative and anarchic elements peculiar to the latter were rejected by adherents of Spanish Qabbalah, a fact that contributed to its overt stagnation in the latter part of the fourteenth century and most of the fifteenth century.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively caused an exodus of important qabbalists from the Iberian peninsula to North Africa, Italy, and the Levant, thereby contributing to the dissemination of Qabbalah in those regions. Fifteenth-century Spanish Qabbalah, with the Zohar as its nucleus, became more and more influential in the new communities that were established by the expelled Jews and gradually developed into an important spiritual factor in Jewish life by the middle of the sixteenth century. The literary output of the first generation after the expulsion is remarkable, and several outstanding qabbalistic works were composed before the middle of the sixteenth century, including Yehudah Hayyat's Minḥat Yehudah in Italy and Meʾir ibn Gabbai's ʿAvodat ha-qodesh in the Ottoman empire. This generation of qabbalists was interested in preserving the esoteric traditions they had inherited in Spain; hence the eclectic nature of their writings. However, there were efforts to build up comprehensive speculative schemes in which the whole theosophic and cosmic chain of being was described. This work was undertaken by some Spanish qabbalists who systematically arranged older esoteric traditions, and by Italians such as Yoḥanan Alemanno, who combined philosophy, magic, and Qabbalah.
After the expulsion, a growing stream of qabbalists began arriving in Palestine. At the very beginning of the sixteenth century, Jerusalem became an important center of qabbalistic studies; its most famous members were Yehudah Albotini, Yosef ibn Saiaḥ, and Avraham ben Eliʿezer ha-Levi. Beginning in the 1540s, the small Galilean village of Safad rapidly acquired a dominant place in qabbalistic activity. For half a century, Safad was the arena of crucial developments in the history of Qabbalah. The arrival of two central figures from Turkey, Yosef Karo and Shelomoh ha-Levi Alkabets, prompted the establishment of mystical groups that formed the nuclei of intensive qabbalistic activities. Karo, the major halakhist of his time, produced a mystical diary dictated by a maggid, an angelic messenger who spoke from Karo's throat. Karo represents a Spanish qabbalistic trend that was primarily interested in incubational techniques to induce revelations in dreams. Alkabets, who had been close to Karo before their arrival, was aware of the philosophical perceptions of Qabbalah presented in David Messer Leon's work Magen David and seems to have been one of the major channels of the infiltration into Safad of Qabbalah developed by the Jews of the Italian Renaissance. However, the first towering qabbalist in Palestine was Mosheh Cordovero (1522–1570), the author of the Pardes rimmonim (1548), the most comprehensive exposition of all previous types of Qabbalah. He combined Spanish Qabbalah with ecstatic Qabbalah that was already flowering in Jerusalem. His clear and systematic presentation of all the major qabbalistic doctrines contributed to the immediate dissemination of his views, which remained influential for centuries, both in the Qabbalah of Isaac Luria and in Hasidism. Cordovero's main disciples, famous qabbalists themselves, were Ḥayyim Vital, Eliyyahu de Vidas, and Elʿazar Azikri. Through their literary activities—especially their moralistic works, which were intended for the public at large—they contributed to the further propagation of their master's doctrines.
A crucial development in qabbalistic theosophy occurred after Cordovero's death when one of his former students, Isaac Luria, rapidly moved to the center of the qabbalist community in Safad, where he became a profound influence through his saintly behavior, occult powers, and exposition of a novel type of theosophy. Luria's doctrines, commonly delivered orally to his disciples, elaborated upon some elements that had previously played a rather marginal role in the qabbalistic system. According to Luria, the initial movement in the process of creation consisted of the withdrawal of the all-pervading godhead into itself, leaving a point in which the world would come to exist. This withdrawal, or contraction (tsimtsum ), made possible the elimination of "evil" elements inherent in the godhead. (The evil elements that left the godhead during tsimtsum formed the "material domain.") This cathartic event was followed by a series of emanations from the godhead that were intended to constitute the created world. As the emanations proceeded from their divine source, a catastrophic event occurred—the breaking of the vessels that carried them. Sparks of the divine light fell into the material domain where they were imprisoned in shells of matter. The task of the qabbalist was to liberate the sparks in order to reconstitute the divine configuration, the primordial man (adam qadmon ), a goal with eschatological overtones.
The success of Luria's thought was instantaneous; his theosophy was accepted unanimously by the former disciples of Cordovero, and his Qabbalah was regarded as superior to the Cordoverian system. With the premature death of Luria in 1572 his disciple, Ḥayyim Vital, committed Luria's views to writing, but Vital limited their dissemination to the small circle of qabbalists who recognized his leadership. In comparison to other authentic disciples of Luria, notably Yosef ibn Tabūl and Mosheh Yonah, Vital was highly prolific; his best-known work was ʿEts ayyim (Tree of life). A rather different version of Luria's Qabbalah was brought to Italy during the 1590s by Yisraʾel Sarug, a qabbalist who considered himself a disciple of Luria. He disseminated it through intensive oral and written activity, recruiting disciples from among former Cordoverian qabbalists. The most important exponent of the Sarugian version of Lurianism was Menaḥem ʿAzaryah of Fano. Sarug's success was partly due to the speculative interpretations given by Sarug himself and by his disciple Avraham Herrera, who used Neoplatonic philosophy in his Shaʿar ha-Shamayim and Beit Elohim. Both Neoplatonic and atomistic views of Lurianic Qabbalah appeared in the work of Yosef Shelomoh Delmedigo of Kandia, another of Sarug's disciples.
During the seventeenth century, there was a clash between adherents of Vital's version of Lurianic Qabbalah and adherents of Sarug's version. Among the qabbalists, Vital's views prevailed in the compilations of Shemuʾel Vital, Meʾir Poppers, and Yaʿaqov Tsemaḥ.
The following centuries saw the development of various mixtures of Cordoverian and Lurianic doctrines. The theosophy of the followers of the seventeenth-century mystic and false messiah Shabbetai Tsevi was influenced mainly by Sarug's trend of thought; the theologies of eighteenth-century Polish Hasidism represented a revival of some of Cordovero's views, such as his view of prayer, at a period when Lurianic Qabbalah failed to supply appropriate answers.
Some central figures of the eighteenth century, were known as qabbalists; the most important among them were Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, known as the gaon of Vilna (Vilnius) (1720–1797) and Yaʿaqov Emden (1697–1776), who continued the Lurianic tradition, though not without some reservations. In the nineteenth century, major systematic presentations of Lurianism were composed by Yitsḥaq Eiziq Haver and Shelomoh Elyashar.
The dominant brand of Qabbalah in the modern qabbalistic yeshivot (traditional Jewish academies) is the Lurianic system. It is studied according to the interpretations offered by Mosheh Ḥayyim Luzzatto, by Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, by Habad, the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, and by the Sefardic qabbalists of the Beit El Academy in Jerusalem. Avraham Yitsḥaq Kook (1865–1935) offered a pantheistic and mystical version of Qabbalah that tried to explain the secularism of many modern Jews as part of a larger scheme of religious evolution; his views had great influence. After the establishment of the state of Israel, and especially after 1967, the messianic overtones in Kook's thought were stressed by his son Yehudah Kook. David ha-Kohen the Ascetic (ha-Nazir), the most important figure in Kook's entourage, developed a peculiar type of mysticism in his Qol ha-nevuʾah that leaned heavily on the oral aspects of Jewish tradition. Some interest in Avraham Abulafia's ecstatic Qabbalah has been recently discerned in Hasidic circles.
Although Qabbalah was considered to be an esoteric lore that dealt with the secrets of the law (Sitre Torah ) and was therefore peculiar to the Jewish people, it found its way into Christian thought. The first steps in the infiltration of Qabbalah were accomplished by converts to Christianity, of whom the most important were Abner of Burgos (Alfonso de Valladolid), who lived at the beginning of the fourteenth century; Paulus de Heredia, who lived in the second half of the fifteenth century; and Flavius Mithridates, who had by far the greatest impact. A teacher of the fifteenth-century Italian Christian humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Flavius translated a voluminous body of qabbalistic literature into Latin. His translations, which he intentionally distorted, represented the most important source for Pico's Theses, the first qabbalistic composition written by a Christian. Although he was the initiator of this new current of Christian thought, Pico did not write lengthy treatises on Qabbalah, but presented it as an ancient Jewish theology that foreshadowed, in a veiled manner, Christian tenets. He divided Qabbalah into a high form of legal magical lore and a low form of demonic magic. Besides these Christian and magical interpretations of Qabbalah, which owe much to the distorted translations of Mithridates, Pico interpreted Qabbalah philosophically, mainly using Neoplatonic sources previously translated into Latin by his friend Marsilio Ficino, as well as hermetic Zoroastrian or Chaldean sources. These three perceptions of Qabbalah had a profound impact on the views that were developed by Pico's followers. Johannes Reuchlin, who studied Qabbalah under Pico's influence, produced in his De arte cabalistica the first systematic descriptions of Christian Qabbalah to be presented to the European public. In the early sixteenth century, theologians such as Egidio da Viterbo and Francesco Giorgio expanded the philosophical and Christological views of Qabbalah in influential treatises. The magical interpretation of Qabbalah reached its peak in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim's De occulta philosophia. Through the writings of these Italian and German authors, as well as artwork of Dürer, Qabbalah entered French and English literature and art in the second half of the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth's Cabbala denudata, a compendium of translations of important qabbalistic texts, was widely read by the European intelligentsia and it remained for a long time, together with John Pistorius's earlier Artis cabalisticae, the main source of the influence of Jewish esotericism on European thought. Philosophers like G. W. Leibniz and the Cambridge Neoplatonists in the seventeenth century, and writers like G. E. Lessing, Emanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake in the following century, absorbed qabbalistic ideas. The occult groups that flourished in eighteenth century central Europe were influenced by qabbalistic and Shabbatean thought. The impact of Zoharic Qabbalah is especially evident in the works of the nineteenth-century Theosophist H. P. Blavatsky. In the twentieth century, traces of Qabbalah can be found in the fiction and poetry of Franz Kafka, Yvan Goll, and Jorge Luis Borges, and in the cultural criticism of Walter Benjamin and the literary criticism of Harold Bloom and Jacques Derrida.
During the long history of Qabbalah, its adherents developed a variety of theosophical doctrine, symbolic systems, and methods of textual interpretation, some of them contradictory and paradoxical.
The Talmud and Midrash speak of two crucial attributes, the attribute of mercy (middat ha-raḥamim ) and the attribute of stern judgment (middat ha-din ). These divine qualities are believed to exist in a dynamic balance and to have been instrumental in the creation of the world and in its governance. In other texts, ten creative logoi or creative words (Heb., maʾamarot ) are mentioned in this context; in Sefer yetsirah, the ten sefirot have a similar function. Pleromatic entities are also evident in the Merkavah literature. However, no detailed and systematic Jewish theosophy is extant before the composition of qabbalistic works at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Most qabbalists viewed the divinity as consisting of two layers: (1) the innermost, supreme godhead, Ein Sof (literally "the endless"), which is sometimes described in terms borrowed from Neoplatonic negative theology and sometimes described in explicitly anthropomorphic terminology; and (2) the sefirotic realm emanating from within the godhead as a pleromatic structure, that was said to be comprised of ten aspects, known variously as attributes (middot ), potencies (koḥot ), degrees (maʿalot ), or, most frequently, sefirot (literally "numbers"). These divine powers were conceived of as forming a supernatural man, or tree, that represents the revealed as well as the creative God. Figure 1 shows the commonly accepted set of names for the sefirot, although slight differences are known among qabbalists.
In some post-Lurianic texts, an additional sefirah was discussed, Daʿat ("knowledge"), which is situated between the second and the third sefirot, and which plays a role similar to that of Tif ʾeret or Yesod, namely, a balance between two higher poles.
There were two main ideas of the nature of the sefirot among the qabbalists. The view expressed in the main body of the Zohar and by important qabbalists was that the sefirot constitute the essence of God and therefore are purely divine manifestations. Since the beginning of the fourteenth century, some qabbalists viewed the sefirot as vessels created by God to contain the divine efflux; according to a proximate view they are the instruments by which God created and governs the world. Mosheh Cordovero combined these two views, speaking of divine sefirot that are inherent in the external sefirot, with the latter functioning as vessels for the former. This approach became prevalent in later Qabbalah. Lurianic Qabbalah also developed a representation of the divine realm according to five anthropomorphic configurations (partsufim ), each composed of ten sefirot. Attempts were made in the Middle Ages to interpret the sefirot as symbols of human spiritual powers, and this tendency was adopted and strengthened by eighteenth-century Hasidic masters.
Qabbalistic cosmogony recognized the existence of four worlds or realms of existence: the sefirot, called the world of emanation (ʿolam ha-atsilut ); the world of creation (ʿolam ha-beriʾah ), consisting of the divine chariot and higher angels; the world of formation (ʿolam ha-yetsirah ), in which the angels are found; and the world of action (ʿolam ha-ʿasiyyah ), the celestial and terrestrial material world. Under the impact of Sufism, some qabbalists mentioned a fivefold division that includes the world of images (ʿolam ha-demut ).
One of the most important tenets of mainstream Qabbalah is the view that humanity can influence the inner structure of the godhead. By performing the commandments with the proper qabbalistic intention, humankind is capable of restoring the lost harmony between the lesser sefirot, Tif ʾeret and Malkhut, making possible the transmission of the divine efflux from the higher sefirot to the human world. Moreover, humans can draw this efflux from Ein Sof, the hidden divinity, downward to the sefirot. According to some early qabbalists, the very existence of the revealed divinity in the sefirot is the result of human observance of the commandments, which, by drawing the efflux downward, counteracts the "natural" movement of the sefirot upward in their desire to return to their primordial status within the godhead. Qabbalistic observance of the commandments constitutes a theurgic activity, since its aim is the restructuring of God.
This view of the commandments represents a sophisticated presentation of an ancient trend in Jewish thought that found its earliest expression in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, in which God is sometimes presented as requesting Moses' blessing, desiring the prayer of the righteous, and even increasing or decreasing his power in accordance with the fulfillment or nonfulfillment of the commandments by Israel. With the emergence of Lurianic Qabbalah, the emphasis was transferred to the extraction of the divine sparks (nitsotsot ) from the material, demonic world as a progressive eschatological activity whose ultimate aim is to restore the primeval anthropomorphic configuration of the divinity. This theurgy has obvious affinities to Manichaean theology and is phenomenologically different from Neoplatonic theurgy, which was focused mainly upon the performance of rituals intended to attract the gods to descend into statues from which they could deliver divinatory messages. In the same manner, qabbalistic theurgy differed from magical ceremony in both its means and its aims. The Qabbalah used biblical commandments to effect its goals rather than magical devices; and whereas magic is chiefly directed toward attaining material results needed by certain persons, qabbalistic activity was primarily intended to restore the divine harmony, and only secondarily to ensure the abundance of the supernatural efflux in this world.
These phenomenological differences notwithstanding, Neoplatonic types of theurgy, as well as various types of magic, infiltrated into qabbalistic systems at different stages of their development, although their influence never became dominant. An interesting blend of qabbalistic and Neoplatonic theurgies with magical practices was evident in late-fifteenth-century Spain where Yosef della Reina, a Faustian figure, attempted to facilitate the arrival of the messianic eon by means of theurgico-magical activities.
Mystical techniques in Qabbalah
After the middle of the thirteenth century, qabbalists produced a series of treatises that discussed techniques for reaching ecstatic experiences and described such experiences. The most important representative of this trend was Avraham Abulafia (1240–c. 1291). In his numerous works, almost all of them still in manuscript form, he focused on complex devices for uniting with the Agent Intellect, or God, through the recitation of divine names, together with breathing techniques and cathartic practices. Some of Abulafia's mystic ways were adapted from the Ashkenazic Hasidic masters; Abulafia may also have been influenced by Yoga and Sufism. Taking as his framework the metaphysical and psychological system of Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/8–1204), Abulafia strove for spiritual experience, which he viewed as a prophetic state similar to or even identical with that of the ancient Jewish prophets. Furthermore, he perceived his attainment of such a state as an eschatological event, because he thought of himself as the messiah. This spiritual and highly individualistic conception of salvation adumbrated the later Hasidic view of spiritual messianism. Abulafia's messianic pretensions led him to undertake such exploits as his unsuccessful attempt to discuss the true nature of Judaism with the pope.
Abulafia's prophetic and messianic pretensions prompted a sharp reaction on the part of Shelomoh ben Avraham Adret, a famous legal authority who succeeded in annihilating the influence of Abulafia's ecstatic Qabbalah in Spain. In Italy, however, his works were translated into Latin and contributed substantially to the formation of Christian Qabbalah. In the Middle East, ecstatic Qabbalah was accepted without reservation. Clear traces of Abulafian doctrine are
evident in the works of Yitsḥaq ben Shemuʾel of Acre and Yehudah Albotini. In Palestine, Abulafia's ideas were combined with Ṣūfī elements, apparently stemming from the school of Ibn Arabi; thus Ṣūfī views were introduced into European Qabbalah. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Spanish theurgical Qabbalah, which had developed without any significant impact from ecstatic Qabbalah, was integrated with the latter; this combination became, through the book Pardes rimmonim by Mosheh Cordovero, part of mainstream Qabbalah. Ḥayyim Vital brought Abulafian views into his Shaʿarei qedushah, and the eighteenth-century qabbalists of the Beit El Academy in Jerusalem perused Abulafia's mystical manuals. Later on, mystical and psychological conceptions of Qabbalah found their way directly and indirectly to the Polish Hasidic masters. The influence of ecstatic Qabbalah is to be seen in isolated groups today, and traces of it can be found in modern literature (e.g., the poetry of Yvan Goll), mainly since the publication of Gershom Scholem's researches.
Theurgical Qabbalah assumes an independent and forceful human existence whose ritual activity can influence the sphere of divinity, though humans and God remain, in principle, distinct and apart. However, even among the theurgical qabbalists the idea of a mystical union between humankind and God was known—as, for example, in the writings of ʿEzraʾ of Gerona—although it never came to the forefront. In the writings of Nahmanides and his followers, a distinction was made between the preliminary cleaving of reason to God (devequt ha-daʿat ) and the final cleaving of the soul to God. In contrast, nontheurgical Qabbalah of Avraham Abulafia focused upon the fusion of the human and the divine intellects as the supreme goal of the mystic; extreme literary expressions of this ideal used Hebrew forms of the Ṣūfī formula Huwa Huwa (he is he) or even anokhi anokhi ("I I"), which symbolized the complete union of God and humanity. Sometimes the qabbalists referred to mystical union with the Active Intellect, thereby giving a mystical interpretation to the psychology developed by the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd. They also borrowed Aristotelian concepts of intellect, intellection, and intelligibles (which form a unity during the act of thinking) to describe mystical union. Explicit unitive phenomena were reported in the writings of Yitsḥaq of Acre, and under the latter's influence and that of Abulafia expressions of unio mystica were included in Safadian texts, which turned out to be one of the most important sources for the eighteenth-century Hasidic masters in their search for union with God.
Qabbalah developed eschatological themes considerably. Traditional messianic views contributed only marginally to qabbalistic eschatology. Under the influence of Neoplatonic or Aristotelian psychologies, the qabbalists regarded individual salvation as the ultimate spiritual achievement. Under the influence of Islamic sources, they developed the idea that cosmic processes operate in cycles of seven thousand (shemiṭṭah ) and forty-nine thousand (yovel) years, with each cycle culminating in a thousand years of total rest; each millennium—or, according to other sources, seven millennia—is governed by a separate sefirah that influences the processes taking place during this span of time. These qabbalistic views were integrated into the well-known work Dialoghi d'amore by Judah Abravanel (Leone Ebreo), through which they entered general European culture. Lengthy discussions on various types of metempsychosis (gilgul), or the transmigration of souls, are found in Qabbalah from the very beginning. Metempsychosis was regarded mainly as an opportunity given to a sinner to amend his former sins and rarely as a purgative period.
Two major methods of interpretation used in Qabbalah are the symbolic and the mathematical. The former is paramount in theurgical and theosophical Qabbalah, which considered the scriptures, the phenomena of nature, and the events of history to be symbols for the dynamic and continuous changes taking place within God. The symbolization of the whole of reality enabled the qabbalists to give theosophical significance to virtually every event and, through the "intentional" performance of the commandments, to participate mystically in the divine life. The various possibilities of symbolic interpretation changed the scriptures into an "open text" pregnant with infinite meanings. With the appearance of the Zohar, symbols referring to the erotic union of Tif ʾeret and Malkhut, and those pointing to the demonic world (the siṭraʾ aḥraʾ ), became more central. Since the late thirteenth century, a fourfold division of interpretation has been accepted by qab-balists.
Under the influence of Ashkenazic Hasidism of the thirteenth century, the ecstatic Qabbalah used such hermeneutical devices as gimaṭriyyah, the calculation of the numerical value of letters; notariqon, the use of letters as abbreviations for whole words; and temurah, the interchanging of letters. Abulafia developed a sevenfold system of hermeneutics that culminated in an ecstatic experience.
Qabbalah, like other bodies of Jewish literature, produced exegetical genres. Qabbalists tended to comment upon the traditional canonic texts, although they chose to discuss issues peculiar to the Qabbalah.
The qabbalists produced more than 150 commentaries on the sefirot containing lists of symbols that referred to each of the ten divine potencies. These commentaries were handbooks intended to instruct novices in the relations between all the elements of reality—canonic texts, human life, and the supernatural forces. This genre flourished from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Qabbalistic commentaries on the Pentateuch had a great impact on the propagation of Qabbalah. Tens of these commentaries are extant. The most important are those of Nahmanides, Baḥye ben Asher, Menaḥem Recanati, Avraham Saba, and Ḥayyim ben Attar. Almost every important qabbalistic school produced its own commentary on the daily liturgy, thereby introducing novel theoretical elements into the common religious activity. This vast body of literature, which is partly extant in manuscripts, still requires an extensive critical analysis.
Since its beginning, Qabbalah expressed itself through numerous commentaries on the rationale for the commandments, the most important of which are still unpublished. The qabbalists also produced commentaries on Sefer yetsirah, commentaries on the Zohar, and works of moralistic literature that were deeply influenced by Cordovero's views and that contributed to the infiltration of the qabbalistic via mystica among the Jewish masses. The greater part of the extant qabbalistic literature, including thousands of folios, has not been examined in detail and has not been the subject of critical analysis.
Some modern scholars, such as Naḥman Krochmal in the early nineteenth century and Gershom Scholem in the twentieth, viewed Qabbalah as having been influenced by Gnostic concepts, although no hard evidence has been adduced to substantiate this assumption. The influence of Islamic and Christian Neoplatonism on early Qabbalah is indeed evident and was recognized by such opponents of Qabbalah as Eliyyahu Delmedigo and Yehudah Aryeh Modena (Leone da Modena) as early as the Renaissance period. The thesis proposed by Shulamit Shahar about the influence of Catharism on Sefer ha-bahir and Avraham Abulafia has not been confirmed by further studies. The qabbalistic view of evil seems to stem from older texts whose ultimate source was probably Iranian, perhaps Zurvanian. Renaissance Neoplatonism influenced the philosophical interpretation of Qabbalah in the early seventeenth century, but that trend remained without major influence on Jewish Qabbalah.
Although Qabbalah was flexible enough to enrich itself through the acceptance of external ideas, the latter never became dominant factors in its spiritual physiognomy. Through the process of absorption, the alien elements were adapted to the peculiar need of the comprehensive ideological system.
Philosophical Interpretation of Qabbalah
An important tendency in some qabbalistic writings is the philosophical interpretation of its theosophical and theurgical concepts. This tendency is evident from the middle of the thirteenth century in the works of ʿAzriʾel of Gerona and Yitsḥaq ibn Latif. It came to the forefront in the middle of the fourteenth century, when an array of Spanish authors formed a rather homogenous intellectual current into which Qabbalah was blended by means of concepts derived from the Islamic philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā. The most important figures of this trend were Yosef ibn Vaqar and Shemuʾel ibn Motot. However, from the beginning of the fifteenth century this philosophical Qabbalah was rejected by the Spanish qabbalists, who now focused their interest on the "pure" theurgical views of the Zohar. In the last decades of that century, the philosophical interpretation of Qabbalah became prominent in northern Italy, mostly in the writings of Yo anan Alemanno, David Messer Leon, Yitsḥaq of Pisa, and Isaac Abravanel and his son Judah. The influence of this philosophical interpretation can be discerned in the Ottoman empire, Safad, central Europe, and eastern Europe. At the end of the sixteenth century and early in the seventeenth, important authors such as Avraham Herrera, Avraham Yagel, Yosef Delmedigo, and Menasseh ben Israel made extensive use of ancient texts translated during the Renaissance in order to interpret Cordoverian and Lurianic Qabbalah. Through the works of Menasseh ben Israel and the Latin translation of Avraham Herrera's Shaʿar ha-shamayim, this qabbalistic trend found its way into Christian Qabbalah and thus influenced European philosophy. The latest important repercussions of this trend are to be found in the period of the Enlightenment, in the writings of Salomon Maimon and Isaac Satanov, and later on in the works of modern Jewish theologians such as Franz Rosenzweig.
This type of Qabbalah commonly mitigated or even totally nullified the mythical elements that are paramount in mainstream Qabbalah, including the theurgical nature of the commandments, processes by which God's internal life unfolds, and messianic eschatology. For this reason, representatives of philosophical Qabbalah never became influential in Jewish theology.
Altmann, Alexander. Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism. Ithaca, N.Y., 1969. Pioneering studies in qabbalistic history of ideas.
Altmann, Alexander. Panim shel Yahadut. Tel Aviv, 1983. Contains a major contribution to the phenomenology of Qabbalah.
Ben-Shlomo, Joseph. Torat ha-elohut shel R. Mosheh Cordovero. Jerusalem, 1965. The most extensive analysis of the thought of an important qabbalist.
Dan, Joseph, and Frank Talmage, eds. Studies in Jewish Mysticism. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.
Gottlieb, Efraim. Meḥqarim be-sifrut ha-Qabbalah. Edited by Joseph Hacker. Tel Aviv, 1976. On the history and phenomenology of early Qabbalah.
Idel, Moshe. "Kitvei R. Avraham Abulafia u-mishnato." 2 vols. Ph. D. diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1976. A study of ecstatic Qabbalah.
Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. 3d ed. New York, 1961. Includes chapters on the various phases of Jewish mysticism and Qabbalah, with an extensive bibliography.
Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York, 1965. Indispensable for understanding qabbalistic phenomenology.
Scholem, Gershom. Les origines de la Kabbale. Paris, 1966. Discusses the first manifestations of Qabbalah in Europe.
Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism. New York, 1971. Important for the history of messianism.
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York, 1974. Summary of Scholem's numerous studies, with a full bibliography.
Tishby, Isaiah. Torat ha-raʿ ve-ha-qelippah be-qabbalat ha-Ari (1942). Jerusalem, 1984. Most important for understanding Lurianism.
Tishby, Isaiah. Netivei emunah u-minut. Tel Aviv, 1964. Studies in later Qabbalah and its phenomenology.
Tishby, Isaiah. Ḥiqrei Qabbalah ve-shiluḥoteyah: meḥqarim umeqorot, vol. 1. Jerusalem, 1982. Studies in central events of early and later Qabbalah.
Vajda, Georges. Recherches sur la philosophie et la Kabbale dans la pensée juive du Moyen Age. Paris, 1962. Major contribution to the analysis of neglected material.
Vajda, Georges, ed. and trans. Le commentarie de Ezra de Gérone sur le Cantique des Cantiques. Paris, 1969. Important for understanding of early Qabbalah.
Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi. Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic. London, 1962. Analysis of the mystical component of a central figure of Jewish culture.
Wirszubski, Chaim. Sheloshah peraqim be-toledot ha-Qabbalah ha-notsrit and Mequbbal notsri qoreʾ be-Torah. Jerusalem, 1975 and 1977. Two booklets that include pioneering researches into Pico della Mirandola's Qabbalah.
Moshe Idel (1987)