[Hebrew, kabala = "acceptance of tradition"] -
An esoteric and mystic current within Judaism that had its origins in
medieval Spain. The movement was influenced by Greek philosophy,
particularly the Pythagoreans, Plato and Plotinus, and also by the
Gnostics of the early medieval period.
This Jewish form of mysticism was based on the assumption that the
main religious texts harbor secret meanings, knowledge of which allows
one to influence the world's fate. The oldest known work providing the
basis for the concepts underlying the Kabbala was Sefer Yetsira [Hebrew,
The Book of Creation], dating back to the third and fourth centuries.
The term "kabbala" was first used in reference to esoteric speculations
about God and the creation of the world by Yitzhak the Blind, a
twelfth-century Jewish mystic from Provence. Yitzhak the Blind who was
probably the author of Sefer ha-bahir [Hebrew, "The Book of Clarity"].
Kabbalistic ideas took shape as a coherent
system in medieval Spain during the thirteenth to the fifteenth
centuries. Nachmanides, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Azriel of Gerona, Abraham
Abulafia, and Moshe de Leon, who was probably the author of Zohar, were
all active there. Kabbalistic works were published and brotherhoods
established in various cities.
Kabbalistic speculations developed along two lines: the first strove
to explain the existence of God, the creation of the world (Sefira),
the purpose of the existence of material and man, the origins of evil,
the manner in which God manifests Himself in the created world, and,
finally, salvation through the Messiah. The second was strictly
esoteric, and taught mystic practices enabling initiates to unite with
God (or his last emanation, Shechina), and magic. Contemplating the
letters of the Torah and divine names (names of God), ecstatic prayer,
and combinations of letters and numbers and their study (gematria)
played a fundamental role in this type of Kabbalism.
After the Jews were expelled from Spain in
1492, one of the most important Kabbalistic centers became the city of
Safed in Palestine, where Yitzhak Luria was active in the sixteenth
century. He developed the theory of divine emanation in the process of
creation. His ideas lay at the foundation of two Judaistic heresies
(Sabbathaism, Frankism) and Chasidism. In the sixteenth century, the
Kabbala was practiced in Italy, Prague, Poland and among the German
Jews. It influenced Islamic and Christian mysticism, as well as the
esoteric currents on the fringes of Christian culture, such as alchemy,
eighteenth century Masonic mysticism, mystical speculations of the
Romantics (such as Towianism and Polish Messianism), and nineteenth