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Cabalism: in a phrase, Cabalism is esoteric Judaism practised also by esoteric Christians. The Cabala, or Kabbalah, or Qabala, is not just a set of texts, but a means of approaching these texts. The meaning of the Hebrew word qbl is variously given as 'received tradition' or 'mouth to ear'; in other words, its teachings were originally passed by word of mouth, only to those thought fit to receive them.

Although one recent scholar differentiates three different meanings for the three spellings - he sees Kabbalah as the original Jewish system, Cabala as the Renaissance Christian version of it, and Qabala as the modern occultist use of it - this is something of an ex post facto discrimination. There have been many varieties and uses of Cabalism over the centuries, and different people of different countries at different times have spelled it in different ways. 'Cabala' is used in this book (except in quotations or book tides) for three reasons: it is the simplest spelling; it avoids whatever specific resonances might be seen in the other spellings; and it is more clearly seen as the root of the word 'cabal', which has entered the language to mean a secret intrigue or a small powerful group, without any religious connotations.

There is some truth behind the affectionate stereotype of the Jewish love for telling stories with a moral. Cabalist writings delight in stories-with-a-message, allegories, parables, myths. So, of course, does the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus - a point missed by those who insist on a wholly literal interpretation of the Bible.

The essence of Cabalism, as described in the Zohar, is that most people reading the Scriptures see only the outer story or, as it were, a suit of clothes; a few see the person within the clothes; a very few see the soul within the person. Cabalists look for the inner meaning, the secret meaning, the esoteric meaning; they seek to discern the secrets of God and of creation. One might recognize the beauty of a friend's clothes, and even admire them; but the true value of the friend is somewhat deeper.

Cabalism originated some 2,000 years ago. Educated Jews at the time of Christ were split into several factions, of which the rabbinical Pharisees -who followed oral tradition in their interpretation of the scriptures and the law - and the more conservative, aristocratic and literalist Sadducees - who did not believe in angels, demons or resurrection - are mentioned in the New Testament. There were also the nationalistic Zealots, who had political motivations, and the pious Essenes, who were probably Gnostic. Although they all shared the Torah - the Law, the Pentateuch, and by extension the whole Old Testament - they had very different ways of approaching it and interpreting' it. So did the Jewish mystics, later known as Cabalists. Based in rabbinical Judaism, in their search for spiritual enlightenment they borrowed over the years both from Jewish Gnosticism and from Jewish Neo-Platonism and Neo-Aristotelianism. |

As the Jews were scattered and persecuted throughout Europe over the next millennium and a half, it was important for them to maintain both their scholarship and their spirituality. While medieval Christian priests were often almost completely uneducated, and their bishops often morally and politically corrupt, medieval Jewish rabbis were renowned for their learning and their piety, 'Rabbi' is Hebrew for 'my master', and rabbis were teachers and judges of their people, and interpreters of the Law, rather than priests, though they did conduct ritual ceremonies.

Spirituality and scholarship is a powerful combination. In seeking a greater understanding of and closeness to God, many rabbis delved deeper into their studies of the Torah and the Talmud, the written body of rabbinical tradition and interpretation of the Law. The Babylonian Talmud dates in its written form to around AD 500, but the Talmud could in one sense be said to be ever-unfinished, as later rabbis have added their interpretations and commentaries on it right up to the present day.

With a religion so based on Law, the interpretation of Law is vitally important: hence the importance of, and the deep respect given to, rabbis. In any organization there is always a conflict between those who insist on obeying the letter of the law, and those who believe it more important to follow the spirit of the law; there are traditionalists and legalists (by no means always the same thing), and liberals, and supporters of a variety of different emphases.


Legalists should not automatically be condemned - in the way that liberals are prone to condemning them - for small-mindedness; some follow the letter of the law because of the importance to them of the spirit of the law, i.e. the underlying reasons behind what might appear to others to be petty legalisms. This can apply to Cabalists, and certainly includes devoted members of some ritual-based societies today.

Cabalists always favoured a more allegorical rather than a literalist approach to the Torah and the Talmud. They also believed that truth could be found deep within the texts themselves, within the words and even the letters. One of the first Cabalistic works was the Sefer Yesirah, the Book of the Creation (second- to fifth-century); this first set down the concept of the 10 sephiroth (singular, sephira) and the 22 paths between them, showing already the importance that the 10 numbers and 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet would have to Cabalism. As with Roman numerals, Hebrew letters also represented numbers, and numbers, as Pythagoras taught, are powerfully symbolic of God and man and the relationship between them.

Cabalism became more formalized in the tenth century, initially in Italy and then in Germany. The twelfth-century Sefer ha-Bahir (Book of Brilliance) emphasized the concept of the Shekhinah (Hebrew: 'dwelling'), or presence or immanence, as the female aspect of God. Cabalism came of age in the thirteenth century in Provence in Southern France, then shortly afterwards in Spain, where the Zohar was written (or perhaps compiled), largely by Moses de Leon, around 1285 - though the myth surrounding it attributes the teachings to the second-century Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. The Sefer ha-Zohar, to give it its full title, means 'the Book of Splendour'; it teaches that God is essentially unknowable and indescribable, using the term Ain-Sof (Hebrew: 'without end'). Everything in the universe is connected to everything else. and all is an expression of God. The ultimate purpose of humankind is to attain mystical union with God, and Cabalism teaches ways towards this.

The best-known aspect of the Cabala is the diagram of the Tree of Life. According to Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, Director of Studies of the Servants of the Light school of occult science, it contains 'the entire wisdom of the Qabalah . . . Owing to its simplicity . . . the glyph is easily committed to memory; and because of its profundity, from this sparse simplicity can be derived a complete and satisfying philosophy and knowledge of life in both its inner and outer aspects.'

The Tree of Life shows the relationship between God and his creation; it symbolizes both God reaching down to man, and man reaching up to God. The 10 sephiroth symbolize the 10 rays of light of God's creation of the universe, and thus the secrets of the universe. They show the levels of man's knowledge of the divine, but more importantly, they reveal attributes of God, which can be thought of as names of God. The sacred name of God, represented by the Hebrew letters for YHWH, or the tetragrammaton, was believed to be too holy to pronounce.

The 10 sephiroth are Kether, the Crown, Chokmah, Wisdom, Binah, Understanding, Chesed, Mercy, Geburah, Power, Tiphareth, Beauty or Harmony, Netzach, Victory, Hod, Splendour, Yesod, Foundation, and Malkuth, Kingdom. They and the paths between them correspond to numbers and letters, to colours, planets, angels, parts of the body, and much else; such correspondences are at the heart of ritual magic. Much later, correspondences were found between the 22 paths and the 22 cards of the Major Arcana of Tarot.

With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, Cabalism spread across Europe, and came more to the attention of Christian mystics and occultists. By the sixteenth century it was a major part of the studies of the alchemists and Hermetic Philosophers.

The complex symbolism of the Cabala, embodying both the theoretical and the practical, exemplifies the link between mysticism and magic, and also the importance of myth as a means of expressing truths. The deep spiritual teachings within it became central to all esoteric religion in the West, and remain so today in many secret societies.

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