Part one of the series: The Qabalah
The term Qabalah has often been used to signify Jewish mysticism; occasionally Qabalah has also been used to denote number mysticism and numerological speculations in general, outside the framework of Judaism. But it was not until the 13th century that this word, which in Hebrew means ‘Tradition’, more generally came to denote a specific form of mysticism. Similar ways of thinking had, in Jewish mystical circles, previously been referred to as Chokmah Perimit, ‘Inner wisdom.’ It was in the circles around the Jewish Mystic Isaac the Blind (1160-1235) and his students that the word Qabalah consistently became used to signify the specific Jewish Mysticism of numbers. The world of ideas that became the Qabalah was founded as far back as the Hellenistic times n tracts like Sefer Yetzirah, which was probably written around the 4th century. Predominantly, however, Jewish Qabalah was developed during the 12th and 13th century. Qabalistic mysticism is rooted in the thought that the world is constructed around fundamental mystical and spiritual principles that correspond to mathematical values. Since numbers and letters are identical in the Hebrew alphabet, Qabalists sought hidden meanings in religious manuscripts and divine names that could be revealed through numerological correspondences. An example of such numerological correspondences was the Qabalistic calculation of the numerological value of the word Messiah, constructed with the letters M, Sh, I, Ch, which represent the numerological values 40+300+10+8, the sum of which is 358. To their great horror, the Qabalists discovered that this number furthermore corresponded to the Serpent (Heb. Nechesch) in the Garden of Eden whose name was constructed by the letters N. Ch. Sh, which represent the numerological values 50+8+300, which likewise together make 358. Could the serpent be identical to the Messiah?
The Qabalists did not work solely with mathematical and numerological speculations. At an early stage, the Qabalah was divided into two main branches: Qabalah Iyyunit, speculative Qabalah, and Qabalah Ma’asit, practical Qabalah. It was within speculative Qabalah that the numerological calculations were conducted. The practical Qabalah was more focused on prayers and ceremonies. Subsequently, the Qabalah would be divided into four main branches. These are not four actual schools of Qabalah, but four different aspects that complement each other.
The four branches are:
- The Practical Qabalah
- The Literal Qabalah
- The Unwritten Qabalah
- The Dogmatic Qabalah
Spiritual exercises and ceremonies were widespread in practical Qabalah. As a matter of fact, several magical elements could be found and the more theoretically and philosophically oriented Qabalists viewed practical Qabalah with a certain amount of suspicion. Literal Qabalah was mainly concerned with alphabet mysticism, which in turn was divided into three parts: gematria, notariqon, and themura, which were based on certain forms of number cipher and letter mysticism. Through gematria, the student could calculate the numerological value of different worlds, and it was considered the most important of the three methods. The example above which reveals that the serpent (Nechesch) and the Messiah (Messiach) have the same numerological value is a characteristic gematric calculation. Notariqon is based on the thought that initials create words, and themura is a system of word cipher in which the letters are shifted. Unwritten Qabalah was viewed as the holiest and most secret, and was thus only taught individually from teacher to student. Written Qabalah was based on Qabalistic texts such as the Zohar or the Bahir.
The Bahir was the first major Qabalistic text; it was written in the last part of the 12th century, and the author may have been Isaac the Blind or someone in his circle. Many pivotal Qabalistic doctrines first appeared in the Bahir; here the Otz Chiin – the Tree of Life – is mentioned for the first time.
The Zohar is the most important Qabalistic text; it is a voluminous and detailed collection of esoteric texts arranged in five parts. Three of the five parts are entitled Sefer ha-Zohar al ha-Torah. The other two are entitled Tikkunei ha-Zohar and Zohar Hadash. The main ambition of the Zohar is to present a mystical interpretation of the law, the Torah i.e. the five books of Moses. The first three parts deal especially with speculations on the Torah. Magical elements emerge in Tikkunei ha-Zohar, and its content influenced several western books of magic, such as Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia and the grimoires allegedly written by Solomon himself.