Kabbalah means 'Tradition' or 'Transmitted Teachings'. The Kabbalah is the general term for a body of Jewish mystical teachings about the mysteries of God and the universe. The teachings of the Kabbalah are based on the assumption that true knowledge can be achieved only through a certain kind of speculation.. Taken as a whole, the Kabbalah represents a world-view, providing an essentially spiritual way of seeing the world.
The Kabbalah has had a major impact upon Jewish life. Religious life, prayer, textual readings, Halachah (Jewish law), and even messianic movements have all been affected. The most important work of the Kabbalah is the Zohar, which is detailed below.
What is it?
The Zohar (Splendour) is the central work of the Kabbalah. The Zohar is not one book, but a complete body of literature which has been united under one title. The Zohar is usually printed in five volumes. The Zohar consists of 21 parts. These parts may be printed in a variety of ways - sometimes a part might be scattered throughout other parts of the Zohar, and sometimes it might exist as a separate volume.
What is it about?
The largest part of the Zohar, which is untitled, is arranged around the sidraot (weekly Torah portions). It consists of a mystical interpretation of the Torah, mixed with statements and stories of Simeon Ben Yochai. It can be quite hard to follow due to its technical language and abrupt manner. Its points are often highly elusive and not to be grasped without close and attentive scrutiny.
The Zohar's teachings combine practically all of the main elements of the Kabbalah. The Zohar contains passages about the 10 Sefirot (Emanations) which flow from God, about the soul, and about Creation. The Zohar also deals with descriptions of heavenly places, contains symbolic interpretations of prayers and ceremonies, and explains an elaborate number and letter mysticism.
Zohar provides a world-view through the doctrine of Sefirot (Emanations). According to the Zohar, G-d is boundless, and cannot be designated by any known attributes. To allow Himself to be known at all, G-d allows 10 Sefirot to flow from Him, giving rise to the Universe. The Sefirot can be observed in the world, and allow us to 'notice' G-d. For adherents of the Kabbalah, this shapes everyday life at the most fundamental level.
Where does it come from? Who wrote it down?
The Zohar first appeared in Spain at around 1300 CE. It was published by Moses de Leon. Exactly where the Zohar came from is the subject of some disput, however it is commonly ascribed to Simeon Ben Yochai. Simeon Ben Yochai was one of the Tannaim (group of scholars from 400 BCE - 200 CE). He was famed for his mystical tendencies. Some maintain that Simeon Ben Yochai wrote the Zohar, others that the Zohar was merely based upon his teachings. Certainly, the Zohar as a written work was not known until it was published by Moses de Leon.
What do we do with it?
"Our masters taught: Four men entered the Pardes ('Orchard' of mystical teachings), namely Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher (Elisha Ben Abuyah), and Akiva... Ben Azzai.. died, Ben Zoma.. became demented, Aher [became a heretic]. Rabbi Akiva departed unhurt." - Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah 14b
The teachings of the Kabbalah have always been esoteric - that is they have been obscure and understood only by a select few. Thus the learning of Kabbalah, some say, should be restricted to those who are already sufficiently knowledgeable and mature to handle the subject matter. Thus for many, the Zohar is a mysterious, mystical work that is not greatly studied.
For adherents of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar is of vital importance. It provides a way of seeing the world, and is raised to the same rank of importance and holiness by Kabbalistic groups as the Talmud. The Zohar is primarily studied by Hasidic and Sephardi Jews.
The Zohar and Kabbalah greatly influenced the mystics of (16th Century CE) Tsfat. Doctrines from the Zohar regarding Shabbat have impacted upon the Kabbalat Shabbat service that takes place on Friday night in many synagogues.
Because the Zohar is thought by some to be the writings of Simeon Ben Yochai, an important early scholar, it has weight in determining the Halachah (Jewish Law).
Recently the Zohar has achieved a certain prominence through the interest of some Hollywood celebrities. People such as Roseanne Barr and Madonna have developed an interest in the heavy mysticism of the Kabbalah, through Kabbalah Learning Centres, and have studied its most famous book the Zohar.
What language is it in?
The language of the Zohar is an Aramaic similar to that of the Talmud. Its style is usually very beautiful, and at times difficult. Short sections of the Zohar are in a medieval Hebrew.
The language of the Zohar can be hard to decipher. This is mostly due to the unfamiliarity of the subject matter. In parts it is due to the corruption of the standard text leaving the original meaning obscure.
If I want to read it...
A Soncino edition of the main part of the Zohar is available in three volumes. Smaller sections of the Zohar may be found translated in various other works.
Index to Jewish Texts