Kaballah (sometimes spelled in English as Kabbalah) is actually the study of Jewish mysticism--Rabbis and Jewish scholars over the course of thousands of years created a body of work about the nature of the universe and humanity's connection to it. The word "kaballah" is Hebrew and means "receiving." Though Jewish mysticism is said to have existed since the creation of "gan aden" or the "Garden of Eden," one of the foundational texts of Kaballah, the Zohar (Hebrew for "splendor" or "radiance"), was first published in the 13th century by Moses de Leon from Spain, a Jewish writer who claimed to be using the work of 2nd century rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai. Bar Yochai was alive during the Roman persecutuon of the Jewish people and is said to have hid in a cave for 13 years studying Torah. However, a 5th century version of the Babylonian Talmud (a collection of teachings about the Torah or Jewish Bible) refers to an even earlier text called the Sefer Yetzirah--which is Hebrew for Book (sefer) of Formation (yetzirah)--used by the father of Judaism itself, Abraham. The Sefer Yetzirah includes the first mention of the "sephirot" or ten attributes that essentially make up the Tree of Life...or, to put it another way, God. I discussed this in an earlier entry this week about Numerology.
Another collection of writings, dating from 500-200BCE, are called the Heichalot--which is the plural form of the Hebrew word for "palace." The Heichalot include references to Enoch--a figure used in Islam, Christianity, and Mormonism. Enoch was said to be a great-grandson of Adam (as in, the first man created ADAM) and great-grandfather to Noah (the guy who made the ark, most recently portrayed in the movies by Steve Carell). Enoch was also the father of Methuselah--as in, the oldest man in recorded history on the planet (969 years old...damn!).
Yet another of the collective Kaballistic texts is called Sefer Ha-Bahir, also referred to as the Bahir--meaning "brightness." In the Bahir, the main focus is on the creation of the universe with references to reincarnation as a way to explain how even the most righteous may suffer. The text was first published in 12th century France but is attributed to a first century BCE scholar, Yehuda ben-ha-Kanah.
Sefer Ha-Razim or "Book of the Secrets" was rediscovered by Rabbi Mordecai Margalioth while doing research at Oxford University in the 1960's. Margalioth published the work in 1966, though the Sefer Ha-Razim itself dates back to Noah, who was said to have received it from the angel Raziel. This particular Kaballistic text focuses on angels exclusively--it reads like an episode of Supernatural (which airs every Thursday night on the CW at 9pm or catch full episodes on TNT.tv...in case you're interested).
Sefer Raziel Ha-Malach which literally translates to "Book of Raziel the Angel" surfaced in the 13th century as a published volume but was said to have been first given to Adam by that rascally angel, Raziel--who would later give Sefer Ha-Razim to Noah (see previous paragraph). Other scholars believe that the book was developed by followers of Moses (as in the Prince of Egypt, "Let my people go!" Moses...) who shared in the text Egyptian origins of magic. The book's focus is again, about angels--which is no surprise, given that it's supposed to have been delivered by an angel--and includes symbols relating to angels called "sigils" or in Latin "sigillum"--the word for "seals" (not the cute Arctic animals but the kind of mystical seals the Winchester boys routinely break in Supernatural). The word "sigil" more likely originated from the Hebrew word, "segullah," which translates as a word, action or item related to spirituality.
Today's version of Kaballah was started in the 1960's by the head of the now famous Kaballah Centre in LA, Rav Berg (but his real name was Feivel Gruberger before he bame Rav Philip S. Berg...). And I have to tell you that the Kaballah practiced by Hollywood celebrities is a mere thumbnail sketch of the whole of Kaballistic study--you'd need thousands of years to really understand the thousands of years the Kaballistic texts actually span. You'd need to understand the Tanach (or five books of Moses--or Torah), the Talmud (teachings about the Torah), and all the different books that make up the "gleanings" like the Book of Prophets, etc. You'd also need to be able to read Biblical Hebrew because though English translations exist--I can tell you as a person fluent in Hebrew that many "translations" have their own slant interpretations. It also helps to know Latin and have basic Aramaic skills. There is nothing like reading an ancient text in its original language to FULLY understand what is being said. You just can't translate some of the nuances. For example--the word Malach in Hebrew--or angel--comes from the suffix "lach" which means "to send" because God would send the angels as messengers to earth to communicate more directly with important Biblical figures like Adam, Noah, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus. Knowing the etymology of each word is significant in Kaballah because even many of the Kaballistic words themselves are made up from combinations of named concepts.
While wearing a red string, or touting an evil eye necklace, or, "hamsa" on your wall is definitely in vogue in the 21st century, I find it interesting that even something as complex as Kaballah can be boiled down for the insta-gratification "audience" that is the western world. People throw the word "Kaballah" around like it's nothing--as if it were a name brand like Gucci or Prada. But it's a very ancient, very inticate collection of texts written by multiple Talmudic scholars spanning millenia and meant to explore the nature of our existence using the Torah as context. People like Rav Berg have made Kaballah into a bit of a circus, alluding to Kaballistic study as not being connected to any particular religion while simultaneously relating it to Jewish mysticism--as if Jewish mysticism was somehow derived outside of Judaism.
To be clear, modern Judaism doesn't subscribe to Kaballah at all. While the different branches of Judaism (orthodox, conservative and reform) all practice the same Jewish traditions at varying levels of intensity--Kaballah was never part of the Jewish religion and in fact, was even criticized by some early Talmudic scholars because Kaballah often refers to "secrets" and in Judaism, secrets are not very popular. Judaism is a religion of "sechel" or reason. Dietary laws were created thousands of years ago when eating foods like pork and shellfish caused sickness that in those days, could mean death. The tradition of separate utensils and plates for dairy products and meat products had more to do with the fact that at the time, those utensils and plates were mostly made of wood. The wood absorbed the juices from the meat or liquid from the dairy and would often grow a bacteria that could make anyone eating on those plates with those utensils very sick. Judaism is not about conformity, encouraging individual interpretation and questioning of texts and of the scholars who not only teach them, but who wrote them as well.
The new Kaballah-craze is kind of amusing; it takes very old ideas and spins it into something totally new. I have to admit, it takes a real marketing flair to sell a piece of red string for $30 a pop. Let me just say--there is NOTHING in the Kaballah about that. My hope here is to clear up some of the misconceptions about both Kaballah and Judaism. If you ever have an opportunity to read one of the collection of Kaballistic texts, I recommend starting with the Zohar. It's an interesting medieval tome that if you're like me and studied with medievalist scholars at some place like the University of Rochester, or maybe have a natural leaning toward medieval history or literature--like Chaucer or Arthurian legend--you'd find the Zohar to be a new exciting layer to that general period in human history. As far as wearing red strings go--the color red is said to protect the wearer and help with pain--I suppose it can't hurt but it's the equivalent of holding up a cross in the face of a vampire...kind of hokey.
Personally, I wear an evil eye bracelet most days--many Middle-eastern cultures use the "evil eye" as a method of protection. The bracelet I wear was made in Turkey, but a previous student of mine from Cypress brought me a glass evil eye to hang in my car or on my window. I just started wearing the bracelet in the fall--after my grandmother passed away. In case you're just joining my blog, I lost ten people in the last eighteen months or so and had other devastating personal losses within that same time period. My grandmother always told me to protect myself with the evil eye lest "evil" happen to me. I never listened. Well, evil occurred. Now, I'm listening. It can't hurt and the real reason I bought the bracelet was because the eye-part of the bracelet resembles a Heelix Nebula, a spacial phenomenon that from the Hubble Space Telescope, resembles a giant eye (it's actual a million-mile long tunnel of dust particles floating in space...but anyway). Oh, yes, I am a Trekkie...oh yes.... ;)
Until next time, dear readers!