Kabbalah is the ancient Jewish mystical tradition that provides insight into the essence of G‑d, His relationship with the world, and how the Torah and its mitzvahs deepen that connection. Kabbalah is an integral part of the Torah, tracing back to the revelation at Sinai and earlier. (For more on this, see What Is Kabbalah?)
Since G‑d is infinite and cannot be explained in ordinary terms, Kabbalah often utilizes metaphor to convey the most sublime and abstract concepts.
Here is a list of 5 important Kabbalistic works:
Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Formation”)
Often translated as the “Book of Formation,” Sefer Yetzirah is the earliest extant Jewish esoteric work and the only one mentioned in the Talmud. According to tradition, it was authored by none other than Abraham (the only person whose name appears in the work). Some explain that although the core fundamental ideas of Sefer Yetzirah were passed down from Abraham, it was actually written down during the time of the Mishnah by Rabbi Akiva.
While the importance of this cryptic book is undisputed, its meaning is shrouded in mystery. Some early authorities interpret the Sefer Yetzirah as a philosophical treatise or a work on grammar or phonetics. The Kabbalists viewed it as a deeply mystical work whose hidden potency is best summed up by an incident found in the Talmud itself:
Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya would sit every Friday and study Sefer Yetzirah, and a “third” calf [which had attained a third of its maturity, and was considered the most savory] would be created for them, and they would eat it in honor of Shabbat.1
The commentaries explain that the immediately preceding incident in the Talmud also involved the Sefer Yetzirah:
Rava created a “man” using holy forces. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira, who spoke to him and received no reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: “You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the sages. Return to your dust.”
This snippet from the opening paragraph is a classic example of the Sefer Yetzirah’s style:
[There are] 10 sefirot, which consist of nothing, and of 22 fundamental letters: Three mothers, seven double; twelve simple [consonants].
The Kabbalist sees this as an overview of the Kabbalistic hierarchy, and the grammarian sees this as an overview of the fundamentals of the Hebrew alphabet. Who is right? Perhaps they both are. After all, all agree that creation (which Kabbalah endeavors to explain) was channeled through Divine (Hebrew) speech.
For an explanation of the “10 sefirot, three mothers and seven doubles” from a Kabbalistic perspective, see The Sefirot.
Sefer Habahir (“Book of the Brightness”)
Until the publication of the Zohar (circa 1295), the Sefer Habahir (“Book of the Brightness”) was the most quoted and influential classical Kabbalistic work.
Its name is based on the opening verse, which quotes Job 37:21: “And now men see not the light which is bright (bahir) in the skies.” Tradition attributes the work to the 1st-century Talmudic sage and mystic Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, whose name appears in the opening words of the work.
(The mystical prayer Ana Bechoach, which is recited by many daily, is also attributed to Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah. The initials letters of the 42 words of the prayer make up the 42-letter name of G‑d, which is often mentioned in Kabbalistic works.)
Among the topics discussed in Sefer Habahir is the concept of the 10 sefirot (attributes), interpretation of the Hebrew letters, gilgulim (reincarnation of the soul), the Divine names of G‑d and the deeper meaning of some of the mitzvahs.
Said the Attribute of Kindness: As long as Abraham was in the world, I did not have to do my job. Abraham stood there in my place and “kept my watch.” It is my task
to bring merit to the world, and even when people are guilty, I bring them merit. I also bring them back, directing their hearts to do the will of their Father in Heaven.
All this Abraham did, as it is written, “And he founded an inn in Beersheba, and he called there in the name of the L‑rd, G‑d of the world.”2 He would share his bread and water with all the people in the world, bringing them merit. Seeking to convince them, he would say, “Whom then are you serving? Serve the L‑rd, G‑d of heaven and earth.” He would exhort them until they would repent.3
The Maggid of Mezritch explains that this teaching illustrates how man is the purpose of creation. When man—a soul clothed in a body—shows hospitality to strangers as a means of promulgating awareness of G‑d, he reaches higher than the attribute of chesed (kindness) itself in its most sublime state.4
The Zohar, which translates as “Splendor” or “Radiance,” is considered the fundamental work of Kabbalah. According to tradition, it was largely authored by the great 2nd-century Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, with sections (as attested to in the Zohar itself) written by various other Talmudic sages, notably Rabbi Shimon’s student, Rabbi Abba.
Widely unknown for many centuries, the Zohar was only revealed in the 13th century and was published by Rabbi Moshe de Leona, a leading Spanish Kabbalist (for more on this, as well as the debate on the authorship of the Zohar, see The Zohar’s Mysterious Origins).
Unlike Sefer Yetzirah and the Bahir, which are very short and cryptic, the Zohar was written very comprehensively and became the source for all later authoritative Kabbalistic teachings.
Rabbi Chezkiah opened [his discourse] and said: “It is written: ‘As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved amongst the daughters.’5 Who is the rose? This refers to ‘Knesset Yisrael’—the collective soul roots of Israel, [malchut]. (For there is one level of a rose and there is another level of a rose.) Just as a rose, which is found amidst the thorns, has within it the colors red and white, also Knesset Yisrael has within her both judgment and lovingkindness. Just as a rose has in it thirteen petals, so too Knesset Yisrael has within her thirteen paths of mercy which surround her from all her sides.”6
These opening words of the Zohar illustrate the loving relationship between G‑d and His people, and the 13 pathways of mercy that remain open even in the darkest of times. For a translation and commentary of this section, see The Rose Among the Thorns.
Pardes Rimonim (“Orchard of Pomegranates”)
The Pardes Rimonim (“Orchard of Pomegranates”) was authored by the 16th-century Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero, widely known as the Ramak. Written when he was only 27, it is the first work to systematize and synthesize the entire spectrum of Kabbalistic thought, and it resolves many apparent contradictions and questions in Kabbalah in an orderly and relatively philosophical system.
In the last year of the Ramak’s life, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known by the acronym “Ari” or “Arizal“)came to Safed to study under the Ramak, whom he refers to as “our teacher.” According to one tradition, the Arizal actually arrived in Safed on the exact day of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s funeral in 1570. When he joined the funeral procession, he realized that no one but he saw a pillar of fire following the Ramak’s presence.
For more about Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, see here.
In many places in Kabbalistic text and the Zohar, we find that various colors parallel the sefirot. One must be very careful and not imagine that this is to be taken literally. Color is something physical, used to describe the physical world, and the sefirot, which are spiritual, should not be described with physical properties. If a person thinks that these are literally the colors of the sefirot, he destroys the entire system and oversteps the boundaries set by the ancients. One who delves into this should therefore be most careful not to assume that anything physical is implied.
Actually, these colors allude to the results that are transmitted from the highest roots. Thus, gevurah is responsible for victory in war. Since this involves bloodshed, where red blood is spilled, it is fitting to ascribe the color red to this sefirah. The color red likewise expresses hatred, anger and rage. This is obvious. We therefore ascribe the color red to the place of judgment. Furthermore, everything that is red is derived from the power of this root. . . .
Likewise, the color white indicates mercy and peace. This is because people with white hair are usually merciful. Thus, for example, the elders and aged do not usually fight in armies. Therefore, if you wish to depict peace and the sefirah of kindness and mercy, you depict it with the color white.
There is no question that things that are white emanate from the power of this root . . . this then is the proper interpretation of the relationship between the colors and the sefirot. The colors are used allegorically to allude to their functions and results.7
These opening words in the chapter Shaar Hagevanim (Gate of Colors) stress an extremely important rule to keep in mind whenever one learns Kabbalah: Never make the mistake of ascribing literal, physical properties to the spiritual. At the same time, all properties that are manifest in the physical are a reflection of spiritual roots.
For some more samples of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero’s work, see here.
Kitvei HaArizal (“Writings of the Arizal”)
The Kitvei HaArizal (“Writings of the Arizal”), the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, are considered by the Kabbalists to be the most authoritative texts of Kabbalah after the Zohar. Rabbi Luria himself wrote relatively little. All we have from his own hand are novellae on two Talmudic tractates (included in the Shitah Mekubetzet, written by his uncle and teacher, Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi). A few Kabbalistic teachings in Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Eitz Chaim are marked with the preface, “found written in manuscript,” indicating that they were written by the Arizal. He also left a commentary on a small section of the Zohar and a few hymns for the Shabbat meals.
The Arizal passed away in the year 1572 at the early age of 38, a little more than two years after arriving in Safed.
The bulk of his teachings were recorded in numerous works by his disciples, primarily Rabbi Chaim Vital. The main work of the Kitvei Arizal is the Etz Chaim (“Tree of Life”), which expounds the theoretical foundation of the Kabbalah. Some of the other works are Pri Etz Chaim (“Fruit of the Tree of Life”) and Shaar HaKavanot (“Gate of Meditations”).
Despite his passing at a young age, one cannot overestimate the Arizal’s great impact both on the revelation and development of Kabbalah, as well as on Jewish law, customs and liturgy. He introduced many important Kabbalistic concepts, including the tzimtzum and shevirat hakeilim (fallen sparks), and it is our job to elevate the world and these fallen sparks of holiness.
It is stated in the Torah that [one of the punishments for national wrongdoing is that] “G‑d will return you to Egypt in ships . . . and you will be sold there to your enemies as slaves and handmaidens, and no one will buy.”8 Why is causing us to return to Egypt a punishment? The Torah does indeed tell us that “you shall see them [the Egyptians] no more.”9 [But is going against the Torah’s command a punishment?]
Also, why did G‑d say this about Egypt, but not about other exiles? Why is He against our returning to Egypt, but permits us to travel to Babylonia or Media?
. . . The four exiles correspond to the four letters of the name Havayah, and the exile of Egypt to the upper tip of the yud, which outweighs them all and is greater than them. It is therefore mentioned repeatedly [in the Torah] and is not listed together with the other [exiles], for it is in a class by itself.
Now, the purpose of exile is to elevate the fallen sparks of holiness that [were scattered all over the earth and] were mixed in with evil due to the sin of Adam. This is the meaning of the verse, “There is a time when a man overcomes another man to his detriment,”10 meaning that the “evil man” overcomes the “holy man” to his own detriment, for the fact that he oppresses Israel and rules them allows Israel to totally extract from him all the sparks of holiness within him.
And wherever they go, the Shechinah goes with them, in order to elevate her component parts.That is why we are commanded not to return to Egypt, but are not so prohibited with regard to other nations [that have oppressed us], for we have not yet elevated all [the divine sparks] within them.11
This teaching illustrates one of the great innovations found in Rabbi Luria’s teachings—that the purpose of exile is to elevate the fallen sparks of holiness that were scattered all over the earth and were mixed in with evil due to the sin of Adam.
For more on the Arizal and his teachings, see the Holy Ari.
For more on Kabbalah, visit Kabbalah Online.