Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have noticed that in your columns you often offer explanations to the Torah from the “Kabbalists” or “Kabbalistic Masters.” Who are these people and how do they differ from the standard rabbinical analyses and explanations? Are they Jewish mystics?
When G-d uttered the Ten Commandments, He miraculously conveyed the message to each and every Jew at the exact level of understanding that they could fathom. So, too, with the entirety of Torah; it was transmitted with myriad levels of meaning, from the most simplistic level to the most profound, esoteric understanding. Each letter and word of Torah is like a disk which contains reams of information, to be played in the mind of the Jew studying it. There is a level of perception fitting every Jew’s mind, commitment to understanding, and ability to penetrate the depths of Torah.
The deepest of those levels, passed down by G-d at Sinai to Moses, is Kabbalah. Kabbalah is not an independent system of mystical thought which exists externally from Torah. It is, rather, the most profound level of understanding of the Torah, fulfillment of the mitzvot and G-d’s relationship to man and the world. It teaches the innate holiness of man as created in the Image of G-d and all that is contained within that statement, how man is a microcosm of all that G-d created in the world and universe. It informs us of the cosmic impact we have upon the entire universe by our actions, greatly amplifying the importance of mitzvot and punctuating the ripple effect we have by studying Torah and fulfilling the will of G-d.
The bulk of Kabbalistic literature is based upon the magnum opus of Kabbalah, the Zohar. The Zohar, which means “the glow,” is a commentary to the Torah. It was written in Aramaic by the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Rabbi Shimon, who is quoted profusely throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, was one of the greatest sages in all Jewish history. All later Kabbalistic sages base their works on interpretations of the Zohar, which contains the foundations of all Kabbalistic thought. There are other contemporary works of Kabbalah as well, but none that contain the breadth and detail of the Zohar.
The word “Kabbalah” means “the receiving,” referring to the way the Oral Torah was once transmitted, by word of mouth from rebbe to student. In fact, all of the Oral Torah was transmitted in this way; Moses himself “received” the Oral Tradition from G-d Himself at Sinai, which was called “Kabbalah” (Mishnah, Avot 1:1). The reason this more mystical portion of the Torah is called “Kabbalah” more than the rest is because it was handed down only to a select few in each generation, those who were considered its most insightful sages.
Since R’ Shimon, the most recognized luminary of Kabbalah was the 16th-century sage Rabbi Yitzchok Luria of Egypt and Safed, Israel. Known as the Ari z”l, the “lion of blessed memory,” R’ Luria used his genius to develop the thoughts contained in the Zohar into a complete system, known as Lurian Kabbalah. He revolutionized, and in many ways popularized, the study of Kabbalah, making it more understandable, and at the same time exhibited its intense profundity. He reinforced the tradition that only one deeply versed in the “revealed Torah” could possibly understand the “hidden Torah.”
Based on the Lurian teachings, many later Kabbalists developed introductory works, enabling students who so desired to have a path in beginning these studies. Some very good books have been written which filter down some of these concepts in a way that a layman can have some grasp of them. These were written by their authors with the hopes of enhancing the joy of mitzvah observance by the Jewish people.
One needs to be very careful, however, as various charlatan organizations have sprung up in our generation which can be very misleading and often grossly misrepresent the true meanings of Kabbalah.
The Kabbalistic portion of the Torah is said to be hinted at in its entirety in the image of the Chariot in the beginning of the Book of Daniel. I heard from my mentor in Jerusalem the reason for this: that the Kabbalistic teachings explain to us how we are moving ahead, like a chariot, toward the final redemption.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dear Rabbi Fried,