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Kabbalah Mysticism

Types Of Kabbalah, Differences And Overlaps, Impact Of Kabbalah, Bibliography

Kabbalah is a Hebrew term that has many meanings. Its basic meaning is derived from the root QBL, which means to receive, and thus the term means "reception." In rabbinic literature it stands mainly for a tradition that is received orally. However, beginning in the tenth century, testimonies appeared for a more specific form of Kabbalah: an esoteric tradition dealing basically with details related to divine names. In the beginning of the thirteenth century this esoteric tradition became more common in written sources, and ultimately imposed itself as the main meaning of the noun. This widespread use of the term Kabbalah as secret knowledge reflects the emergence of a huge, primarily Hebrew literature that claimed to reflect the secret meanings of Judaism. Numerous authors were designated as Mequbbalim, kabbalists, and in their books they resorted to the term Kabbalah, which became a technical term.

During the thirteenth century, kabbalistic writings were composed primarily in Southern France, Spain, and Italy. However, kabbalistic thought radiated immediately to North Africa, Germany, and the land of Israel. In the late decades of the thirteenth century and the early decades of the fourteenth century the classic of kabbalistic literature, the book of the Zohar, was composed in Castile. It is only after the end of the fifteenth century, with the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, that full-fledged centers of Kabbalah were established also in North Africa, Poland, Iraq, and especially the land of Israel. In the Galilean town of Safed, kabbalistic literature was represented by the different systems of Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522–1570) and Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1534–1572) and their followers. A second peak of kabbalistic creativity developed in the mid-sixteenth century.

Kabbalistic ideas were connected with messianic aspirations from the very beginning, especially in Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia's (c. 1240–after 1291) ecstatic Kabbalah and in some parts of the Zohar, as well as in Safedian Kabbalah. In the second half of the seventeenth century these ideas produced certain expectations in some Jewish elite figures, which led to a widespread messianic mass-movement around the figure of Shabbetai Tzevi (Sabbatai Zebi; 1626–1676). Drawing antinomian conclusions from some earlier sources, Tzevi and his prophets and theologians Nathan of Gaza and Abraham Michael Cardozo resorted to a variety of kabbalistic themes in order to foster their messianic beliefs, creating a moment of exhilaration at the beginning of the movement. An ensuing disappointment followed Tzevi's forced conversion to Islam.

Though understood to be an esoteric tradition of Judaism that should not be disclosed to an ordinary Jew and even less to a gentile, at the end of the fifteenth century a gradually expanding Christian Kabbalah became visible. It started in Florence with the succinct theses of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), and then in the more systematic writings of Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim (1486–1535), based on various elements from kabbalistic texts, often read in Latin translations made by converts to Christianity. Characteristic of Christian Kabbalah is the integration of the kabbalistic elements—mostly the theosophical, the hermeneutical, and the magical ones, which were separated from their ritualistic background—within structures of thought found in translations of Greek and Hellenistic material prepared and printed during the Renaissance, especially by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499).

European occultism, like various forms of European theosophy and Freemasonry, had been substantially influenced by kabbalistic thought, as seems to be the case in early Mormonism. The most viable mystical mass-movement created by the popularization of Kabbalah is late Polish Hasidism. This eastern European mystical phenomenon remained the most lasting form of the penetration of Kabbalah in the lives of many nonelitist Jews. Under the combined influence of Kabbalah and Hasidism, concepts like dibbuk (possession) and golem, or qelippah (demonic shell), became part of the beliefs of larger segments of Jewish population in the late eighteenth century.

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