kabbalah or cabala (both: kăbˈələ) [key] [Heb., = reception], esoteric system of interpretation of the Scriptures based upon a tradition claimed to have been handed down orally from Abraham. Despite that claimed antiquity, the system appears to have been given its earliest formulation in the 11th cent. in France, and from there spread most notably to Spain. There were undoubtedly precedents, however; kabbalistic elements are discernible in the literature of earlier Merkavah mysticism (fl. after c.A.D. 100) inspired by the vision of the chariot-throne ("merkavah") in the Book of Ezekiel. Beyond the specifically Jewish notions contained within the kabbalah, some scholars believe that it reflects a strong Neoplatonic influence, especially in its doctrines of emanation and the transmigration of souls (see Neoplatonism). In the late 15th and 16th cent., Christian thinkers found support in the kabbalah for their own doctrines, out of which they developed a Christian version. Kabbalistic interpretation of Scripture was based on the belief that every word, letter, number, and even accent contained mysteries interpretable by those who knew the secret. The names for God were believed to contain miraculous power and each letter of the divine name was considered potent; kabbalistic signs and writings were used as amulets and in magical practices.
The two principal sources of the kabbalists are the Sefer Yezirah (tr. Book of Creation, 1894) and the Zohar (tr. 1949; The Book of Enlightenment, 1985; The Book of Splendor, 1995). The first develops, in a series of monologues supposedly delivered by Abraham, the doctrine of the Sefirot (the powers emanating from God, through which the world is created and its order sustained), using the primordial numbers of the later Pythagoreans in a system of numerical interpretation. It was probably written in the 3d cent. The Zohar consists of mystical commentaries and homilies on the Pentateuch. It was written by Moses de León (13th cent.) but attributed by him to Simon ben Yohai, the great scholar of the 2d cent. A.D. Following the expulsion (1492) of the Jews from Spain, kabbalah became more messianic in its emphasis, as developed by the Lurianic school of mystics at Safed, Palestine. Kabbalah in this form was widely adopted and created fertile gound for the movement of the pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. It was also a major influence in the development of Hasidism. Kabbalah still has adherents, especially among Hasidic Jews.
See G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1965) and Kabbalah (1974); H. Weiner, Nine and One Half Mystics: The Kabbalah Today (1969); J. Dan and F. Talmage, ed., Studies in Jewish Mysticism (1982); M. Idel, Kabbalah (1988); D. Rosenberg, Dreams of Being Eaten Alive: The Literary Core of the Kabbalah (2000).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.