Kabbalah FAQs

The author of 'The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah' answers your questions about these mystical teachings.

BY: Arthur Goldwag

 

Index of Questions:

  • WHY THE RED STRING?
  • IS THERE A MINIMUM AGE?
  • DO I HAVE TO KNOW HEBREW?
  • WHAT DOES KABBALAH MEAN?
  • IS IT A RELIGION?
  • WHY DO CELEBRITIES LIKE IT?
  • WHAT ARE THE 72 NAMES OF GOD?
  • ARE ALL HASIDS KABBALISTS?
  • IS KABBALAH LOOKED DOWN UPON?
  • WHAT'S THE ZOHAR?
  • WHAT ARE THE SEVEN HEAVENS?

    Why the Red String?
    My family is of Italian origin (parents are first-generation American). Babies in my family have been wearing a red string on their arm or pinned to their sweater or carrier for as long as I can remember to ward off the evil eye or "Mal Oche." Is there a connection to Madonna and other celebrities who follow Kabbalah and wear a red string?

    For celebrities like Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Madonna-and even Madonna's daughter Lourdes-it has become fashionable to wear a "Kabbalah" bracelet made out of braided red string to protect them from "the unfriendly stare and unkind glances," as the Kabbalah Centre (where the string sells for $26 a length) puts it. Surprisingly, though, this tradition is not explicitly from Kabbalah. Many Mediterranean cultures wear red to ward off the evil eye. There are biblical traditions associated with a red string as well. Wrapping a red string around the tomb of the matriarch Rachel is supposed to protect women in childbirth. Since Rachel is associated with the Shekhinah (in Kabbalah, the divine presence), there are also some kabbalistic overtones. One nonsupernatural explanation of the string's power is that it reminds the wearer to bear himself or herself with humility, so as not to attract envy.

    Is There a Minimum Age?
    I've heard that Jews aren't supposed to study Kabbalah until they're at least 40. Does anyone still follow that rule?

    It was never a hard-and-fast rule, it was simply one tradition. Age 20 was good enough for many teachers, provided the students had attained a sufficient level of learning about the Torah and the Talmud and seemed mentally and emotionally stable. Nowadays, it's up to the teacher. I'm sure there are some ultra-orthodox teachers who follow the 40-only rule; others believe that even children can benefit from exposure to Kabbalah principles.

    Reading the Original Language
    Can I understand Kabbalah if I don't know Hebrew or Aramaic?

    You can understand a lot about it, but 1) Kabbalah teaches that the world was literally created out of Hebrew letters, so it really helps if you know them; 2) much of what kabbalists do is study deep, esoteric interpretations of intrinsically difficult texts that were composed in Hebrew and Aramaic (an ancient language using Hebrew letters but a somewhat different grammar). Since no translation is ever perfect, you're bound to lose something. Finally, 3) a form of biblical interpretation called Gematria that many kabbalists engage in is based on the fact that Hebrew letters are also used as numbers. Some of the correspondences are impossible to render in English. That said, there are some really wonderful modern English translations of kabbalistic texts-Daniel C. Matt's "The Essential Kabbalah" (HarperCollins) is a good place to start. (A controversial method of reading the Zohar in which you gain knowledge by visually scanning or running your finger over the text without understanding it, is viewed with skepticism by the rabbinical community.)

    Defining Kabbalah
    What does the word Kabbalah mean?

    Its literal meaning is "tradition" or "receiving." The name suggests doctrines that were received by revelation in the distant past and handed down through the generations; also that its teachings are too esoteric and dangerous for just anybody, so its teachers transmit it one-to-one to specially selected students. According to legend, the original teacher of Kabbalah was Moses, who was said to have received the teaching from God on Mount Sinai at the same time as the Ten Commandments.

    Is It a Religion?
    Is Kabbalah a separate religion, or a part of another religion?
    It's religious, but it's not an independent religion. It is "a Jewish esoterical tradition of contemplation of divine secrets," according to Joseph Dan, the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Kabbalah was adapted by Christians in late medieval times; its symbols and some of its teachings (often spelled as Qabala) appear in non-Jewish esoteric systems like Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and Freemasonry. They can even be found in neo-pagan systems like Wicca. While most mystical systems share similar aspirations-that is, ecstatic union with God-and while the experiences of their practitioners can be quite similar, they cannot be fully understood apart from their particular religious contexts. So most kabbalist rabbis would say you could not separate it from Judaism.

    What's the Star Attraction?
    Why do you think so many celebrities are attracted to Kabbalah?

    It's hard not to be catty when answering a question like this. Part of being a celebrity is being on the cutting edge, doing what's "cool" at the moment. That isn't to say that all celebrities are shallow-they're not. Some of them are totally dedicated to their religious, political, and cultural causes and very deliberately use their celebrity to raise consciousness. But when you're a celebrity, you're also something of a billboard-companies pay you to wear their sneakers or their jewelry. Similarly, religious groups might court you because of the money or the publicity value that you supply. A lot of celebrities got into Kabbalah because other celebrity friends got them into it-because of peer pressure.

    It's worth noting that Madonna, Paris Hilton, Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Roseanne, et al get their Kabbalah from the Kabbalah Centre, which is very much the creation of one man, Philip Berg. Rav Berg has built the International Kabbalah Centres into a far-reaching empire, opening schools throughout the world and selling books, tapes, and products like "energetically blessed" bottled water. The relationship that the Kabbalah Centre enjoys with these celebrities is synergistic, to say the least.

    Finally, celebrities are often spiritually needy. Fame and its trappings may be ultimately unsatisfying, and immersing themselves in the study of an esoteric discipline can fill a sense of spiritual emptiness. The popularized Kabbalah, with its red string bracelets to ward off envy and malice, can be especially attractive to people in the public eye.

    The Powerful Names of God
    Can you tell me the origin of "The 72 Names of God," and who authored it?

    The 72-part name is derived from Exodus 14:19-21. It consists of 72 three-letter "words," which are made by the following formula: Word one is the first letter of verse 19, the last letter of verse 20, and the first letter 21. Word two takes the second letter of 19, the second-to-last of 20, and the second of 21. Repeat 70 more times. Legend has it that Moses used this formula to part the Red Sea; it is certainly very old and is mentioned in the medieval magical compendium the Sefer Raziel.

    Rav Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre, has recently published a book about the 72-part name, in which he calls it "the ultimate pill for any and everything that ails you because it strikes at the DNA level of our soul." Though Rav Berg studied with notable kabbalists and is a man of great learning, his movement is controversial.

    The Hasidic Connection
    Do Hasidic people today consider themselves kabbalists?

    Many of the teachings of the Kabbalah have been incorporated into Hasidic beliefs and rituals. In Daniel C. Matt's words, "Hasidism is really the popularization of Kabbalah. Hasidism spread it to the masses. Some of the fiercest opposition to Hasidism came on the part of Kabbalists who agree with the ideas but don't think they should be spread so widely." Needless to say, not all Kabbalists are Hasids.

    Mysticism vs. Rationalism
    Is Kabbalah looked down upon by "serious" Jewish practitioners?

    It depends upon what you mean by "serious." If you mean rationalistic and philosophical, the answer is yes: some do. If you mean deeply observant, the answer can be yes or no. Nobody is more observant than Hasidic Jews and their religious culture is steeped in mysticism; other Orthodox Jews abhor mysticism. It's interesting to note how much of Kabbalah has worked its way into mainstream Jewish observance-when Jews greet the Sabbath, for example, they are following a custom that began among the mystics in Safed, Palestine in the 1500s.

    What's the Zohar?
    What is the difference between the Zohar and the Tanya? Who wrote them?

    The Tanya is a book written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman in the 18th century; it is one of the foundational texts of Hasidism. The Zohar is a massive, multi-volume text that was supposedly written by Shimon bar Yochai in the second century CE but is usually attributed to its "discoverer," Moses de Leon, who lived in Spain in the late 1200s. A compilation of Midrash (biblical commentary), sermons, homilies, visions, dialogues, and treatises on creation, emanation, the Sefirot, and the Four Worlds, it is widely considered to be the most important book in the canon of Jewish religious texts after the Tanakh and the Talmud.

    Four Worlds and Seven Heavens
    I have a real interest in Elijah. The way Elijah talked to G-d and his personal battles were unlike any others I've seen. He ascended from earth without facing death. Elijah and Enoch are the only ones I know of who have done this. My question is, what is the kabbalistic understanding of the departure and what are the seven heavens mentioned in the Zohar? Where would Enoch and Elijah find themselves within that idea of seven heavens? Finally, why is the return of Elijah still expected at Passover, and why do we not wait for Enoch? Does Enoch have to face a physical death also?

    There are four worlds in Kabbalah: In ascending order, they are the world of doing (where we live our day-to-day lives), the world of formation, the world of creation, and the world of God's absolute presence. The second highest contains seven heavens (which are higher than the heaven we see); each of them is commanded by a particular angel. Elijah is a forerunner of the Messiah in legend; he also travels the world disguised as a beggar, testing people to make sure they're just to strangers. This is very much in the spirit of Passover. Legend has it that he tutored Shimon bar Yochai when he was in his cave writing the Zohar (the primary text of Kabbalah), also that he instructed the brilliant kabbalist Rabbi Luria. As for Enoch, the apocryphal Book of Enoch (which was written well before the Kabbalah began to be elaborated) tells us he was transformed into the powerful angel Metatron, an important being in Jewish mysticism. Interestingly enough, the Mormons are fascinated by Enoch because of his association with the city of Zion.

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