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.
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.)
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.