The Talmud [the compilation of Jewish oral law and scripture commentary] has a famous story about four great sages who entered "the orchard," a metaphor to describe a mystical experience, in which they sent their souls "to the heavens" to gaze on the celestial spheres. As a result of this intense experience, the Talmud tells us, one of the sages died, one became insane, one became a heretic, and only Rabbi Akiva walked away whole.

It was the Talmud's way of warning us that over-involvement with mysticism is dangerous. Its esoteric knowledge isn't for everybody. For that very reason, the teachings of Jewish mysticism are known as Kabbalah, literally "received." These ideas were only to be received by direct word of mouth from master to disciple so that the one who transmits its information could be certain of the worthiness and the emotional maturity of the one receiving it.

In time, it was even suggested that there is a minimum age requirement for receiving this secret knowledge: No one under the age of 40 was permitted entry into the club of kabbalistic students.

"Salt adds flavor to food, though it is not itself a food. The same is true of the Kabbalah. In itself it is hardly comprehensible, and it is tasteless, but it adds flavor to the Torah."
-- Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi (1747-1813), founder of the Lubovitch movement
Just a little before the year 1300, in Spain, a book made its appearance that for the first time revealed some of the mysteries of this tradition. Its authorship is unclear. Some claim it was penned by the second-century Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, a kabbalist who lived in a cave as a hermit for 13 years, and who hid his work from public view until it was miraculously discovered many centuries later. Others believe that the man responsible for "revealing" the book, the Spanish Kabbalist Moses de Leon was in fact the author.

Written in Aramaic and, intentionally, in a style that is very difficult to comprehend, the Zohar ("illumination") has been called the Bible of kabbalists. It is the disciples of the Zohar and of Kabbalah who deal with those subjects of spirituality, of communion with God, of angels and the afterlife, of prophecies and predictions that are left unexplored in the Jewish texts meant for the general populace.

"My Little Monster"

Golem means unformed clay. The golem came alive when Rabbi Loew wrote the word for truth, emet, on his forehead. When it was time for the golem to be returned to dust, the rabbi erased the first letter, leaving on the word met--death.
Legend has it that Kabbalah also empowers its practitioners. Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1525-1609) knew how to arrange the secret names of God in such a manner that he was able to create a golem, a "man" brought to life out of clay, to serve his bidding and protect the Jewish people. True or not, it became the inspiration for Mary Shelley to write a book called "Frankenstein." So even though you didn't realize it, when you saw the movie, you were watching an idea created by the masters of the Kabbalah!

The Bible Codes

More recently, another insight of Jewish mysticism that had previously been accessible only to a select few became known worldwide with the publication of a book on Bible codes. Studying the Torah by way of a special system that takes note of sequences of letters, mystics see predictions revealed, including events like the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Don't believe it? No one says that you have to. Judaism doesn't mandate belief, only action. Mysticism isn't a must; it's only for those who choose to believe in its teachings. Before you reject out of hand Kabbalah's insistence that, since the Bible has everything in it, it even predicts contemporary events, see what you make of this example:

Biblical sentences correspond to years and important moments of history are alluded to in the verses that correspond to the Hebrew year in which they take place. The State of Israel in modern times was established in the Hebrew year 5708. The 5,708th verse in the Bible is Deuteronomy 30:5. It reads: "And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed and you shall possess it; and He will do you good and multiply you above your fathers."

Coincidence? You're a good Jew whether you believe it or not. And you're a candidate for the study of Kabbalah if you're excited by the concept.

Excited by what you know of Kabbalah so far? Read more.

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