From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:

 (Rabbinic Heb. קַבָּלָה, qabbālāh, ‘tradition’). A system of Jewish theosophy which, by the use of an esoteric method of interpretation of the OT including cyphers, was believed to reveal to its initiates hidden doctrines, e.g. the creation of the world by means of emanations from the Divine Being. It was a development of tendencies akin to Gnosticism, and reached the height of its influence in the later Middle Ages and at the Renaissance. A Christian form of it also had considerable vogue in the 15th-16th cents., its Christian exponents such as J. Reuchlin and Paracelsus professing to deduce by its means such doctrines as the Trinity, the Atonement, and the Divinity of Christ.

Merkavah (Throne) and Hekhalot (Palaces) Mysticism
1st-6th Cent.?

These writings contain instructions for obtaining the ecstatic vision of the celestial regions of the Merkabah. They describe the peregrinations of the ecstatic through these regions: the seven heavens and the seven palaces or temples, Hekhaloth, through which the Merkabah mystic travels before he arrives at the throne of God. Revelations are made to the voyager concerning the celestial things and the secrets of the Creation, the hierarchy of the angels, and the magical practices of theurgy. Having ascended to the highest level, he stands before the throne and beholds a vision of the mystical figure of the Godhead, in the symbol of the “likeness as the appearance of a man” whom the prophet Ezekiel was permitted to see upon the throne of Merkabah. There he receives a revelation of the “measurement of the body,” in Hebrew Shi’ur Qomah, that is, an anthropomorphic description of the divinity, appearing as the primal man, but also as the lover of the Song of Songs, together with the mystical names of his limbs.  (Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1.3)

[Second (Slavonic) Enoch available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/fbe/index.htm#section_002 ]

The ascent texts are extant in four principal works, all redacted well after the third but certainly before the ninth century CE. They are:

1) Hekhalot Zutartey (“The Lesser Palaces”), which details an ascent of Rabbi Akiva;

2) Hekhalot Rabbati (“The Greater Palaces”), which details an ascent of Rabbi Ishmael;

3) Ma’aseh Merkabah (“Account of the Chariot”), a collection of hymns recited by the “descenders” and heard during their ascent; and

4) Sepher Hekhalot (“Book of Palaces,” also known as 3 Enoch), which recounts an ascent and divine transformation of the biblical figure Enoch into the archangel Metatron, as related by Rabbi Ishmael.

5) A fifth work provides a detailed description of the Creator as seen by the “descenders” at the climax of their ascent. This work, preserved in various forms, is called Shi’ur Qomah (“Measurement of the Body”), and is rooted in a mystical exegesis of the Song of Songs, a book reputedly venerated by Rabbi Akiva. The literal message of the work was repulsive to those who maintained God’s incorporeality; Maimonides (d. 1204) wrote that the book should be erased and all mention of its existence deleted.

6) While throughout the era of merkabah mysticism the problem of creation was not of paramount importance, the treatise Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Creation”) represents an attempted cosmogony from within a merkabah milieu. This text was probably composed during the seventh century, and evidence suggests Neoplatonic, Pythagoric, and Stoic influences. It features a linguistic theory of creation in which God creates the universe by combining the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, along with emanations represented by the ten numerals, or sefirot.

The Zohar tr. into Eng. by H. Sperling, M. Simon, and P. P. Levertoff (5 vols., 1931–4). Extensive extracts ed. F. Lachower and I. Tishby, tr. D. Goldstein, The Wisdom of the Zohar (3 vols., Oxford, 1989), with introd. by I. Tishby, 1, pp. 1–126. Shorter selection tr. by D. C. Matt (Classics of Western Spirituality, 1983). Other material tr. by R. C. Keiner, The Early Kabbalah, ed. with introd., by J. Dan (ibid. [1986]). G. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem, 1941; 2nd edn., New York, 1946; 3rd edn., London, 1955); id., Zur Kabbala und ihre Symbolik (Zurich, 1960; Eng. tr., 1965); id., Ursprung und Anfänge der Kabbala (Studia Judaica, 3; 1962; Eng. tr., Princeton, NJ [1987]); id., Kabbalah (Jerusalem [1974]); M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, Conn., and London [1988]); S. Shokek, Kabbala and the Art of Being, ed. M. Leavitt (2001). J. L. Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (New York, 1944); F. Secret, Les Kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance (1964). G. G. Scholem, Bibliographia Kabbalistica (Berlin, 1933; additions in Kirjath Sepher, Jerusalem, 1933 ff.). Id. in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 10 (Jerusalem, 1971), cols. 489–653, s.v. ‘Kabbalah’; R. Goetschel and O. Betz in TRE 17 (1988), cols. 487–509, s.v., both with bibl.


The most characteristic and recognizable symbol of the Kabbalah is that of the ten sefirot (singular: seftrah). This strange and untranslatable term first appears in the Sefer Yezirah (Book of Creation), a short cosmological and cosmogonical work probably written during the fourth century C.E.  Some of the terms used in this work are closely related to the heikhalot and merkavah literature, but its cosmology and terminology have no prior source in Hebrew literature. All later theologians undoubtedly drew the term seftrah, as well as many other terms that became central to Jewish philosophical and mystical speculation in the Middle Ages, from this short tract. The sefirot in the Book of Creation probably denote the concept of “numeral” and are ten in number. As cosmological symbols these ten sefirot express ten extremities or polarities in a three-dimensional world: up, down, east, west, north, south (the dimensions of space); beginning and end (the dimension of time); and good and evil (the moral dimension).


In the Kabbalah, the sefirot are a series of divine emanations, spreading forth from the Godhead and comprising the divine world, which separates the created worlds-the world of angels, celestial bodies, and earth-from the hidden Godhead. This hidden Godhead does not take part in any change or activity, thus resembling to some extent the Aristotelian concept of the Prime Mover or First Cause, or the Plotinian One.


As described by the early Kabbalists, the sefirot contain many elements derived directly from Neoplatonic theologies and cosmologies. For example, the metaphor of radiating light emanating from a blinding Godhead is often employed by Kabbalists. The Godhead itself is beyond all symbolic description and can therefore be described only by negative statements. The most frequently used negative appellation for the Godhead is Eyn Sof(No End), but this term does not contain any specific meaning that renders it superior to any other negative term such as “no beginning” or “no color.” Symbolism begins with the first sefirah, containing an element of specific characterization that can be hinted at by a symbol (most often by “Thought” or “Supreme Thought” or “Will”).


The system of the ten sejirot can be, therefore, nothing more than a philosophico-cosmological attempt at explaining the world, both earthly and divine-not very different in most respects from similar ones put forth in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish philosophers influenced by ancient Neoplatonic world views. What differentiates the Kabbalah from other systems that use emanation as the metaphor for the unfolding of Being is twofold: first, the unique symbolic values, and second, the dynamic qualities of the sejirot.

When a philosopher states that there are ten divine emanations, each playing a part in the creation of the physical world as we know it, he is usually stating what he believes to be an accurate description of things as they are, and he tries to prove his statement by logical and verifiable arguments. His statement is subject to challenge on these grounds, and he will do his best to show that objections do not place in doubt the factual correctness of his statement. The Kabbalistic attitude toward the seftrot, though sometimes expressed in terms that seem to be very close to those of such philosophers, is completely different. The source from which this insight is derived is neither logical nor experimental, but divine revelation through mystical interpretation of the biblical text or other sacred texts. It cannot be challenged on any grounds, for it is both divine revelation and mystical intuition, and not the conclusion of human minds. It even cannot be challenged on religious or theological grounds, as at least one opponent of the Kabbalah tried to do in the thirteenth century when he described the sefirotic system as grossly polytheistic, a belief in ten gods instead of the One God. The Kabbalist’s answer to such a claim will be: The sefirot are symbols and so is their number; symbolism should not be confused with sensual or logical truth. A symbolic expression rather hints at a truth that is very different from its symbolical referent.


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