25 Questions
& Answers about

6. How did the Kabbalah develop?

With the close of the biblical period and the cessation of prophecy in the 3rd century B.C.E., the esoteric wisdom of the Torah was entrusted to the sages, who passed it down to their disciples. The outstanding sages of the Mishneh, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were masters not only of the "revealed Torah", the Oral Law, but also of the "hidden Torah", namely the Kabbalah.

Rabbi Akiva's student, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (mid-2nd century C.E.), received permission from on high to discuss the esoteric wisdom of the Torah more openly. The teachings of Rabbi Shimon and his companions are contained in The Zohar ("Brilliant Light"), midrashic discourses assembled in the form of a commentary on the Five Books of Moses and other parts of the Bible, and in Tikkuney Zohar, seventy discourses on the word Bereishit, the first word of the Torah.

Even after the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Kabbalistic knowledge was still carefully guarded. For a period of over a thousand years, leading rabbis maintained a strict silence about the Kabbalah, while some appear to have had no knowledge of it. Nevertheless, outstanding legal authorities such as Raavad (Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres, c. 1125-1198) and Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, or Nachmanides, 1194-1270) were key figures in the chain of Kabbalistic tradition.

The Zohar was kept secret until the 1270's, when the first manuscripts began to circulate. Thereafter, more and more Kabbalistic works were written, and with the invention of printing they became more readily available.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many sages made their way to the land of Israel, where the city of Safed becammajor center of Kabbalistic learning. Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-70) summarized and systematized the different trends of the Kabbalah up to his time.

The outstanding Kabbalistic luminary of the modern age, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the ARI (1534-70), spent the last two years of his life in Safed. There he taught his revolutionary system, which integrated earlier teachings while taking them to higher levels, bringing out the meaning of many previously obscure concepts in The Zohar. The ARI's teachings were recorded by his student, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620) in Etz Chaim, The Tree of Life, and Eight Gates.

The system of the ARI is the foundation of all subsequent Kabbalistic schools of significance, though these have developed in a variety of directions.


© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5763 - 2003 All rights reserved