The word "Kabbalah" stems from the Hebrew root "kabal", meaning "to receive". The term implies that it is a certain kind of wisdom that is received.
The Mishna says:
"Moses received [kibel] Torah on Sinai and [subsequently] transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua transmitted it to the Elders. The Elders transmitted it to the Prophets. The Prophets transmitted it to the "Men of the Great Assembly."
Moses was the master of all prophets. He understood the Torah completely. In this sense his prophetic vision was on the level of an open vessel that could always receive more. Perhaps the secret of Moses receiving was, the more he transmitted, the more he was able to receive. The Mishna thus says, "Moses 'kibel' Torah" because he was the paradigm of complete and total kabbala - receptivity to the prophetic experience. The only way to grasp every single nuance of Torah, however, is through the prophetic wisdom that is contained in Kabbala…
The idea of Kabbala, then, is to become completely infused with Torah and to connect with it on every possible level. Without Kabbala, a person could understand Torah on a number of levels. The only way to grasp every single nuance of Torah, however, is through the prophetic wisdom that is contained in Kabbala.
We can now understand what Moses "transmitted to Joshua and Joshua transmitted to the Elders, etc." According to the Torah, G‑d told Moses to place his spirit upon Joshua (Num. 27:20). In other words, Moses was to invest Joshua with his own spirit of prophecy. According to an ancient Midrash, this included the necessary methods and disciplines for acquiring prophecy. Moses thus transmitted the keys for entering the prophetic state to Joshua. These keys constituted the Kabbala tradition.
Throughout the period of the Prophets, the Kabbala was guarded by the master prophets and transmitted to select disciples. During this time, the Sanctuary, and later the First Temple, served as the focal point for all prophetic experience. When the Temple was about to be destroyed the prophet Ezekiel was shown a vision which was to signal the end of a thousand year period of prophecy. This vision is known as Maaseh Merkava, the Discipline (or Workings) of the Chariot. While referring specifically to the opening chapter of the book of Ezekiel, the term Maaseh Merkava is also a general appellation for the entire Kabbala tradition. By the time...of the Second Temple, the keys to the Kabbala tradition had been entrusted to the last prophets of the Jewish people…
By the time of the building of the Second Temple, the keys to the Kabbala tradition had been entrusted to the last prophets of the Jewish people as well as to its greatest sages. Together, they constituted the 120 Men of the Great Assembly. It was this body of sages that formulated the Mishna in Tractate Chagigah, stating: "The Maaseh Merkava may be taught only to individual students [one at a time], and they must be wise, understanding with their own knowledge." They thus insured the continued transmission of the Kabbala tradition by restricting its practices to the smallest possible circle of masters. Outside of this circle these practices would remain almost totally unknown. This policy continued until after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It was only then that things began to change.
After the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 C.E., things took a drastic turn for the worse. At this time the Romans became intent on uprooting the last traces of Torah from the Jewish people. The Hadrianic persecutions reached such a crescendo that all teachers of Torah were condemned to death. This was the time of the Ten Martyrs, among who were the final transmitters of the Kabbala tradition.
As a result of these persecutions, the oral tradition from Sinai, in particular the Kabbala tradition, was in danger of being forgotten. At this time, Rabbi Akiva (50-135 C.E.) received his tradition. He was considered the greatest sage of his generation, a master of the revealed Torah, as well as the concealed. Rabbi Akiva possessed the Merkava (Chariot) tradition. Many sources attribute to Rabbi Akiva the authorship of the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Formation), one of the oldest and most obscure Kabbalistic texts. Just as the great bulk of the Talmud bears Rabbi Akiva's stamp, so does the Sefer Yetzira. It was Rabbi Akiva who transmitted these teachings in a well-defined form.
At this time, Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakanah and his disciple, the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, put into writing the Sefer Bahir (Book of Illumination) and the Pirkey Hekhalot Rabatai (The Greater Book of the Divine Chambers). These two sages redacted the traditions they had received in order to prserve them from oblivion during the violent times in which they lived. Commenting on the Mishnah quoted above, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki-Yarchi 1040-1105) asserts that one of the main texts for the study of Maaseh Merkava was the Pirkei Hekhalot Rabatai. This text contains actual meditative exercises, disciplines, and directions for entering the prophetic state. The Romans were actually killing all the great teachers, the sole transmitters of the revealed and concealed traditions…
The Zohar (Book of Splendor), one of the main pillars of Kabbala, was taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai around 135 C.E. Rabbi Shimon also lived during these tumultuous times when the Romans were actually killing all the great teachers, the sole transmitters of the revealed and concealed traditions. During the thirteen years that Rabbi Shimon spent hiding in a cave with his disciples, he taught what he had received from his teachers. During this time as well, he received Divine Inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh) and merited the revelation of Elijah the prophet. There was a tradition that if the Oral Torah was endangered to the point of being forgotten, it was permitted to put it into writing. Therefore, all the masters, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Nehunia, Rabbi Yishmael, and Rabbi Shimon, set a precedent. They began committing parts of the oral tradition to writing. Despite this, however, all of these texts were not given final form for several generations after these teachers. This would be the task of their disciples.
All of these major texts, the Yitzira, the Bahir, the Hekhalot Rabatai, the Zohar, and the various parts of the revealed Torah, contained the basic teachings which had been passed down through the prophets and sages from Moses. The time had come to commit these teachings to writing. Interestingly enough, all of these works are obscure to the point of begging the question: what was gained? What had been written down remained, as the Torah had been in its time, a closed book. The keys were to remain oral. Just enough had been written down to insure that only someone familiar with the tradition would understand. This whole corpus of writings, ranging from the practical understanding of the commandments to the most sublime experience of prophecy, remained a closed book. Yet, the Kabbala tradition had been saved.
We mentioned that one of the main pillars of Kabbala was the Zohar, from the school of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It was upon the teachings of the Zohar that the two greatest Kabbalists of modern times built their entire systems: Rabbi Moses Cordovero (d. 1570), known as the Ramak, and Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), universally referred to as the Ari, an acronym for "Elo-hi Rabbi Yitzchak", "The G‑dly Rabbi Isaac".
The Zohar is opaque. The main relationship between the writings of the Ari (Kitvei Ari) and the Zohar is that without the Ari's teachings the Zohar does not make any sense at all. You could study the Zohar, which is a very poetic text, but you cannot detect any system or structure. Once you know the Kitvei Ari, the entire Zohar becomes an open book.
The main work of the Kitvei Ari is the Etz Chaim ("Tree of Life"). This work expounds the theoretical foundation of the Kabbala. For one who has mastered the contents of this work, the rest is essentially revealed. Then, the Pri Etz Chaim (Fruit of the Tree of Life) and Sha'ar HaKavanot show you how to apply the various teachings of the Etz Chaim to all kinds of daily situations; meditations when you put on tzitzit or tefillin, when you pray or when you eat matzah. They also show how to develop meditative techniques based on the Ari's teachings.
Then come the works known as the Shemona Shearim (Eight Gates). The first gate, Shaar HaHakdamot, (Gate of Introductions), covers the same theoretical ground as the Etz Chaim. The second is Shaar Maamarei Rashbi, the Gate of Zoharic Teachings; the third is Shaar Maamarei Chazal, the Gate of Talmudic Teachings, the fourth is Shaar HaPesukim, the Gate of Biblical Verses; the fifth is Shaar HaMitzvot, the Gate of the Commandments; the sixth is Shaar HaKavanot, the Gate of Meditations; the seventh is Shaar Ruach HaKodesh, the Gate of Divine Inspiration, which is a general recapitulation and describes how to use the Ari's system as a meditative discipline. In many ways, the Shaar Ruach HaKodesh is the key to the entire Kitvei Ari, because all the previous gates deal with theory, while the Shaar Ruach HaKodesh teaches how to put this into practice. The eighth gate is Shaar HaGilgulim, the Gate of Reincarnations.
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