The Kabbala – a term that has its origins in the Hebrew word qabbalah, meaning ‘tradition’ – is a metaphysical interpretation of the teachings in the Torah (which comprises the sacred books of Judaism). Originally passed on by word of mouth at a time when it was believed that each letter or number in the Torah had a sacred meaning, the Kabbala was gradually set down in the form of written texts and diagrams. The best-known of the latter is a drawing of ten interlinked circles which is called the Tree of Life. The fourteenth-century mystic Joseph Gikatilla said of the divine plan, ‘Everything that is in the place where it was put at the moment of creation is good. Everything that is out of place is evil.’
In the seventeenth century, a Spanish mystic, Moisés de León, produced a kind of guide to these Kabbalistic interpretations in what would later become known as the ‘Zohar’ or ‘Book of Light’. Using images of great literary beauty, León speaks of the way in which man should try to achieve wisdom.
Here are some passages from the Zohar, chosen by Gershom Scholem:
‘The sacred books (the Torah) throw out a word which, as soon as it leaves their pages, immediately returns to the place whence it came – the secret. And it reaches only those who understand and keep the commandments.
‘This word can be compared to a beautiful young woman who lives locked up in an isolated room in her palace and who has a lover known to no one else. Out of love for that young woman, the lover spends every day outside her room, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to see her. She knows that he is near, so what does she do? She quickly draws back the curtain at her door so that he can contemplate her for an instant, then hides herself away again.
‘He knows that it was only out of love that the young woman revealed herself to him for those few brief seconds. Then he surrenders heart and soul (to the understanding of her secret). So it is with the sacred books (the Torah): they only reveal their mysteries to those who patiently love them. Those who carry in their hearts the search for wisdom do not mind if they have to wait day and night outside its door.
‘So it is with the sacred books (the Torah). They reveal themselves for only a moment, and they do this out of love for their lovers.
‘Sometimes the sign is not immediately understood. Then, generous in their love, the sacred books send their messengers to the man who, out of weakness of spirit, failed to glimpse their face. And they say, “Go and tell that weak spirit to come back and then we can talk.”
‘When the good-hearted man obeys this order, the books converse with their chosen one through a veil, and as he begins to understand what the words mean, the veil grows gradually thinner, until there comes a moment when he catches a fleeting glimpse of their wisdom and hears it saying, “Now you can understand the signs that I sent to you and the mysteries that are in me.”
‘That is why every man should struggle with all his might to follow what is written in the sacred books (the Torah) and transform himself into their lover.