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Literally, received tradition. Refers to Jewish mysticism. In an attempt to fathom the mysteries of God and Creation, the Kabbalists developed a complete philosophic system during the Middle Ages. The Talmud contains mystical interpretations of the biblical story of Creation. With the appearance of the Zohar in the 13th century, the study of the Kabbalah gained popularity. Among the earliest mystic works are the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba and Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation) attributed to Abraham. The Sefer Yetzirah attaches great mystic power to numbers and enumerates the ten sefirot, or diven emanations, which later assumed great importance in the Kabbalistic system. God, the En Sof, or Infinite One, makes His divine existence known by means of these ten emanations. The first sefirah is called Keter (Crown). The others follow in this order: Hokhmah (Wisdom); Binah (Intelligence); Hesed (Mercy); Din (Judgment) or Gevurah (Strength); Tiferet (Beauty); Netzah (Victory); Hod (Glory); Yesod (Foundation); and Malkhut (Kingdom).

Jewish mysticism attracted remarkable personalities, some of whom considered themselves Messiahs. Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), who regarded himself as a forerunner of the Messiah, even attempted to convert the Pope to Judaism.

Kabbalistic teachings gained in intensity and scope in 16th-century Safed. This town in upper Galilee in Palestine became a center of Jewish mysticism; among its foremost teachers of Kabbalah was Isaac Luria (1534-1572). A practical or miracle-working mystic, Luria claimed that the secrets of Creation had been revealed to him by the prophet Elijah. Luria believed that human beings could attain identification with the Divine Spirit through intense concentration, or kavanah. This theory was described by Luria’s disciple Hayim Vital in his book Etz Hayim (The Tree of Life). Other Lurianic ideas transmitted by Vital are tzimtzum, literally contraction, whereby the infinite God reduces Himself to enter the world; shevirat ha-kelim, or breaking the vessels, referring to the destructive impact of God’s creation, which gave rise to evil; this evil is countered by tikkun, or restoration, which is done by a person releasing the holy sparks of the divine within oneself.

Another famous Kabbalist, Moses Cordovero, formulated Kabbalistic teachings in a philosophic system. His contemporary Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1625) interpreted the teachings of Judaism in the light of Kabbalah. He sought, with the other inspired mystics of his generation, to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

The teachings of the Kabbalah contributed to the rise of Messianic hopes and in time influenced Hasidism profoundly. Hasidic religious fervor is based on Kabbalistic teachings. Jewish folklore thrived on the Kabbalah’s poetic and magical elements, and many non-religious Jews, as well as non-Jews, have been and still are influenced by it.

In the United States in recent years a pop-culture version of Kabbalah has become popular among Hollywood stars and others.

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