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20 MARCH 2008

Kabbalah1 has been called a “celebrity religion” due to the conversion of

Madonna, Rosanne, Liz Taylor, and Barbra Streisand to its ranks. The name, which

means “received doctrine,” derives from the Aramaic verb qabal, “to receive.”2 The

foundation of the Chassidic sect of Judaism,3 Kabbalah is described by its followers as

“the study of the inner dimensions of G-d’s holy Torah,”4 and as such, is not traditionally

made available for study to anyone under age forty. It is reasoned that they would not

have a thorough enough understanding of Torah and Talmud to understand the depths of


Outside of Chasidut, Kabbalah is not very highly regarded. This is, in part, due to

the secretive nature of Kabbalah, as evidenced by Cordovero’s statement: “Those who

know do not tell and those who tell do not know.”5 Saul Lieberman (a non-kabbalistic

Talmud professor at Jewish Theological Seminary) is reported to have said in response to

a student’s inquiry as to why the seminary offered no courses in Kabbalah, “At a

university, it is forbidden to have a course in nonsense… even if it’s Jewish nonsense.”6

Kabbalistic Scripture

Since Kabbalah is, at its roots, Jewish, the Hebrew canon is regarded as holy

Scripture, but mekubbalim (followers of Kabbalah) also addother books of “scripture” to

their study. Among these are the Talmud, the Zohar (Book of Splendor), and the

Kabbalah can also be spelled Kabbala, Qabala, Cabala, etc. For the purposes of this paper, and for the
sake of consistency, it will be spelled Kabbalah throughout.
Francis Brown, et. al., Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers,
2004), 1110.
Chasidut, or Chassidic Judaism, is defined by as “the pietistic, mystical movement
within Judaism founded by Rabbi Baal Shem Tov in the early part of the 18th Century.”
Moshe Cordovero, quoted in Menachem Posner, “Where is Reincarnation in G-d’s Word as opposed to
Man’s Word?”
Saul Lieberman, quoted at
Shemoneh She’arim (an 8-volume commentary on the Zohar).7 According to kabbalistic

tradition, the Zohar, a 23-volume collection of commentaries on the Torah,8 records and

preserves the deep secrets of Torah revealed to Simeon Bar Yochai and his son Elazar by

supernatural revelation from the Prophet Elijah.9

When the Romans killed the last sages of the Anshei Knesset HaGdulah (Great

Assembly) in the Bar Kokhba Rebellion (second century CE), Bar Yochai and his son

Elazar escaped and hid in a cave for ten years where, they claimed, the spirit of Elijah

guided their study of Torah.10 Ariel describes the Zohar as “a guide to how to overcome

the barriers of time and place that separate us from the immediacy of G-d.”11 To most

mekubbalim, the sentiment regarding the Zohar is, “It’s in the Zohar. Is that not the same

as if it was (sic.) in the Torah itself?”12

Scholem discovered in the 1930s, however, that there is sufficient evidence to

doubt that the written Zohar dates that far back.13 He noted that the dialect of Aramaic

used for its composition was an artificial one, littered with Spanish idioms. Wieder

observes, “To read the original is to be confounded. Even to be introduced, the Zohar

must be coaxed from its linguistic cave.”14 The fact that such a cryptic dialect was

invented to compose it is itself an indicator that the Zohar is a cultic work.

The scholarly consensus is that the likely author was not Bar Yochai, but Moses

ben Shem Tov de Leon, a late thirteenth-century mekubbal who resided in southern

Spain. Time Magazine postulates the theory, “The Zohar was far too radical to be
Shemoneh She’arimwas written by kabbalistic Rabbi Chaim Vital, recording the teachings of his mentor,
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal). When Vital died in 1620, all of his works were buried with him. The
Shemoneh She’arim was disinterred from his grave in the 1650s and published in 1660 (cf. Moshe Miller,
“Works of Rabbi Chaim Vital,”
Laurence Wieder, “The Book of Splendor,” First Things 167 (Nov 2006): 45.
Sol Scharfstein, Jewish History and You (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publications, 2004), 24.
Wieder, 44.
David S. Ariel, “Zohar, the Literaru Masterpiece of the Kabbalah,” Tikkun 21 (My/Je 2006): 69.
“Found in Translation,” Time 163 (19 Apr 2004): 64.
Wieder, 44.
accepted without a fabricated imprimatur” as a possible explanation for what is almost

certainly a pseudepigraphical work.15 Even if the claim is valid, this does not undermine

the authority of the Zohar for followers of Kabbalah, who answer the charge with the

premise that de Leon merely recorded the oral teachings that had been passed down from

their traditional originator, Simeon Bar Yochai, or even further back than that – to the

mystic secrets of the Torah “taught by Moses to the elders in the wilderness and

transmitted through Joshua and the judges to the prophets and down to the sages of the

great assembly” (Ezra’s Anshei Knesset HaGdulah).16

Beliefs on the Relationship between G-d and Man

As with the Christian concept of G-d, the mekubbimperceive G-d as a composite

unity. In Kabbalah, however, the G-dhead is comprised of ten “interacting emanations,”

one of which is a female aspect of G-d named Shekinah. She is tied to the male aspect of

the G-dhead in a comic marriage which is constantly under demonic attack. The

perpetuity of their union is bound to the prayers and deeds of G-d’s people.17

This concept is reflected in the kabbalistic explanation of the Tetragrammaton, in

which the yod (y) is described as a phallic symbol, the male side of the G-dhead, while

the heis a yoni symbol, the female side of the G-dhead. The open bottom of the he (h) is

the womb from which the waw (w) springs forth as the Son of the union of the male and

female of the G-dhead, and the final he is the bride of the Son. 18 This teaching leads

some (though not most) mekubbalim to a belief in Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah, who see

the waw as Christ and the second heas His bride, the Church.

Kabbalah teaches that the meaning of “Let Us make man in Our image” (Genesis

1:26) is that the name of G-d – yod-he-waw-he – is reflected in the face of the human.
“Found in Translation,” 64.
Wieder, 44.
Gershom Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (New York: Schocken Books, 1976).
Zohar 26a explains that Man’s two eyes are in the shape of the Hebrew letter yod and the

nose is in the shape of the letter waw. A major issue with this interpretation is that the

Creation of Adam considerably predates the creation of the Hebrew alphabet upon which

this teaching depends.

Kabbalah also teaches that the image of G-d manifests itself in Man asthe three

intellectual attributes of Man: chochma (wisdom), binah (understanding), and daat

(knowledge), which are collectively called chabad (taking the initial consonants from

each of the three words). Chochma is the creative capacity of Man, binah is the

developmental capacity of Man, and daat is the conclusive capacity.19 It is not

impossible that this is a facet of what it means that Man is made in G-d’s image; it is,

however, an incomplete understanding of the concept.

This doctrinal stance is but a faint shadow of the primary feature of Imago Dei,

which perceives Man as being the image of G-d in the same way that idols are the images

of false deities. Humans (of all ethnicities) are “placed” throughout Adonai’s domain to

show the boundless expanse of His sovereignty. Kabbalah, however, claims that “man” in

Genesis 1 means Israel,20 understanding Israel alone (to the exclusion of Gentiles) to

bears G-d’s likeness and image.

Beliefs on the Reincarnation (Afterlife)

The tenet of Kabbalah which goes the furthest in distancing it from the orthodox

Judeo-Christian understanding of the Scriptures and their message is the doctrine of

gilgul neshemot (reincarnation). Though the author of Hebrews declares, “Man is

appointed but once to die, and after this the judgment (9:27), Kabbalah (generally using

only the Hebrew Scriptures), argues for the transmigration of the soul into four separate

Zalmon Posner, Kabbalah 101
Moses ben Shem Tov de leon, Zohar (1280), 26a.
reincarnations between the “first” life and the “resurrection of the dead.”21 Because

Kabbalah teaches that the resurrection of the dead is dependent upon completion of all of

the 248 positive mitzvot, reincarnation is seen as G-d’s “loving way” of giving man a

second (and third and fourth) chance at “finishing up the list.” It also gives an

opportunity to make amends for any transgressed prohibitive mitzvot (which number


The kabbalistic case for reincarnation is complex, drawing from “strict readings”

of poetic Scriptures and from figurative readings of literal Scriptures. Consider the

lengths of life spansbefore the flood. Kabbalah interprets references to people living

several centuries as evidence that their souls have lived several lives or incarnations, i.e.

the soul of Methuselah living through several incarnations in order to make up the 969

years accounted to him, thus theirinterpretation is figurative here. The Sumerian King

List, however, records much longer life spans for people who lived before the flood as

opposed to after, seeming to support not the idea of reincarnation, but of the biblical

shortening of life spans for generations which came after the Flood. Furthermore, if these

longer life spans are evidence supporting reincarnation, there is only evidence for it

before the Flood, not after, when the Bible reports much shorter life spans.

Job 1:21, however, is held to a very wooden and literal reading in Kabbalah:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will return there.” Rather than

reading the second womb as figurative language for the grave, mekubbalim read it as a

literal expression for Job’s expectation that he would, upon his death from his present

life,reenter the womb and be born into a second incarnation (or third or fourth, depending

on which life he was currently in). Since Kabbalah holds that “every Jew to ever live and

Chaim Vital, Shemoneh She’arim (1660) “Shaar HaGilgulim,”
Chaim Vital, Shemoneh She’arim (1660) “Shaar HaMitzvot” 1A
who ever will stood at Mount Sinai when the Jews received the Covenant from G-d,”23

yet Job is believed to have lived before Moses, they would argue that Jobwould have to

reincarnate in order to stand alongside Moses. As Job unfolds, however, we read, “Man

that is born of woman is a few days, and, full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower,

and withers away, flees like a shadow, does not last” (Job 14:1-2). There is nothing

written there about the few days of a man’s life being followed by subsequent sets of

“few days” after the withering away of the first set.

It seems that Kabbalah employs a backwards hermeneutic. Job is obviously very

a poetic book, but is read by mekubbalimas woodenly literal. On the other hand, the

teledot (tables of generations) would be expected to be read more literally and are read as

figurative language in order to read reincarnation into them. Job, however, also records,

“Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with you, you have

appointed his bounds that he cannot pass” (14:5). It would seem that reincarnation would

be a means of crossing these uncrossable bounds, violating Scripture.

It is also taught in Kabbalah that the reason Scripture requires a man to marry the

childless widow of his deceased brother and name their first son together after the

deceased brother is that the soul of the deceased transmigrates into the son the widow has

with her brother-in-law, making their baby his gilgul (reincarnational host body).24 The

actual reason, according to mainstream rabbinical scholars, is to keep the dead brother’s

name alive (not his soul), a practice initiated by Jacob’s son Judah25 Yibum(the Hebrew

word for this practice) was only entered into if both parties agreed. If they did not, they

could honorably dispose of the obligation by performing chalitzah (Deut. 25:5-10). In

Nissan Dovid Dubov, An Overview of Techiyas Hameisim Based on the Teachings of Chabad Chassidism
Joyce Eisenberg & Ellen Scolnic, Dictionary of Jewish Words (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
2006), 52.
Positive Mitzvot # 216 (cf. Knowledge Base Library,,176/What-is-
that case, how does the soul reincarnate? Also, Mosaic Law forbids yibum if there are

children born to the original union (Lev. 18:16), as this would constitute ervah(one of the

21 forbidden relationships). If, however, yibum is engaged, where is the soul during the

time between the husband’s death and the conceptionof his nephew? The kabbalistic

explanation is thus problematic at best, “stranding” a soul without a gilgul for at least as

long as it takes to conceive a male child.

A plethora of passages from the Tanakh speak directly in opposition to the

doctrine of reincarnation. Among these is 2 Samuel 14:14, which reads, “For we all die

someday; we will be like water spilled on the ground that cannot be gathered up again;

and G-d makes no exception for anyone.” Reincarnation would constitute a regathering

up of spilled water, which Scripture here declares impossible. Also in Samuel, we read,

“But now that he’s dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to

him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). Daniel, likewise, refutes the concept

of reincarnation, writing, “Many of those sleeping in the dust will awaken, some to

everlasting life and some to everlasting shame and abhorrence” (12:2). The qualifier

“everlasting” connotes that Daniel speaks of eternal life versus eternal torment – heaven

and hell, not transmigration of souls to subsequent temporary hosts (gilgulim).

As difficult as it is for this doctrine to stand up against Hebrew Scripture, if a

mikubbal(follower of Kabbalah) brings the Greek Scriptures into it, as they are

sometimes wont to do, the doctrine of reincarnation is even more easily deconstructed.

When the Greek Scriptures are invoked, it is most frequently Malachi 4:5 (3:23 in the

Jewish versification) and its “fulfillment” in Matt. 11:13-14 to which they turn. Malachi

prophesies, “Behold, I will send to you Elijahthe prophet before the coming of the great

and terrible Day of YHWH.” Mikubbalim will sometimes tie this to Matthew’s Gospel,
in which it is written, “For all the prophets and the Torah prophesied until John; indeed, if

you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, whose coming was foretold” (11:13-14).

This cannot be reincarnation for several reasons. The first and most obvious is

that reincarnation involves death of the first body, and Elijahnever died; he was raptured.

Furthermore, Elijah makes an appearance at the Mount of Transfiguration,where he is

recognized by the disciples not as John the Baptist, but as himself (Matthew 17:3). Green

explains the Matthean passage as indicating that John the Baptist is the last of the pre-

Messianic prophets, thus he came in the spirit of Elijah.26

Once the mikubbalinvokes one verse form the Greek Scriptures to make his or her

case, all of them are validated. This opens the door for one to bring into the discussion

verses like Hebrew 9:27, which reads, “It is appointed to man to die once, then comes the

judgment.” In the case of reincarnation, the man would die at least twice, contradicting

the author/Author of Hebrews. Paul, likewise, refutes the doctrine of reincarnation,

writing, “We know that when the tent which houses us here on earth is torn down, we

have a permanent building from G-d, a building not made by human hands, to house us in

heaven. For we must all appear before the Messiah’s court of judgment, where we

receive the good or bad consequences of what he did while he was in the body” (2 Cor.

5:1, 10). Both “tent” and “body” are in the singular.

Kabbalah deviates enough from the standard doctrines of Judaism to qualify as a

cult in the estimation of mainstream Judaism. Stukin observes, “[R]abbis object that its

teachings are a quick-fix bastardization of a sacred Jewish tradition.”27 The amount of

non-biblical material which is regarded as Scriptural by mekubbalim and the claims of a

source for the Zohar which is neither on earth nor in the G-dhead (Elijah) make the

practice at least unorthodox, if not a cult.

H. Benedict Green, The Gospel According to Matthew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 116-7.
Stacie Stukin, “Stars of David,” Los Angeles 43 (December 1998): 94.
Works Cited

Ariel, David S. “Zohar, the Literary Masterpiece of the Kabbalah,” Tikkun 21 (May/Jun

2006): 69.

Brown, Francis et. al. Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon. Peabody:

Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Cordovero, Moshe. “Where is Reincarnation in G-d’s Word as opposed to Man’s Word?”

De Leon, Moses ben Shem Tov. Zohar. Castille, Spain, 1280.

Dubov, Nissan Dovid. An Overview of the Techiyas Hameisim on the Teachings of

Chabad Chassidism. 1995.

Eisenberg, Joyce and Ellen Scolnic. Dictionary of Jewish Words. Philadelphia: Jewish

Publication Society, 2006.

Green, H. Benedict. The Gospel According to Matthew. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1987.

Jewish Virtual Library.

“Knowledge Base Library.” Ask Moses.,176/What-is-


Miller, Moshe. Kabbala Online.

Posner, Zalmon. Kabbalah 101.

Scharfstein, Sol. Jewish History and You. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publications, 2004.

Scholem, Gershom. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead. New York: Schocken

Books, 1976.

Stukin, Stacie. “Stars of David,” Los Angeles 43 (December 1998): 94+.

Vital, Chaim. Shemoneh She’arim. Castille, Spain, 1660.

Wieder, Laurence. “The Book of Splendor,” First Things 167 (Nov 2006):45.