The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah

Topics In Jewish Mystical Thought: The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah – Part 1 – The "Received Tradition"

The Hebrew word Kabbalah has become the standard term used for referring to the vast array of mystical thought and practice revealed and handed down as part of our Jewish tradition. The popular use of this term, as we shall see, dates back approximately 800 years.

Before then, Judaism's mystical teachings were known by other names.  For example, in the Talmud, we find:

  • Sitrei Torah, "Mysteries of the Torah"

  • Ta'amei Torah, "Reasons of the Torah"

  • Ma'aseh Breishit, "Workings of Creation"

  • Ma'aseh Merkavah, "Workings of the Chariot"

In post-Talmudic sources, we find the esoteric tradition referred to as: 

  • Chochmah Penimit, "Inner Wisdom"

  • Chochmat Ha'Emet, "Wisdom of Truth"

  • Chochmah Nistarah, "Wisdom of the Hidden"

  • Sod, "Secret"

To what, then, can we attribute the enduring popularity of Kabbalah–a word that sounds rather drab alongside these more evocative expressions?

Generally, the term Kabbalah is translated as "Received Tradition." In this sense, Kabbalah conveys the continuity of a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Without a doubt, transmission of mystical knowledge is central to the meaning of the word Kabbalah, but there are numerous other connotations associated with its Hebrew root k-b-l (pronounced: kabel; spelled: kuf-beit-lamed)in addition to the most common "receptivity/acceptance." In fact, the Hebrew root of Kabbalah appears in the Bible fifteen times with various meanings: (This does not include the root k-b-l as it appears in the Aramaic sections of the Bible .)

In each one of the three parts of the Bible–the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), the Prophets, and the Writings–the root kblpossesses an independent meaning:

  • In the Torah (2 appearances), it means "correspondence,"

  • in the Prophets (2 appearances) it means "opposition,"

  • and in the Writings (11 appearances), it means "receptivity / acceptance." 

As the meaning of "opposition” is closely related to that of "correspondence" (both imply entities situated face-to-face, "against" one another), we shall consider them as one, and now see how the two basic connotations of the root k-b-l–"correspondence" and "receptivity / acceptance" –convey the essence and purpose of the Kabbalistic tradition.

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