The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah

The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah: Part 5 – Kabbalah as "Commitment"

Topics In Jewish Mystical Thought

The root k-b-l itself appears in the book of Esther in three verses. Let us examine the latter two:

And the Jews accepted as binding the observances they had begun, and as Mordechai had written to them

The Jews ordained, and accepted upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all who joined themselves to them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year

These two verses are similar enough to hint at the existence of a single principle from which they both derive. Both verses refer to the Jews' committing themselves to an ongoing commemoration of the great miracle and victory that they witnessed. The two verses nevertheless differ in terms of the context in which that commitment is expressed.

The first verse emphasizes the fact that the Jews' commitment at the time was a continuation of "that which they had begun to do" earlier. The sages interpret this as a reference to the observance of Torah commandments received at Sinai, thus focusing the verse on the distant past.

The second verse, on the other hand, generates a future context by emphasizing how the commitment was meant to be binding upon all coming generations, as well as upon any convert who chose to link his destiny with that of the Jewish People.

From these verses, it is inferred that the Jews of the time established as permanently binding the commitments they made at the time of the revelation at Sinai. 

The sages–by referring to Sinai as matan Torah, "the giving of the Torah," rather than kabbalat Torah, "the receiving of the Torah"–seem to suggest that it was an event characterized more by the force of God's initiative than by the awed response of Israel. The formulation of that response–as "we shall do and we shall hear"–itself emphasizes action (performing the commandments) over acceptance (understanding them).

It was this inherent imbalance that necessitated a later rectification.

At the time of the giving of the Torah, it was Moses alone who ascended Mt. Sinai. The rest of the people remained at the mountain's base. Having not ascended to the same level as Moses, the people later found themselves vulnerable to obfuscation and illusion, as expressed by their slide into idol worship with the incident of the Golden Calf.

At the time of Esther, however, all Jews "ascended the mount" and together experienced the kabbalah, "acceptance," of Moses, as it is said, "Moses received [kibel] the Torah from Sinai".

These significant developments affected not only the revealed tradition of Torah law and practice, but the esoteric tradition as well. Hence, it is not surprising that hidden within the text of the Book of Esther one may find numerous allusions to concepts and terms that in subsequent generations were to become mainstays of Kabbalah.


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