History of the Kabbalah
First period – The beginning
Aprox. 1750 B.C.E, Israel
Tradition has it that one of the first writings of the Kabbalah, called “Sepher HaYetsira” (The Book of Formation), was composed by Avraham Avinu. It is the first book that mentions a system of ten lights called Sephirot.
Second period – The Zohar
Aprox. 240 C.E, Israel
Rabbi Shim‘on Bar Yo’hay lived in Galilee in the second century and was a disciple of Rabbi ‘Akiva. To escape the Romans, he went into hiding with his son Rabbi El’azar into a cave for thirteen years. During this time, he composed the Zohar, which is the esoteric and mystical explanation of the Torah, and the base of most of the Kabbalah writings.
Third Period – Printing of the Zohar
After having disappeared for about one thousand years, the book of the Zohar is found and printed by Rabbi Moshe de Leon in Spain. This new printing will be disseminated all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East and will allow a wider learning of its writings. It is also the period of the “Prophetic Kabbalah” as taught by Rabbi Abraham Abul’afia.
The three Kabbalah schools in Europe
1200 – 1300
In the cities of Provence in France, Gerona in Spain, and Worms in Germany were formed three of the main centers of Kabbalah of that period. Under prominent Kabbalists as Rabbi Its’hak the Blind, Rabbi Ezra of Gerona, Rabbi El’azar of Worms, Na’hmanide and others, essential works were published as “Sepher HaBahir” “Sepher Ha’Hesed” and important commentaries on “Sepher HaYetsira”.
In France, a type of contemplative mysticism was developed with meditation on the prayers and Sephirot. In Spain, an effort was made to bring the major ideas of the Kabbalah to a wider public. In Germany, Rabbi El’azar of Worms had declared that G-od is even closer to the universe and man, than the soul is to the body.
The Tsfat Kabbalists
1500, Tsfat, Israel
After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, some important Spanish Kabbalists as Rabbi Moshe Kordovero, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and Rabbi Yoseph Karo moved to the city of Tsfat in Israel. There, a school of Kabbalah was founded named “New Kabbalah” or “Kabbalah of Tsfat”. It is the golden era of the Kabbalah. After this first generation, Rabbi Its’hak Luria Ashkenazi, the Ari Z’al, who was born in Jerusalem, became the leading Kabbalist in Tsfat. He explained and clarified all the main concepts of the Kabbalah, and also innovated in the explanation of the Sephirot and Partsufim (configurations). He is the author of the corpus “’Ets ‘Haim”, which contains all his works in the style of Sha’are (entrances), and is today the major reference in Kabbalah.
During the 16th century with the coming of Shabbetai Tsevi, who was called the “Kabbalistic Messiah”, the Jewish community was divided between his followers and the non-believers. After converting to Islam, this false Messiah caused a big deception and mistrust of the teachings of the Kabbalah. The rabbinical authorities of the time became even more severe toward the learning of Kabbalah, and some were persecuted for learning or writing on the subject.
1700, Eastern Europe
The ‘Hassidic period began with the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the ‘Hassidic movement. He declared the whole universe, mind, and matter to be a manifestation of G-od, and that whoever maintains that this life is worthless is in error. It is worth a great deal; only one must know how to use it properly. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings were largely based upon the Kabalistic teachings of the Ari Z’al, but his approach made the benefits of these teachings accessible even to the simplest Jew. Some of the other important leaders that founded their own ‘Hassidic movement are Rabbi Na’hman of Breslev, great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Ba’al HaTanya”, founder of the ‘Habad Lubavitch movement.
At the same time, there were other important authorities of the Kabbalah in other parts of Europe such as Rabbi Moshe ‘Haim Luzzatto – Ram’hal – who lived in Italy and Amsterdam. From an early age, the Ram’hal had shown an exceptional talent for the study of Kabbalah; it is said that when he was only fourteen, he already knew all the Kabbalah of the Ari Z’al by heart, and nobody knew about it, not even his parents. He was a very prolific writer and wrote on all aspects of the Torah and the Kabbalah; however, because of false accusations, he sadly was persecuted for most of his short life.
Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna – The Gaon of Vilna who was born in Lithuania was one of the main leaders of the Mitnagdim (opponents to the ‘Hasidic movement). He is considered to be one of the greatest Torah scholar and Kabbalist of the past two centuries.
1700 – North and Middle Africa
On the other continent the study of the Kabbalah and mostly the Zohar was also widely spread. Some important scholars are Rabbi Shalom Shar’abi – The Rashash who came from Yemen. He is known as the “Master of the Kavanot”. Rabbi Ya’acov Abe’htsera, born in Morocco, composed works on all facets of the Torah, including important commentaries on the Kabbalistic explanations of the Torah. Also from Morocco was Rabbi ‘Haim Ben ‘Atar – Or Ha’Haim. The Ba’al Shem Tov was convinced that the Or Ha’Haim was the Moshia’h of that generation. His main work is the commentary on the Torah; “Or Ha’Haim”. Rabbi Yosef ‘Haim – The Ben Ish ‘Hai, was born in Iraq. He explained the Halakhot (laws) on the Kabbalistic level but in an accessible language.
The latest Kabbalists
1900 – Israel
Since the beginning of this century, Israel is considered to be the main centre of Kabbalah. One of the most important contemporary Kabbalists was Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag who was born in Poland in 1886, and died in Israel in 1955. His main work is the translation of all the Zohar from Aramaic to Hebrew, called “HaSulam”. Other important Kabbalists are Rabbi Israel Abe’htsera – Baba Sali (1890-1984), Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Brandwein (1904-1969), Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), Rabbi Yehudah Fatiyah (1859-1942) and others.