I recently spoke to someone who said she was interested in learning Kabbala but could not find any classes. I mentioned to her she may want to try learning Tanya because there is a lot of Kabbala in it. She said "no, that would be too religious".

So what was she really wanting to learn exactly?

  • 1
    She said "no" to Tanya because it was too religious? Sounds like this person doesn't need to be learning any kabbalah. Besides, you can't actually "learn" kaballah. It's not that easy. You can learn kabbalistic ideals, but other than that, you need a kabbalist to train you, and there aren't many of those. Just make sure she doesn't use the Kabbalah Center. ;)
    – ezra
    Mar 21, 2016 at 23:13

8 Answers 8


It sounds to me that if she wants Kabbalah that is not too religious she is not interested in learning the inner dimensions of the Torah at all. She is just using "Kabbalah" as a code word for "something fuzzy that will make me feel good with myself just the way I am right now!"

  • 4
    +1 for "something fuzzy that will make me feel good with myself just the way I am right now!"
    – Avraham
    Jul 26, 2011 at 12:25

Tanya lays out the main teachings of the Hasidic group, Chabad-Lubavitch. It is based on the Kabbalah of their founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. While it is a legitimately inspiring source, it is considered too advanced for the newcomer to Jewish thought. It is also by no means accepted by all Jews who study Kabbalah. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan is in my opinion one of the greatest Rabbis of the 20th century. His books on Kabbalah are often fairly technical, however, and I would hesitate to recommend his work to the completely fresh newcomer. Perhaps it would be best to begin a study of Kabbalah by learning the tales that are told about the great Hasidic masters. These are published in various places in books and the internet. Martin Buber has translated and published many tales in his books. He is a decent source for this kind of material. Though this is not a direct approach to the heart of the subject matter, we are discussing an immensely complex tradition of meditation on G-d, and it would behoove the seeker to become familiar with the personalities and feelings associated with the world they wish to engage with. Ultimately, there is no authentic Kabbalah, divorced from regular Jewish practice. This tradition of mysticism has developed in the context of the observance of Torah law and the rigorous study of Talmud. Without a firm grasp on these, there is no sense in approaching Kabbalah at all. Kabbalah is there to strengthen and exalt an already existing engagement with Torah.

  • 3
    It's true that (parts of) Tanya are pretty advanced. There are various study guides and the like to make it more accessible to the newcomer, though.
    – Alex
    Feb 23, 2011 at 18:42
  • 2
    I agree with Alex, however with one caveat (with which he would probably agree) : A person must always be honest with him/her self as to what he/she is capable of grasping.
    – Yahu
    Feb 23, 2011 at 23:26
  • To my knowledge, the Alter Rebbe was not mechadesh any new "Kabbalah" in Tanya. The Alter Rebbe worked specifically with already established opinions and source, to the extent that he referred to himself as a "compiler" rather than an "author", and the title of the Tanya is actually "Compilation of Sayings". That's not to say that the Kabbalistic opinions he used are accepted by everyone, mekubalim argued about them long before the Alter Rebbe came on the scene. That's my understanding of the matter, I could be wrong though.
    – HodofHod
    May 10, 2012 at 4:33

There are 4 types of "Kabbalah"

  1. The Zohar, Bahir, Sefer Yetzirah and related works. These can only be leanred in a Yeshivah properly in their original language with a close, 1 on 1 chavrutah with a 'Mekubal". This is what most Jews think of when they think of 'Learning Kabalah' (or it should be atleast :P )

  2. There is the Kabalah as found within Chasidic sources, which is mostly the same but also has a slightly different take on the subject. Sometimes it is more psychological or musar based.

  3. There are english translations of Kabalah, popularized by R. Aryeh Kaplan, but also Shroeder etc, becoming popular in the 1960s and recently with the Pritzer translation of the Zohar.

  4. There is "new age" Pop Kabalah also known as the "Kabalah Center" which is R. Berg's cult.

The person who asked you, likely wanted 3 or 4. Try to steer them away from 4 and point them towards 3.

  • I actually tried to point them to 2, but they weren't interested. Jul 27, 2011 at 14:12
  • 1
    avi, might I advise removing the R' honorific from Berg, considering his status as a charlatan and inability to produce his own semicha teudah? Mar 2, 2016 at 20:07

She probably meant whatever Madonna et al. are into.


That would be Rabbi Berg's Kabbalah.

  • 3
    So am I correct that if someone wants to learn the "real" Kabbalah they should learn Tanya, or is there a better source? Feb 23, 2011 at 5:16
  • 4
    @R'Desert, I have heard good things about Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's works, not that I've ever read any of them (or other kabala).
    – msh210
    Feb 23, 2011 at 5:53

A Kabbalah literally means a tradition, Kabbalah is a tradition passed from person to person based around the study of G-d and levels of G-dliness.

In kabbalah maasis (practical Kabbalah) there methods of binding Angels by oath, making Golems, going into spiritual realms, etc.

The Arizal said that nowerdays we cannot do the last (practical kabbalah) because we do not possess the red heifer and are impure.

Tanya mentions the first type of Kabbalah, which is based around understanding G-dliness. In reality, many of the early mussar seforim are replete with quotes and explanations of Kabbalistic ideas (Reishis Chochmah, Nefesh Hachayim).

  • 1
    Kabbalah literally means "receiving", not "tradition".
    – zaq
    Jul 26, 2011 at 14:36
  • @zaq is "kabbalah" not a noun? Is "tradition" not the noun you would associate with "receiving" in this case?
    – HodofHod
    Nov 28, 2011 at 6:03
  • 1
    @HodofHod I think he meant receiving as a gerund.
    – Double AA
    May 10, 2012 at 3:34
  • @DoubleAA Possible, admittedly, but it would be a very uncommon use, and certain to be misunderstood often.
    – HodofHod
    May 10, 2012 at 3:36
  • 1
    @HodofHod Then don't say literal.
    – Double AA
    May 10, 2012 at 3:40

Rabbi Arieh Kaplan's book on Jewish Meditation provides a good overview on the history of Kabbalah, explaining along the way why it's called 'Kabbalah'. So for people using 'Kabbalah' in the classic sense of a received tradition, i.e. what it literally means, here's the explanation for that, per R' Kaplan:

Kabbalah is the study of the Torah on its deepest, metaphysical level. In Hebrew it's also known as 'Sod' or 'secret' or 'Pnimiut' i.e. the innermost Torah. Studying and applying Torah on this level can lead one to extremely high spiritual levels that Rabbi Kaplan explains could be more desirable than any physical pleasure. When achieved through Torah, it required a lot of self-discipline and extraordinarily good behaviour - i.e. it was hard work. And yet there were schools for this with large numbers of students, suggesting that the draw of being close to G' and experiencing the supernatural was very desirable.

However it could also be achieved through specific impure means, associated with idolatry.

When Bnei Israel were in their land, our leadership could do a fair amount to prevent and avoid the risks associated with idolatry. Once exiled and dispersed, the temptation to achieve exalted spiritual states through impure means was greater and harder to fight. It would have been easy for Bnei Israel to break up into a lot of different cults, bestranged from the Torah, in such a concept.

Therefore to protect the Jewish people's unity and avoid them sinning with idolatry and various related impurities, significant parts of Kabbalah were hidden away and no longer taught to the masses. The idea being to dial back the desire for such extreme spiritual experiences as are available through Kabbalah, and thus prevent people seeking them also through impure means that would require less work and be more accessible in a non-Jewish environment.

As such, the deepest aspects of Kabbalah are taught only one-on-one as @Avi indicated and I believe a variety of sources (e.g. Rambam) indicate, and even so only to extremely capable students, and even so only in abbreviated/hinting form, leaving it to the student to grasp most of the material on their own. Hence it is a received tradition, passed on from teacher to student for generations.

p.s. As I understand it, there are different levels within Kabbalah. Just as there is Pshat (basic), Remez (allusions/hints), Drash (expounding) and Sod (secret) at a general level, so too there is a subdivision within them along the same lines. So there is Pshat within Sod, and the deepest level of Kabbalah would be Sod within Sod.

Amongst native Israelis, I believe that Kabbalah is generally understood to refer to this, and especially to its practical application by such masters as the Baba Sali or R' Itzhak Kaduri.

  • I dont think that Rambam writes that Kabbalah should be taught only one on one. I think he refers to teaching philosophy.
    – mevaqesh
    Mar 2, 2016 at 20:16
  • Consider editing in which parts of the answer come from Rabbi Kaplan. Best would be citations to particular pages in his books. That being said, welcome to the site!
    – mevaqesh
    Mar 2, 2016 at 20:17

It's a metaphysical system. A theory of what the nature of being is, what the nature of G-d is, and the relationship between them. Kabbalah fits nicely into the Neoplatonic family of metaphysical systems with almost every element of kabbalah having a functional analogue specifically in the system of the pagan apologist and metaphysician Iamblicus. Kabbalah also has some gnostic elements, particularly in its conception of matter. Jewish platonism has almost always been a thing since hellenistic era. Philo and Isaac Israeli were early examples of this phenomena, however, the former was not particularly influential among the Jews. His ideas were considered sufficiently heretical to not deserve a mention in Jewish literature despite being well received in the global hellenic culture. The later had a mixed reception. Ibn Ezra and Maimonides were particularly harsh on him. Ibn Gabirol is probably the only explicit neoplatonist that made any real impression on Jews, and then, only his poetry. His philosophical work didn't survive among the Jews, and is only known in latin translation. With a few minor exceptions Judaism didn't go for explicit neoplatonism.

Kabbalah is a relatively modern phenomena first originating in the 12th century in Provence with the Raavad. This originally started as a reinterpretation of controversial texts from the middle ages. In particular the hekhaloth literature and the sefer yesirah. He is credited for formulating the famous tree of life diagram of the cosmos/body of G-d [sic.]. Isaac the Blind, the son of the Raavad, continued this movement by (probably) publishing the sefer habahir, the first explicitly kabbalistic text. It borrows heavily from earlier greek and sufi imagery, many concepts being literally translated word for word from the greek and arabic into hebrew. While it does contain neoplatonist and gnostic elements, it does not represent a complete and closed metaphysical system, nor does it seem to have meant to. It wasn't until the publication of the Zohar and Es Hayyim that modern kabbalah, as a complete and closed system, could be said to have originated in its modern incarnation.

After the publication of the Zohar, kabbalah became very influential. This is partly because it was said to have been written Shimon bar Yochai, but also because a number of influential rabbis ascribed to its teachings. The most prominent among them was Yosef Qaro who's legal code, the Shulkhan Arukh, largely replaced the earlier Mishneh Torah as the preeminent law code for the Jewish people. Qaro created a mystical school around himself which was further developed by his student Moses Cordovero into a rationalist system of kabbalah. This school competed with that of an Isaac Luria (aka the Ari) who developed a "supra-rational" school of kabbalah, which would go on to publish the above mentioned Es Hayyim. Lurianic Kabbalah would supplant the slightly earlier Cordoverian school as the dominant incarnation of kabbalah. From the Ari onward, studying kabbalah became a bit of a taboo practice. Not done in public settings. Not publicly taught. Not really even discussed. This was because it was believed (and rightly so) that an incorrect understanding of kabbalah is problematic to the strict monotheism practiced by Jews. Kabbalah really wasn't a publicly visible phenomena until the chassidic movement revived the common study of kabbalah. And the chassidic kabbalah taught widely today has much of the byzantine metaphysical system deemphasized to the point that your average student has never encountered concepts like the partzufim, and the theurgy inherent to the system has been reinterpreted as a more meditative practice. Since these highly influential rabbis ascribed to these metaphysics, and because they based some of their legal reasoning on it, it is popularly believed that it is heretical to contest these teachings. Rabbis of name have routinely excommunicated those that believe the Zohar was not written by Simon bar Yochai, and it quickly becomes heated when the elements of kabbalah which are problematic to monotheism are pointed out. For more on these problematic elements, I always recommend reading Tohar HaYichud.

  • 1
    This is a very nice overview of the history of Kabbalah. However, it doesn't (IMHO) clearly enough answer the OP's question: what do people mean when they say 'Kabbalah' (particularly those who don't want something too religious).
    – mevaqesh
    Mar 21, 2016 at 20:42
  • @mevaqesh I thought it was necessary to differentiate kabbalah from Jewish platonism, which is a different phenomena. As was early, the two middles, and the modern kabbalah. I felt it was easier to give a history than explain the differences. Mar 22, 2016 at 2:09

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