Sunday 22 July 2018



In this article, we will look at a number of very different attitudes and approaches towards the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. The intention is not to persuade the Reader one way or the other, but rather to show just how diverse some of these approaches are one from the other:


Let us begin with some very strong theosophical argument as put forth by the student of the Ari Zal, R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620)[1]:

“Why is the exile taking so long to end? Why has Moshiach not yet come?
I have found the following explanation:
It is due to the lack of study of the inner parts of Torah.
One who places his focus to only study the revealed aspects of the Torah, the Mishneh and Talmud Bavli, its physical laws and details, and does not give time to study also the inner parts of the Torah, is considered to be studying for the sake of reward. He is like a body which sits in darkness without the light of Hashem.
This was precisely the sin of Adam Harishon who chose to eat from the tree of good and evil. This means that he chose to spend his time only studying the revealed aspects of Torah and repulsed from taking from the tree of life, which is the study of Kaballa.
This was also the sin of the Eiruv Rav [Mixed Multitude], who asked Moshe to only teach them the revealed aspects of the Torah and not its secrets, as they feared it would shorten their lives.
This is also the mistaken belief of some people today that studying the inner aspects of the Torah can lead to death prior to one’s time.
This is untrue. On the contrary, the focus in learning only the revealed aspects of Torah, and ignoring the inner aspects of Torah, is what caused the destruction of the first and second Temple, and is the cause of our long and bitter exile.
Only through tasting the tree of life, which is the study of Kaballa, will the Jewish people leave the exile. The sin of not learning the inner aspects of Torah began with Adam Harishon and when we do Teshuvah [repentance] to study this wisdom with love we will be redeemed.
Those who despise learning the inner aspects of Torah do not receive Divine success in their learning of the revealed aspects of Torah and often end up permitting that which is forbidden and prohibiting that which is permitted.”
The following is an excerpt from a letter of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson encouraging the study of Chassidut (Neo-Kabbalistic mysticism)[2]:
“...I am happy to read in your letter that you have fixed times for the study of Torah, both Nigleh, [the Torah’s revealed, legal dimension,] and Chassidus. Surely you will be steadfast in this, for these are broad mediums to draw down and receive all forms of good, both material and spiritual.
You mention in your letter that your younger brother is now in our Holy Land. It would be appropriate to suggest to him that he contact the members of the Chassidic brotherhood in Jerusalem and explain to him, in a manner appropriate for his nature, the great importance of studying Chassidus, the Tree of Life, particularly in these generations of ikvesa diMeshicha, the time when Mashiach’s approaching footsteps can be heard. As the Zohar has promised:  With it, Israel will be redeemed from exile with kindness and mercy. Certainly, with fitting effort, you will succeed in [inspiring] your brother to start [this study]...”
Here is an excerpt from another letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe[3]:
“...Thank you for your letter of 22 Nissan which brought good tidings about the public classes you have been leading in the maamarim of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, הכ"מ, and also, that you are trying to have his directives brought into practice by the members of the Chassidic brotherhood and the temimim [Chabad students], so that they fulfil their general missions, and in particular, [the mission of] guarding our special vineyard, [i.e.,] the dissemination of the wellsprings [of Chassidus] within [the Chassidic community] and outside of it.
Please, please, strengthen and reinforce yourself in putting into practice your plan that the young men and the students review the teachings of Chassidus in different synagogues. What captured my heart in particular were your strong efforts to draw students from all the yeshivos close in order to study Chassidus and to show the path of G‑d to Jewish children of all groups in all the proper and possible ways.
If there are ordinary expenses [arising as a result of] any of these [efforts], please notify us and we will participate in them...”
This last letter emphasises not just the importance of this field of study but also the urgency and missionary-like zeal with which it must be disseminated.


R. David Bar-Hayim is most outspoken in his view on Jewish mysticism in general. He says:

“The Torah is mentioned explicitly in the Mishna...that we should not ask questions...regarding the nature of Hashem etc.

Because these things, by definition are beyond our human capacity for understanding...and beyond the scope of the human mind and soul[4] to comprehend - therefore such speculation can lead to negative results.

It can only lead to a human being postulating various ideas, making certain assumptions, or claims which are not true or accurate – and in fact, cannot be true or accurate because we simply don’t know the truth about such things.

We only know about Hashem...(through) His will as revealed to us in the Torah. Anything...beyond that, regarding Hashem Himself and the nature of his existence – and what was before and what will come after, according to the Mishna...are both superfluous and in fact pernicious.

And if a person were to say...that certain branches of Medieval Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah deal with precisely these issues that according to the Mishna...we should not...speculate about – such a person would be right.

Any discussion which one can find in various ...Kabbalistic Jewish texts, which deal with these issues, are essentially - by definition - mistaken. Because it is clear and obvious both by dint of logic...and by the dictates of the Torah, that such speculation is beyond our capacity and can therefore lead to nothing positive. In fact, it is almost certain to lead to negative outcomes.”


This last view, perhaps, also relates to the great debate between Ramban and Rambam over whether Kabbalah and the mystical tradition was an unbroken chain dating back to Sinai (like the rest of the Oral Tradition), or not.

According to Ramban, the mystical tradition was indeed an ancient tradition with roots going all the way back to the revelation at Sinai.

However, according to Rambam, although there were great mystics and prophets in the past, that tradition has been broken and we can no longer claim an uninterrupted mystical chain reaching back to Sinai.


R. Moshe Zuriel adopts an interesting stance positioning himself somewhere in the middle[5]:

“We must make mention of those misguided scholars who advertise their [alleged] knowledge of ‘Kabbalah.

Even though they might not [explicitly] tell others to ‘come and give honour to me’, however [by their demeanour] they hint and allude very clearly that they know many secrets of the world.

And they ‘solve’ issues relating to the depths of the souls of those who come knocking at their door to ask [for spiritual] advice and salvation.

[The irony is that] all this is [theurgical insinuation is actually] against the tenor and ethos of this [very] disciple."

"In fact, all that the Kabbalists have written in their books is not the revelation of secrets – because if one has not [actually] experienced the concepts [which the Kabbalists speak about, in real and not imagined reality], it is like one is just reading [mere words and simple letters of the] Alef-Bet.

Therefore all those pregnant [Kabbalistic] terms that people wax lyrical about concerning the ‘Holy Names’, ‘Spheres’ and Numerical Values etc – are mere ‘illustrations’ but not [actual] Secrets of Torah.

They are ‘speculations which depend upon a [subjective] heart’[6].

[In reality, though,] those who really do know in truth, [and have experienced] the Secrets, conceal them and reveal them only to modest students and do not reveal them [to the populace].”

Thus, according to R. Zuriel, although some true Mystics may exist, most of Kabbalistic literature just deals with ‘illustrations’ which are simply ‘like reading words and letters’ which have no bearing on true spiritual or G-dly reality.

In this view, the minuscule number of people who do know - don’t tell.
And those who do tell - don’t know.


At the end of the day, because this is such an emotional issue, one will find oneself drawn very quickly to one of these approaches at the exclusion of the others.

The different hypotheses sometimes almost appear to be like different religions.

What immediately strikes one about these perspectives is that they are so divergent from each other.

We have views like: 

Mashiach hasn’t yet come - and both Temples were destroyed - and we permit the impermissible - because we don’t study the inner Torah.”

This combined with views likening Kabbalah to: “Pernicious and mistaken speculation which is almost certain to lead to negative outcomes.”

And that: “Kabbalah is not the revelation of secrets, but simple words and letters which depend on the speculation of the heart.” 

To the discussion over whether Kabbalah truly has roots “going back to Sinai”!

It would have been nice to conclude that regardless of our emotionally charged spiritual preferences and arguments, all these views could find their place somewhere within the vastness of Torah Judaism - and that Judaism was broad enough to absorb such mutually exclusive views – but, as we have seen, this may be easier said than done.

What emerges, therefore, taking all views into account, it that is very difficult to speak of a definitive ‘Torah attitude towards Kabbalah’.

[1] Sha’ar haHakdamot, Hosafot Kuntres Eitz Chaim. Translation follows that of R. Yaakov Goldstein.
[2] Letter no. 715.
[3] This letter was sent to Rav Nachum Shemaryahu Sossonkin, an active member of the Lubavitch community in Jerusalem, on 6 Iyar, 5710.
[4] This reference to the soul should not be lost on the Reader because even a ‘spiritual experience’ is not a ‘G-dly experience’ – as G-dliness does not only infinitely transcend physicality, but it also infinitely transcends spirituality (especially when the individual himself experiencing the ‘spiritual’ is the sole arbiter of the depths of the experience.
[5] Otzarot haMussar, Chelek Bet, by R. Moshe Zuriel; p. 846.
[6] A Talmudic expression.


  1. Can the quote from RC"V be taken to mean that everyone should learn Nistar? It is told that even RC"V had all of his teachings that he received from the ARI buried with him and they were only eventually revealed by his students that exhumed them after his death (aside from the teachings that were passed down and received by his talmidim that heard it from him orally, such as his son, R. Shmuel Vital). It could also be said that, while this statement was made, it might only be meant to apply to those who are capable of learning Nistar and choose not to do so, otherwise why wouldn't he publish his works to the masses to bring forth the Meshiach sooner?

    The position of Chabad is an interesting one and even amongst the Talmidei HaMaggid there was a Machlokes about teaching the masses Kabbalah. The biggest argument in this matter is between the Alter Rebbe of Chabad and Avraham Kalisker, where the former was adamant about teaching it to the masses and the latter was not.

    I think R. Bar Hayim can be a little extreme in his position on most matters, and his approach is definitely not considered "mainstream" in the least of manners. (I don't want that to come off as disrespectful, I enjoy R. Bar Hayim's discussions of matters, even if I don't always find myself agreeing with his approach)

    Even in Chazal we see that they talk about learning Nistar and the manner in which it needs to be approached and by who (see Hagiga, perek Ein Dorshin in the Bavli). We also see that Sefer Yetzirah was learned by Chazal as well as Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim, as well as sefer Ha Bahir. So I think R. Bar Hayim's statement should be seen in the same manner as RC"V's statement, from the opposite direction, that the learning of Nistar is for those who are capable and should, but it is not for everybody.

  2. Thank you EA for your considered and thought provoking comments.

    [I do not want to 'side' with any of the views, as my intention was simply to present them for purposes of edification.

    But, in fairness, I believe that R. Bar-Hayim was sharing his interpretation of the Mishah and not necessarily speaking for himself (although it is abundantly evident what his his view is)].

  3. I still think such an interpretation is problematic, because Hagiga Ch. 2, M. 1 relates to who and how to study Maase Bereshit and Maase Merkava, which relates to the nature of Hashem as well as other concepts of Nistar.

    However, I think such a statement makes more sense through the kaleidoscope of most pre-hasidic thought, that Kabbalah is only for certain special individuals and not meant for the masses. Such a statement would be made to try and focus most people away from placing such a strong emphasis on those topics and more on the less Nistar aspects of Judaism (an approach that is different from what most today try to do, but is very much in the tradition of pre-hasidic Judaism).

    As a side note, R. Bar Hayim is a big advocate for the teachings of RAY"K ztl, and having them accessible (as you noted in an earlier post here). RAY"K's works have a strong Kabbalistic approach (although from the Ramchal school of though and in language that on its face is not obviously Kabbalistic), so it is another reason why his statement is perplexing.

  4. Is it not true that even those who advocated teaching Kabbalah to the "masses" also insisted that one must be fully conversant with Nigleh before going on to Nistar? That one cannot understand the "deeper" levels of Torah before understanding what is on the "surface"?

  5. RAMBAM Mishna Torah ,Yesodei HaTorah end of Ch 4.(from Sefaria) "
    וְעִנְיְנֵי אַרְבָּעָה פְּרָקִים אֵלּוּ שֶׁבְּחָמֵשׁ מִצְוֹת הָאֵלּוּ הֵם שֶׁחֲכָמִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים קוֹרְאִין אוֹתוֹ פַּרְדֵּס כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמְרוּ אַרְבָּעָה נִכְנְסוּ לַפַּרְדֵּס. וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁגְּדוֹלֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים גְּדוֹלִים הָיוּ לֹא כֻּלָּם הָיָה בָּהֶן כֹּחַ לֵידַע וּלְהַשִּׂיג כָּל הַדְּבָרִים עַל בֻּרְיָן. וַאֲנִי אוֹמֵר שֶׁאֵין רָאוּי לְטַיֵּל בַּפַּרְדֵּס אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁנִּתְמַלֵּא כְּרֵסוֹ לֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר. וְלֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר הוּא לֵידַע הָאָסוּר וְהַמֻּתָּר וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶם מִשְּׁאָר הַמִּצְוֹת. וְאַף עַל פִּי שֶׁדְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ דָּבָר קָטָן קָרְאוּ אוֹתָן חֲכָמִים שֶׁהֲרֵי אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים דָּבָר גָּדוֹל מַעֲשֵׂה מֶרְכָּבָה וְדָבָר קָטָן הֲוָיוֹת דְּאַבַּיֵּי וְרָבָא. אַף עַל פִּי כֵן רְאוּיִין הֵן לְהַקְדִּימָן. שֶׁהֵן מְיַשְּׁבִין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם תְּחִלָּה. וְעוֹד שֶׁהֵם הַטּוֹבָה הַגְּדוֹלָה שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשּׁוּב הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה כְּדֵי לִנְחל חַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. וְאֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיְּדָעֵם הַכּל קָטָן וְגָדוֹל אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה בַּעַל לֵב רָחָב וּבַעַל לֵב קָצָר:
    ...And I say that it is not worthwhile delving into the secrets of the "orchard" until one has filled up on "bread and meat" - meaning to know that which is prohibited and permitted and the like regarding the rest of the Mitzvot. And although these are called "the less important things" by our Rabbis as they said "The vision of the chariot is of great importance and the debates of Abayeh and Rava are less important" still it is more appropriate to learn them first, for they settle the mind of a person first. And these "small things" are the overflowing goodness that Hashem gave us to settle this world in order to inherit the next world. And anyone can know them, child and adult, man and woman, one who possesses a broad intellect and one who possesses a narrow intellect."
    It's important to also notice that the Rambam mentions delving which is like a private journey.