Exploring the Mysticism of Kabbalah
Understanding the true meaning of Kabbalah
Israel sees hundreds of gap year students arrive every year to volunteer, study and explore the country. Some travel individually while others join programmes, but all come to Israel because they’re interested in learning more about the area’s culture, history, religion and modern life.
One subject of great interest for many gap year students is Jewish mysticism – Kabbalah.
Kabbalah has gained a measure of fame in recent years due to Kabbalah Centres which have sprung up around the world, as well as the interest and involvement of media and pop-culture personalities in the study and practice of Kabbalah (Madonna as once such example). Many travellers include a side trip to the northern city of Safed, known as the City of Kabbalah, during their travels to Israel where they can research more about the origins, meanings and practice of Kabbalah.
Safed is known as one of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities. The city was recognized as the centre of the development of Kabbalah during the 16th century and was the home of many of the era’s greatest Kabbalists. While many visitors wander the winding streets and ancient alleyways of the Old Jewish Quarter, enjoying the quaint atmosphere and visiting the old synagogues, few are aware of the reasons that Safed played, and continues to play, such an important part in the world of Kabbalah.
The word “Kabbalah” means “to receive” in Hebrew and refers to the Children of Israel who received the Five Books of Moses – the Torah – from God at Mt. Sinai. Within those books, Jews believe God included secrets and hints that speak to deeper spiritual meanings that are contained within the verses, words and even letters of the Torah.
In the second century C.E. one of the redactors of the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was forced to hide from the ruling Roman legions in the Galilee. He hid in a cave near Peki’in and studied Kabbalah with his son, Rabbi Elazar. His own studies, together with Divine Inspirations that he received from God during this period, enlightened him and when he was able to leave his hiding place, he travelled throughout the Galilee teaching and recording his knowledge. Rabbi Bar Yochai wrote the “Zohar” – The Illumination – which has continued to serve as the written foundation of Kabbalah study.
Golden age of Safed
In the late 15th and throughout the 16th century Jews who had been forced to flee the Spanish Inquisition wandered the world. Many of these people, including the great Kabbalistic scholars of the day, believed that the trauma of the Inquisition heralded the coming of the Messiah and they wanted to be in the Land of Israel to wait for him. Safed’s Jewish community of the 16th century welcomed the new settlers who wanted to live in close proximity to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on nearby Mt. Meron. The immigrants included some of the greatest Kabbalist scholars of the era including Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, Rabbi Yosef Caro and the greatest of them all, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the ARI.
In a community in which some of history’s greatest Kabbalists lived, the ARI stood out as a unique individual whose Divine Inspirations refined the study of Jewish mysticism to the discipline for which it is known today – as a framework that shows how a person can use the secrets of the Torah to strengthen his relationship with God and with his fellow man. The ARI identified Kabbalistic concepts and links, such as the Tree of Life, which is a visual depiction of the ten sephirot (elements) of Kabbalistic philosophy. Other Kabbalistic concepts that the ARI expanded include “gematria” – the manipulation of Hebrew letters’ numerical values to enhance the understanding of the mystical meanings of the Holy texts.
Many customs and traditions that have become integral practices throughout the Jewish world today were initiated by the ARI in Safed. The best-known of these is the Kabbalat Shabbat – Welcoming the Sabbath – service which the ARI instigated with his students. Kabbalat Shabbat includes prayers, songs, psalms and hymns that are sung before the onset of the Sabbath. The ARI began the ceremony in Safed and today it is celebrated by Jews in every synagogue and temple throughout the world.
Other Jewish customs began with the Kabbalists in Safed as well such as the tradition of staying up all night to study Torah on the Shavouth holiday, the traditional Lag B’Omer celebration at Mt. Meron at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the custom of cutting a little boy’s hair at his third birthday and the annual Tu B’shevat Seder celebrating the Festival of the Trees.
The ARI taught that the Messiah would appear first in Safed as he travelled to build the Third Temple in Jerusalem.
Study in Safed
There are a number of options for gap year students who want to learn more about Kabbalah during a Safed visit:
- The Ascent Institute is engaged in programmes and projects related to increasing Jewish identity among Jewish students, but they offer classes and a drop-in library which are open to all. Ascent is focused on the Hassidic interpretation of Kabbalah and their classes and other activities offer a well-rounded view of Jewish practices and customs as well as the Kabbalistic meanings and concepts that are connected to these traditions.
- The International Centre of Tzfat Kabbalah offers both individual and group classes, tours and other activities that allow people to explore Kabbalistic philosophies and the beliefs associated with the discipline. Visitors can wander into the centre and peruse the library (books are also available for sale) or watch a 15-minute video that provides a thorough overview of the history of Kabbalah and its place in the Jewish world today.
- The Nehora School is run by one of Safed’s foremost scholars, Yedida Cohen, who has undertaken the translations of many works of the great 20th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ashlag. The school allows students to study online in formats of one-on-one or in small groups. The intimate atmosphere provides an environment in which students can study exactly the kind of subjects that interest them.
If you’re interested in travelling to Israel then head on over to our Israel country section for more advice and information.
Also, make sure you read Jessica Nemire’s article on 5 Things to do in Israel on some of the things you can do on your travels in Israel.
And don’t forget to jump on the message boards to talk to other gappers about your travel plans…