Vaeirah: Kabbalah of Kabbalah


Kabbalah’s Biblical Roots in the Torah Portion of Vaeirah

Some skeptics ask: Where in the Torah – in the written Torah that is – is there reference made to the spiritual, the mystical?

A very devout Rabbi once actually criticized me for using the word ‘spiritual’ in my talks and writings. “Spiritual,” he suggested “is a foreign concept to Judaism.” “Why are you allowing Torah teachings to be contaminated by new age ideas, by this… by thissss, spiritual thing?!” he stammered, barely able to utter the word ‘spiritual’ from his mouth, as if it were an anathema.

Others have suggested that too many teachers today have gotten caught up in ‘psychobabble,’ and are replacing time tested classical Torah thoughts for modern day fads, or at least adding them into our vocabulary, instead of relying on the language that has always been used by Rabbis and scholars.

It reminds me of an interesting question I was once asked at the end of one of my classes. A young man, clearly a yeshiva educated fellow, was disturbed by that fact that I was teaching “Kabbalah” as he put it, to people who were under forty years old. “Isn’t there a clear prohibition not to study Kabbalah until you reach the age of forty?” he contended.

I replied by asking him if he says Modeh Ani with his young children. [Modeh Ani is a morning prayer recited right upon awakening. In it you acknowledge G-d for returning your soul to you after a night’s sleep. In the original: Modeh ani lefonecho Melech chai v’kayam she’hechozarto bi neshmosi, b’chemlah rabbo emunosecho]. “Of course,” he said, of course I teach my children this prayer.” I continued: “And what do you tell your child when s/he asks you what is “nishmosi” (my soul), where did my soul go to during sleep, and what does it mean that my soul is now being returned to me – how do you explain this to your child?”

I was hoping that he wouldn’t tell me that his children don’t ask these questions. Because children do ask these questions, and if they don’t there’s a problem. Anyone thinking about these words has to ask what does a soul mean? Where does it go, and how does it return.

“Do you tell your child,” I asked, “that you will have to wait till you’re forty years old before I can explain to you the meaning of a soul (neshomo)?…”

“And then what do you tell your child when they say the next prayer, “Elokei neshomo she’nosatoh bi tehoreh hi, atoh boroso, atoh yotzarto, atoh nofachto bi, v’atoh meshamoro b’kirbi” (My G-d, the soul which you have given within me is pure, You have created it, You have formed it, You have breathed it into me, and you preserve it within me.” What are these levels of “tehoreh,” “boroso,” “yotzarto,” “nofachto”? Does anyone suggest that we are not to understand the meaning of our prayers until we become 40 years old?! And “tell me, my friend, if we don’t understand what we pray for 40 years, will we be able, or even be interested, to understand their meaning when we hit 40?!

I explain to him and to the class, that the prohibition of learning Kabbalah (even if it applies today – which requires a discussion of its own) certainly doesn’t apply to explaining the meaning of a soul to our children and ourselves!

The basic foundation of the entire Torah is that G-d created the universe (the first verse in Genesis) and gave the human race laws by which to live. Torah is based on the fact that we have a relationship with G-d and we are required to cultivate this relationship; to ‘know G-d,’ to ‘love G-d’ and to stand in ‘awe of G-d’ – are all mitzvahs in the Torah, obligations that every man, woman and child are required to fulfill (not at age… 40, but) from the time of bar/bat mitzvah, and education of this relationship begins from the youngest age, from birth and even earlier.

No, spirituality is not a foreign concept to Judaism; it is the essence of the entire Torah: To establish a relationship between the mundane and the Divine. To bridge heaven and earth – the material and the spiritual – through infusing our physical lives with G-dly energy. ‘Ruchnius’ is the word in Hebrew for spirituality; the entire Torah and mitzvot was given to bring peace to the world – peace between matter and spirit, to achieve dominance of spirit over matter (‘hagborot ha’tzurah al ha’chomer,’ ‘nafsho ikker, v’gufo tofel’ – see Tanya chapter 32).

There are two dimensions in this process, corresponding to the two dimensions in Torah: The ‘body’ of Torah – Talmud, halacha (law) – teaches us the Divine mechanics about how to live our lives, the ‘whats’ and the ‘whens.’ The ‘soul’ of Torah – the esoteric and mystical – teaches us the inner spirit of all the mitzvahs. Like a body and a soul both are necessary, the fusion of both creates one complete unit.

We have been trained and taught not to teach Kabbalah per se, but to teach the basics of Judaism, the abc’s that have always been known by Torah scholars and leaders: to teach about the soul and it’s connection to G-d. To teach that Torah is not only a body of laws, a conglomerate of tradition and history, a document of inspiration. Torah is a rich spiritual text that addresses the real issues of life. Torah is instruction (form the word ‘horaah’), a guiding light that illuminates the paths of life, addressing all our challenges – our pain and joy, our childhood and growth, our homes and wealth, life and death and everything in between, over and under.

Judaism is not just a culture and a religion; it is a comprehensive blueprint – and yes, a spiritual blueprint – for life.

This is why the Torah is still with us today. Not because of it being yet another constitution of law, but because it carries the eternity of the Divine, and yes, the spiritual and sublime, that transcends the vicissitudes of time and space. Timeless, yet always profoundly relevant and timely.

All my classes and writings are produced with this spirit in mind. I always hope and  pray that I succeed in being faithful to the source material and maintain the integrity of the original while attempting to apply it to contemporary life.

Indeed, this is one of the biggest challenges facing us today: How to experience Torah as relevant to our lives. How to apply Torah teachings in a way that resonates and is indispensable to us.

But after all, after so many discussions on the psycho-spiritual applications of Torah thought, where is there reference in the Torah to these mystical and psychological dimensions?

One of the prominent places is in this week’s Torah portion (Vaeirah). The parsha opens with G-d’s words to Moses:

“I am G-d (Y-H-V-H). I revealed Myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, by the name of El Sha-dai, but by My name, Y-H-V-H, I did not make Myself known to them.”

What is the difference between ‘El Sha-dai’ and ‘Y-H-V-H’? And isn’t the name Y-H-V-H also mentioned earlier when G-d appears to the Patriarchs?

These different levels of Divine revelation are obviously mystical and spiritual by definition, and can only be properly understood in that context.

Even Rashi, the classical Torah commentator, who explains the verse according to pshat (the literal interpretation), comments here, that G-d is saying to Moses: “I did not reveal My quintessential truth,” represented by the divine name Y-H-V-H, to the Patriarchs.

What we have here are clearly different spiritual expressions of the Divine. G-d’s quintessential truth expressed in Y-H-V-H in contrast to the name El Sha-dai which represents a more limited manifestation of G-d’s expression.

The great Torah scholar and Kabbalist, Rabbi Menachem Emnuel Ezariah of Pano (1548-1620) and the Shaloh (1565-1630) explain that the Torah essentially “speaks about that which is above [the spiritual] and alludes to that which is below [the physical].” In other words, Torah is a spiritual document that ‘speaks in human language.” This does not mean that the verse is not to be taken literally (we have the axiom that ‘ayn mikra yotsei m’idei pehsuto’), but that the root and source of the literal is in the sublime. Or as Nachmanides (the Ramban) writes:  “The entire Torah are names of G-d.”

Therefore it should be no surprise that there are many direct references in Torah to the spiritual, beginning with the first description of the human being, created in the “image of G-d.” Unique to this week’s Torah portion is the fact that we catch a direct glimpse of the Divine names, the different manifestations of G-dly energy, which is generally concealed in other parts of Torah (though all of Torah are ‘names of G-d’).

Bottom line:

Today more than ever we are in desperate need of the psycho-spiritual application of Torah in order to demonstrate its personal relevance. Religious commitment is meant to be experienced not by rote, but with renewed vitality each day. This is possible only if we allow our souls to experience tradition with a deep spirituality, and not be just trapped in the mechanical ritual of our bodies.

And this spirituality is not just the domain of the spiritual seeker. Each of us has the obligation to infuse our rituals with life, passion and vivacity.

May we all live up to the Maggid of Mezeritch’s interpretation of “v’chai bohem,” ‘and you shall live by them [by the mitzvot]’ – you shall make the mitzvot come alive…

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17 years ago


17 years ago

Nice response. You could also answer this way:

The prohibition against learning Kabbalah before forty only applied until the Arizals time. Once the Arizal came, he said its a mitzva to reveal this wisdom!.

(In fact, the Arizal himself passed away at 38, its pretty clear he learned a bit of Kabblah himself.)

Sima Grove
17 years ago

I agree with you 100%! I dont believe the physical mitzvos were meant to be done alone without a spiriutal understanding. When we add spiritual understanding of what we do in the world based on Torah, I believe this can allow for a kavonah with more and more vitality and passion than we know we have in us. The more we learn about the Torahs spiritual ramifications the more clear this consciousness will be for everybody else. The conscious spiritual awareness as we live a Torahdic life could be just what we need in this world to bring about the revelation of moshiach. All the best. Good shabbos and may we all increase in our passion for learning the spiritual meanings of Torah and mitzvos and to merit unboundless abilities to bring out more and more kavohah and holy insights into the world.

16 years ago

Isnt it interesting that the spelling of the hebrew word for love Ahavah A-H-V-H, has the same pattern as Y-H-V-H.

S. Minanel
13 years ago

Would the spiritual aspects of Torah and Israel be emphasized with this project:Have banners and signs which explain the raison detre of Israel -LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF-strung over Israel roads and thoroughfares, in all essential languages. This would give the youngsters of Israel a sense of pride and purpose in their country, while being invaluable educational PR for the tourists and the entire world. The spiritual aspect of Torah for the worlds comprehension.

Shmuel G.
13 years ago

The famous not before youre 40 prohibition wasnt issued until the time of Yakov Frank and his followers, and it was aimed first and foremost at Kisvei HaArizl.

Most people who cite the prohibition have never actually read its language. It expressly exempts the Zohar, Shomer Emunim, and Pardes, which one can learn from the age of 30, provided that they are in printed form (as opposed to manuscript).

Pauline Bitton
13 years ago

Thank you Simon for your inspiring explanation, you continue to be my guru, now that sounds like new age babble as well, but it sounds better than teacher and it simply means you help me to understand my Judaism, while other Rabbis are not able to. One of Shlomo and my best memories were sitting around your Shabbat table with you, your family and all the other special guests. Thank you for making a difference in our lives.

binah bindell
13 years ago

So satisfying and inspiring, timelessly beautiful. Thank you.
Binah Tirtzah Bindell

ivan stux in New York City
13 years ago

Hi Simon,

Maybe the question your student was really asking was simply, why did the sages of old say that one should not study Kabalah till forty? I would also like to know the answer to that question.

On another matter, why some people spell David as Dovid? I do understand that there are two flavors of a (- and T) and also of e, just like in Hungarian, but isnt O another vowel altogether (just like in Hungarian)? Should David sound like bard or lard or car (not Bostonian), or should it sound like more, bored, floor?

13 years ago

where does one find authentic teachers?

myra estelle
13 years ago

Thank you Rabbi for the beautifully clear way you continue to explain the depth of Torah. We can all find inspiration and support from the experience of Torah, and we are reminded not to feel fear in this process: Moses said to the people: Do not fear, for in order to elevate you has G-d come. (Exodus 20:17) This, as you have explained, is an inner elevation, to heighten our awareness and to make us more enlightened in our cooperation with each other as we strive for Tikkun Olam.

Hannah Miryam
13 years ago

Yes, we Jews need not shy away from contemporary spiritual lingo when it happens to be reflecting Universal Truths, (Torah). Firstly, the divine energy that effects the world at any given time is effecting Jews and non-Jews alike, all humans. We have entered the age of Spirituality, which we Jews call the Beginning of the Messianic Age. If non-Jews have other words for it, thats OK. As long as large numbers of humans are shifting, does the vocabulary really matter? Secondly, contemproary humans are not the same beings that they were in previous ages. In all major spiritual traditions, it is now a time of mystical secrets to be revealed. Why? Because we are now old enough to begin to understand. One sign of the beginning of the Messianic Age is that people will hunger for Kabbalah. We see that happening now. Yet, in many cases, people focus on the excitement of the mystical, and forget that the mitvot, the Laws of Kashrut, and observing Shabbat, etc. are some of the most mystical practices that exist. That is why they are central to our faith. This year I became a Jew, after a 3 years of preparations, I immersed in the mikveh. I was drawn to do an Orthodox conversion due to a series of personal mystical experiences related to each of these basic Jewish practices. Orthodoxy IS spiritual !

Mark Siet
11 years ago

The problem of teaching Kabbalah is that you have to teach a person about their relationship with the divine when for the most part people dont want to think about this.

To start with there must be a baseline of experience which is why there is a prohibition against teaching someone until they reach 40 assuming that they will have this experience by that time.

In truth teaching Kabbalah is about teaching a person to listen to their inner voice and then to reach up for that higher voice within choosing from moment to moment to let this inner higher voice guide them.

It isnt something you can force feed or even make a part of any curriculum. A student of Kabbalah has to be self motivated to discover that connection within. A teacher can inspire and teach the language of Kabbalah and indeed of Jewish spiritual meaning but he or she cannot awaken the divine within another person without that persons full intention to do so.

Todays New Age thoughts ironically provide exactly the right setting for the teaching of Kabbalah because in essence they are saying that we are responsible for our destiny within and without determined by how well we are choosing (free will) to listen to Hashem within.

The simple of truth of I am spoken of in this weeks parasha states the obvious that Hashem is not outside man but rather always eternally present within. Where else could an infinite presence be except infinitely present.

Spiritual leaders actually get in the way of studying Kabbalah because to get the inner connection you have to make it yourself. Anyone who thinks they can make this connection by going through another is deluding themselves because I am is just that. What is it you are making of yourself.

In order to teach Kabbalah you have to teach about the world of cause and effect. This is Kabbalah and it is about you and your life experiences and your intimate connection that is your inner and outer world.

Thank you.
Author of Bahir Revealed –commentary and translation by permission of the estate of Aryey Kaplan on Amazon.

11 years ago

Thanks! Your Wisdom…. just Beautiful!

Bracha Ahuva Judith
11 years ago

My Dear Beloved Rabbi Jacobson:
This indeed could not have been expressed more beautifully. That is why I love you, oh brother of my heart.
The OR of the Torah shines brightly in your eyes and upon your countenance…for just the letter kills but the spirit/Light is THE TREE OF LIFE ITSELF.
Of a surety, the path of the just SHINES brighter and brighter unto the PERFECT DAY.
Oh the GLORY of Your Presence. We Your people, we give you Reverance; so ARISE from Your Place and be blessed by our praise; for Your GLORY now fills this place, as Your Light is Seen Upon each face.
For we are Your LIVING TORAH, seen, known, and by how we live our lives we are able to be READ BY ALL MEN.
Bless you my dear, dear brother for keeping the ETERNAL FLAME BURNING WITHIN OUR HEARTS.

Rabbi Gabriel Cousens, M.D.
11 years ago

I was delighted by your comment on spirituality. I completely agree and have actually written a book published by Random House called Torah as a Guide To Enlightenment. In this book I discuss from the high Sod level of understanding each parashah as a lesson in spiritual awakening. My hope as yours is, is once we reestablish the understanding that the Torah is a complete guide to Devikut/Cheyrut (liberation), many people who have left the great Torah way because they have not had their spiritual thirst satisfied will return. I am happy to speak in person with you about this if you are interested.

11 years ago

what I know is that the prohibition to learn kabbalah was after Shabtai Tzvi abuse it and almost destroyed the people of Israel. they are two parts , one part deals with understanding the Torah and enhance your life, the other part deals with the spirits and is dangerous, as my grand mother was saying if you cannot control fire , dont play with it. You all know the story of the 4 rabbis who entered the Pardess only one came out more illuminated. So which story is the right one about the prohibition, I forgot to add , why after 40, simple, at that period , by the time you are 40, you are married with kids and trying to make a living , you will not have the time to learn Kabbalah.

Mrs Evelyne Helper
11 years ago

Brillant article Rabbi…i love it…rabbi your article just gives me so much sustenance to my belief in Hashem and his mitsvos. With appreciation always.

11 years ago

Most of so called spiritual, religious, or political conflicts in the world are about semantics and interpretations of the different adopted names of that same God quality. These separate us from each other; hence differences, hence division, hence ignorance, hence depression, hence wars.

The Meaningful Life Center