What Is Jewish Mysticism?

Academic study of Jewish mysticism, especially since Gershom Scholem‘s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), distinguishes between different forms of mysticism across different eras of Jewish history. Of these, Kabbalah, which emerged in 12th-century Europe, is the most well known, but not the only typologic form, or the earliest to emerge. Among previous forms were Merkabah mysticism (c. 100 BC – 1000 AD), and Ashkenazi Hasidim (early 13th century AD) around the time of Kabbalistic emergence.

Kabbalah means “received tradition”, a term previously used in other Judaic contexts, but which the Medieval Kabbalists adopted for their own doctrine to express the belief that they were not innovating, but merely revealing the ancient hidden esoteric tradition of the Torah. This issue is crystallised until today by alternative views on the origin of the Zohar, the main text of Kabbalah. Traditional Kabbalists regard it as originating in Tannaic times, redacting the Oral Torah, so do not make a sharp distinction between Kabbalah and early Rabbinic Jewish mysticism. Academic scholars regard it as a synthesis from Medieval times, but assimilating and incorporating into itself earlier forms of Jewish mystical tradition, as well as other philosophical elements.

The theosophical aspect of Kabbalah itself developed through two historical forms: “Medieval/Classic/Zoharic Kabbalah” (c.1175 – 1492 – 1570), and Lurianic Kabbalah (1569 AD – today) which assimilated Medieval Kabbalah into its wider system and became the basis for modern Jewish Kabbalah. After Luria, two new mystical forms popularised Kabbalah in Judaism: antinomian-heretical Sabbatean movements (1666 – 18th century AD), and Hasidic Judaism (1734 AD – today). In contemporary Judaism, the only main forms of Jewish mysticism followed are esoteric Lurianic Kabbalah and its later commentaries, the variety of schools in Hasidic Judaism, and Neo-Hasidism (incorporating Neo-Kabbalah) in non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.

Two non-Jewish syncretic traditions also popularised Judaic Kabbalah through its incorporation as part of general Western esoteric culture from the Renaissance onwards: theological Christian Cabala (c. 15th  – 18th century) which adapted Judaic Kabbalistic doctrine to Christian belief, and its diverging occultist offshoot Hermetic Qabalah (c. 15th century – today) which became a main element in esoteric and magical societies and teachings. As separate traditions of development outside Judaism, drawing from, syncretically adapting, and different in nature and aims from Judaic mysticism, they are not listed on this page.

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Main articles: Kabbalah, What is Kabbalah?, Primary Texts Of Kabbalah, and The Tree of Life in Kabbalah

Three aims in Jewish mysticism

The Kabbalistic form of Jewish mysticism itself divides into three general streams: the Theosophical/Speculative Kabbalah (seeking to understand and describe the divine realm), the Meditative/Ecstatic Kabbalah (seeking to achieve a mystical union with God), and the Practical/Magical Kabbalah (seeking to theurgically alter the divine realms and the World). These three different, but inter-relating, methods or aims of mystical involvement are also found throughout the other pre-Kabbalistic and post-Kabbalistic stages in Jewish mystical development, as three general typologies. As in Kabbalah, the same text can contain aspects of all three approaches, though the three streams often distill into three separate literatures under the influence of particular exponents or eras.

Within Kabbalah, the theosophical tradition is distinguished from many forms of mysticism in other religions by its doctrinal form as a mystical “philosophy” of Gnosis esoteric knowledge. Instead, the tradition of Meditative Kabbalah has similarity of aim, if not form, with usual traditions of general mysticism; to unite the individual intuitively with God. The tradition of theurgic Practical Kabbalah in Judaism, censored and restricted by mainstream Jewish Kabbalists, has similarities with non-Jewish Hermetic Qabalah magical Western Esotericism. However, as understood by Jewish Kabbalists, it is censored and forgotten in contemporary times because without the requisite purity and holy motive, it would degenerate into impure and forbidden magic. Consequently, it has formed a minor tradition in Jewish mystical history.

Historical forms of Jewish mysticism timeline

Chronology of Israel

Chronology of Israel

For a fuller list of Kabbalistic mystics and texts, see List of Jewish Kabbalists. This timeline shows general developments:

Historical phase Dates Influential developments and texts
Prophetic Judaism 800–6th century BCE Prophetic meditation, divine encounter, mystical elements:

Isaiah
Ezekiel
Zechariah

Apocalyptic Judaism Beginning 6th century BCE
300–100 BCE
Mystical and apocalyptic speculation, heavenly angelology and eschatology:

1 Enoch
Daniel

Mystical elements in Second Temple period sects c. 200 BCE-c. 100 CE Mystical and pious elements among sects in the late Second Temple period in Judea and the Diaspora:

Hasideans
Essenes
Philo’s Platonic philosophy influence on early Christianity
Christian Jewish early Christian mysticism

Early Rabbinic mysticism and mystical elements in classic Rabbinic literature c. 100 BCE – 130s CE influence to 5th century CE References in exoteric Talmud and Midrash to Tannaic early Rabbinic mystical circles, Maaseh Merkabah – Work of the Chariot exegesis and ascent, Maaseh Bereshit – Work of Creation exegesis. Wider continuing mystical elements in aggadah Rabbinic theology and narratives:

Johanan ben Zakai and his disciples
Rabbi Akiva
(Simeon bar Yochai traditional/pseudepigraphical attribution of later Kabbalist Zohar)

Mystical aggadot examples:
Four who entered the Pardes
Oven of Akhnai Bath ḳōl
Torah: black fire on white fire, God looked in Torah to create World
Shekhinah accompanies Israel in exile
The Messiah at the Gates of Rome

Merkabah-Hekhalot esoteric texts and methods c. 2nd century-1000 Traditional/pseudepigraphical/anonymous esoteric Merkabah mysticism Throne and Hekhalot Palaces ascent literature and methods. Text protagonists are early Tannaic Rabbis, though texts academically dated variously from Talmudic 100–500 to Gaonic 400–800 periods, and sectarian/rabbinic origins debated:
Earlier texts:
3 Enoch
Hekhalot Rabbati (The Greater Palaces)
Hekhalot Zutari (The Lesser Palaces)
Merkavah Rabbah (The Great Chariot)
Later texts:
Shi’ur Qomah (Divine Dimensions)
Proto-Kabbalistic 200–600 Maaseh Bereshit – Creation speculation text. Describes 10 sephirot, though without their significance to later Kabbalah. Received rationalist interpretations before becoming a source text for Kabbalah:

Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation)

Mystical elements in Medieval Jewish philosophy 11th–13th centuries Mystical elements in the thought of Medieval rationalist Jewish philosophical theologians:

Judah Halevi
Moses Maimonides

Jewish Sufi piety 11th to 15th centuries Jewish piety, including meditative experiential elements:

Bahya ibn Paquda 11th century – Chovot HaLevavot (Duties of the Heart)
Abraham Maimonides and the “Jewish Sufis” of Cairo 13th–15th century

Early Kabbalah c. 1174–1200 Emergence of Kabbalistic mystical theosophy in Southern France. The Bahir, regarded in academia as the first Kabbalistic work, incorporates an earlier source text:

Sefer HaBahir (Book of Brightness)
School of Isaac the Blind

Chassidei Ashkenaz c. 1150–1250 Mystical-ethical piety and speculative theory in Ashkenaz-Germany. Shaped by Merkabah-Hekhalot texts, Practical Kabbalah magical elements, Rhineland Crusader persecutions and German monastic values:

Samuel of Speyer
Judah of Regensburg – Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious)
Eleazar of Worms

Medieval Kabbalah development c. 1200–1492 Alternative philosophical vs. mythological interpretations of Kabbalistic theosophy: “Neoplatonic” quasi-philosophical hierarchy, and Jewish-“Gnostic” mythological interest in the demonic motifs. Centred in Spain’s Kabbalistic golden age:

Early 13th century Girona neoplatonic school:
Azriel of Gerona
Nahmanides (Ramban) – Torah commentary

13th century Castile gnostic school:
Treatise on the Left Emanation

The Zohar in Spain from c.1286:
Moses de León – Sefer HaZohar (Book of Splendour). Castile’s gnostic culmination. Subsequent Zohar exegesis dominated other Medieval Kabbalah traditions

Kabbalistic scholarship:
Joseph Gikatilla – Shaarei Orah (Gates of Light) c.1290 Spain
Sefer HaTemunah (Book of the Figure) 13th–14th century influential doctrine in Kabbalah of Cosmic Cycles, later rejected by Cordovero and Luria

Practical-magical Kabbalah:
Sefer Raziel HaMalakh

Medieval Prophetic and Meditative Kabbalah 13th – 16th centuries Medieval Meditative Kabbalah developed its own traditions. Abraham Abulafia’s meditative system of Prophetic Kabbalah, his alternative to the Theosophical Kabbalah, embodies the non-Zoharic ecstatic stream in Spanish Kabbalism:

Abulafian Prophetic Kabbalah school:
Abraham Abulafia Mediterranean area late 13th century
Judah Albotini Jerusalem 15th–16th century

Other meditative methods:
Isaac of Acco 14th century
Joseph Tzayach Damascus and Jerusalem 16th century

Post-1492 and Safed Kabbalah 16th century Transition from esoteric Medieval Kabbalism to Kabbalah as a national messianic doctrine, after 1492 Expulsion from Spain exile. Jewish renaissance of Palestine:

Meir ibn Gabbai 16th century early systemiser

Safed-Galilee Kabbalists:
Joseph Karo legalist and mystic
Shlomo Alkabetz
Moses Cordovero (Ramak) – Pardes Rimonim. Cordoverian systemisation of Medieval Kabbalah until 1570
Isaac Luria (the Ari) – new post-Medieval Lurianic systemisation taught 1570–1572
Hayim Vital main Lurianic compiler and other writings
Safed Meditative Kabbalah: Vital – Shaarei Kedusha (Gates of Holiness), Luria – Yichudim method

Maharal’s mystical theology 16th century Medieval Kabbalah expressed in non-Kabbalistic philosophical theology:

Judah Loew (Maharal) Prague

Early Lurianic and post-medieval Kabbalism 16th-mid-18th centuries Lurianism, the second of Kabbalah’s two systems of theosophy after Medieval-Cordoverian Kabbalah, incorporating dynamic myth of exile and redemption in divinity taught by Isaac Luria 1570–72, and other post-medieval Kabbalah trends:

Disciples compile Kitvei Ari Lurianic thought:
Hayim Vital – Etz Hayim (Tree of Life)
Israel Sarug spread Lurianism in Europe
Lurianic exegesis and meditative methods dominated other post-medieval Kabbalah trends

Popularising Kabbalistic Musar and homiletic literature 1550s–1750s:
Moses Cordovero – Tomer Devorah (Palm Tree of Deborah)
Eliyahu de Vidas – Reshit Chochmah (Beginning of Wisdom)
Isaiah Horowitz (Shelah) – Shnei Luchot HaBrit (Tablets of the Covenant) Central Europe

Kabbalistic scholarship:
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) Italian early 18th century public dissemination of Kabbalah
Joseph Ergas
Central-Eastern Europe Practical Kabbalah:
Baal Shem

Sabbatean movements 1665 – c. 19th century Kabbalistic messianic-mystical antinomian heresy:

Sabbatai Zevi messianic claimant
Nathan of Gaza Sabbatean prophet
Moderate-crypto and radical-antinomian factions
Emden-Eybeschutz controversy and Rabbinic excommunication of Sabbateans
Sabbatean successors culminating in Jacob Frank-late 18th century Frankist nihilism

Early and formative Hasidic Judaism 1730s–1850s Eastern European mystical revival movement, popularising and psychologising Kabbalah through Panentheism and the Tzadik mystical leader. Neutralised messianic danger expressed in Sabbateanism:

Early Hasidism:
Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov, Besht) founder of Hasidism
Dov Ber of Mezeritch (The Magid) systemiser and architect of Hasidism
Jacob Joseph of Polonne
Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev

Main Hasidic schools of thought (mystics after 1850s shown later):

Mainstream Hasidic Tzadikism:
Elimelech of Lizhensk – Noam Elimelech (Pleasantness of Elimelech)
Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin (The Chozeh)

Chabad intellectual Hasidism – Russia:
Shneur Zalman of Liadi – Tanya (Likutei Amarim-Collected Words) theorist of Hasidism
Aaron of Staroselye

Breslav imaginative Hasidism – Ukraine:
Nachman of Breslav – Likutei Moharan (Collected teachings)
Nathan of Breslav

Peshischa-Kotzk introspective Hasidism – Poland, mystical offshoot from:
Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica – Mei Hashiloach (Waters of Shiloah), personal illumination

Hasidic storytelling:
Shivchei HaBesht (Praises of the Besht) published 1814
Sippurei Ma’asiyot (Stories that were told) Nachman of Breslav’s 13 mystical tales 1816

Later traditional Lurianic Kabbalah 18th century-today Traditionalist esoteric interpretations and practice of Lurianic Kabbalah from 18th century until today, apart from Hasidic adaptions:

Brody Kloiz and pre-Hasidic Hasidim circles in Eastern Europe. Introverted esotericism response to Sabbatean heresy

Mitnagdic-Lithuanian non-Hasidic Kabbalah:
Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (Vilna Gaon, Gra) figurehead of Mitnagdim 18th century
Chaim of Volozhin – Nefesh HaChaim (Soul of Life) theorist of Mitnagdism, founder of Yeshiva movement

Mizrahi-Sephardi Oriental Kabbalah:
Shalom Sharabi 18th century (from Yemen) and Beit El Synagogue (Jerusalem) introverted esotericism response to Sabbateanism. Lurianic explanation and elite meditation circle
Yosef Hayyim (Ben Ish Chai) 19th century Hakham Baghdad
Abuhatzeira Moroccan Kabbalist dynasty

20th century Ashkenazi European Kabbalah (apart from Hasidic thought):
Shaar Hashamayim Yeshiva (Jerusalem)
Yehuda Ashlag 20th century Israel – HaSulam (The Ladder) Lurianic Zohar

Later Hasidic Judaism 1850s-today Dynastic succession and modernising society turned Hasidism away from pre-1810s mystical revivalism, to post-1850s consolidation and rabbinic conservatism. Mystical focus continued in some schools:

Chabad-Lubavitch – intellectual Hasidism communication
Zadok HaKohen late 19th century Izbica school
Aharon Roth early 20th century Jerusalem piety
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira response to Holocaust
Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Lubavitch Rebbe) Hasidic outreach and 1990s messianism
Breslav contemporary mystical revivalism

Neo-Hasidism and Neo-Kabbalah c. 20th century-today Non-Orthodox Jewish denominations’ adapted spiritual teaching of Kabbalistic and Hasidic theology to modernist thought and interpretations:
Early 20th century:
Martin Buber existential Neo-HasidismPost War and contemporary:
Abraham Joshua Heschel Neo-traditional aggadic Judaism
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Jewish Renewal
Arthur Green academic and theologian
Lawrence Kushner Reform Neo-Kabbalah

Influence on modern and postmodern Jewish philosophy:
Jewish existentialism
Postmodern Jewish philosophy

Independent scholarship:
Sanford Drob – The New Kabbalah

Zionist mysticism c. 1910s-today Teachings and influence of Rav Kook poetic mystic. Unity of religion and secularism, halakha and aggadah, activism and quietism:
Abraham Isaac Kook Chief Rabbi Mandate Palestine
Atchalta De’Geulah religious Zionism
Academic study of Jewish mysticism c. 1920s-today Critical-historical study of Jewish mystical texts began in 19th century, but Gershom Scholem’s school in the mid-20th century founded the methodological disciple in academia, returning mysticism to a central position in Jewish historiography and Jewish studies departments. Select historian examples:

First generation:
Gershom Scholem discipline founder Hebrew University
Alexander Altmann American initiator

Second generation:
Moshe Idel Hebrew University revisionism
Joseph Dan Hebrew University Scholem chair

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia