Cabala (Kabbalah, or Qabbala, etc.) can be broken down into it’s main component of an esoteric philosophy within Judaism (though not part of Judaism itself) and Christian Kabbalah and Hermetic Cabala. I tend to lump all of these along with Pythagorean (and others’) theories together into ‘numerology’ but that’s an oversimplification. Cabala is basically a system of finding hidden meaning in the holy scriptures using the 22 Hebrew letters. For a more in-depth look listen to our podcast:

See: Christian Kabbalah For more interest look up: 10 Sephiroth: Gloria, Sapientia, Veritas, Bonitas, Potestas, Virtus, Eternitas, Splendor, Fundamentum (See Llull’s, Dignities of God) On the podcast we talk about the Tree of Sepiroth, so here’s a pic: The Zohar (1275) Abraham Abulafia.

Some background

It’s basically an esoteric tradition that grew out of Jewish communities. It’s not a religion itself and emerged out of esoteric traditions in 12th-13th Century southern France and Spain. It gained momentum in 16th Century Ottoman Palestine when they started to focus on looking for when the long-awaited messiah would come. Especially around Safed.


A follower is called a Mekubal, and if you ask them Cabala is ancient knowledge (passed down by  Tzadikim: righteous people. Link to Wikipedia). The knowldege that eventually led to all religion, science, art, political thought etc. This general idea of some truth come down through the righteous or deserving is something we see a lot when we look at various alchemists.

According to the Zohar, a foundational text for kabbalistic thought (a book I’ve read for this episode and we’ll get into), Torah study can proceed along four levels of interpretation (exegesis). These four levels are called pardes from their initial letters (PRDS Hebrew: פרדס‎, orchard).

  • Peshat (Hebrew: פשט‎ lit. “simple”): the direct interpretations of meaning.

  • Remez (Hebrew: רמז‎ lit. “hint[s]”): the allegoric meanings (through allusion).

  • Derash (Hebrew: דרש‎ from Heb. darash: “inquire” or “seek”): midrashic (Rabbinic) meanings, often with imaginative comparisons with similar words or verses.

  • Sod (Hebrew: סוד‎ lit. “secret” or “mystery”): the inner, esoteric (metaphysical) meanings, expressed in kabbalah.

Kabbalah is considered by its followers as a necessary part of the study of Torah.

Disclaimer: But don’t confuse Cabala as being part of the Jewish religion. while Mekubal consider it necessary, non-Cabalist Jews consider the Cabala heretical. This is definitely an esoteric, mystical, occult philosophy. Not part of mainstream Judaism.

Cabala does deal with philosophical question, like the nature of the universe or human beings, or why are we here.

And to break it down a little further, we’re dealing with  Theosophical Cabala, vs.  Meditative Kabbalah or  Magico-theurgical tradition of Practical Kabbalah

In a future episode we will talk about Hermetic and Christian Kabbalah, which has more in common with some alchemists believed. However we thought it important (and interesting) to lay the foundation with the original… and to kind of break up an otherwise huge topic. Not to mention the colorfull personalities throughout Jewish mysticism’s history. That could be its whole own podcast series.. but this one is about alchemy, so we’re just laying the foundation to get back to alchemy in a future episode. Another important caveat is that we sort of stop with Medieval cabala, which was the influence of hermetic and christian cabala. Later developments are very interesting, but simply outside our scope.

Kabbalah itself evolved over a long period of time and has various branches, so instead of trying to define it definitely, we’re going to give examples of hidden knowledge we came across while reading the Zohar. Remember the different hidden meanings in the Torah we mentioned earlier? So here we go:

tree of sefirot (Tree of Life)

From wikipedia:

Sephirot (/ˈsɛfɪrɒθ/; Hebrew: סְפִירוֹת‎ Səphîrôṯ, pronunciation), meaning emanations, are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus). The term is alternatively transliterated into English as Sefirot/Sefiroth, singular Sephirah/Sefirah etc.

So basically each of the ten circles is one way God reveals himself.

The Zohar:

Talks of when god split the sea into 7 streams (isaiah) which make up the lower 7 sephirot (associated with strenght, victory etc.)

He created the world with 10 words, hence 10.

Associations of the 3 columns

The Sephiroth are organized into three discrete columns or gimel kavim (“three lines” in Hebrew). They are often referred to as the three “Fathers,” are derived from the three “Mothers,” and are attributed to the vowels (Vav, Yud, and Heh.) They are as follows:

  • Central column:

Kether heads the central column of the tree, which is known metaphorically speaking as the “Pillar of Mildness” and is associated with Hebrew letter Aleph, “the breath”, and the air element. It is a neutral one, a balance between the two opposing forces of male and female tendencies. Some teachings describe the Sephirot on the centre pillar as gender-neutral, while others say that the Sephirot vary in their sexual attributions.

  • Right column, in Hebrew kav yamin:

Chokhmah heads the right column of the tree, metaphorically speaking the “Pillar of Mercy”, associated with the Hebrew letter Shin, the fire element, and the male aspect;

  • Left column, in Hebrew kav smol:

The left column is headed by Binah and is called the “Pillar of Severity.” It is associated with Hebrew letter Mem, the water element and the female aspect.

While the pillars are each given a sexual attribution, this does not mean that every sephirah on a given pillar has the same sexual attribution as the pillar on which they sit. Wikipedia floats one idea that of all the Sephirot only Binah and Malkuth are considered female, while all the other Sephirot are male.

Additionally (and this applies to both Jewish and Hermetic Kabbalah), each sephirah is seen as male in relation to the following sephirah in succession on the tree, and female in relation to the foregoing sephirah.

Alternative traditions consider the grammatical genders of the words involved. Thus, Gevurah is feminine because it has an atonal finialHeh. Thus, Severity or Justice becomes a feminine attribute while Chesed (Mercy or Lovingkindness) becomes a masculine one, despite the modern Western tendency to genderize these terms in reverse manner.

Numerological meanings

In a numerological sense, the Tree of Sephirot also has significance. Between the 10 Sephirot run 22 channels or paths which connect them, a number which can be associated with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Together the spiritual forces of the 10 Sephirot and the 22 connecting channels are called the “32 Paths of Wisdom”.

To envision the tree, consider each of these ten spheres as being concentric circles with Malkuth being the innermost and all others encompassed by the latter. None of these are separate from the other, and all simply help to form a more complete view of the perfected whole. To speak simply, Malkuth is the Kingdom which is the physical world upon which we live and exist, while Kether, also call Kaether and Kaether Elyon is the Crown of this universe, representing the highest attainable understanding of God that men can understand.

Each letter grouping has significance in Genesis 1:

  • The Mothers represent the three times Genesis states “God made.”

  • The Doubles represent the seven times Genesis states “God saw.”

  • The elementals (or singles) represent the rest of the times “God” (Elohim in every instance of Genesis Chapter 1) is mentioned.

Kabbalistic thought extended Biblical and Midrashic notions that God enacted Creation through the Hebrew language and through the Torah into a full linguistic mysticism. In this, every Hebrew letter, word, number, even accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contain esoteric meanings, describing the spiritual dimensions within exoteric ideas

Gematria or gimatria (Hebrew: גימטריא/גימטריה‎ gēmaṭriyā) is a traditional Jewish system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other, or bear some relation to the number itself as it may apply to a person’s age, the calendar year, or the like. Although the term is Hebrew, it most likely derives from Greek geōmetriā, “geometry“, which was used as a translation of gēmaṭriyā, though some scholars believe it to derive from Greek grammateia, rather; it’s possible that both words had an influence on the formation of the Hebrew word. (Some also hold it to derive from the order of the Greek alphabet, gamma being the third letter of the Greek alphabet (gamma + tria).) The word has been extant in English since the 17th century from translations of works by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Although ostensibly derived from Greek, it is largely used in Jewish texts, notably in those associated with the Kabbalah.

The best-known example of Gematria is the Hebrew word Chai (“life”), which is composed of two letters which (using the assignments in the Mispar gadol table shown below) add up to 18. This has made 18 a “lucky number” among Jews, and gifts in multiples of 18 are very common.

My notes on the Zohar

Just to clarify: the following is all interpretation as written in the Zohar.

When God said “Let there be Light” he wasn’t talking about the light of day (as one might normally read the Bible) but was talking about wisdom (which we see in many esoteric traditions, or even “the enlightenment”). So God gave the light to Adam, so he could see everything, to David, Solomon and Moses, but hid it from others.

It basically re-interprets the creation story in Genesis very differently. So the “separation of light from darkness” is the creation of esoteric knowledge that is not available to everyone.

ADAM: Alef, dalet, mem: In the Zohar, it is the cardinal directions that made man. The word Adam is broken down into it’s cabalistic meaning of cardinal directions (or at least east and west) and One: One woman: Who was the first woman?


Do you know the story of Lilith? Very cool.

Other musings:

It’s mentioned in Deuteronomy that God is a pillar of fire, yet elsewhere that we should embrace him. This starts a discussion on the nature of fire, that there is consuming and pure fire. Like when you look at a candle and see that the top white fire is burning on top of blue (or red or black fire) that is burning the wick.

Likewise the fire represents hidden wisdom.

YHWH represent the stages of ever increasing divine manifestation, and the colors associated with the letters is taken for granted and compared to the stages of fire.

Even sentence structure of the scripture is scrutinized for deeper meaning.

The soul is likewise broken into three parts and compared to the flame. Abraham’s story is re-interpreted as an example of where he received the parts of the soul, and eventually God’s wisdom.

When death is close (you’re about to die) you stop dreaming, and sometimes don’t see your shadow when you pray. The Angel of Death follows you around and you start to see your father and dead relatives who’ll take to your new dwelling.

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