Cabala (properly Kabbalah, from kabbel, to receive), a Hebrew word signifying reception, used to designate certain religious teachings supposed to have been handed down from remote times. Jewish writers use the word to denote several classes of teachings, such as the belief of the patriarchs before the giving of the law, and the instruction orally transmitted by Moses, which were long afterward reduced to writing, forming the Mishnah. In later times the Cabala came to denote an elaborate system of theosophy, in which may be found some of the leading doctrines of Brahmanism, Buddhism, and the so-called Neo-Platonism of the Alexandrian church. Still later, the term was applied to a mode of interpreting the Old Testament, especially the books of Moses, whereby a meaning was evolved not contained in the words themselves. - Our knowledge of the theosophy of the Cabala rests mainly upon two books. The first is the Sepher Yetzirah, "Book of Creation," ascribed to Rabbi Akiba, who flourished about A. D. 120, but probably composed about six centuries later.
This was first printed at Mantua in 1562; with a Latin translation, at Amsterdam in 1642; and with a German translation and commentary, at Frankfort in 1829. The second work is the Sepher haz-Zohar, " Book of Light," ascribed to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiba, first printed at Cremona (folio, 1558), almost simultaneously at Mantua (3 vols., 1558-'60), and very frequently since. This work, which may be called the bible of the ca- balists, is now generally considered the composition of Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, a Spanish rabbi of the 13th century. The fundamental ideas of the theosophic cabalism developed in these books are: The Supreme Being, En Soph, " the illimitable," is apart from and above everything that we can conceive; and as we can conceive of thought and existence, he is above all thought and being. He is absolutely without body, parts, or passions. It is not proper to say that he acts, thinks, wills, or feels, or that he even exists in any sense conceivable by us; for, as we can conceive of existence, it is finite, and nothing finite can be predicated of the infinite. But as the creation exists, and as En Soph is all and in all, everything must exist and be ordered in and by him.
So from En Soph emanated a sephirah, sphere or outer intelligence, from that another, from that still another, and so on down to the tenth. These sephiroth are the actual creators and orderers of all things. They are all one with each other and with En Soph, and yet are different from each other and from him, somewhat as the sparks and flame which emanate from a fire are one with and yet different from the fire itself. Of the sephiroth nine are grouped into three triads of trinities, each triad and each trinity having an appropriate name and function; the tenth sephirah being the Shekinah, or revealed deity of the Hebrews. The sephiroth are not only emanations mediate or immediate of En Soph, but he also dwells in all fulness in each one of them. Each one of the sephiroth also became incarnate in one of the patriarchs, the tenth having been incarnate in David. The Cabala also undertakes to explain the mystery of human existence. Birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. All human souls existed before their earthly life began; all must enter into human bodies, and there undergo trial, many of them over and over again, before they can be admitted into heaven.
Few new souls in any generation enter the world, for most bodies are inhabited by souls which have failed of purification in former trials. It is this which makes the course of the world of so long continuance, for every created soul must, no matter through how many transmigrations, finally be purified in the flesh. The last soul of all will be that of the Messiah, who will be born at the end of days. When he shall have accomplished his earthly probation, the pleroma of humanity of all ages will be complete, and all, cleansed and purified, will ascend into heaven. To this theosophy and anthropology the Cabala adds rules and regulations for the conduct of individual life, based upon the mysteries of the Hebrew ritual. - The modes by which the Cabala educes the secret meaning veiled under the words of the Hebrew Scriptures are manifold, extending to every peculiarity of the text. Even in what we should regard as critical marks or as errors or fancies of some transcriber, as when a letter is written too large or too small, is inverted, or in any way distinguished, an occult intent was presumed.
But the most notable system was that to which the cabalists gave the name of gematria, apparently a Hebrew way of writing the Greek yeufierpia, by which they designate the art of discovering the hidden meaning of words by means of their numerical value. Each Hebrew letter, besides its alphabetical character, is a numeral. Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, stands for 1, or with a line over it for 1,000. In the first and last verses of the Bible aleph occurs six times, thereby showing, according to the cabalists, that the duration of the world is to be 6,000 years. This principle came to be developed so that any word might be explained by any other word or phrase the letters of which contain the same numerical value. Thus the numerical value of bereshith, "in the beginning," the first word of Genesis, is 913; there is also the numerical value of the phrase battorah yatzar, "by the law he formed," that is, the world; which shows that the law existed before creation, and the latter was accomplished through the former.
The next word, bara, "he created," has the numerical value of 203; add this to the first word, and the sum is 1,116, which is also the numerical value of the phrase, berosh hashshanah nibra, "in the beginning of the year it was created;" showing that the creation of the world took place in the beginning of the Hebrew year. Another cabalistic formula was called notarion, "extraction," from the Latin notare. It consisted in taking some leading word of the Scriptures, and making each successive letter the initial of a new word, all of which, in order, should form an intelligible sentence. - The literature of the Cabala is considerable. Among the earliest commentators of the Sepher Yetzirah is the philosopher Saadiah Gaon, who flourished in Babylonia in the 10th century, and was followed by many other distinguished writers in Asia, Africa, and Spain. In later times Provence, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Poland became successively the seats of cabalistic lore. (See Hebrews).