Kabbalah, the mystical strand within Judaism, is arguably the most esoteric of the world's major contemplative traditions. While visions, the attainment of secret wisdom and powers, numerology, the practice of decoding texts to predict future events, etc. have a limited place on the fringes in most schools of mysticism, in Kabbalah these eccentricities are more front and center. The philosophy and forms of spirituality that have developed within Kabbalah are largely dependent on a group of writings called The Zohar, the movement's fundamental text.
The Zohar is an extremely large collection of writings that most likely originated in the 13th Century with a Spanish Jewish mystic named Moses de Leon. Although Moses claimed to be simply transmitting ancient texts (traditionally the bulk of the Zohar is attributed to a 2nd Century Rabbi – Simon bar Yochai – with some portions being attributed to Abraham or even Adam), most scholars believe that Moses de Leon himself, perhaps with a group of other kabbalists, authored most of the writings while drawing on earlier texts. The Zohar is primarily an imaginative story which uses the text of Torah as a springboard; in this regard it shares similarities with a method of Jewish commentary on Scripture called midrash. A primary focus of the Zohar is the Sefirot.
The Sefirot are conceptualized as a description of the inner workings of God – a sort of "Divine map" that portrays various aspects of God's nature and, therefore, the nature of existence. The entire schema is often referred to as the Tree of Life, and consists of 10 Sefirot.
The Sefirot include:
- Keter – "crown" or "source," represents the unknowable essence of God
- Chochmah – "wisdom," represents the knowledge of God
- Binah – "understanding" or "empathy," represents divine motherly wisdom
- Chesed – "love" or "mercy," represents the compassion of God
- Gvurah – "judgment," represents the divine justice
- Tiferet – "beauty" or "harmony," represents the balance of love and justice
- Netzach – "creativity," represents the creative power of God
- Hod – "prophecy," represents creativity made concrete
- Yesod – "reproductive energy" or "foundation," the will of God to create
- Malchut – "kingdom," represents the material world
Meditative Practice: The Divine Names and the Hebrew Alphabet
Various methods of meditation have been used within the Kabbalistic tradition. Although no one single method can be said to be "normative," one of the most popular forms of meditation focuses on a Divine Name and/or a sequence of Hebrew letters.
The use of various Divine Names for meditation is strikingly similar to the Sufi concept of Dhikr. In this method, one chooses a name of God that is appropriate to their situation. A Kabbalist might use one of a variety of names for God in the Hebrew Scriptures such as Adonai ("Absolute Lordship"), El Shaddai ("The Almighty"), Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh ("I Am that I Am"), etc. The name is then repeated as a mantra, sometimes accompanied by various breathing techniques. The interpretations of what happens during this type of meditation range from stilling the mind or "moving beyond thought to the experience of God" (i.e. similar to Centering Prayer, the Buddhist concept of Samadhi, etc.) to the acquisition of special powers. Kabbalists tend to be more prone to assigning, for lack of a better term, "magical powers" to the Divine Names or symbols than those from other contemplative faiths.
A unique meditative technique to Kabbalah is the use of Hebrew alphabetical characters as objects of concentration. In Kabbalistic cosmology, God creates the universe by combining various Hebrew letters. To create a tree, He simply combines the letters that spell "tree" in Hebrew; to create the sky, He combines the letters that spell "sky," etc. Thus it is thought that combining certain Hebrew characters as objects for meditation will produce different effects for the practitioner.
One concept that potentially unites various practices in the Jewish mystical tradition is that of Devekut – "clinging to God." Through meditative practices, Torah study, following the Commandments, and the performance of good works, one seeks to join their soul to God's, or "cling to" God, both in times of prayer and in daily life.