Most people would translate “Kabbalah” as “Jewish Mysticism.” But that definition fuels many misconceptions about Torah.
[NOTE: I do not encourage anyone reading this to study “Kabbalah” as it is popularly presented in the English-speaking world. Many of those presenting it are charlatans distorting authentic Torah for their own gain. This article is primarily focused on clarifying what is meant by the Oral Torah]
The root of the Hebrew word Kabbalah, קבל means “receive” or “accept.”
In Hebrew you would say, “Kibalti et hashemen zayit sheli badoar hayom!“… “I received my olive oil in the mail today!”
So what does “receiving” have to do with the study of Jewish mysticism?
By the end of the 40 years in the desert, Moshe delivered the 5 Books of Moses, the Written Torah, to the Children of Israel. This Torah scroll consists of 304,805 Hebrew letters written in ink on parchment which were dictated by God, letter by letter to Moses through prophecy.
However 40 years earlier, at Mount Sinai, Moshe not only brought down the Tablets with the 10 “Commandments” from the mountain, but he also spent 40 days and 40 nights in deep prophecy where he received the 613 commandments and their explanations and the principles of how to apply the laws. In addition, other deep understandings that God wanted to communicate to humanity about God’s universe and how to appreciate God and his Creation were revealed to Moshe as well. We call all of this information the Oral Torah. For 40 years, the Children of Israel were observing not just the Sabbath, but also laws of Kashrut, contract law, marriage law, criminal law and more, before they received the Written Torah!
Both the Written Torah, and the Oral Torah were intended to be handed down intact from one generation to the next, and safeguards were put in place to do that.
A scribe in Hebrew is called a “sofer” which literally means a “counter.” His main job is to count the letters to make sure he didn’t lose one in the transcription process. Any new Sefer Torah must be copied from an existing “kosher” Sefer Torah.
Understanding the meaning of the words in the Written Torah and what they are referring to is the job of the Oral Torah. The reason why it was meant to stay oral and not fixed is that each teacher is charged with communicating principles of law to their students. Therefore the teacher could keep his own notes, but there should not be a formal published text. To teach former slaves in the desert the laws of property damage, it might make sense to give examples of my ox goring your goat. However for people in the 21st century it would be more efficient to discuss my Toyota rear-ending your Ford – same principle, different language. (Why the Oral Torah – was eventually published in the form of the Mishna and eventually the Talmud about 1800 years ago is a discussion for a separate post).
There are two main aspects to the Oral Torah. The first is the communication of the 613 Commandments which we call the Mesorah, and the second is the more “hidden” aspect which discusses information directly about God and His Creation which is called the Kabbalah.
The root of the Hebrew word “Mesorah” means to “hand over” or “deliver.” (as opposed to Kabbalah which means “receive” or “accept!”)
The 613 Commandments were “handed down” or “delivered” by one teacher to many students at one time in the Mesorah process.
The more esoteric aspect of the Oral Torah such as the “nature of God” and the “creation of the universe” by necessity had to be explained through metaphor. There are no words in Hebrew to describe things that exist or occur outside of space and time. This use of metaphor leaves room for easy misunderstanding, so this information had to be transmitted through the “Kabbalah” process. When an individual student matured in Torah Wisdom, age and character and had a question in this area, he would approach a master teacher. The teacher would respond to the student-initiated request and ensure that the student would “receive” or “accept” the proper answer (ie. he “got” what the metaphorical information was referring to). Doing this one-on-one was a safeguard to make sure the information was being transmitted properly.
Today we see an explosion in “pop culture” of people taking “Kabbalah” classes and listening to recorded lectures or reading popular books on the subject without having any of the prerequisites for learning the material. Even many of the people who are teaching the “Kabbalah” don’t have the prerequisites to even study it!