Author and poet

History of Kabbalah


The background to the Jewish mystical tradition known as kabbalah, from a Hebrew verb meaning ‘to receive’, is long and convoluted – not a history that can be adequately explained here! Briefly, tradition claims that it was Abraham who ‘received’ this mystical wisdom. His dates have been estimated as some time during the 18th century BCE. The scholar Aryeh Kaplan suggests:

This is not very surprising, since such mystical texts as the Vedic scriptures date from this period and there is every reason to believe that the mystical tradition was further advanced in the Middle East than it was in India at the time. The Sefer Yetzirah (Weiser Books, Maine 1997, p. xiv).

However, the earliest text that is usually described as kabbalah, The Sefer Yetzirah, usually translated as The Book of Creation, cannot be dated with any certainty. It may have appeared before the Common Era, say in the 2nd or 1st century CE. Sigil II in The Angel of Secrets is named after this text.

One key concept that appears in The Sefer Yetzirah is the mystical power of language and letters. Here we learn that the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet fall into three categories: twelve ‘single’, seven ‘double’ and three ‘mother’ letters. In Sigil I there are twelve parts; in Sigil II there are seven; in Sigil III there are three parts and in Sigil IV the story unfolds in twenty-three chapters, because there is a legend about a missing letter… I’m not saying any more!

Sigil III: The Book of Illumination has been named after The Bahir, a kabbalistic text that was first published and circulated around 1176 CE in Provence, France. It was printed in Amsterdam in 1651 and later editions followed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many kabbalists ascribe the content to a famous first-century mystic. So, as is often the case with kabbalah, we are told that the wisdom has a much older provenance than the manuscript or printed text we hold in our hands.

Sigil IV: The Book of Splendour takes its title from the most famous and renowned kabbalist text, The Zohar. This long, complex mystical book first appeared in Spain in the 13th century, when it was published by a Jewish writer called Moses de Leon, who claimed it was the work of Shimon bar Yochai, a 2nd-century rabbi who had lived during the Roman persecution. According to legend, this rabbi hid in a cave for thirteen years studying the Torah and was inspired by the Prophet Elijah to write The Zohar. Whatever the true source of this wisdom, by the 15th century The Zohar was popular among the Jewish community and regarded as a sacred text. Even today, modern kabbalists carry miniature copies of Zoharic extracts as magical protection.

K or C or Q?

You may see ‘kabbalah’ spelled as ‘cabala’ or as ‘qabalah’. The first letter of ‘kabbalah’ is the Hebrew letter qoph, and k, c, and q are all equally fine for transliteration into English. However, the letter ‘c’ was deliberately adopted by the Renaissance scholar, Pico della Mirandola, who wanted to claim this wisdom for the Christian tradition, so he labelled it ‘Christian Cabala’ with a ‘c’. The letter ‘q’ was adopted by 19th-century students of esoteric lore, especially by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. As I am not a practising Christian or Golden Dawn magician, I always use the letter ‘k’.

The History of Kabbalah