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Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

The popular notion of Kabbalah – the Kabbalah of red strings, holy water, and incantations – has attracted a following in recent years among Hollywood celebrities and others. This type of “Kabbalah” resembles self-help, pop psychology and other quick fixes to one’s personal problems and is wholly unrelated to Kabbalah as traditional Jews understand it. Nevertheless, it does induce searchers and simple people, and has often parted them from their money.

Traditional Kabbalah is, essentially, a look behind the mask of the physical world in order to gain deeper insights into creation, G-d’s Providence, and even our fundamental obligations. Because it employs graphic, anthropomorphic imagery, it can easily mislead the average person into misconstruing G-d’s nature, something that borders on idolatry and is a cardinal sin. As such, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 246:6) records the well-known opinion that one should not study Kabbalah until at least age 40.


Nevertheless, Rema (Yoreh Deah 246:4) cites Rambam’s famous statement that “a stroll through the orchard” – i.e., the study of esoteric areas of Torah – should not be undertaken until after the student “has filled his stomach with meat and wine,” meaning a complete understanding of the basic laws of the Torah. (Interestingly, Rambam actually states “bread and meat” – real Torah substance – rather than just “meat and wine.”) The “full stomach” provides not just a grounding in the sources and a concomitant commitment to Torah and mitzvot but also presupposes that one has acquired proper methodology of thought.

Both are indispensable to understanding Kabbalah – and both are generally not the provinces of the average person. Thus, little will be gained from the study of Kabbalah and much can be lost. It is much more effective and meaningful to focus on the revealed Torah, whose “measure is longer than the earth and broader than the seas” (Iyov 11:9) and could not be fully grasped if we lived several lifetimes.

– Rav Steven Pruzansky is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun (Teaneck, NJ), Israel Region Vice-President of the Coalition for Jewish Values and author of the Chumash commentary “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” (Geffen).

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The study of Kabbalah is an attempt to understand how G-d, who is beyond time and space, created and currently relates to a world of time and space. It is also an attempt to connect to G-d through studying Divine secrets. However, study of mystical teachings can be dangerous. The Gemara in Masechet Chagiga 14b tells a story of how four Sages entered the “Pardes,” or “orchard,” referring to the study of mysticism, and how only one of the four, Rabbi Akiva, emerged from this study unscathed.

Additionally, the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi corrupted mystical teachings to promote anti-halachic practices and ideologies. In response, 17th century rabbinic leaders legislated that Kabbalah should be studied only by married men over the age of forty who were also scholars of Torah and Talmud. However, in the 18th century, chassidic leaders permitted the study of mysticism by the masses as a way to draw them closer to G-d.

Our responsibility as Torah observant Jews is to live a halachic lifestyle and to feel connected to G-d. The primary method to connect to G-d is through prayer, classical Torah study and mitzvah observance. However, for some people that is not enough. Even though I personally find spiritual connection primarily through the study of classical Torah texts, many people turn to and find that connection through the study of mysticism. I believe that there are multiple approaches to connect with G-d. Therefore, I think that it is appropriate for an average person who finds meaning in the field of Kabbalah to study it. However, one should study Kabbalah only under the guidance of a qualified teacher because of the great concern that he or she will misinterpret mystical texts. Additionally, engagement in these texts should be a supplement but not a replacement to our classical Torah texts which should always be the main sources to study our history, our mission and our halachic way of life.

Rabbi Jonathan Muskat is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside, a rebbe at Shulamith High School, and a pastoral health care liaison at Mount Sinai South Nassau.

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Rabbi Zev Leff

Learning Kabbalah before one is proficient in the basic knowledge of Torah is like learning calculus before one knows basic arithmetic.

Additionally, before one has a solid basis in the full gamut of the nigleh (openly revealed) Torah knowledge, The possibility that one will distort the esoteric teachings of the (nistar) hidden components of Torah contained in Kabbalah is very probable.

Furthermore, a certain maturity is needed to really fathom and understand properly this sensitive component of Torah knowledge.

Also, Kabbalah means that one receives the knowledge from someone who also received it from someone qualified before him, as true understanding of this component of Torah is only achieved by a chain of tradition.

Hence the Shulchan Aruch rules that the study of Kabbalah is limited to those who have filled themselves with the revealed components of the written and oral Torah and who is also at least 40-years-old.

However, a simple study of the less esoteric portions of Kabbalah is open to all who can study it properly.

Rabbi Zev Leff is rav of Moshav Matisyahu and a popular lecturer and educator.

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