The wisdom of Kabbalah is not as complicated as many people think. Geert Kimpen describes how Kabbalah changed his life and introduces seven key terms from these mystical teachings.
Seven key terms used in Kabbalah.
Kabbalah may owe its reputation for complexity to the Zohar, the Kabbalist’s “bible.” This weighty mystical tome is bursting with erotic imagery for the structure of the cosmos, nature, and human beings. It was written in a cave, remained hidden for ten centuries, and even after that could only be studied by a select few, because it was said to drive unequipped readers to madness.
Not until the sixteenth century were the book’s insights rewritten in a more accessible form by Chaim Vital—the main character of my first novel, The Kabbalist. Back in those days, there was a prophecy that the insights in the book would not become available to everyone who hungered for knowledge until our own day. Modern kabbalists slide their index fingers from right to left over the Hebrew letters without reading them; this is known as “scanning the text.” The contents of the Zohar (Hebrew for “Splendor”) penetrate directly into the soul.
The Zohar peels away the outer layers of Old Testament stories to reveal their deeper meanings, like an onion. Layer by layer, it reveals the secret code hidden in the Hebrew letters, like a brilliant cryptogram. The insights that come to light under the dust of the old stories are as splendid as the book’s title suggests.
On Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest), after the woman of the house has lit two candles, she and the other women guests cover their eyes with their hands and invite the Shekhinah, the bride of God, to join them. They praise her good qualities, such as love, compassion, consolation, warmth, sensuality, and gentleness, and ask the Shekhinah to bring her inspiration down upon them. When the women remove their hands from their eyes, the candlelight has been transformed into the mystical light of the Shekhinah. Her light fills the space, and everyone feels uplifted and inspired by her. You can immediately sense that every heart feels lighter and happier. The Shekhinah connects people to each other and remains in their souls throughout Shabbat. Her name means “dwelling.” She is the joyous wisdom that does not condemn. When God is divorced from the feminine, He is no longer God. So the only way for human beings to experience enlightenment is by merging their souls with the Shekhinah. Kabbalists say, “A person who has never experienced the power of passionate love will never attain the feminine soul of God.” Wherever two people love one another, the Shekhinah dwells with them.
Lilith and the Shekhinah have the same numerical value in the Kabbalah—they are two faces of the same goddess. The Shekhinah is welcomed on Friday evening and departs on Saturday evening, making way for the energy of Lilith. You might call Lilith the wild younger sister of Shekhinah. While Shekhinah brings harmony, Lilith encourages us to manifest in the world and is our ally whenever we chase our dreams. She takes form in our ambitions, our dedication, and sometimes in our envy and our tendency to push others side on the way to our goals. We need her power to make something of our lives. She takes possession of us from the underbelly and spurs us on to bigger dreams than ever.
Lilith was Adam’s first wife. When they made love, she insisted on being on top. Adam couldn’t handle her, and asked God to exile her. Even now, Lilith rules our lives six days a week. But on the seventh day, Shabbat, we exile her by putting work aside.
Kabbalists do not have a word for God. Any name or definition you might use to try to describe God would fall short, because God is always greater than what can be captured in words. They say that God Ein Sof is, “without end.”
Those who cannot see “God” in the world live in a godless world. They are like people who cannot see the love in their lives; we can only see as much love as we believe it is possible for someone to give us. The stories in the Torah use ten different synonyms for “God.” These are not names. You might call them divine qualities, like Wisdom, Understanding, Grace, and Beauty. In other words, God is referred to in terms of the most important quality he manifests in that particular story. Using these ten qualities, God created everything that came into being in the universe. They form the laws of creation. The mechanism of creation is symbolized by a convenient model: the Sefirot, the famous Kabbalistic tree of life. Anyone can apply these ten principles to create wishes in his own life.
“Every Friday night we lay down our work and gather around the Shabbat table with our loved ones to reflect on what really matters,” Kabbalists say. “We build a cathedral of time.”
The Shabbat celebration begins when the first three stars are visible in the sky. From that moment on, love is central. That is why a husband blesses his wife every week. He finds words for the ways she amazed and touched him that week. The woman does the same to her children. Finding specific words for why you are grateful for a person in your life, week after week, has healing power and consecrates the bond of love—with storytelling, laughter, eating, drinking, singing, and dancing.
Joy is the path that brings us closest to God. Whoever truly believes in love cannot be anything other than joyful. After the children have gone to bed, the husband and wife make love like a god and goddess, as a tender way of connecting to each other and manifesting the harmony of the universal masculine and feminine in the universe.
Do you know the story of Moses, who liberated his people from slavery? In the middle of the night, they fled through the desert until they arrived at the Red Sea and could go no further. The sea lay ahead of them and the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit behind them. Moses asked God what to do, but God told him to find his own solution. And Moses did. He raised his arm out over the sea in a commanding gesture and stepped into the water, advancing until it came up to his chin. Then, thanks to his unshakable faith, the sea split open. Such is the power of passionate belief, and this story can comfort us when we see no way forward in our own lives.
The three Torah verses that tell this story are made up of exactly seventy-two letters. Stringing together the first letter of each verse gives you the first secret name of God. His seventy-two secret names stand for the seventy-two red seas in a human life: seas like depression, jealousy, self-doubt, and fear. If you meditate on the right secret name with the same conviction as Moses, you can split open the red sea in your own life.
“Abracadabra!” the stage magician says mysteriously, to make the assistant in the box disappear. He may not even know he is using one of the earliest Kabbalistic spells. In Hebrew, abbara kedahra means “flee like these words.” It’s an incantation for making unpleasant things go away. The word is written in a triangle shape on parchment and worn on a white thread around the neck. Conditions like toothache, malaria, and other pains vanish, just as the incantation itself dissolves into the letter A. It is an ancient and powerful mantra for dissolving everything that makes you unhappy into nothingness.
This article is part of our issue 20, 2020 ‘Take Your Time’
Text: Geert Kimpen