By Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
The study of Kabbala today is a tradition dating back to the most ancient of Jewish sages
The word "Kabbala" stems from the Hebrew root "kabal",
meaning "to receive". The term implies that it is a certain kind of wisdom that
The Mishna says that "Moses received [kibel]
Torah on Sinai and [subsequently] transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua transmitted
it to the Elders. The Elders transmitted it to the Prophets. The Prophets
transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly."
Moses was the master of all prophets. He understood
the Torah completely. In this sense his prophetic vision was on the level of an
open vessel that could always receive more. Perhaps the secret of Moses
receiving was, the more he transmitted, the more he was able to receive. The
Mishna thus says, "Moses 'kibel' Torah" because he was the paradigm
of complete and total
kabbala - receptivity to the prophetic experience.
The idea of Kabbala, then, is to become completely
infused with Torah and to connect with it on every possible level. Without
Kabbala, a person could understand Torah on a number of levels. The only way to
grasp every single nuance of Torah, however, is through the prophetic wisdom
that is contained in Kabbala.
"Moses transmitted to Joshua and Joshua transmitted to the Elders" (Mishna Avot 1:1)
We can now understand what Moses "transmitted to
Joshua and Joshua transmitted to the Elders, etc." According to the Torah, G-d
told Moses to place his spirit upon Joshua (Num.27:20). In other words,
Moses was to invest Joshua with his own spirit of prophecy. According to an
Midrash, this included the necessary methods and disciplines for
acquiring prophecy. Moses thus transmitted the keys for entering the prophetic
state to Joshua. These keys constituted the Kabbala tradition.
Throughout the period of the Prophets, the Kabbala was
guarded by the master prophets and transmitted to select disciples. During this
time, the Sanctuary, and later the First Temple, served as the focal point for
all prophetic experience. When the Temple was about to be destroyed the prophet
Ezekiel was shown a vision which was to signal the end of a thousand year period
of prophecy. This vision is known as
Maaseh Merkava, the Discipline (or
Workings) of the Chariot. While referring specifically to the opening chapter of
the book of Ezekiel, the term
Maaseh Merkava is also a general
appellation for the entire Kabbala tradition.