Should I Be Learning Kabbalah?

Dear Beyond BT

My friend and I have been frum for about 10 years coming though a Yeshivish environment. We both spend a decent amount of time learning, including regular review of the parsha with Rashi and we have gone through Mishnayos and Mishna Berurah on the Daf a day plan. In addition we both have regular Gemora chavrusas and shiurim that we attend.

For the past few years my friend has been learning Kabbalah like Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Innerspace, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s Way of G-d and the Knowing Heart and many other English Kabbalah books. I’ve told him that he really shouldn’t be so involved with Kabbalah and should stick to the standard Yeshivish material. He tells me that Kabbalah reveals the inner depth of Torah, and many great Rabbis think it is appropriate to learn these days, and he feels it helps him get closer to Hashem.

I’m wondering perhaps I should spend some of my time learning the Kabbalah seforim. Has anybody been involved with the Kabbalah seforim like the ones mentioned above? Would you recommend it for someone with my background?

Thanks
Mendy

24 comments on “Should I Be Learning Kabbalah?

  1. PL – I agree with and accept your clarification. I just wanted to get across the idea that a Yid has to recognise the necessity and importance of exercising free choice. Obviously this does not extend to the free choice to ignore your Rav ( or any Rav ) in matters of clear Halacha. However, in matters of Haskafa, especially concerning a Yid’s individual life choices, I have always felt that the correct path was Marbeh Etzah, Marbeh Tevunah and ultimately the individual has to make his own choice and this is what makes us special and unique. We are not meant to be clones of our Rav.

  2. Anyone with a yeshiva background that wants to go deeper into the “hidden realm” of Torah, can access many insights from the Maharsha on the aggadta of the gemara, the Ramban’s commentary on Chumash, as well as the Kli Yakar and Ohr HaChaim on the Torah. These are basic commentaries, and there need be no debate on this matter.

  3. The sefarim from the RaMChaL mentioned in the original post are not “kabbalah learning” at all. They are totally mainstream sefarim taught freely at yeshivas to married and unmarried men. They do not require tremendous “hakdamos” to benefit from.

    Inner Space is actual kabbalah, but it is also just Theoretical Kabbalah, and also not the same as learning Zohar in depth or the Kisvei Ari. Someone who’s been through the whole Mishna Brura and knows halacha, and has been learning 10 years shouldn’t have any issue with it.

    Usually if a person learns something that’s not appropriate for them, they will naturally feel uncomfortable or have difficulty focusing. The attraction will wear off on it’s own. A person won’t be able to “digest” sefarim kedoshim intrinsically unless they’re holding in a certain place of purity.

    Please see the introduction to “Masok M’Dvash” on the Zohar for a long, detailed discussion of “who should learn kabbalah”, that takes a well sources and far more lenient position than the poster above. There are different opinions on this topic, and while everyone will agree that someone with no background in learning shouldn’t be learning kaballah, the position quoted above is at one extreme of the spectrum. Most don’t hold that you need to finish Shas before ever opening the Zohar. A lot depends on what your motivation is and how grounded you are to begin with. It also depends a lot on one’s level of shmiras habris.

  4. And further, Mr. Cohen, as regards a method of teaching people “which only makes them hate you more”, I think you should look at the derasha in the gemara in Yoma 86a ואהבת את ה’ אלקיך אמרו חכמים שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך

  5. Mr. Cohen,

    It’s funny that you quote the Shach and the Gra, but not on the same place. If you look at the Gra quoting the Shach in YD246, you’ll see that he argues that there is no basis in the Rambam for what the Shach says and that indeed neither the Rambam nor the Ramo ever even knew about Kabbalah and presumably did not know what they were even banning. And see the tshuvas of Ovadya Yosef for a heter to learn it.

  6. Michael,

    Great comment, except for the last sentence. Do you truly feel that if one’s personal Rav gives guidance that contravenes one of our personal, albeit important wishes, it is time to look for a new Rav? Is this how one should view his guiding Rav- you’re all right unless you give me an answer I don’t want to hear?

    This presupposes that all else is a good match with this Rav, of course. Obviously, if there have been problems all along with the “fit” between Rav and mentee, there are other problems aside from learning choices.

    I would love a clarification, as the sentence seemed really strange in light of the rest of your sensible comment.

  7. I was introduced to the learning of Kabbalah by a number of Talmidei Chachamim in Jerusalem who believe that every Ben Torah should have at least a cursory knowledge of the basic tenents of Kabbalah. I do not want to advertise their names but I believe that someone who desires to understand these Chelekim of the Torah and who, like Mendy, are involved in learning niglah, should find a Rav who will guide them in learning nister.

    The books of the Ramchal such as Derek H’ and Mesillas Yeshariim are basically harmless and are staples of the Mussar Movement. Indeed much of what was written by Rav Dessler is an attempt to give over Kabbalistic ideas to the “masses.” Indeed the same can be said for Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s seforim. There is very much to be said about the fact that our generation has a special thirst for the depth of the Torah and the special insight which comes from a Kabbalistic perspective.

    All of this is light years away from Ma’assei Kabbalah,, Kameiahs and Golems. Mr. Cohen should lighten up and Mendy should continue to follow his heart and his Rav ( and if your Rav doesn’t let, maybe look for a Rav who is more in tune with the Derek H’ which you want to tread ! )

  8. Sefarim such as Da’as Tevunos (RamChaL) and Nefesh Hachaim (R. Chaim Volozhiner) have become somewhat of a staple for todays yeshiva students.

    This kind of learning can bring you to a keen appreciation of the significance of your every step – zehirus in the language of Mesillas Yesharim.

    Whether that will be the effect or not depends very much on how you learn and more to the point how you integrate what you learn with your lifestyle and behaviour.

  9. Abe, can you try to express your opinions or debate without sarcasm? It truly compromises your credibility and the perception of your intentions here.

    Mendy, great question. I’m with Mordechai, particularly in his differentiation between Derech Hashem and Zohar. SA’s point about seeking the advice of one’s personal mentor is also critical.

    Good luck, and thanks for opening up the topic!

  10. Mr. Cohen,

    Your point that only certain people should learn Kabbalah was well-taken and was supported by your citations.

    Your anecdote (in #8), however, was uncalled for and counterproductive. You should own up to that. I’m altogether put off by those who presume to understand such events to a T.

  11. Mendy,

    I actually had an email exchange with a friend yesterday about INNERSPACE and the fact that when I first got it 12 years ago (I had been frum for about 4 years at the time) I really didn’t “get” it. I had looked at it on and off and then decided to put it away. This past Shabbos I opened it up for the first time in about 4 years and went through the first 50 pages in one shot.

    Is it for you? Who is to say except your Rebbe or a mentor you are close with.

    “Derech Hashem” can be learned on many levels. In my opinion once you go through the sefer it will help you see your life of Torah u’Mitzvos in a different way.

    If we are ‘Asurring’ Kabballah, then we would have to start with many things written by R Hirsch (see the into to Horeb), all of Rabbi Tatz’s books/shiurim, and probably most activity on Lag B’omer.

  12. Just for the record, ein adam lomed ela mah sh’libo chafetz is in one of the Jewish holy books. I believe that the Leshem and the rest of the sifrei kaballa are also Jewish holy books.

  13. You are free to agree or disagree with me. That is your legal right.

    However, whether you agree with me or disagree, I am the ONLY person in this discussion who provided 8 precise quotes with precise sources from 6 different Jewish holy books to prove his point.

    The rest of you provided ZERO quotes from ZERO Jewish holy books to prove you points.

    Attack me if it makes you feel better, I only ask that you remember what I just said.

    Last but not least, experience had repeatedly shown me that providing precise quotes with precise sources from Jewish holy books does not change the minds of people who disagree with me, it just makes them hate me even more. Yet like a fool, I continue to do it, hoping that a few open minded people may be listening.

  14. Mr. Cohen, you and I and even the “elderly Torah scholar” are not privileged to know if this rabbi’s early passing had anything to do with the cause you allege.

    Also, your avoidance of Lashon HaRa is incomplete because people will now speculate about which well-known figure the rabbi was.

  15. Thank you Mr. Cohen, for threatening us with divine retribution.

    Since we’re on the topic of unqualified Jews doing things, how about the damage caused by unqualified Jews doing Kiruv? Or giving bad Aitza as to what to learn?

    Does everyone except for Mr. Cohen agree that as long as you’re not making amulets or golems, learning Torah is a good thing, and a person should learn mah sh’libo chafetz?

  16. Kaballah study by unqualified Jews was a major factor that contributed to the tragedy of Shabetai Tzvi, the false messiah who took thousands of Jews with him when he converted to Islam.

    I once knew an elderly Torah scholar who warned [* Rabbi ______ ] several times, that if he did not stop teaching Kaballah to women, he would come to a bad end.

    Rabbi ______ died at a tragically young age, depriving American Jewry of one of its brightest lights.

    * The name of a famous Rabbi has been omitted to avoid Lashon HaRa.

  17. All Torah knowledge has to come through reliable sources and teachers. How do we find such a teacher today, as opposed to a charlatan making all the seemingly right moves? In the area of Kabbalah, which we have less intuition about than almost anything, the chances of our making a seriously wrong choice of teacher are magnified unless we first seek and get advice from trusted, qualified Rabbonim.

  18. I think there is a significant difference between works like Derech Hashem and the Knowing Heart (Daas Tevunos) and full-fledged Kabablah works. The former might be Kabbalah influenced, but I view them as more in the category of Hashkofoh/Jewish thought. If you feel a void and a desire to learn them, I would say that is seems okay (from here, based on your descrition) to do so. If you are talking about heavy duty Kabboloh, like learning Zohar cover to cover, works of the Ar”i, etc…that is something else. That you should hold off on, esp. if you have not even first tried the Kabbalah influenced works like Derech Hashem.

    As posted above, premature learning of Kabbalah can be dangerous. Just like you have to be careful re your physical intake, sometimes some people have trouble digesting certain foods e.g., similarly with your spiritual intake.

  19. The Kabbalah that is brought down to us by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and Bael Shem Tov and Chassidism is not neccasrily the hidden secrets that should be kept secrets.

    If it was not for Kaballah of chabad and Rabbi Kablan teachings and explanations I would never have had been exposed to Judaism and rbought me closer to being with.

    I think as long as you are grounded and whatever brings you closer to Judaism is fine.

  20. When I was a frishe yungerman, and I had been learning full time for about four years, I asked my Rebbe, R’ Moshe Wolfson, shlita about learning Kabbolah seforim.

    He replied that as a limud — chas v’sholom; but as a way to enhance my avoidas Ha-shem, it would be a very good thing.

    If you have your own spiritual advisor, it would probably be worthwhile to ask him his opinion. (And if you don’t have your own spiritual advisor, it would definitely be worthwhile to acquire one.)

  21. DerechEmet or DerechAgenda? Seriously, what is your issue?

    Aderabba, it’s a kavod haShem and kavod haTorah to learn ALL parts Torah, it’s a kiyum of our chiuv to learn kol haTorah kulo, and it’s certainly important these days, with all the misrepresentation of kabbala, to know what the emes is.

    By the way, if you didn’t understand the yeshivish language in this post, then maybe DerechEmet is correct, go learn the regular stuff for a few years.

  22. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, page 13A:

    It is written in the Book of Ben Sira: What is beyond you, do not seek.
    What is concealed from you, do not probe. Where you are authorized, seek to understand. It is not for you to be concerned with the mysteries.

    RASHI explains that there are some things that the Holy One Blessed Be He does NOT want to reveal to you.

    Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, page 14B:

    Our Rabbis taught: Four [Jewish scholars] entered the Orchard [to explore mysteries]:
    Ben Azai died. Ben Zoma became confused and lost. Acher became an agnostic.
    Only Rabbi Akiba [who was careful to not overstep his bounds] left unharmed.

    Rambam, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah (Basics of Torah), Chapter 4, Last Paragraph:

    And I teach that it is nor correct to stroll in the Orchard [mysticism], except for a person who is well-learned in the laws of the Jewish faith, who knows what is forbidden and what is permitted, and similarly [the correct way to do] the mitzvoth.

    Rema commentary on Shulchan Aruch, Chelek Yoreh Deah, Siman 248, Sif 4
    It is not correct for a person to study mysticism [literally, stroll in the garden] except after filling his belly with meat and wine, which is intimate knowledge of that which is forbidden and permitted and the laws of the commandments.

    Rabbi Moshe Cordovero:

    The Sweet Light (Or Neerav) explains the necessity of studying Kabbalah.

    In this volume Rabbi Moshe criticizes those who study this subject [Kabbalah] without prior Torah knowledge, pointing out that one must first study Bible, Mishnah, and Gemara before studying Kabbalah.

    Siftei Cohen comment on Shulchan Aruch, Chelek Yoreh Deah, Siman 246, Sif 6:

    The Kabbalah experts and Acharonim [more recent authorities on Jewish Law] emphasized that a Jew should NOT study Kabbalah until he fills his mind [literally, fills his belly] with 63 tractates [in other words, he masters the entire Talmud].

    And some [authorities] have written that a Jew should not study Kabbalah until age 40, because 40 is the age of understanding [as taught in tractate Avot, chapter 5].

    Furthermore, this [Kabbalah study] requires [that the student possess]: holiness, and purity [from sins], and speed [in performing mitzvot], and cleanliness [from sins].

    And the majority of people who improperly trespass by attempting to ascend to this wisdom [Kabbalah] before it is appropriate for them are cut down before their time.

    The Vilna Gaon:

    One must have broad knowledge of revealed Torah, which may be likened to bread which provides basic sustenance that satisfies a man’s heart, before proceeding to Kabbalah, which can be compared to wine and fine oil.
    Where this order is not followed, one will lose all understanding in both.

    SOURCE: Chapter 10, Page 119 of The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna by Betzalel Landau, translated by Yonasan Rosenblum, 1994, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn.

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 42, paragraph 9 (Quoting the Ari):

    You must immerse [in a kosher mikvah] often [literally, at all times] in order to prepare yourself to understand the secrets of the Torah.

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 42, paragraph 9 (Quoting the Ari):

    Do not believe that the secrets of the Torah will be revealed to you if you are ignorant [of Jewish holy books] as it is written: HE GIVES WISDOM TO THE WISE (Daniel 2:21).

    If anyone has questions about these quotes, which I personally collected, translated and arranged in chronological order, please email me at: DerechEmet@yahoo.com

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