History and Differences Between Orthodox Hebrew Qabalah and Western Esoteric Qabalah

Karen Charboneau Harrison

© Copyright 2023 Karen Charboneau-Harrison and Jeff Harrison, All Rights Reserved.

Western Esoteric Qabalah is a blend of traditional Qabalistic teachings, Gnosticism, Hermetic Philosophy, Neo-Platonism, Neo-Pythagoreanism, Alchemy, Astrology, and Tarot. All of the Western Wisdom traditions can be understood through the medium of the Qabalistic symbol - the Tree of Life. That being said, we use the name Qabalah which is obviously Hebrew, and a large proportionate amount of what we are dealing with here had its beginnings in the Hebrew Qabalah, the oral tradition of mysticism practiced by the ancient Hebrews. Scholem who is one of the foremost scholars of Jewish Qabalah states that its beginnings were in Jewish Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism a philosophy and theory developed by the Greek Plato. In this theory, Plato espoused that the universe was made up of emanations of energy which hierarchically descend and radiate from the Godhead through intermediate stages finally forming physical matter and the world we live in. This theory of Emanations is where the idea of the Sephirotic spheres was developed.

Traditional Hebrew Qabalah today, on the other hand, functions as a part of the spiritual practices and wisdom of Judaism. In Orthodox Judaism, Qabalah is used only to interpret the workings of God, the Penteteuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) and the Holy texts of Judaism. Qabalah is a part of this tradition and is used in a very specific way. Hebrew Qabalah of today tries not to vary from its beginnings in Judaism's mystical traditions and is still taught orally, although utilizing various texts as well, only to men over 30 years of age. The Sephir Yetzirah-Book of Formation is the first important text, originating from the oral tradition and was written down sometime between the 3rd-6th centuries C.E. It contains six brief chapters and is the first book in which the word Sephiroth appears. This book describes the creation of the Universe in terms of the Hebrew alphabet and symbolic numbers undoubtedly related to Neo-Pythagoreanism.

The Sephir Yetzirah then became the foundation of later texts. The next flurry of writing and work with the Holy Qabalah was in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Other important texts include the Bahir, written around 1200 CE in southern France. Here we have the first references to the Secret Tree (the Tree of Life) and the description of the Sephiroth as vessels of the Divine Light. It is theorized that the Bahir was probably assembled from other texts that were probably of Eastern origin.

Then between 1280-1286 CE, Moses de Leon wrote perhaps the greatest text on QBL, the Zohar, a series of commentaries on the Bible and on mystical cosmology. For generations considered an ancient work written in Ancient Aramaic, a language which is the root of Hebrew and Arabic, Moses de Leon felt that his work would be taken more seriously if rather than naming himself as the author, instead should be attributed to an ancient author, thus 2nd century rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. There exists no complete translation in a European language - Simon and Sperling translated only 35%, while Kabbalah Unveiled contains three more books.

At this time Spain was a hotbed of knowledge under Muslim rule with scholars studying alchemy, astrology and with much tolerant exchange of ideas between Muslims and Jews, even Christians, in Muslim Spain. Another important work, Gates of Light, Sha'are Orah, was also produced at this time which is an excellent text on Hebrew names of God. In the Renaissance man considered himself the jewel in the crown of the Universe, becoming the measure of all things, rather than the lowly sinner atoning for the fall. Hermetic philosophy came to the fore and another great exchange of ideas with Qabalah being studied by the Christian Scholar magicians. Under this influence Qabalah now was grasped by Christians as a universal system and a great tool. A few Jewish converts to Christianity helped speed this occurrence. This exchange of ideas and interest dovetails with Hermeticism as a major interest of the time. In 1460 CE Cosimo De Medici, realizing the value of the Hermetica, asked his translator to do it first before even a text of Plato's Republic.

Recommended Products
Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford Mystical Qabalah
Godwins Cabalistic Encyclopedia Witches Qabala
Middle Pillar Incense Middle Pillar Oil

Go to Lesson 1: Malkuth
Go to Lesson 2: Yesod
Go to Lesson 3: Hod
Go to Lesson 4: Netzach
Go to Lesson 5: Tiphareth
Go to Lesson 6: Geburah
Go to Lesson 7: Chesed
Go to Lesson 8: Daath
Go to Lesson 9: Binah
Go to Lesson 10: Chokmah
Go to Lesson 11: Kether
Go to Lesson 12: A Qabalistic Meditation, Journey Through the Spheres of the Tree of Life

Back to blog