What Is Kabbalah?

Kabbalah, which means "receiving," is an ancient study of Jewish mysticism that gained popularity in the 13th century. Tzfat has been the main center for Kabbalah scholarship since the 16th century, making it one of Judaism's four holiest cities (along with Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Hebron).

Kabbalah, as opposed to formal rabbinical Judaism, is about reading between, behind, and all around the lines. Each letter and accent of every word in the holy books has a numerical value with particular significance, offering added meaning to the literal word. One of the most popular Kabbalistic concepts is that of tikkun olam, or "fixing the world." According to Jewish mystics, the universe was "broken" by God in order to make room for the physical realm. Thus the quest of humankind is to repair the universe through good works and service to God.

Although classical Kabbalah studies are intertwined with those of the Bible and the Talmud, not all religious Jews study Kabbalah. In fact, tradition holds that a person studying Kabbalah must be at least 40 years old and have a thorough knowledge of other Jewish texts. Outside of Hasidic Judaism, which has incorporated some Kabbalah into its worldview, many mainstream Orthodox Jews don’t study Kabbalah at all, preferring to focus on matters of the perceivable world.

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