KosherTorah School for Biblical, Judaic & Spiritual Studies

The Difference Between the Original

Secrets of the Torah” and the Zoharic Kabbalah

by Ariel Bar Tzadok

Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.


Most people do not know that Jewish mysticism includes two very different schools of knowledge. The original Biblical/Talmudic “secrets of the Torah,” and the later Kabbalah of the Zoharic/Lurianic schools are not the same. Granted, the later system did evolve out of the former one, nevertheless, the later system is significantly different from that which came before it.


In order to properly appreciate this difference, and understand why knowing about it is important, we must first turn to the standard dictionary to define terms. This way we make sure that when we use a term, we are understanding it, and using it, properly. In this way, the differences that we need to identify can be clearly seen from the beginning of our discussion.


A dictionary definition of mysticism1 includes, the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality;” and “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight).” Both of these definitions describe Biblical and Talmudic era mystical practices, referred to as the “secrets of the Torah,” but neither of them describe what today we call Kabbalah.


Experiential Jewish mysticism thrived during Talmudic times, and was practiced, as the literary evidence confirms, up into the 11th and 12th centuries, in a number of Jewish communities in France and Germany. The religious group known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz, with leaders like R. Eliezer of Worms, were clearly deeply involved in practices dating back to ancient times. The literature of this group is a natural compliment to, and outgrowth of the Talmudic “secrets of the Torah” traditions.


However, beginning in the 13th century (1200's), a new genre of literature began to develop in Muslim Spain. This literature is today called mystical because of its overt metaphysical content. Yet, as the dictionary definition above clearly shows, for something to be correctly defined as “mystical,” there needs to be an experiential component to it. What came out of medieval Spain had no such component. It was very different from that which had come out of Europe over the previous two centuries.


The metaphysical literature developing at this time in Spain was very, very different from the earlier original Biblical/Talmudic traditions. Using much of the terminology of the old literature, the Spanish literature created a whole new set of meanings for the old concepts, essentially creating a whole new universe for its students to contemplate. Yet, this universe, although proclaimed as ancient, can be clearly shown through scholarship, not to be as historically ancient as the literature itself suggests. In other words, the Spanish Kabbalah claimed an antiquity that it did not earn.


Spanish Kabbalah, while using many of the older Talmudic/Merkava terminologies, gutted them of their original meanings, and replaced those meanings with ideas and concepts which can be scholarly shown to have originated with the Neoplatonic metaphysics of the 3rd century and forward.


The dictionary2 defines metaphysics as “a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology; and “abstract philosophical studies: a study of what is outside objective experience.”


Apparently the students of the Spanish Kabbalah followed the earlier advice of the RaMBaM who taught that one should embrace truth, regardless of its source outside of Judaism. Neoplatonic metaphysics is a fascinating course of study, and worthy to be embraced within Judaism. Metaphysics has long been part and parcel of Jewish theology in many different forms.


What developed in Spain was a system of uniquely Jewish metaphysical philosophy. This was not the practice of actual mysticism. While many might consider this to be splitting hairs, it actually is a significant difference. The older schools, representing the original Biblical/Talmudic/Merkava traditions, sought direct mystical experience through meditation and trance. This focus, for the most part, has fallen by the wayside, practiced today by only a very few. It is the metaphysical school of philosophy that came to us from the Spanish Rabbis that today we embrace as Kabbalah. This includes within it all Zoharic literature, and the later Lurianic school built upon it.


Zoharic literature, on its surface, attempts to imitate the older prophetic/Merkava traditions by describing supernal worlds, and the residents thereof. One reading these accounts may superficially conclude that indeed the Zohar is in the class of prophetic/Merkava literature. After all, they often do discuss the same topics. However, as any scholar can attest, the Zoharic descriptions of the supernal worlds, and the angels who dwell within them, and the earlier accounts of these worlds, and their angels do not align, or concur. Although the same terminology might be used between the two systems, Zoharic literature and earlier Merkava literature describe two very different supernal domains.


Some religious apologists might want to blur these differences, and explain them away with intellectual rationalizations. Scholars, on the other hand, seek to make things clear, not blurred. Religious scholars who study these materials can clearly see the differences between the older Jewish mystical schools, and the later schools of Spanish Kabbalah. The two systems are very different.


The Zohar presents itself to be the teachings of the 2nd century Tana, Shimon Bar Yohai. Decades of scholarly investigation, alongside a number of solid Rabbinic opinions throughout the centuries have, in my opinion, been able to prove that the Zohar's relationship to Shimon Bar Yohai is nothing more than pseudepigraphal, and lacks any real historical connection. This should not come as a surprise to anyone knowledgeable of Jewish literature.


Pseudepigraphal literature means to ascribe the authorship of a book to someone else, either to embellish the value of the text or, for one reason or another, to conceal a text's true authorship. One should never think that the 2nd century b.c.e. Enochian books were actually written by Enoch. One should never think that R. Eliezer's book, Raziel HaMalakh (Book of the Angel Raziel), was actually written by the angel, or passed down from Adam himself, as the book's preface suggests. Any such claims of antiquity are midrashic in origin. All claims of this nature are legend, not history. Judaism is full of such literary examples.


Judaism, throughout the ages, is full of texts attributed to ancient holy men, and Sages. Pseudepigrapha was a common form of Jewish poetic, metaphorical writings. This literary form was not meant to deceive anyone, because the claims of antiquity were never meant to be taken literally. Metaphors and symbols were commonly used in Judaic literature as literary devices. This vital understanding has gotten lost with regards to the many books of the Zoharic school.


Within regards to its authority in Judaism and Jewish Law (Halakha), the authorship of the Zohar does not really matter. Although there are different opinions as to the level of the Zohar's authority in Halakha,3 nevertheless, all classical (Orthodox) Jewish authorities hold the Zohar in the highest esteem.


Zoharic literature offers a tremendous amount of inspiration, and wisdom to its readers. Unfortunately, a good number of Zoharic (and later Kabbalistic) practices are based on legend, and myth, grounded in metaphysical speculations, and not founded on actual mystical, or other types of direct spiritual experiences. While there is nothing wrong with these types of practices, what is wrong is how they are wrongly interpreted.


Metaphorical and metaphysical meanings are all well and good. They can be, and many times are inspirational. What they are not, however, is literal. And whenever the metaphorical is interpreted to be literal, we lose the teaching's original meaning and purpose. This is a shame because what is created in place of meaningful metaphor is superstitious myth. This is how illogical legends, often built upon fears, grow.


Centuries ago, Biblical and Talmudic mystics, including the Biblical prophets, experienced spiritual visions, and dreams, In these trance states they described Heavenly domains, palaces, gateways, angelic guardians, and other magnificent experiences. What they all hold in common is that they were all internal psychological experiences, within the minds of each individual mystic, with the details of each individual experience being unique and different from that of any other. RaMBaM, when describing prophecy in his code the Mishneh Torah (section, Laws of the Foundation of Torah), makes mention of this very point. Also, in his Guide to the Perplexed, RaMBaM elaborates in great detail about the actual nature and experience of prophecy thus documenting for posterity, the depths of his true knowledge about the authentic “secrets of the Torah.”


No two prophets saw Heaven, or the Heavenly realms, in exactly the same way. Each experienced what they did through the filter of each one's own mind, imagination and intellect. In mystical language this was called the “Especluria sh'Ayna Meira” (the unclear mirror).


It was the imaginative faculty of thought that made prophetic visions so vivid, and true. Rather than attempt to logically speculate about some other-worldly reality, the Biblical prophets, and those who came after them, delved within the recesses of the human collective unconscious. Each practitioner of this system peered deep within one's own expanding consciousness, and from there extracted images, archetypes, and messages for us, that each expressed a unique vision for collective humanity.


These psychic revelations are what distinguishes psychological mystical experience from academic metaphysical philosophical speculations. The two systems are based on two different modes of human consciousness. The prophetic system was based on delving down, deep into the unconscious, and from there extracting previously unconscious content. The metaphysical system operates in the opposite way. Instead of delving deep into the unconscious, metaphysical speculation stretches out the rational, intellectual mind to its furthest reaches. Instead of delving down, metaphysics climbs “up” in thought.


One system delves down, one system raises up. This explains why Jewish spirituality speaks about both, “ascents” and “descents.” One's mind “ascends” intellectually to Heaven to contemplate the Supernal Worlds, whereas one's soul “descends” psychologically before the Throne of Glory, to gaze upon the Presence of God (the Shekhina). This different terminology is not semantic, it is describing two very different modes of spiritual experience.


Over the many centuries of Talmudic development, the Sages even took a preference for the path of intellectual accomplishments over that of psychological explorations of the unconscious. They came to the understanding how extracting unconscious content, in the forms of dream-likes images and archetypes of beautiful expressions, are similar to art and poetry. Not every individual can fathom all these metaphorical images. They need to be understood by the rational intellect in order for one to benefit from them. Most spiritual aspirants never succeed in developing these higher levels of consciousness.


The Sages often chose the path of sharpening the mind, and the intellect. They realized that even in the domains of metaphysics, the mind can be used to penetrate deeply into understanding and unraveling the secrets of the universe. These sentiments were summarized in the Talmud (TB Baba Batra 12a) in the statement, “Hakham Adif m'Navi” (a Sage is preferable to a prophet). A prophet can explore the unconscious, and may or may not be successful in extracting unconscious content (a vision), whereas a Sage explores the conscious universe with his rational mind. The Sage is in control, and in charge. He does not need to wait for the unconscious to reveal itself to him. Prophecy is a passive spiritual experience. Metaphysical speculation is an active form of the mind.


Two different methods of spiritual exploration result in two very different outlooks on the world. Judaism has a long history of experience, and embrace of both of these modes of spiritual pursuits. In light of this embrace of dual spiritual pursuits, we can possibly better understand ascribing pseudepigraphal authorship to books. In a prophetic dream/vision, the mind of the prophet or later Merkava “descender” may indeed have seen, or experienced an image of the person for whom his book is named. Although Zoharic literature is not of the prophetic genre, maybe some of its authors in medieval Spain had similar (psychological) experiences to those of the masters of the older schools. History, unfortunately, does not record this, and therefore, all we can do today is speculate.


Metaphysical speculation, absent of personal mystical experience, is hollow. It is like a body without a soul. The master Kabbalist of the Lurianic school, Hayim Vital, wrote often emphasizing what he called the difference between the “pshat of sod,” (superficial Kabbalah) and the “sod of sod” (secret Kabbalah). Today's Kabbalah study, even in the famed study halls of Jerusalem are, for the most part, mere metaphysical speculations of the “pshat” variety. Although their philosophy gets technical and complicated, it never manages to transcend the theoretical, to delve into the realms of actual mystical/spiritual experience, the likes of which were practiced in Biblical and Talmudic times.


From a religious point of view, I am not sure that these differences really matter. But with regards to letting the truth be known, and with regards to freeing us from growing superstitions, and irrational beliefs based upon a superficial understanding of Kabbalistic teachings, it is important that what is true, and real, be made widely known.




3 Reference the Beit Yosef, and Darkhei Moshe commentaries to the Tur law code (Orah Hayim 141, 123b).


Become a monthly supporter.
P.O. Box 628 Tellico Plains, TN. 37385  USA

The Written Works of Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright (C) 1997 - 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

Please remember, KosherTorah is supported by your generous contributions.
Thank you for your support, and your interest in our works.