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Theoretical vs. Practical Kabbalah

By: F. Levine

First Published: 2000-06-15

Last Modified: 2006-04-30

There are two general categories of kabbalah: the theoretical (also called speculative or theosophical)—Kabbalah Iyunit, and practical (also called linguistic)—Kabbalah ma'asit.

Theoretical kabbalists are those who are purely esoteric, searching and striving to become closer to God and understand the workings of His universe. They work at a higher level of religious experience, and are often occupy themselves with finding hidden meanings in the Torah, meditation, scholarship, prayer, and intense pietism—on a surface level, there is nothing particularly unusual about them, other than that they are deeply spiritual, and may be regarded as shining examples of Judaism. Throughout history, many great rabbis, teachers, sages, leaders, and philosophers have also been theoretical Kabbalists.

Ba'alei Shem

A certain number of Jewish mystics turned their attention to producing tangible effects. The body of knowledge they would draw on for this purpose is known as the practical Kabbalah, which was closely interwoven with superstition and folklore. It was what we could call "white magic", though this is not really an appropriate term and will be put in quotes throughout. Any true kabbalist will be adament that no form of Kabbalah is magic. Unfortunately, "white magic" is sometimes the easiest synonym to use when attempting to explain practical Kabbalah.

There are many stories of the wandering or community wonder-worker, the man who knows the secrets of God, and who is so pious he may use them to affect the physical world and benefit the people. Active practitioners of the practical Kabbalah were often called Ba'alei Shem Tov (sing.,Ba'al ShemTov), "Masters of the Good Name" (that is, God's Name[s]). They were also referred to as Ba'alei Shem ("Masters of the Name".), and to the Spanish Kabbalists they were Ba'alei Shemot ("Masters of Names"). These titles are interchangeable.

The practical Kabbalah involves a number of responsibilities and actions, including uses of the Bible and the various Names of God to create of protective amulets, perform exorcisms, create artificial life forms (golems), and even perform a form of teleportation. Practical Kabbaliasts also had an in-depth knowledge of demon- and angelology. These topics are discussed throughout this site.

Merkabah Mysticism: the Ecstatic Kabbalah

A third category of Kabbalah exists, known as the ecstatic Kabbalah. It likely first appeared some time before the Christian era, gelling into a school of thought called Merkabah mysticism (Chariot mysticism) in the early centuries of the millennium. Merkabah mystics concerned themselves with Ezikiel's vision of the Throne (or Chariot) of God, and spiritual ascents to discover the nature of Heaven and Creation. In later centuries, some Kabbalists occupied themselves with deep, ecstatic mediations, sometimesthrough the use of music, in order to cleave to God, gain spiritual insight,or even to attain prophesy. In my opinion, the mindset and literature of the ecstatic mystics is more theoretical, but the methods used (intense prayer, permutation of the Names of God, and so on) to achieve their goals are in some cases similar to or shared by the practical Kabbalah. The notable difference is that ecstatic Kabbalah seems to be centered primarily around the Kabbalist's spiritual growth and personal experience, rather than the application of the Kabbalah to the physical world.

Suggested Reading

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:

Ariel, David. Mystic Quest, The. Jason Aronson, 1990.  Full Listing »

Epstien, Perle. Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic. Shambhala, 2001.  Full Listing »

Fine, Lawrence. Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety and the Beginning of Wisdom. Paulist Press, 1984.  Full Listing »

Matt, Daniel C. Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. Castle Books, 1997.  Full Listing »

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1974.  Full Listing »

For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.