Basic Kabbala Teachings
by Rabbi Moshe Miller
Although Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal)
wrote relatively little himself, as mentioned in the "Works"
section, his teachings were nevertheless systematically recorded by
his disciples, primarily by Rabbi Chaim Vital. It is from these teachings
that the startlingly innovative teachings of the Arizal have been given
Following the era of Rabbi
Shimon bar Yochai and his disciples a long line of distinguished
kabbalists focused their teachings on one or more of the themes already
found explicitly or implicitly in early texts such as Sefer Yetzira,
Sefer HaBahir and Zohar, and in the works of their immediate
predecessors and contemporaries. They set out to clarify and compare
these teachings, and ultimately to transmit them to a disciple or small
group of select disciples. In this sense the work of the Kabbalists
after the Tannaitic era (i.e., until the 4th or 5th century CE) was
primarily classificatory, with very little by way of innovation.
The Arizal, however, was clearly an original thinker.
Although he also set out to explain the most abstruse parts of the kabbalistic
literature available at the time, particularly Zohar,
his analysis of those texts and the innovations he subsequently taught
his disciples, were unparalleled, and therefore may be regarded as an
entirely new school of kabbalistic thought.
There are five areas of focus in the Arizal's teachings
that may be regarded as the primary innovations of his system: the concept
of tzimtzum (G-d's self-contraction, so to speak) through
its various stages; the process of shevirat hakeilim (the
shattering of the vessels in the world of Tohu); the tikun
(rectification) of that shevira through birur hanitzotzot
(elevating the sparks), the concept of partzufim (literally,
"visages" - compound structures of the sefirot into
arrays that interact with each other); the nature of the soul
and the purpose of its descent into this world, and its relationship
with the higher realms, and ultimately with G-d.
This article will deal with with the first and fifth of
these main topics. For the full article, go to our KabbalaOnline
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Rabbi Moshe-Leib Miller, a guest teacher at Ascent
when he lived in Israel, was born in South Africa and received his yeshiva
education in Israel and America. He is a prolific author and translator,
with some twenty books to his name on a wide variety of topics, including
a new, authoritative, annotated translation of the Zohar. He currently
lives in Chicago.