Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Can You Kabbala?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I recently attended a Tu B’Shevat seder and the Rabbi mentioned the Kabbalists. So, I got to wondering: just what is the Kabbalah? And - is it true that your are supposed to be 40 before your study it?

Curious Questioner

Dearest Questioner,
 An excellent question - especially as we get closer to he holiday of the ‘hidden’ - Purim.
The Kabbala is considered the ‘mystical’ side of Judaism. Now, don’t start thinking crystal balls, turbans and incense. Nor does it imply anything dark or sinister. Rather it is a search for ‘hidden’ inner meaning.

Let me backtrack a little. Most of the Kabbala is found in the Zohar which was ‘revealed’ in the thirteenth century by Moses De Leon. Leon claimed that the Zohar was actually his compilation of rabbinic writings from older sources, especially second century rabbi Simeon bar Yochai. Most scholars think Leon embellished this link to give the Zohar more ancient credibility. Today, mysticism is an integral part of Chasidic Judaism, and the Kabbala is often cited as source material for passages in their prayerbooks.

Now, Tanta Golda has never studied Kabbala herself, so she has relied on her trusted sources to help answer your question. Perhaps the best definition for Kabbalah comes from Tzvi Freeman at He describes it this way: Inside your body breathes a person—a soul. Inside the body of Jewish practice breathes an inner wisdom—the soul of Judaism…
The discovery of this inner wisdom is Kabbala.

Another name for Kabbalah is “Torat ha-Sod.” Commonly mistranslated as “the secret teaching.”
Kabbalah is not a secret teaching. It is the teaching of a secret. Freeman goes on to explain:
“The secret teaching” means that we are trying to hide something from you.
“The teaching of the secret” means that we are trying to teach something to you, to open up and reveal something hidden.

Why should the student of Kabbala be at least 40? Because, by that time one is considered to have attained the maturity to fully understand the questions and answers inherent in its study. In practice, people younger than 40 have studied Kabbala, but only after the person teaching them determined that they possessed the requisite level of maturity. Kabbala purists say that it is something to be studied one-on-one with a well learned teacher, not something to be consumed en masse in a university course, or through ‘popular’ literature.

Does Tanta Golda believe this? Meh. Does her opinion matter? You get to make this determination. Let me close with this anecdote:

Tracey R Rich, with, cites one Orthodox man, who when introducing a speaker on the subject of Jewish mysticism, said basically, "it's nonsense, but it's Jewish nonsense, and the study of anything Jewish, even nonsense, is worthwhile.”

Be well my kindeleh! Keep sending in your questions to


  1. Hi Tanta Golda -
    Thank you for doing this service. I lost my Dad a year ago and have a very difficult time with holidays. At Passover, he was a Cantor so he would sing and do the Seder and I was the youngest so I would ask the questions. When he got too ill to do the Seder, I did it - that was hard enough emotionally - but now ...
    I was invited to a Seder tonight ...I made and brought Matzo balls but I just couldn't go in. I dropped them off and left. I just can't stop crying right now although its already been a year and I am supposed to "start living again". I have in some ways. Now I feel like a "bad" Jew and have dishonored his memory. What does Judaism say about that?

  2. Darling Anonymous,
    I feel how painful this is for you. First, I doubt that either your father or God would want you to beat yourself up for what happened. You would be dishonoring your father if you didn't feel sad at his loss, if you could turn off your feelings for him because the calendar said so.

    Grief is a process. Our tradition has 'stages', more like guidelines, which are intended to help a mourner ease themselves back into 'life'. But, that is what they are - guidelines. Nowhere does it say that you must be done grieving at the one year mark, only that you should do your best to re-enter life to the fullest.
    Okay, so tonight you weren't able to cross the threshold and sit through a seder - but you got as far as the door - you didn't sit home in the dark.
    There will always be 'triggers', times when your memories of your father well up to the surface bringing with them fresh sorrow. The important thing is that you don't let these hold you back.
    Maybe seders will always be a particularly tough time for you, but in time you will be able to dwell more on the happy memories of seders with him. Dishonoring him would be never trying to attend another seder.
    Wash your face, eat some matzah, and next year - next year in a seder.
    May his memories become joyful - TG


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