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"Studying the Kabbalah"

from Salomon Maimon's Autobiography, Berlin, 1792

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[1. Introduction]

Kabbalah - to speak of this divine science somewhat more in detail - means, in a wider sense of that term, tradition, and it comprehends not only the occult sciences which may not publicly taught, but also the method of deducing new laws from those given in the Holy scriptures, and also some fundamental laws which are said to have been delivered orally to Moses on Mount Sinai. In the narrower sense, however, Kabbalah means only the tradition of occult sciences. This is divided into theoretical and practical Kabbalah. The former comprehends the doctrine of God, of his attributes expressed by his manifold name, the emergence of the world through a gradual reduction of his infinite perfection, and of the relation of all things to his supreme being. The latter is the doctrine which teaches how to willingly affect nature by means of the manifold names of God, which represent specific modes of working upon, and relations to, natural objects. These names are regarded not just as arbitrary, but as natural signs so that everything done with these signs affects the objects they represent.

[Speculation on the history of the Kabbalah]

Originally the Kabbalah was presumably nothing but psychology, physics, ethics, politics and the like, presented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories the hidden meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were capable of grasping it. By and by, perhaps through revolutions, this hidden meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for their signified. But as it was obvious that these signs had to mean something, it was left to one's imagination to re-invent the secret meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized until the Kabbalah became an art of reasonable raving, or a systematic science based on fancy. Its vast promise to willingly affect nature; the sublime solemnity with which it announces itself, have, naturally, an extraordinary impact on spirited minds unenlightened by science or even less by systematic philosophical learning.

[Works of the Kabbalah]

The principal work to study the Kabbalah is the Zohar which is written in a very sublime style in Aramaic. All other Kabbalistic writings are to be regarded as merely commentaries upon it or extracts therefrom.

There are two main system of the Kabbalah, the system of Rabbi Moses Cordovero, and that of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The former is more realistic, i.e. he approximates more closely to reason. The latter, on the other hand, is more formalistic, i.e., more complete in the construction of his system. The modern Kabbalists prefer the latter, because they only hold only that to be the genuine Kabbalah in which there is no rational meaning. The principal work of Rabbi Moses Cordovero is the Pardes (Paradise). Of Rabbi Isaac Luria himself we only have disconnected writings. But his pupil, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, wrote a large work under the title Ez Hayyim (The Tree of Life) in which the whole system of his teacher is contained. This book is held by Jews to be so sacred that they do not allow it to be printed. Of course, I had more taste for the Kabbalah of Rabbi Moses than for that of Rabbi Isaac, but was not free to express my opinion on this point.

[2. The Preacher]

[The Sha'arei Kedushah]

After this digression on the Kabbalah in general, I return to my story. I learned that the under-rabbi or preacher of the place was a Kabbalistic adept, and therefore, to attain my objective, I made his acquaintance, took my seat next to him in the synagogue, and as I observed that after prayers he always read from a small book, and then put it back carefully in its place, I became very curious to know what sort of book it was.

After the preacher had gone home, I went and took the book from the place from its hiding-place and when I found that it was a Kabbalistic book, I went and hid myself with it in a corner of the synagogue until all people had left and the door was locked.

I then came out of my hiding-place and kept on reading my beloved book without a thought about eating or drinking until the evening when the doorkeeper returned and opened the synagogue again.

Sha'arei Kedushah or The Gates of Holiness was the title of this book, and it contained, aside from its visionary and exaggerated aspects, the principal doctrines of psychology. I dealt with it in a fashion which the Talmudists ascribe to Rabbi Meír, whose teacher was a heretic:

He found a pomegranate, ate the fruit and threw away the peel.
In this way, I finished the book within a few days. But instead of satisfying my curiosity, it only excited it the more. I wished to read more books of this sort.

But as I was too shy to confess this to the preacher, I decided to write him a letter in which I express my irresistible longing for this sacred science and therefore begged him to support me with books.

[Studies at the preacher's house]

Thereafter, I received a very favourable answer from him. He praised my devotion for the sacred science and assured me that, amid its restricting conditions, my devotion was an obvious sign that my soul was derived from Olam Aziluth (the world of immediate divine emanation), while the souls of mere Talmudists originate from Olam Yezirah (the world of creation). He therefore promised to support me with books as much as he could do.

Since he was himself mainly occupied with this science and always needed the respective books at hand, he could not lend them to me, but gave me permission to study them in his own house just as I liked.

Who was happier than I? I accepted the offer of the preacher with gratitude, hardly ever left his home and sat night and day over the Kabbalistic books.

Two concepts in particular gave me greatest trouble. One was the tree, or the concept of divine emanations in their manifold twists and entanglement among each other. The second was God's beard whose hairs are divided into numerous classes with something peculiar to each, every hair being a separate domain of divine grace. With all my efforts I could not find any reasonable meaning in these concepts.

My perpetual visits however were extremely inconvenient for the preacher. He just had married a very pretty young wife, and as his poor little house consisted of a single chamber that was at once his parlour, study and bedroom and as I sat in it sometimes reading the whole night, my transcendental sense frequently happened to collide with the preacher's sensuality.

Consequently, he thought up a good plan to get rid of the incipient Kabbalist. He said to me one day: "I see that it is very inconvenient for you to spend all your time away from home at my house because of the books. You may take them home, for heaven's sake, one by one and study at your convenience."

[Home exercises in theoretical Kabbalah]

Nothing was more welcome to me than this. I took home one book after another and studied them until I believed to have internalized the entire Kabbalah. I didn't content myself merely with the insight into its principles and manifold systems, but also sought to make proper use of them. There was no passage in the Scripture or in the Talmud the hidden meaning of which I could not have unveiled, according to Kabbalistic principles, with great skill.

A Book entitled Sha'arei Orah (The Gates of Light) was of good service here. In this book the manifold names of the ten Sephirot (the main subject of the Kabbalah) were enumerated so that a hundred and more names are given to each. In every word of a verse in the Bible or of a passage in the Talmud I found therefore the name of some Sephirah. Since I knew the attribute of every Sephirah and its relation to the others, I could easily bring out of the combination of names their conjoint effect.

To illustrate this by a brief example, I found in the book just mentioned that the name Jehova represents the six highest Sephirot, not including the first three, or the person of the Godhead generis masculini, while the word Koh means the Shechinah or the person of the Godhead generis feminini, and the word Amar denotes sexual union. The words "Koh amar Jehovah," "Thus saith the Lord," I therefore explained as follows: Jehova unites with the Shechinah and this is Arch-Kabbalistic, and the like. When I read this passage in the bible, I thought nothing else but that, when I uttered these words and thought of their occult meaning, an actual union of these divine spouses took place from which the whole world might expect a blessing. Who can restrain the excesses of imagination when it is not guided by reason?

[Experimenting with practical Kabbalah]

With the Kabbalah Ma'asith or practical Kabbalah, I didn't not succeed so well as with the theoretical. The preacher boasted, not publicly indeed, but to everybody in private, that he was a master of this also; especially he professed roeh ve-eno nireh (to see everything, but not to be seen by others), i.e., to be able to make himself invisible.

I was particularly eager for this artifice in order that I, a young person, might practice certain kinds of mischief on my comrades without being punished. More particularly I formed a plan to keep my malicious mother-in-law in check by this means. I therefore implored the preacher to disclose this secret to me. I pretended that my intention was only to do good and guard against evil. The preacher allowed himself to be persuaded, but told me at the same time that certain preparations were required on my part. Three days in succession I had to fast, and every day to say some Ichudim. These are Kabbalistic phrases of prayer whose occult meaning aims at inducing sexual unions in the intellectual world in order to achieve certain effects in the physical world.

I did everything with pleasure, made the conjuration he had taught me and believed with all confidence that I was now invisible. Immediately, I hurried to the Beth Hamidrash, the Jewish academy, went straight up to one of my comrades and gave him a good slap round his face. He, however, was no fool and returned the blow with interest. I was baffled and unable to understand how he could have recognized me since I had followed the instructions of the preacher with utmost accuracy; still I thought I might, perhaps, unwittingly and unintentionally have neglected something. I therefore decided to repeat the operation. This time, however, I was not going to venture on a slap in the face, but only went into the academy to watch my comrades as a mere spectator. But as soon as I had entered, one of them approached me and showed me a difficult passage in the Talmud which he wished me to explain. I stood there utterly confounded and disconsolate over my failed hopes.

Thereupon I went to the preacher and informed him of my unsuccessful attempts. Without blushing, he boldly replied: "If you have observed all my orders, I cannot explain this otherwise than by supposing that you are unfit for removing visibility from your body." With great grief, therefore, I had to give up the hope of making myself invisible.

From: Salomon Maimon's Biography, Told by Himself and Edited by Karl Philipp Moritz, Berlin 1792

(New, revised translation of the German text by Monty Cantsin)


  1. Introduction
    1. Speculation on the history of the Kabbalah
    2. Works of the Kabbalah
  2. The Preacher
    1. The Sha'arei Kedushah
    2. Studies at the preacher's house
    3. Home exercises in theoretical Kabbalah
    4. Experimenting with practical Kabbalah

The Book Sefer Yezirah, the oldest known written transmission of Kabbalah