Kabbalah For Dummies®


by Arthur Kurzweil




About the Author

A direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim Yosef Gottlieb (1790–1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630), and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530–1572), three revered rabbis and teachers of Kabbalah, Arthur Kurzweil frequently teaches the Talmud and introductory classes on Kabbalah to groups of adults in synagogues and other Jewish gatherings across America. He also currently serves as publisher at Parabola magazine.

Arthur is the author of On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom (Jossey-Bass). He’s also the author of the best-selling classic From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History (Jossey-Bass), co-editor of The Hadassah Jewish Family Book of Health and Wellness (Jossey-Bass), and editor of Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass). He has also written My Generations: A Course in Jewish Family History (Behrman House), which is used in synagogue schools throughout the United States.

Arthur is the recipient of the Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University for his unique contributions to the field of Jewish education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies for his trailblazing work in the field of Jewish genealogy.

A member of the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Arthur frequently performs his one-man show “Searching for God in a Magic Shop,” in which he blends the performance of magic tricks with a serious discussion of Jewish theological ideas.

Visit Arthur’s Web site at www.arthurkurzweil.com.



To my parents, Saul and Evelyn Kurzweil,

Who in partnership with God brought me into this world, and who taught me the holy process of curiosity, (“There are three partners in man” [Talmud, Niddah 31a])

To my children, Moshe, Miriam, and Malya,

Who study and live the wisdom of Kabbalah, who have made me the wealthiest man in this world, and who are my greatest blessings. (“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” [The Five Books of Moses, Bamidbar 6:24])

To my soul mate, Bobby,

My partner in all the worlds. (“In how many days did the Holy One create the world?” “Six.” “And what has God been doing since then?” “Making matches, assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.” [Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 68:4])

To my extraordinary Teacher,

Who nourishes me with Wisdom. When God wills it, may this wisdom usher me gently into the World to Come. (“But your teacher who taught you wisdom . . .” [Talmud, Bava Metzia, 33a])


Author’s Acknowledgments

Each morning I engage in a spiritual practice known for centuries to students of Kabbalah. This practice is simply the recitation of a brief prayer expressing gratitude to God, at the moment of my first conscious thoughts, for continuing to sustain my soul. I am always grateful for opportunities to express my gratitude.

I want to thank:

Chrissy Guthrie, my project editor: Thank you for your encouragement, patience, warmth, and, most of all, your guidance. You made this book better with every suggestion.

Elizabeth Rea, my copy editor: You’re proof, once again, that the unsung hero of book publishing is the copy editor, who takes a manuscript and vastly improves it.

Michael Lewis, my acquisitions editor: You encouraged me and believed in me from the very beginning. Thank you.

Alan Rinzler, my friend, mentor, and colleague: You suggested me for this project. For that, and for so much more, I will always be grateful.

Simcha Prombaum: Your friendship, your support, your insights, your guidance, and your words of Torah all nourish me and feel like gifts from Above.

Goldie Milgram: You’re such a gifted teacher; I admire your talents and your profound empathy for your students. Thank you for your help with this book.

Alan Zoldan: Your inspired creativity is always so impressive. Thanks for your suggestions and for your encouragement.

Gary Eisenberg, Richard Carlow, Ed Rothfarb, Marc Felix, Rick Blum, and Robin Bauer: When I add up the years that each of you has been my friend, it comes to over 200 years of love, spiritual explorations, mutual support, and countless blessings.

Mrs. Turnwall, Mrs. Combs, Miss Umanoff, Mrs. Custer, Mr. Joseph Kenneth Puglisi, Mr Stanley G. Heisey, Mr. Louis Krauss, Alida Roochvarg, Mr. David Christman, Dr.Robert Sobel, and Mr Irving Adelman: You were all beacons of light for my life, and I will remember you forever.

Rabbi Chaim Yosef Gottlieb (1790–1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630), and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530–1572): I have the great honor and also the awesome responsibility of being, in each case, your direct descendant. I have prayed to receive your blessings on this book, with the hope that it will be a successful part of my ongoing desire to share our inheritance with others.

My children, Malya, Miriam and Moshe: We discuss the profound ideas of Kabbalah with each other all the time. Fortunate and blessed is the father who can engage in the study of Torah with his children.

My brother, Ken Kurzweil: I’m more secure knowing that you’re always there to help me with a computer problem. And special thanks for studying the great spiritual Jewish poets — B. Dylan and L. Cohen — with me.

Ruth Rothwax: Thank you for your love and for the many ways you have helped me.

My parents, Saul and Evelyn Kurzweil: Thank you for studying the Torah of life with me. Since my earliest years we’ve been discussing the great eternal questions together. Thank you for being my most important role models. I am grateful to be your son.

Bobby Dor, love of my life: You helped me with your insights, with our countless conversations about spiritual matters, with your suggestions, with your profound love, and with a delicious feta cheese and tomato omelet whenever I wanted one.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who keeps us alive, sustains us, and permits us to reach this season.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Ram Dass, the Bobover Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Elie Wiesel: How fortunate and blessed I have been to be in your presence, to sit at your feet, and to drink up your words of Torah.


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

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Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Senior Project Editor: Christina Guthrie

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Technical Editor: Rabbi Simcha Prombaum

Editorial Manager: Christine Meloy Beck

Editorial Assistants: Erin Calligan, David Lutton

Cover Photos: © Rena Pearl/Alamy

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (www.the5thwave.com)

Composition Services

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Layout and Graphics: Carl Byers, Lavonne Cook, Joyce Haughey, Barbara Moore, Barry Offringa, Lynsey Osborn, Heather Ryan, Alicia B. South

Anniversary Logo Design: Richard Pacifico

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Indexer: Aptara

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About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : So, What’s the Big Secret? Unmasking Kabbalah

Chapter 1: What Is Kabbalah?

Getting to Know Kabbalah, “The Received Tradition”

Hey, What Are the Big Ideas?

A Constant Search for God

Who Can Study Kabbalah?

Different Approaches to the Study of Kabbalah

Picking a Kabbalah that Works for You

Chapter 2: Magic, Mishegas, and Other Things that Kabbalah Isn’t

Setting the Record Straight

Trying to Figure Out Who’s Legit and Who’s Not

Chapter 3: Looking Back: A Brief History of Kabbalah

Kabbalists in the Bible

Kabbalah in the Rabbinic Period

Thriving in Spain in the 13th Century

Coming of Age in the Mystical City of Tzfat

The Bigger You Are, The Harder You Fall: The Shabbatai Tzvi Affair

The Great Revival: Hasidism

Kabbalah Today

Part II : Cutting to the Core of Kabbalah

Chapter 4: The Link between Heaven and Earth: Kabbalah’s Own Top-Ten Countdown

Seeing below the World’s Surface

The Ten Fundamental Forces that Sustain the World

Ways to Look at the Tree of Life

Pulling the Strings of Existence: The Work of the Kabbalist

Chapter 5: Everything (Even a Traffic Jam) Is for the Best

How Can Everything Possibly Be for the Best?

Getting the Words Right: Gam Zu L’Tovah

Don’t Confuse Acceptance with Passivity

Training Oneself to See Like a Kabbalist

Picking up the Pieces: In the Beginning a Vessel Was Shattered

Figuring Out Individual Divine Assignments

Chapter 6: Our Bodies Don’t Have Souls; Our Souls Have Bodies

A Spark of God in Everyone

Getting to the Soul of the Matter

Descent for the Sake of Ascension — That’s Life

Introducing the Four Worlds of Kabbalah

Going Up? The Soul’s Journey of Five Levels

Chapter 7: Like Déjà Vu All Over Again: Reincarnation in Kabbalah

What Is Reincarnation?

Birth and Death (Also known as Homecoming and Graduation)

Understanding the Significance of Reincarnation to Kabbalah

Chapter 8: Instant Karma’s Gonna Get You

Everything Has Meaning — Everything

Angels: The Kabbalistic Key to Karma

Suffering Hurts but Isn’t Random: The Kabbalistic View

Part III : Livin’ La Vida Kabbalah

Chapter 9: Living One Day at a Time

Three Daily Tasks of the Kabbalist

Waking Up

Getting Washed and Dressed

Offering Prayers and Meditation

Grabbing a Bite

Repairing the World

Bed Sheets and Balance Sheets: Ending the Day

Chapter 10: Living One Week at a Time

The End of the Week Is also the Beginning

Keeping Your Eye on the Sabbath

Preparing to Receive the Gift of the Sabbath

Greeting the Sabbath the Kabbalistic Way

Transforming the Shabbat Dinner Table into a Holy Altar

Observing and Enjoying the Sabbath

Saying Goodbye to the Sabbath: A Fond and Fragrant Farewell

Gearing Up for the Sabbath All Over Again

Chapter 11: A Year in the Life of a Kabbalist

Ringing in the New Year without a Noisemaker

Ten Days in the Early Fall for Introspection and Turning

The Day of “At-One-Ment”

Acknowledging with Joy That Life Is Temporary

Meditating on Light for Eight Days

Seeing God in Everything

Liberating Oneself from Narrowness

A 49-day Kabbalistic Meditation on the Ascent to God

Receiving God’s Teachings Constantly

Mourning the Loss of Wholeness

Celebrating Birthdays Kabbalisticly

Chapter 12: A Kabbalist’s Life Cycle

Beginning with a Bang: Birth

Coming of Age Kabbalistically

Kabbalistic Marriage

Death and Dying in Kabbalah

Part IV : Fine-tuning the Essential Skills of the Kabbalist

Chapter 13: Discovering the Kabbalistic Books that Really Matter

The Essential Kabbalah Library

Other Classic Books Worth Adding to the Collection

Don’t Forget a Few Hasidic Books

Chapter 14: Hitting the Books — and Kissing Them: Studying Like a Kabbalist

When Kabbalists Hit the Books, They Really Hit Them!

Understanding the Importance of Study in Kabbalah

Where and When Do I Begin?

Can I Study Kabbalah in English? (You Already Are!)

When the Student is Ready: Finding a Good Teacher

Pairing with a Study Buddy

Studying Ancient Scripture: The Torah

Discussing Life’s Issues with the Sages: The Talmud

Chapter 15: Praying Like a Kabbalist

An Overview of Prayer in the Life of a Kabbalist

How to Imagine an Unimaginable God While Praying

Addressing God Directly

Speaking Most Public Prayer in the Plural

Inner Attitude Is What Counts

The Kabbalist’s Prayer Book

A Kabbalist’s Daily Prayer Routine

Chapter 16: Knowing the Unknowable God

Understanding that You Can’t Understand is the First Step Toward Understanding

What Kabbalists Know about God, Even Though They Know Nothing about God

Developing a Personal Relationship with an Unfathomable God (Yes, It Can Be Done)

Calling God by Name (Even Though God’s Nameless)

Part V : The Part of Tens

Chapter 17: (Almost) Ten Myths about Studying Kabbalah

You Have to Be a Man

You Have to Be Married

You Have to Be an Orthodox Jew

You Have to at Least Be Jewish

You Have to Be Over 40

You Have to Buy Expensive Books in Hebrew

You Have to Follow a Dress Code

You Have to Know Hebrew

Chapter 18: Ten Great Kabbalists in History



Rabbi Akiva

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Holy Ari

The Shelah HaKodesh, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

The Vilna Gaon

Rabbi Adin Steinstaltz

What? How Could You Have Left Out . . .

Chapter 19: Ten Places that Kabbalists Visit



Meron, Israel

Holy Gravesites in the Holy Land

Holy Gravesites in Europe

A Holy Gravesite in the United States

The Mikvah

The Synagogue

The Bedroom

Here and Now

Part VI : Appendixes

Appendix A: Books and Authors You’ll Thank Me for Recommending

The Books of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

The Way of Splendor: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology by Edward Hoffman

The Books of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Souls on Fire by Elie Wiesel

91⁄2 Mystics: The Kabbala Today by Rabbi Herbert Weiner

Kabbalah: Selections from Classic Kabbalistic Works by Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Finkel

The Artscroll Prayer Book

Mishneh Torah: Yesodei HaTorah by the Rambam

The Fundamentals of Jewish Mysticism by Rabbi Leonard Glotzer

Appendix B: Patriarchs, Swindlers, Prophets, and Sinners: Meet 100 Torah Characters

Appendix C: A Glossary of Everything Kabbalah