Practical Kabbalah

Practical Kabbalah

Kabbalah is one of the world’s oldest sacred traditions: it was transmitted to Adam by the angel Raziel or constitute parts of laws received by Moses.

If you really immerse yourself in theosophical Kabbalah, learning the Zohar, coming to know its symbols, you will discover for yourself that the chains of associations begin to flow very easily. You can “jam” with the Zohar the way a jazz musician jams on a motif in a composition.

You can feel the interplay of energies (and I use this term very loosely) in your lived experience. And you gradually begin to open up, deepen, and receive.

It works — but the only way to know whether it works is to try it. And to try it takes a lot of learning and effort. Theosophical Kabbalah is not like basic meditation, which anyone can pick up with just a few days of practice. It exists within an elaborate context of symbols, language, and religious structures, which is one reason it is often reserved for advanced students.

Many spiritual seekers today are convinced that any spiritual path can be learned quickly, in one’s spare time, and in English. Well, this is not true. Some paths can, and some cannot. Whether for better or for worse, theosophical Kabbalah cannot. You can learn the symbols, acquaint yourself with the core truths, and deepen your appreciation for life through the Kabbalah’s beautiful ideas. However, the fact is that in order to become truly fluent with the particulars of theosophical Kabbalah, it takes time.

Prophetic Kabbalah has a more familiar, and accessible, path to receiving: meditation. The precise techniques of Abulafia and his students do depend on the Hebrew language, but I’ve found that they can be transposed into English fairly easily. What those techniques do is loosen the grip of thought, just like insight meditation. Their method, though, is very different: they scramble the mind, a bit like Zen, and unchain the subconscious, a bit like some forms of psychoanalysis. With free association, letter permutation, and many other techniques, the practices of prophetic Kabbalah scramble up the thinking mind, enabling more direct perception of reality.

Just from this short description, you can see how different the methods of prophetic Kabbalah are from those of theosophical Kabbalah. Prophetic, or ecstatic, practice does not fine-tune the senses to the minute fluctuations of the sefirot; it shakes up the mind until it can see reality directly. Now, prophetic Kabbalah does still work with the language and topics of Kabbalah — sefirot, letters of the alphabet, Divine names, and so on. However, it uses those resources to engender a mystical experience.


In some contemporary circles, you may hear Kabbalah advertised as a source of great power. Yes, there are secrets of the Divine, and ways in which to experience It, but the essence of the Kabbalah, according to some, is that it is a technology for tapping into the hidden currents of power within the universe. Know the code, and you can operate your life more effectively.

Such statements are not new; they are part of a long tradition within the Kabbalah that is sometimes labeled “Practical” Kabbalah — in Hebrew,kabbalah ma’asit. Practical Kabbalah includes beliefs in angels and demons, methods for influencing the Divine influx, means of fortune-telling and accessing one’s past incarnations, and so on. For many people, this branch of the Kabbalah is the most dubious, and its presence causes some of us to raise our eyebrows at the whole enterprise. For others, though, practical Kabbalah is, like its name implies, Kabbalah put into practice; while seemingly the least rational, many practical Kabbalists (including their contemporary heirs) say: try it. Put it into practice, or visit someone who is learned enough to do it for you. And see what happens.

If theosophical Kabbalah is about knowing and influencing the Divine realms, and prophetic Kabbalah is about experiencing the Divine directly, then practical Kabbalah is about using the knowledge of Divine and angelic powers to influence life on this world. In a way, it has the opposite trajectory from theosophical Kabbalah: not moving from this world to higher realms, but using higher realms to affect this world.

As with all the streams, there both is and is not a separate corpus of practical Kabbalistic literature. On this site, for example, I have included topics such as reincarnation and the golem under the heading of “practical Kabbalah.” But accessing one’s previous incarnations was a central feature of Lurianic Kabbalah, which is usually seen as theosophical. And the methods used to create a golem are basically those of the Sefer Yetzirah, which is both theosophical and prophetic. So, as before, some of the same writers and even the same texts that propounded one “stream” of Kabbalah here describe another.

At the same time, just as with other streams, there are some texts which are almost exclusively ‘practical’ in nature. Sefer Raziel, for example, has little of Cordovero’s philosophizing — but many magical formulae, angelic names, and spells to be used for protection. There is also a more keen awareness of practical Kabbalah on the part of theosophical books such as the Zohar, which explicitly demeans the use of Kabbalah for earthly gain or protection, and which — like many theosophical texts — considers practical Kabbalah to be a disgrace.

Your own attitude toward practical Kabbalah may well be similar. Do a simple Google search and you’ll find hundreds of dubious websites about the “Qabalah” based on the magical writings of Aleister Crowley or the ill-informed speculations of the blogosphere. Practical Kabbalah seems, and often is, less intellectually rigorous, less spiritually uplifting, and largely about magic (more on that term below) and hocus-pocus. This judgment is perfectly acceptable to hold, and is shared by great Kabbalists for centuries, but it’s important to be aware of your biases, and be open to reconsidering them.

First, we should be mindful of the fact that practical Kabbalah is almost surely the most widespread of the Kabbalistic streams. For every one rabbi speculating on tiferet, yesod, and malchut, there are hundreds of women wearing charms or chanting magical formulae to protect their children. If you come from a Jewish background, you’ve probably heard your grandparents say kein ayin hora, an utterance meant to keep away the “evil eye.” In Israel today, there are dozens of Kabbalists who dispense blessings or charms or segulot (basically, bestowals of magical protection or advantage), and they are widely known, particularly in the Sephardic and Edot Mizrach communities — far more than the abstruse writings of Abulafia. So, practical Kabbalah is quite widespread.

Of course, much of this is basically folk belief or superstition, but that simply begs the sociological question of why superstitions are so prevalent. Practical Kabbalah answers the real needs of people in distress. The fascinating figure of Lilith, for example, is associated in practical Kabbalah with childbirth, and the many ways it can go wrong. Whatever we may think of Lilith as a demonic power, surely it is easy to understand how pre-industrial people saw the mystery of childbirth, or the tragedy of miscarriage. This is serious business, and the human desire to understand or control the seemingly random forces of nature is quite serious as well.

Third, practical Kabbalah is often older than its theosophical or prophetic counterparts. The use of angelic names in Sefer Raziel, for example, is likely closer to their original, magical significance than the way they are arrayed in, say, the Zohar, or even the much older Hechalot literature. Likewise, scholars believe that many of the permutations of language that mark the prophetic Kabbalah originated in magical formulae and the combinations of letters used in soothsaying and divination. If we believe practical Kabbalah to be more “primitive” than other forms of Kabbalah, then this is not surprising; of course, that which is less sophisticated comes before that which is more. Then again, there is a certain importance to the most ancient roots of these ancient teachings.

Finally, I find it useful to tease apart the obvious abuse of practical Kabbalah by egotists and charlatans on the one hand, from the deep understanding of what magic actually is on the other. We’ll go into depth about the second topic on the next page, but let’s at least entertain the belief that it is not reducible to the first. That is, yes, there are hucksters out there — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t also forces we don’t understand, both in the universe and in the deepest levels of ourselves. Practical Kabbalah represents hundreds, if not thousands, of years of human attempts to probe the infinite energies of their inner and outer worlds. It speaks in the languages of myth and magic, because those are often the best ways to express the non-rational, often sinister forces that exist within and without. Let’s neither believe nor disbelieve, but investigate.


–Jay Michaelson, a teacher and student of Kabbalah.

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