Practical Kabbalah
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Theoretical vs. Practical Kabbalah



Kabbalah Iyunit
Kabbalah ma'asit
Ba'alei Shem
Merkabah Mysticism


There are two general categories of Kabbalah: the theoretical (also called speculative or theosophical)—Kabbalah Iyunit, and practical (also called linguistic)—Kabbalah ma'asit. Theoretical Kabbalists are those who are purely esoteric, searching and striving to become closer to God and understand the workings of His universe. They work at a higher level of religious experience, and are often found occupying themselves with finding hidden meanings in the Torah, meditation, scholarship, prayer, and intense pietism—on a surface level, there is nothing particularly unusual about them, other than that they are deeply spiritual, and may be regarded as shining examples of Judaism. Throughout history, these have been great rabbis, teachers, sages, leaders, and philosophers.

A certain number of Jewish mystics turned their attention to producing tangible effects. The body of knowledge they would draw on for this purpose is known as the practical Kabbalah, which was closely interwoven with superstition and folklore. It was what we could call "white magic", though I'm hesitant to use the term and will put it in quotes throughout. There are many stories of the wandering or community wonder-worker, the man who knows the secrets of God, and who is so pious he may use them to affect the physical world and benefit the people. Active practitioners of the practical Kabbalah were often called Ba'alei Shem Tov (sing., Ba'al Shem Tov), "Masters of the Good Name" (that is, God's Name[s]). They were also referred to as Ba'alei Shem ("Masters of the Name".), and to the Spanish Kabbalists they were Ba'alei Shemot ("Masters of Names"). These variants of the title are interchangeable.

The practical Kabbalah involves a number of responsibilities and actions, including "magical" uses of the Bible, "magical" uses of the various Names of God, creation of protective amulets, exorcism, knowledge of demon- and angelology, the creation of artificial life forms (golems), and even a form of teleportation. These topics are discussed throughout this site.

A third category of Kabbalah exists, known as the ecstatic Kabbalah. It likely first appeared some time before the Christian era, gelling into a school of thought called Merkabah (Chariot) mysticism in the early centuries of the millennium. Merkabah mystics concerned themselves with Ezikiel's vision of the Throne (or Chariot) of God, and spiritual ascents to discover the nature of Heaven and Creation. In later centuries, some Kabbalists occupied themselves with deep, ecstatic mediations, sometimes through the use of music, in order to cleave to God, gain spiritual insight, or even to attain prophesy. In my opinion, the mindset and literature of the ecstatic mystics is more theoretical, but the methods used (intense prayer, permutation of the Names of God, and so on) to achieve their goals are in some cases similar to or shared by the practical Kabbalah. The notable difference is that ecstatic Kabbalah seems to be centered primarily around the mystic's spiritual growth and personal experience, rather than the application of the Kabbalah to the physical world.


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