The Origins of Kabbalah on Both Sides of the Pyrenees

April 1, 2024 | Tamar Marvin
About the author:

While the Talmud speaks of esoteric knowledge, and there are mystical Jewish texts of considerable antiquity, most scholars date the emergence of what is now known as Kabbalah (literally “tradition,” or “thing that is received”) to a group of rabbis in medieval Provence, whose teachings then spread into northeastern Spain. Tamar Marvin considers how to make sense of their teachings:

Kabbalists themselves, including contemporary ones, emphasize the antiquity and continuity of esoteric traditions; they are of necessity (small-c) conservative, in the sense of conserving ancient, even primeval, knowledge. Scholars of Kabbalah, in contrast, tend to stress the novelty of medieval esoteric circles and what they describe as their sometimes-radical creativity. Each of these perspectives comes laden, of course, with its own ideological lens. I would offer that on the one hand, the many streams of antique esoteric Jewish thought nourished medieval Kabbalah deeply, while on the other, medieval thinkers applied their own spiritual needs, curiosities, and intellects to this ancient wellspring of tradition.

As for what changed with these Provençal thinkers, Marvin adds:

Until the 13th century, with a few exceptions, kabbalistic secrets were not written down, but transmitted orally from master to disciple. . . . Two students of [the pioneering kabbalist] Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Rabbi Ezra ben Shlomo (died 1238 or 1245) and his younger contemporary Rabbi Azriel of Girona, were instrumental in formulating kabbalistic thought. Azriel, who was also interested in philosophy, systematized kabbalistic concepts and introduced to them a vocabulary inflected with philosophical terminology. Evidently, Azriel and Ezra—often confused due to the similarity of their names—began disseminating the teachings they had received in writing, prompting a stern missive from Isaac the Blind imploring them to stop.

Read more on Stories from Jewish History: