What is Kabbalah?

June 27, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
Read on for article
Ask the rabbi.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. What is Kabbalah?

A. From a root that means “to receive”, Kabbalah (“tradition”) denotes a system that is said to date back to ancient origins.

There are mystic currents in Biblical and post-Biblical literature and the early rabbinic sources report a number of mystics and mystical experiences.

By the Middle Ages, the mystical strand in Judaism had become a complex system of thinking, focussing on themes such as the nature of God and the history and structure of Creation.

Mystics often concerned themselves with the flaws and malfunctions of the world and how to mend them and reunite God with his exiled Shechinah.

The major kabbalistic text is the Zohar, said to date back to Mishnaic times and ascribed to Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century, who claimed that his secret wisdom derived from earlier generations commencing with the time of Adam and Eve. The modern scholars attribute the Zohar to the 13th-century rabbi Moses de Leon.

Neither the Zohar or indeed the whole kabbalistic tradition is easy reading of the modern popularistic self-help kind.


Q. What is your opinion about the rule in the Torah that if a man dies leaving a childless widow, the woman must marry her husband’s brother (“Yibbum”) or go through a renunciation ceremony called “Chalitzah”?

A. The Torah rule about Yibbum (“yavam” = “brother-in-law”) and Chalitzah (“loosening of the shoe”) is in Devarim 25.

The Mishnah at the end of B’chorot gives priority (i.e. regards as the desired outcome) to Yibbum over Chalitzah. In tractate Yevamot there is a strong argument that the priority is the other way round.

The difference might be geographical. Maimonides and Karo give priority to Yibbum whereas Isserles emphasises Chalitzah. Alternatively, the difference might be spiritual and psychological.

Chalitzah is very rare. In all the many years I served in the rabbinate in Australia I recall only one Chalitzah ceremony, which was conducted by Rabbi Osher Abramson, head of the Sydney Beth Din, using a Chalitzah shoe which I found in the office of the Great Synagogue.

Chalitzah releases the brother-in-law from the obligation to marry the widow. If there was a Yibbum the name of the deceased husband would be preserved in the child of the new marriage; the deceased husband in a sense walks the earth once more.

The Chalitzah has the result of allowing the woman to marry someone else without retaining the connection with the previous husband. The Chalitzah ceremony is full of symbolism; the brother-in-law has the Chalitzah shoe removed from his foot so that if the widow now has a child with the new husband, the Chalitzah has brought about a closure of the previous marriage.

The Israeli rabbinate has ruled that Chalitzah takes priority over Yibbum though former Sephardi chief rabbi Rav Ovadiah Yosef disagrees.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “What is Kabbalah?”
  1. william h rocheblave says:

    thank you rabbi im a christian man i live in Pensacola Florida and i enjoyed that great lesson. I learn a lot more from J-wire.

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.