Kabbalah (Hebrew: קַבָּלָה, also spelled Qabbalah, Kabalah, Kabala, or Cabala) literally means “receiving”. It is a body of esoteric teachings (Jewish mysticism) meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ain Soph and the mortal and finite universe.
Kabbalah consists also of meditative, devotional, mystical and magical practices which were taught only to a select few and for this reason Kabbalah is regarded as an esoteric offshoot of Judaism. In general usage, the spelling qabalah is used to distinguish the variation of kabbalah used by western or hermetic magicians from Jewish mystical kabbalah. 
Although Kabbalah is commonly believed to be exclusively Jewish, study reveals that the structure of Kabbalah is found in many religions around the globe. Traditional practitioners believe its earliest origins pre-date world religions, forming the primordial blueprint for Creation’s philosophies, religions, sciences, arts, and political systems. Historically, Kabbalah emerged after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th- to 13th-century Spain and Southern France, and was reinterpreted during the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. Isaac Luria is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah; Lurianic Kabbalah was popularised in the form of Hasidic Judaism from the 18th century onwards.
H. P. Blavatsky defined Kabbalah as follows:
Qabbalah (Heb.). The ancient Chaldean Secret Doctrine, abbreviated into Kabala. An occult system handed down by oral transmission; but which, though accepting tradition, is not in itself composed of merely traditional teachings, as it was once a fundamental science, now disfigured by the additions of centuries, and by interpolation by the Western Occultists, especially by Christian Mystics. It treats of hitherto esoteric interpretations of the Jewish Scriptures, and teaches several methods of interpreting Biblical allegories. Originally the doctrines were transmitted “from mouth to ear” only, says Dr. W. Wynn Westcott, “in an oral manner from teacher to pupil who received them; hence the name Kabbalah, Qabalah, or Cabbala from the Hebrew root QBL, to receive. Besides this Theoretic Kabbalah, there was created a Practical branch, which is concerned with the Hebrew letters, as types a like of Sounds, Numbers, and Ideas.” (See “Gematria”, “Notaricon”, “ Temura”.) For the original book of the Qabbalah—the Zohar—see further on. But the Zohar we have now is not the Zohar left by Simeon Ben Jochai to his son and secretary as an heirloom. The author of the present approximation was one Moses de Leon, a Jew of the XIIIth century.
The history of Kabbalah could be discussed in thousands of pages. Therefore here we only scope it briefly to the following contexts.
Kabbalah in Jewish Mystical Tradition
The word “Kabbalah” is derived from the Hebrew root “to receive, to accept”, and in many cases is used synonymously with “tradition”. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah (Torah – “Law” – the first five books of the Old Testament) was created prior to the world and she advised God on such weighty matters as the creation of human kind. When Moses received the written law from God, tradition has it that he also received the oral law, which was not written down, but passed from generation to generation. At times the oral law has been referred to as “Kabbalah” – the oral tradition.
The earliest documents which are generally acknowledged as being Kabbalistic come from the 1st. Century C.E., but there is a suspicion that the Biblical phenomenon of prophecy may have been grounded in a much older oral tradition which was a precursor to the earliest recognisable forms of Kabbalah. Some believe the tradition goes back as far as Melchizedek. There are moderately plausible arguments that Pythagoras received his learning from Hebrew sources. There is a substantial literature of Jewish mysticism dating from the period 100AD – 1000AD which is not strictly Kabbalistic in the modern sense, but which was available as source material to medieval Kabbalists. On the basis of a detailed examination of texts, and a study of the development of a specialist vocabulary and a distinct body of ideas, Scholem has concluded that the origins of Kabbalah can be traced to 12th. century Provence. The origin of the word “Kabbalah” as a label for a tradition which is definitely recognisable as Kabbalah is attributed to Isaac the Blind (c. 1160-1236 C.E.), who is also credited with being the originator of the idea of sephirothic emanation.
By the early middle ages further, more theosophical developments had taken place, chiefly a description of “processes” within God, and a highly esoteric view of creation as a process in which God manifests in a series of emanations. This doctrine of the “sephiroth” can be found in a rudimentary form in the “Yetzirah”, but by the time of the publication of the book “Bahir” (12th. century) it had reached a form not too different from the form it takes today. One of most interesting characters from this period was Abraham Abulafia, who believed that God cannot be described or conceptualised using everyday symbols, and used the Hebrew alphabet in intense meditations lasting many hours to reach ecstatic states. Because his abstract letter combinations were used as keys or entry points to altered states of consciousness, failure to carry through the manipulations correctly could have a drastic effect on the Kabbalist. In “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” Scholem includes a long extract of one such experiment made by one of Abulafia’s students—it has a deep ring of truth about it. Probably the most influential Kabbalistic document, the “Sepher ha Zohar”, was published by Moses de Leon, a Spanish Jew, in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The “Zohar” is a series of separate documents covering a wide range of subjects, from a verse-by-verse esoteric commentary on the Pentateuch, to highly theosophical descriptions of processes within God. The “Zohar” has been widely read and was highly influential within mainstream Judaism as well as Hermetic Kabbalah.
Kabbalah in Hermetic Tradition
About the 16th century, Western European scholars began taking interest in the Jewish Kabbalah. In this century we first see documents referring to Hermes Trismegistus, the “father” of Hermetic Magic.
At the time it was believed that the Corpus really was the religion of the ancient Egyptians, and that Hermes was a kind of Egyptian Moses. The fact that they were written much later, and heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, had the effect of convincing readers at that time that Greek philosophy was founded on much older, Egyptian religious philosophy – this had a huge influence on liberal religious and philosophical thinking at the time. Into this environment came the Kabbalah, brought in part by fleeing Spanish Jews, and it was seized upon as another lost tradition, the inner, initiated key to the Bible. Two figures stand out. One was Giovanni Pico, Count of Mirandola, who commissioned several translations of Kabbalistic works, and did much to publicise Kabbalah among the intellectuals of the day. The other was Johannes Reuchlin, who learned to read Hebrew and became deeply immersed in Kabbalistic literature. It must be said that Jews were suspicious of this activity, finding that Christian scholars were using the Kabbalah as a bludgeon to persuade them to convert to Christianity.
It was out of this eclectic mixture of Christianity, Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah and Renaissance humanism that Hermetic Kabbalah was born. Over the centuries it has developed in many directions, with strong influences from Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, but continued input from Jewish Kabbalah has meant that many variants are not so different in spirit from the original. Its greatest strength continues to be a strong element of religious humanism – it does not attempt to define God and does not define what an individual should believe, but it does assume that some level of direct experience of God is possible and there are practical methods for achieving this. In a modern world of compartmentalised knowledge, scientific materialism, and widespread cultural and historical illiteracy, it provides a bridge between the spirit of enquiry of the Renaissance (the homo universalis or – in Hebrew – hakham kolel) and the emergence of a similar spirit of enquiry in our own time.
Kabbalah in contemporary ceremonial magick
Kabbalah was a subject of study for most Ceremonialists between the time of John Dee and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But Eliphas Levi, whose influence on the Order of the Golden Dawn and on Thelema was great, rooted his Transcendental Magic (Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie) in a Kabbalistic tradition. His Elements of the Kabbalah remains a fundamental text for the student of ceremonial magick.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a Kabbalistic organization. Its initiatory structure was based on the Tree of Life. Indeed, its entire magical system depended on the Kabbalah.
Speaking about the interrelation between Kabbalah and Thelema, Kabbalah is a sine qua non in the practice of Thelemic magick. Aleister Crowley summarized the importance of Kabbalah in “The Temple of Solomon”, Liber LVII:
Fortunately, there is one science that can aid us, a science that, properly understood by the initiated mind, is as absolute as mathematics, more self-supporting than philosophy, a science of the spirit itself, whose teacher is God, whose method is simple as the divine Light, and subtle as the divine Fire, whose results are limpid as the divine Water, all-embracing as the divine Air, and solid as the divine Earth. Truth is the source, and Economy the course, of that marvellous stream that pours its living waters into the Ocean of apodeictic certainty, the Truth that is infinite in its infinity as the primal Truth which which it is identical is infinite in its Unity.
Need we say that we speak of the holy Kabbalah? O science secret, subtle, and sublime, who shall name thee without veneration, without prostration of soul, spirit, and body before thy divine Author, without exaltation of soul, spirit, and body as by His favour they bathe in His lustral and illimitable Light?
Principle & Concepts
“One is filled with admiration, on penetrating into the Sanctuary of the Kabalah, at seeing a doctrine so logical, so simple, and at the same time so absolute. The necessary union of ideas and signs, the consecration of the most fundamental realities by the primitive characters; the Trinity of Words, Letters, and Numbers; a philosophy simple as the alphabet, profound and infinite as the Word; theorems more complete and luminous than those of Pythagoras; a theology summed up by counting on one’s fingers; an Infinite which can be held in the hollow of an infant’s hand; ten ciphers and twenty-two letters, a triangle, a square, and a circle,–these are all the elements of the Kabalah. These are the elementary principles of the written Word, reflection of that spoken Word that created the world!” – Albert Pike, quoting from Transcendental Magic by Eliphas Levi
The Tree of Life & the Ten Sephiroth
In the original Jewish tradition, the sephiroth (singular sephira) are the ten aspects or manifestations of God. They begin with the highest aspect, Kether, and as the energy or concepts of God pass through creation, reaches the created world, the world humanity dwells in, Malkuth.
As Kabbalistic tradition grew, kabalists conceived of an interconnected pathway between the ten Sephiroth by which the energy of the Sephiroth traveled and by which adepts could travel to gain the benefits of each Sephira. This network of pathways became known as the Tree of Life.
Within the western magical tradition, the Tree was used as a kind of conceptual filing cabinet. Each sephera and path was assigned various ideas, such as gods, cards of the Tarot, astrological planets and signs, elements, etc. Within Thelema, the seminal book which defines all these correspondences is 777 by Aleister Crowley. To view the various correspondences from 777, you can start at the Tree of Life or the Key Scale.
Tetragrammaton is a term that comes from the Greek τετραγράμματον, meaning “four letters”. It refers to the Hebrew theonym (Hebrew: יהוה) transliterated to the Latin letters YHWH, and in Judaism is considered to be a proper name of the God of Israel used in the Hebrew Bible. The most widely accepted pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is Yahweh, though Jehovah is used in many Bibles, but in few modern ones.
Adam Ḳadmon in the Kabbalistic writings means the “Primal Man”. The oldest rabbinical source for the term “Adam ha-Ḳadmoni” is Num. R. x, where Adam is styled, not as usually, “Ha-Rishon” (the first), but “Ha-Ḳadmoni” (the original). In Lurianic Kabbalah, Adam Ḳadmon acquired an exalted status equivalent to Purusha in the Upanishads, denoting an anthropomorphic concept of the universe itself.
Gematria is a method of exegesis (critical explanation or analysis of a text) used since the time of the Second Temple to derive insights into the sacred writings, to obtain interpretations of the text, or to illustrate a secular matter. The Hebrew language uses its letters to represent numbers. The first nine letters represent the numbers I to 9 respectively; the next 10 letters represent the numbers 10, 20… to 90; and the next four represent 100 to 400.
The cipher alphabet makes possible the method known in Hebrew as gematria. The term gematria is based on the Greek geometria. In talmudic times the rabbis began to mean by it “calculation” in general. In this sense, they used the numerical value of the letters of one word or verse to construct a different word or verse, the numerical value of whose letters equals that of the original passage, in order to give the original verse an added or a different meaning.
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