The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah: Part 2 – Kabbalah as “Correspondence”

Although the Hebrew root k-b-l (pronounced: kabel; spelled: kuf-beit-lamed) appears fifteen times in the Bible, its appearance in the Five Books of Moses is limited to two verses in Exodus. Both of these verses refer to the tapestry that hung over the portable Tabernacle, known as “Tent of the Meeting,” in which, in the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was housed.

This tapestry consisted of two long panels, each with fifty loops along its edge. The panels were joined by coupling the loops with golden clasps. The Torah describes these loops as makbilot, “corresponding,” to each other, thus introducing the first appearance of the root k-b-l.

The first verse, in which God instructs Moses with regard to the details of the overhang, reads:

Fifty loops shall you make in the one curtain, and fifty loops shall you make in the edge of the curtain that is in the second coupling; the loops shall correspond [i.e., be parallel, from the root k-b-l] to one another [lit., (like) a woman toward her sister].

The second verse, describing Moses’ execution of this detail, reads:

Fifty loops made he in one curtain, and fifty loops made he in the edge of the curtain that was in the second coupling, the loops corresponding [from the root k-b-l] one to one

Thus we see that the original meaning of the root k-b-l in the Torah implies correspondence and complement.

Insofar as the first appearance of any root in the Torah represents its conceptual origin (or in Kabbalistic terms, its “crown”), understanding this use of the root and its context will help us appreciate other connotations of the word kabbalah, and will shed light on why it has come to describe the Jewish mystical tradition.

The Tabernacle, which was constructed to be a “Tent of the Meeting” between God and the people of Israel, incorporated many symmetrical motifs and corresponding elements. The most significant example of correspondence was that of the two goldencherubim sculpted atop of the Ark of the Covenant that sat in the Tabernacle’s inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. In dictating their design and arrangement, God tells Moses:

… and their faces, each toward the other [lit., (like) a man toward his brother]

(Although the root k-b-l does not appear here in Hebrew text, it does appear in the Targum’s Aramaic rendition.)

While the idiom “[like] a man toward his brother” seemingly implies that the cherubim were male (since the singular of cherubim,cherub, is a male noun, grammatically, the idiom must read in the male tense), rabbinic sources depict them as male and female–symbols of the spouse-like relationship between God and Israel. The Tent of the Meeting itself represents a bridal canopy, a place where God could commune with His beloved people. This communion, as the Book of Exodus relates, took the form of messages that emanated “from between the cherubim upon the Ark of the Testimony.”

The correspondence between God and Israel manifested in the heart of the Tabernacle served to promote the transmission of Divine life force throughout creation. This is because God and Israel are the prototypes for every “transmitter” (mashpiya) and “receiver” (mekabel). When the channels of communication between them were open and active, all of creation benefited.

By appearing as male and female, the cherubim alluded to the Kabbalistic identification of transmitter and receiver as the male and female forces operating within reality. Hence, every man and woman have the power to emulate the symmetry of the cherubim and, through their correspondence, affect the extent to which the Divine life-force finds its way into the world.

Thus we find that the Tabernacle was endowed with an “inner” correspondence–expressed by the cherubim in the Holy of Holies–and an “outer” one, reflected in the “corresponding loops” that connected the two panels of its overhang. Insofar as Kabbalah identifies inner reality as inherently “male” and outer reality as “female,” it is not surprising that the cherubim are described in male terms, “[like] a man toward his brother”, while the loops are described in female terms, “[like] a woman toward her sister” (again, this is a grammatical necessity, since the word for “loop” in Hebrew is female).

Amazingly, the combined numerical value of “a man toward his brother” and “a woman toward her sister” (1118) is identical with that of the quintessential statement of Judaism: “Hear, O’ Israel, God is our God, God is One.”  By establishing one-to-one correspondences in both the male and female mode one comes to experience the underlying unity that prevails throughout all of reality–“God is One.”  This is the ultimate goal of Kabbalah. 

As a discipline that illustrates the multiple correspondences between levels of reality and points to the essential unity of creation and the Divine root from which it derives, Kabbalah merits its name. 


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