(also written Kabbalah)
   A body of Hebrew mystical speculation, purporting to represent an ancient oral tradition of biblical interpretation and meditation that contained secret insights into the true spiritual meaning of Scripture. Originally, cabalistic writings were esoteric—something to be divulged only to persons who were intellectually and spiritually prepared to seek direct experience of God. The earliest cabalists passed their doctrines on by word of mouth, but eventually the texts were written down. There is considerable evidence of mystical practices and secret (sometimes quite unorthodox) beliefs going all the way back to the first century B.C. One of the earliest cabalistic texts to be preserved, Sefer Yetzirah / The Book of Creation, was probably written between the third and sixth centuries. It contains speculation on the elements of which the world is composed, which are identified as the 10 primordial numbers (the sephiroth) and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are symbols for the forces through which God made the world. This secret knowledge is believed to confer power over the universe; hence Sefer Yetzirah, like many cabalistic works, is linked to magic—that is, to efforts to gain practical control over material things—as well as to mystical contemplation.
   Cabalistic learning flourished in Italy and Spain in the 13th and 14th centuries. One of the most influential scholars, Abraham Abulafia (1240-after 1291), born in Spain, spent several years travelling in the Middle East and Italy in quest of spiritual enlightenment. After returning to Spain about 1270, he studied Sefer Yetzirah and wrote several commentaries on it. From other cabalists he also learned techniques of biblical interpretation based on manipulation of the numerical values of letters and words in the Hebrew Bible, seeking to learn the true name of God and the names of the sephiroth. The greatest medieval cabalistic book was the Sefer ha-Zohar / Book of Splendor, which claimed to have been written in the second century but in fact was compiled by an anonymous mystic in 13th-century Spain.
   In the later 15th century, a number of Italian Christian scholars, mainly Neoplatonists interested in mystical speculation, studied Cabala. The most important of these was Giovanni Pico della Mirándola, who learned Hebrew and sought religious truths in cabalistic texts. Like most of the early Christian cabalists, Pico interpreted these treatises in a Christian sense. A similar desire to prove Christian truths out of cabalistic literature motivated the first important Christian cabalist from north of the Alps, Johann Reuchlin, and the Christian cabalist who most aggressively pursued the idea that magical power could be obtained from the Cabala, Agrippa von Nettesheim. Cabalistic learning was suspect among traditional theologians because of its Jewish origins, because it was often associated with doctrines (transmigration of souls, for example) incompatible with Christian belief, and because of its links with magic.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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