The Origins of Kabbalah in Medieval Europe

By :  Eitan Fishbane Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Apr 9, 2024 / 5784

Moving from the Middle East to Germany, Spain, and France, this episode explores the practices and intellectual exercises of these communities. During this timeperiod, the practice of Kabbalah (literally received tradition) begins to take shape in Provence, France. One of the primary foci is the development of the Sefirot, the ten radiant dimensions of the inner Divine Self. 

Show Notes

  • Hasidei Ashkenaz: School of mysticism that practiced an intensive form of ascetic renunciation and suffering to enhance ethical rigor and spiritual piety. The goal was to attain a visual revelation of the Shekhinah 
  • Sefer haBahir (The Book of Brightness or Lucidity): The Bahir was attributed by medievals to the ancient Merkavah hero Rabbi Nehuniah ben Haqanah through “pseudepigraphical” attribution 
  • Sefirot (ten radiant dimensions of the inner self
  1. Keter/Ayin (nothingness),  
  2. Hokhma (wisdom)  
  3. Binah (understanding)  
  4. Hesed (Kindness) 
  5. Gevurah (Discipline) 
  6. Tiferet (Glory) 
  7. Netzah (Victory) 
  8. Hod (Splendor) 
  9. Yesod (Foundation) 
  10. Shekhinah (dimension of divinity most revealed and understood), sometimes called Malkut

Kabbalistic Leaders 

  • Rabbi Avraham ben David of Posquières (RaBad) 
    • Rabbi Isaac the Blind (son of the RaBad) 
    • Rabi Yitzhak Sagi Nahor  
    • Rabbi Isaac “Full of Light,” author of Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah 
    • Rabbi Asher ben David (grandson of the RaBad, nephew of Rabbi Isaac), author of Sefer ha-Yihud—The Book of Unity— the first elaborate expansion of the sefirot 

Leaders from Girona, Spain

  • Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon of Girona, who, among other things, authored an important mystical commentary on the Song of Songs 
  • Rabbi Azriel ben Menahem of Girona, whose rich works included kabbalistic commentaries on the Aggadot (legends and narrative portions) of the Babylonian Talmud, the siddur (prayer-book), and Sefer Yetzirah 
  • Rabbi Yaakov ben Sheshet, author of kabbalistic reflections on prayer, faith, and the relationship between medieval philosophy and Kabbalah 

  • Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (Nachmanides/Ramban) 

Connections to Seeing the Unseeable: Kabbalistic Imagery from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

The exhibit includes many examples of sefirot including this Ilan (S435). This scroll shows the sefirot in a set of nested letters.


Announcer: Welcome to Exploring Kabbalah—a JTS podcast with Dr. Eitan Fishbane, professor of Jewish Thought. Throughout this seven-part series, we’ll trace the evolution of Jewish mysticism—from Biblical and Rabbinic times, to the explosive creativity of the Medieval period, to the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe. Join us for a tour through time and space in which Professor Fishbane provides insight into the thinkers, texts, and concepts that became central not only to the Jewish mystical tradition but to the fabric of Judaism itself. In episode three, we examine the origins of Kabbalah in Medieval Europe.

Dr. Eitan Fishbane: In this session we turn from Late Antiquity and the rabbinic period to the evolution of Jewish mysticism in medieval Europe, highlighting the next major stage of this extraordinary spiritual tradition within Judaism. We will focus on the birth of sefirot.

But before diving into the origins and development of Kabbalah in 12th and 13th century France and Spain, we must briefly mention the literature and thought of German pietism, the mysticism of the Hasidei Ashkenaz.

The Hasidei Ashkenaz practiced an intensive form of ascetic renunciation and deliberate suffering that they believed enhanced their ethical rigor and spiritual piety, and was formative in the development of Spanish Kabbalah. The mystical piety of these circles was often aimed at the attainment of a visual revelation of the Shekhinah, or what they termed the “Lower Glory” (the Kavod). This Kavod channeled the manifestation of Divinity as it filled the lower realms of existence in contrast to the Upper Glory, the transcendent, inaccessible dimension of God that lies beyond human perception and knowledge. This juxtaposition of the Upper and the Lower Glory is traceable back to the decidedly non-mystical, rationalist philosopher, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, several centuries prior. Mystics from the Hasidei Ashkenaz circle emphasized a yearning to receive the pure love of God, an overflow of the highest divine reality.

The mystical theology and practice known as Kabbalah—which literally means ‘tradition’ or ‘receiving’—began to take shape in late 12th century Provence. The first text of this period, Sefer ha-Bahir (The Book of Brightness or Lucidity) had an outsized influence on the development of Kabbalah. The Bahir was attributed by these medievals to the ancient Merkavah hero Rabbi Nehuniah ben Haqanah through “pseudepigraphical” attribution—that is, the attempt by a later author to ascribe authorship to a revered, idealized, classical sage. This cultural practice was widespread in broader medieval culture (including among Christian writers), and may foreshadow the far more dramatic, and deft act of pseudepigraphy reflected in the Zohar, a late 13th century masterpiece that we will delve into in Episode 4. Scholars debate the provenance of Sefer ha-Bahir, with some arguing that portions are ancient and how much was written by 12th Century Provençal authors.

Most significant for our purposes is the fact that the Bahir introduces the ten sefirot as ten radiant dimensions of the inner Divine Self, not be confused with the concept of sefirot in Sefer Yetzirah in Episode 2. The Bahir correlates these inner-divine powers to their reverberation in the mundane realm—the ten fingers of the human hands, the gendered and sexual nature of worldly reality, in the trees of the earth. In one of its most powerful descriptions of the divine structure of the sefirot, the Bahir speaks evocatively of the Tree that is All—an inverted tree with its roots hidden in the highest heavens, whose energy of life flows down through its trunk and branches, whose leaves and fruits extend into this lower earthly domain.

The ten sefirot became the core of kabbalistic thinking and practice for centuries to come. For these early kabbalists, God’s essential reality is composed of ten emanating dimensions of energy and vitality; ten that are ultimately One Divine Being.

The theology of the sefirot further emerged under the influence of the famous rabbinic personality, Rabbi Avraham ben David of Posquières (the RABaD, one of the greatest talmudists of medieval times) and his disciples. Most notable were his son, Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Rabi Yitzhak Sagi Nahor, Rabbi Isaac “Full of Light,” to whom was attributed a very rich, if enigmatic, Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, and grandson, Rabbi Asher ben David (nephew of Rabbi Isaac), author of the first expansive and elaborate exposition of the ten sefirot, entitled Sefer ha-Yihud—The Book of Unity—which also included the enormously fascinating Peirush le-Sheim ha-Meforash, Commentary on the Ineffable Divine Name.

It is worth emphasizing that Kabbalah emerged under the influence, and within the family and circle of, one of the most prominent talmudists of the twelfth century— Rabbi Avraham ben David, the RABaD—one who was also known for his harsh critique of Maimonides’s magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, a fact that should be seen as reflective of the current scholarly theory that Kabbalah may well have transitioned from an oral to a written tradition in part in reaction to and disagreement with certain philosophical principles of Maimonides. What is more, frrom the beginnings of its literary emergence, Kabbalah was not an eccentric side-stream in Jewish thought and practice; quite the contrary: it was understood to be the heart of the matter for some of the most prominent “mainstream” rabbinic authorities, such as the RABaD and, as I shall soon discuss, the RaMBaN, among many others.

The ten sefirot were presented as divine emanations from a radically transcendent fountain of Divine Infinity, referred to as the Ein-Sof (literally, “Without End”), a concept that dominated Kabbalah throughout. The RABaD’s grandson, Asher ben David wrote the Peirush le-Sheim ha-Meforash where the four-letter ineffable name of God, is presented as the very fabric of Divine Being, as a way of depicting the symbolism and structure of the sefirot. In this system, Divinity is composed of, indeed identical to that sacred name, and the life-flow of God is characterized as a grand metaphysical act of speech; Divinity emerges from hiddenness to revelation as majestic Articulation, the process of spirit-breath evolving into sound, and that sound becoming the words of divine spoken revelation. This divine Becoming-of-Reality is conceived of as a progression from the radical transcendence of the silent alef that precedes the Tetragrammaton, the four letter holy name of God, associated with the first sefirah, Keter, also called Ayin (Nothingness)—called by the mysterious and enigmatic divine name that God first utters to biblical Moses when he asks: EHeYeH, or EHeYeH Asher EHeYeH. I will be that which I will be. This alef is the first divine emanation from Infinity, progressing to the yod of Hokhmah (Wisdom), the second of the divine sefirot; to the heih of Binah (Understanding); the vav of the middle six sefirot—Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzah, Hod, Yesod—and finally to the last heih of the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter divine name YHVH, which represents Shekhinah, the last of the ten sefirot, the dimension of Divinity most revealed and accessible to the human mind.

From these early French kabbalistic circles, Kabbalah migrated southward, over the Pyrenees mountain range and into northern Spain. The Catalonian region became the new dominant center of Jewish mystical creativity, featuring several innovative and influential thinkers who may have studied with the RABaD’s son, Isaac the Blind, and were older contemporaries of his grandson. The town of Girona northeast of Barcelona was a particularly strong incubator of major kabbalists, including such key figures as: Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon of Girona, who, among other things, authored an important mystical commentary on the Song of Songs; Rabbi Azriel ben Menahem of Girona, whose rich works included kabbalistic commentaries on the aggadot (legends and narrative portions) of the Babylonian Talmud, the siddur (prayer-book), and Sefer Yetzirah; and Rabbi Yaakov ben Sheshet, author of kabbalistic reflections on prayer, faith, and the relationship between medieval philosophy and Kabbalah. In several fascinating texts from Rabbi Azriel’s corpus, the wearing of tefilin and the response-recitation of the word amen were understood to be potent ritual acts that were able to draw down the flow of divine emanation, characterized as a river of cosmic blessing, through Divinity and into the human world.

Another major kabbalist of this time and place was the illustrious Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, better known as Nahmanides or the Ramban), a revered rabbinic personality and commentator.

The Ramban understood the deepest and truest meaning of the Torah to lie in its symbolic, coded allusions to the inner mysteries of the divine life—the dynamic system of the sefirot—an argument that he makes clear in his introduction to that classic Commentary. He states there, however, that he intentionally wrote the secrets of the Torah (the mystical meanings) in a concealed and sometimes mystifying way to reserve them for those who had been properly initiated into the wisdom of the Kabbalah through the spoken word of a revered mystical master, not merely through the reading of books. Sprinkled throughout his broader Commentary on the Torah, the Ramban refers to these insights and wisdom as Derekh ha Emet, (The Way of Truth).

Many have studied the Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah without knowledge of his kabbalistic allusions, but the kabbalists who followed him were keenly aware of the mystical heart of Nahmanides’s writing, and subsequent generations proliferated a genre of meta-commentaries on the kabbalistic secrets of the Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah, a genre known as Beurei Sodot ha-Ramban (Clarification of the Secrets of Ramban).

Following the death of the Ramban in 1270, more explicit Kabbalistic creativity exploded (while its authors always emphasized the secrecy and mystery of their material). This is in direct contrast to the Ramban’s more conservative approach to the dissemination of kabbalistic ideas. This literature flourished among mystics in Castile-Leon, another kingdom in what is now Spain, geographically west of Catalonia, similar to the fellowships we observe throughout the history of Jewish mysticism. It is in this time and place that we see the emergence of the monumental literature of the Zohar and the many kabbalists who were likely involved in its composition and related works. It is to this fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish mysticism that we will turn in episode 4.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to Exploring Kabbalah with Professor Eitan Fishbane, a JTS podcast. It was recorded and produced by Ellie Gettinger, with editing assistance from Sarah Brown. I’m Rabbi Julia Andelman, JTS’s Director of Community Engagement. The music for this series is Yah Notein Binah by sixteenth-century Kabbalist Israel Najara, from the album Seeds of Song, produced by JTS. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. For those who want to dig deeper, visit, where you’ll find sources, archival material, and more in the Exploring Kabbalah show notes—along with the complete library of JTS podcasts.