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Books for Beginners

Of making books there is no end -- and not of buying them either.

In our culture, one of the primary ways in which people learn new subjects is by buying a book or two, and reading up. This method is not the traditional Kabbalistic one; in contrast to the vast Jewish textual tradition, Kabbalah was defined in its early stages precisely by being dependent upon a teacher-student relationship. So, while there are many wonderful books out there, be advised that this is not how Kabbalah is traditionally conveyed.

Even more importantly, the Kabbalah book market is flooded with shysters, hucksterers, and authors of dubious qualification. The surprising popular renaissance of Kabbalah has, naturally, encouraged publishers to meet a perceived market need, and that, in turn, has led to a lot of confusion. Many of the books you find on mainstream bookshelves are actually from the Kabbalah Centre, and thus convey their idiosyncratic take on the Kabbalah. Many others are from well-meaning spiritual seekers who are not familiar with the primary sources or with the contexts of the ideas they discuss. And many others are excellent academic tomes, but ill-suited to the lay reader.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy books on the Kabbalah — it just means you need to be careful. This list is meant to help. It contains what I consider to be the best general introductions to the Kabbalah and its themes, and I hope it helps you on your way. Incidentally, neither I nor the learnkabbalah website receives any payment from the authors or publishers listed here — these really are the books I consider to be the best. We do get a small fee if you click on an Amazon link, and we thank you for that support.

Daniel Matt's anthology is usually the first book I recommend to people beginning to learn Kabbalah. The short introduction is concise and useful, and the selection of primary sources is excellent. Most importantly, Matt lets the texts speak, and readers think, for themselves. Though weighted heavily in favor of certain themes at the expense of others (lots of pantheism, for example, and hardly any magic), it is still the best place to start.

For those looking for a more intuitive, expressionistic introduction to the Kabbalah, try Rabbi Kushner's book. Kushner knows the sources very well, but presents them in a way which is emotional and spiritual, rather than purely intellectual.

Arthur Green's Guide to the Zohar, published together with Daniel Matt's new translation of it, is at once an excellent introduction to the Zohar and a thorough introduction to the Kabbalah itself. Like all of us, Green has his biases and interpretive lenses, but he is generally up-front about them, and his discussion of the early Kabbalah is the most accessible I know.

Over sixty years after its publication, Gershom Scholem's Major Trends is still an indispensable resource and arguably the best academic survey of the Kabbalah. However, it is very dense, and is often engaged with academic debates of no interest to the lay reader. For serious students, it is essential reading, but it's certainly not the easiest.

Originally articles for the Encyclopedia Judaica, the "chapters" of Kabbalah may seem disjointed, as indeed they are. Nevertheless, they are excellent short essays on some of the key figures and concepts in the Kabbalah. Not the best linear introduction, but excellent treatment of practical Kabbalah in particular, by the inventor of contemporary academic study of Kabbalah.

Many people find Adin Steinsaltz's introduction to Kabbalah to be the best and most inspiring. I actually find it rather difficult, but include it on the list because so many people have learned from it. Steinsaltz, best known for his massive translation of the Talmud, is an erudite scholar and traditional Jew, and brings these aspects to bear on his work.

Primary Sources in English

 
Professor Joseph Dan's anthology of primary texts and testimonies is essential reading. There is no substitute for reading how Kabbalists actually describe their experiences, and this is an excellent selection. It includes many non-Kabbalists as well. (Note that Daniel Matt's anthology "The Essential Kabbalah," listed above, is also a collection of primary sources, and probably the best single place to start.)

 
Jacobs' book, which preceded Dan's, is an excellent complement to it, overlapping only in a couple of areas. It, too, bears close reading.

 
For years, there really was no reliable, easy-to-read translation of the entire Zohar, the masterpiece of Jewish mysticism. Now, there is — at least, a work in progress. You can read my review of Daniel Matt's translation here. (Note, the Kabbalah Centre's Zohar is actually usable in a pinch, but buy it from an independent bookstore, not from them. However, the Matt edition is much more reliable, for reasons discussed in the "Finding a Teacher" section of this site.)

 
Before Daniel Matt set out on his mammoth task to translate the entire Zohar, he published this selection of excerpts, rendered in a poetic style. For beginners, this is a much easier place to begin than with the 'real' Zohar, because it is carefully annotated and selected.

 
Another selection of texts from the Zohar is Isaiah Tishby's "The Wisdom of the Zohar." More comprehensive than the Matt selection, yet organized by topic and with a very long and good introduction, if a bit hard to get through at times.

 
Moshe Cordovero's moralistic work is not actually the best introduction to his Kabbalah, but it is available in a handy, bilingual edition. It is a very down-to-earth introduction to how to use the sefirot to improve one's ethical behavior.

 
The Bahir is the first real book of the Kabbalah, published in the 12th century. It is quite difficult, even in translation. Still, it is an essential text and has been capably translated.

 
The Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, is an authentically ancient text — dating at least as far back as the third century — describing how God creates the world through language. It is described in detail on this site, and although any translation of this book is fundamentally incomplete (since it is all about the Hebrew language), this is an excellent one.

 

Pre-Kabbalah Jewish Mysticism

 

 

 

Hasidism

 

 

 

 
 

 

20th and 21st Century Approaches

 

 

 
 

 
 

Selected Topics

 

 

 

 
 

 
Some other books worth looking at:

Afterman, Allen. Kabbalah and Consciousness. Riverdale, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1992.

Cooper, David. Three Gates to Meditation Practice: A Personal Journey into Sufism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Pub., 2000

Goldwag, Arthur. The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah. New York: Three Leaves, 2005.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951.

Kaplan, Aryeh. Meditation and Kabbalah. York Beach, ME: S. Weiser, 1985.

Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac. Lights of Holiness, trans. Ben Zion Bokser. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Ladinsky, Daniel, ed. Love Poems from God. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.

Ostow, Mortimer. Ultimate Intimacy: The Psychodynamics of Jewish Mysticism. London: Karnac Books, 1995.

Rose, Or N. God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2004.

Schachter-Shalomi, R. Zalman. Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

Buxbaum, Yitzhak. Jewish Spiritual Practices. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990.

Biale, David. Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books, 1992

Hecker, Joel. Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Fine, Lawrence. Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos, 2003.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah and Eros. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.