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Is it true that it is prohibited to study Kabbalah before age 40?

by Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles

  

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We are often asked how it is permitted to teach Kabbalah to young and not strongly educated Jews, who are not even close to being "40 years of age and expert in Talmud and Jewish law." Did not "the Rabbis" forbid it when the student lacks the above-cited qualifications?

Let us be clear. First of all, intoductory lessons are not within the purview of the prohibition that the Rabbis referred to. Let us examine the best known exposition of it is the ruling of Rambam [Maimonides]:

"I say that it is not proper to dally in Pardes ("orchard", i. e., mysticism) till one's belly is filled with bread and meat, knowledge of what is permitted and what forbidden, and similar distinctions in other classes of precepts."

This quote must be understood in its context. It is found at the end of the fourth chapter of "Laws of the Torah's Foundations", the first section of his 14 volume exposition of Jewish law, Mishnah Torah. These four chapters themselves consist of an outline of "Maaseh Merkavah" and " Maaseh Bereishit", the mystical study of the Creator and His Creation that Rambam then proceeds to restrict to accomplished Torah scholars. Yet he clearly states in his introduction to the entire work that it is for all Jews, not just for those with the above qualifications!

Countless numbers of contemporary Jews have been turned off to Judaism because of what they perceive as a lack of meaningful personal relevance
We can presume that Rambam's intention in discussing these topics was not to aid and abet the violation of his own ruling, but rather to demonstrate that studying these first four chapters does not constitute "strolling in Paradise", only glimpsing it. And not only does he consider this mere glimpse permissible, he places it first; the sip of "wine" should precede the meal of "bread and meat!" His reasons are clear. This study is integral to the maximum fulfillment of the five basic Jewish mitzvahs which he chose to head his ordering and explanations of the commandments. These are to 1) know, 2) love, and 3) fear G-d, and to realize 4) His oneness and 5) His uniqueness.

Indeed, although no principles of Judaism are more fundamental than these five, and unlike all the other positive commandments the obligation to fulfill these five is constant, very few teachers are addressing them in depth. Yet it is precisely these mitzvahs that shape Judaism's unique belief system. Without proper knowledge of them, it is no wonder so many people perceive Judaism as being solely a philosophy or a system of ethics (or - heaven help us - a mere cultural/ethnic heritage). Yet the Rambam is emphatic that these commandments are not merely articles of passive faith; they necessitate study and an intense effort to comprehend the Creator.

The "mystical" teachings of the Safed kabbalists and the Chassidic masters, when presented properly, constitute an important vehicle for making these basic tenets more accessible and attractive. How could a Jew possibly object to their utilization for such a purpose?

Nevertheless, the risk exists that these teachings can easily be misunderstood and/or distorted. But in our generation we have to equally consider the risk in not utilizing this facet of the Torah. Countless numbers of contemporary Jews have been turned off to Judaism because of what they perceive as a lack of meaningful personal relevance. Most never make it past the tedious years of pre bar/bat Mitzvah "Hebrew Schools". Those who do are confronted at every turn by intimidating lists of do's and don't's, without anyone being able to depict for them the inner beauty of the mitzvahs and the divine significance of their fulfillment. How unfortunate that the inner teachings of Torah are neglected while myriads of Jews hunger for what they have to offer, without even realizing that these teachings exist!


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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Halachically
According to Jewish law.
Chassidic
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Kabbalah
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
Yeshiva
(Pl.: Yeshivot) Religious school which teaches Jewish studies. Most Yeshivot offer secular studies too.
Kabbalistic
(adj.) Pertaining to Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism.
Rambam
Acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, widely known as Maimonides. Born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Mishnah
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
Neshamah
The soul of a Jew. This soul belongs to anyone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted according to the dictates of Jewish Law. The soul is a spark of G-d Himself.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.