Transmigration (Gilgul) in Early Kabbalah
The doctrine of transmigration of souls appears in the very first Kabbalistic work, Sefer HaBahir, in the late 1100s. It is mentioned matter of factly, with no explanation or justification, as though its readers would understand. Because of this presumed familiarity with the subject, it is possible that reincarnation was a part of an oral tradition. The Bahir does not use the word gilgul or any other Hebrew term to refer to transmigration; it simply describes it and explains a verse from Ecclesiastes: “A generation passes and a generation comes” as “it had already come [before]” (1:4). The Bahir reads: “Why is it that there are wicked people who prosper and righteous who suffer? Because the Tzaddik [righteous] was wicked in the past and now he is being punished. And he is being punished because of the days of his youth? Didn't Rabbi Shimon [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 89b] say that no one is punished [by Heaven] under the age of 20? But this is not referring to his [current] life. I am speaking about what he already was in the past [meaning in a previous life].”
Rabbi Yitzkhak Sagi Nahor (Isaac the Blind), the greatest Kabbalist in Provence and teacher of the early Kabbalists in Gerona, was reputed to be able to sense “by feeling the air” if the person before him was a new soul or a transmigrated soul.
Gilgul and Jewish Philosophy
One of the striking elements of the Bahir's unapologetic presentation of transmigration of souls is the fact that in its historical context this was not an accepted Jewish idea.
Sa'adia Gaon, the first Jewish philosopher, dismissed the idea of reincarnation. In fact, the major Jewish philosophers for almost 300 years were all opposed to the idea of its existence. One important nonkabbalistic thinker who accepted reincarnation as a truth was Isaac Abravanel, but he lived in the fifteenth century. Given this historical context, it is hard to imagine that the author or authors of the Bahir were unfamiliar with this formidable opposition to transmigration. Yet, despite this opposition the Bahir clearly advocates the existence of the transmigration of souls.
Gilgul in Gerona
The Kabbalists in Gerona, including such major figures as Nachmanides, Rabbi Azriel, and Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon, all accepted transmigration but treated it as a great mystery. Nachmanides mentions it briefly when commenting on a verse from Genesis (38:11), which is concerned with Levirate marriage.
Sa'adia Gaon (890–942) was the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community, a major Jewish center. He was the first to translate the Bible into Arabic and to write a commentary on it, and he also wrote a commentary on Sefer Yetzirah. Most importantly, he was the first medieval Jewish philosopher. He attempted to reconcile Judaism, philosophy, and science.
Levirate marriage, in the Bible, occurs when a man dies childless; the brother of the deceased is obligated to marry his widow in order to produce offspring for the deceased brother. The early Kabbalists, including Nachmanides, saw this as related to reincarnation. He wrote: “This matter is one of the great secrets of the Torah… . [T]he ancient sages before the Torah knew that Levirate marriage was of great value… . They called it redemption… . And the Maskil [the enlightened, that is, the Kabbalist] will understand.” The reason that Nachmanides refers to “the ancient sages before the Torah” is that this incident occurs many generations before Moses receives the Torah.
A number of Kabbalistic commentaries on the Torah address transmigration in their section on the particular portion that contains this account of Levirate marriage. Different Kabbalists saw reincarnation as a response to different issues, but solving the problem of childlessness was a major explanation early Kabbalists provided for the necessity of reincarnation.
Chaim Vital writes in Sha'ar HaGilgulim (The Gate of Transmigrations): “[K]now that whoever dies without children, the first incarnation is considered as though it didn't happen. If so, when he returns he must come with his Nefesh, Ruakh, and Neshama all together [three levels of the soul] … which only occurs if he's done good deeds and merits all three parts.”
Though the major Kabbalists in Gerona all seem to accept the doctrine of transmigration of the soul, they do not write extensively about it. Their treatment of it as a great mystery that must primarily be taught orally means that we have little written evidence of their beliefs. Kabbalists in later centuries no longer expressed such hesitation in writing about gilgul.