Mysticism and Esotericism
Two terms that are essential to comprehending Kabbalah are mysticism and esotericism. For the purpose of learning about Kabbalah, you should understand mysticism as the conviction that personal communication with or experience of God, or the Divine, is possible through intuition or sudden insight rather than through rational thought. You must also keep in mind that esotericism, or esoteric knowledge, is wisdom that is communicated only to a select group of people.
Though the Kabbalists largely refrained from speaking or writing about their personal experiences, they invested a lot of energy in using symbolic and metaphorical language to communicate their understanding of God and the universe. In other words, instead of attempting to describe an intimate spiritual encounter with the Divine, a Kabbalist might articulate this experience by using imagery, such as that of bright light. Kabbalists most commonly used the symbolism of the Sefirot (which you will learn about in detail in Chapter 6) to talk about their religious experiences with God.
Although Kabbalists attempt to convey the power of their divine experiences, mystical experience by its very nature is incommunicable. At the same time there is a paradoxical desire to express what is inexpressible. In this sense Kabbalah is both mysticism and esotericism, in that the mystical experience is understood only by others who have undergone similar experiences.
The word mitzvah means “commandment” and has the connotation of “good deed.” The Jewish tradition comprises 613 mitzvot (the plural of mitzvah): 248 positive (for example, love your neighbor as yourself) and 365 negative (for example, don't steal). Kabbalists reinterpreted mitzvah as deriving from the word tzavta, meaning “together,” so mitzvot were understood as acts unifying the divine realms.
For most of its history, Kabbalah was esoteric in that its communication was limited to select individuals. Even though a book might appear in print, one who didn't share the spiritual experiences would understand the words differently from one who did. An early nineteenth-century mystical text, Yosher Divrei Emet (“Straightforward Words of Truth”), likened it to trying to communicate an exquisite taste to someone who had never experienced the food.