Misconception: One may not study kabbalah before reaching age forty.
Fact: The appropriate time to commence study of the esoteric dimension of Torah is largely determined by one’s level of Torah knowledge and spiritual development, not by one’s age.
Background:1 Torah sources provide various suggestions regarding how and when one should go about studying various Torah matters. For example, the Mishnah (Avot 5:21) says that at age five one should begin the study of Scripture,2 at ten, Mishnah, at fifteen, Talmud, et cetera; it concludes by stating that at age forty one acquires binah (understanding). The Mishnah does not elaborate, but other sources reserve certain areas of study for those aged forty and above. For example, the Talmud (Sotah 22b) states that one should not render halachic decisions until “forty years,”3 and that is the accepted halachah (Rema, YD 242:31).4 Various sources seem to ascribe significance to the age of forty. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 5b) records in the name of Rabbah that one does not truly understand his teacher until after forty years. Rambam says that Avraham recognized God at age forty (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). Rabbi Elazar Fleckeles (1754-1826; Teshuvah Me’ahavah 3:375 [50a]), in commenting on the Rema’s ruling, quotes a proclamation that was issued in all the shuls of Prague in 1786 under the instruction of the chief rabbi, the Noda B’Yehudah, banning the publication of commentaries on Talmud or halachah written by anyone under the age of forty.5
Starting from the Mishnaic period and on, other criteria have been mentioned with regard to the study of philosophy and the esoteric dimension of the Torah, what today would be termed kabbalah. The Mishnah (Chagigah 11b) limits the number of individuals who may study Ma’aseh Bereishit, the account of Creation, and Ma’aseh Merkavah, Ezekiel’s account of the Divine chariot,6 as a group—topics that might be considered kabbalah. Ironically, the Talmud spends the next four pages discussing these very topics. In the course of this discussion, an age requirement is alluded to. Rebbi Yochanan suggests that Rebbi Elazar should teach him Ma’aseh Merkavah (Chagigah 13a); Rebbi Elazar responds that he is not old enough to teach it. Rabbeinu Chananel explains that the gemara means that Rebbi Elazar was not yet fifty years old.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 71a) also limits who may be taught the forty-two-letter esoteric Name of God. Rav warns that it should only be taught to a person who is modest, humble, is not easily angered, does not get drunk and does not hold a grudge; additionally, he must be at “half his years,” understood by Rashi in Sanhedrin to mean thirty-five years old.
As part of the Talmudic discussion (Chagigah 14b; cf. Tosefta, Chagigah 2:3) about learning cryptic topics, the danger of studying beyond one’s spiritual level is highlighted by the incident of “four who entered the Pardes [lit. Orchard],” that is, delved into esoteric material.7 Of the four great scholars, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher (Elisha ben Avuyah) and Rabbi Akiva who studied this material, only Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed. Ben Azzai died; Ben Zoma was “injured,” i.e., lost his mind (in other versions of the gemara, the fates of these two are switched) and Acher “chopped down saplings in the orchard,” i.e., confused his beliefs.
The precise meaning of Pardes is not clear. Rambam writes that Pardes refers to Ma’aseh Bereishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah, topics that he includes in the first four chapters of Yesodei HaTorah (physics and meta-physics) (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:11, 4:10, 4:13; cf. his commentary to Mishnah, Chagigah 2:1).8 Rambam writes that “one should not stroll through [i.e., learn] the Pardes except if his stomach is full with bread and meat. Bread and meat [means] to know well what is prohibited and permitted.” Despite the warnings, Rambam included some “Pardes material” in his Mishneh Torah (Yad HaChazakah) and in his philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim). These writings sparked the heated Maimonidean Controversy of the early thirteenth century, in which critics condemned his works. When controversy flared again at the end of that century, the Rashba issued a ban on studying philosophy (not kabbalah) and science (other than medicine) for anyone younger than twenty-five; the Rosh felt that the ban did not go far enough.9
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 246:4) describes the ideal program for Torah study: one should devote one-third of his time to the study of Tanach, one-third to Mishnah and one-third to Gemara; as he progresses he should increase the proportion of time spent on Gemara. The Shulchan Aruch gives an example of a “typical” worker who devotes three hours a day to work and nine hours a day to Torah study. Commenting on this, the great Ashkenazi posek Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema (d. 1572), says that it is permitted on an ad hoc basis to study other areas of knowledge (as long as they are not apostasy) and this is known as Pardes. But these areas should not be studied until one has “filled his belly with meat and wine,” i.e., he knows what is prohibited and permitted. Commenting on this Rema (YD 246:6), the Shach writes that “some have written that one should not study kabbalah until age forty.” He adds that age may be a necessary, but certainly not a sufficient, condition and that one also needs kedushah, taharah, et cetera. He concludes by observing that most of those who ignored the advice and learned kabbalah prematurely were “snatched away before their time” (cf. Iyov 22:16).
Some authorities maintain that there should be a general limit on the study of kabbalah and other esoteric subjects. Rabbi Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal (d. 1573) complains (Shu”t 98) about ignoramuses learning kabbalah. The Rema equates the substance of philosophy and kabbalah and penned a lengthy essay (Torat Ha’olah, part 3, ch. 4) and a long response (Shu”t 7) on the topic of studying them. He displays intimate familiarity with kabbalah, and explains that he personally only studies such matters on Shabbat, yom tov and Chol HaMoed, and uses the rest of his time to study Mishnah, Talmud, halachah and the relevant commentaries. (Similarly, the Sanzer Rav, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, states that the essence of life is to study the main parts of Torah all day, and that he involves himself with kabbalah when other people are in their beds and he is fighting off sleep [Divrei Chaim 2, YD 47]). The Maharshal derives his knowledge of philosophy only from Jewish sources such as Rambam. The Rema bemoans the lack of true kabbalists and that instead “every bore who knows not his right from his left and cannot learn parashah with Rashi, jumps to learn kabbalah.”
The Rema wasn’t bemoaning the fact that these individuals were too young to learn kabbalah, rather that considering their spiritual level, the study of kabbalah was inappropriate.
The Maharsha (d. 1631) was against public dissemination of kabbalah and writes (Chagigah 13a) that it is best “to hide kabbalah” and that the gemara in Chagigah about Ma’aseh Bereishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah discourages the study of kabbalah.
Rabbi Yosef Yuspa Nordlinger Hahn (d. 1637), head of the yeshivah and beit din in Frankfurt, Germany, provides a detailed outline of how one should structure his Torah learning (Yosef Ometz, p. 269-271). For example, he advises studying the Rif as a source for halachah and learning the parashah with Rashi and other commentaries. Although certainly not a kabbalist, he writes that one is not exempt from the study of kabbalah.
Historical events had a great impact on the question of kabbalah study. In the last 350 years, two major movements, the Sabbateans (begun by Shabbetai Zvi, circa 1648) and the Chassidim (founded in the mid-eighteenth century), advocated a much greater role for kabbalah, ultimately causing a backlash regarding its study. The anti-Sabbatean 1756 Brody Cherem, which was endorsed by the Va’ad Arba Aratzot, the Council of Four Lands, banned the study of Lurianic kabbalah for those under age forty. It did, however, permit the study of the Zohar, Shomer Emunim by Rabbi Yosef Ergas and Pardes Rimonim by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero for those above age thirty.10
The first Zemir Arizim (1772), an anti-Chassidic polemical pamphlet, included the text of the public proclamation in Brody that, amongst other complaints about the Chassidim stated, “We now find in our midst certain wicked people, sinners of Israel . . . . They scorn the entire Oral Law and study only kabbalah.”11 Similar complaints were issued by many of the early opponents of Chassidut. Rabbi Elazar Fleckeles (d. 1826; Teshuvah Me’ahavah, introduction [7b]) decried the fact that those who were not experts in Shas and poskeim were gathering in groups to study Zohar and the writings of the Arizal. He noted that the rabbis before him had attempted to uproot this.12
While opponents of Chassidim (Mitnagdim) were decrying the unhindered spread of kabbalah, they were not neglecting its study. The Gra was arguably the greatest kabbalist of his day; his prime disciple, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, encouraged his disciples to study some kabbalah daily. The Gra was convinced that the messianic redemption was contingent upon mastery of kabbalah by all Jews; and eighteenth and nineteenth century Lithuanian Mitnagdim continued to produce leading kabbalists down to the great Leshem, Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (d. 1925).13
Despite this, the Lithuanian tradition called for caution when dealing with kabbalah. This approach was codified by Rabbi Avraham Danzig in his important work, Chayei Adam, where he paraphrases Rambam in substituting kabbalah for meta-physics and states, “A person should not study the wisdom of the kabbalah until he has filled his belly with Talmud and codes, and only if he has true fear of Heaven and spends all his time studying Torah. Otherwise it is forbidden. Rabbi Chaim Vital was very stringent about this” (10:12).
Rabbi Chaim “Brisker” Soloveitchik (d. 1918) was opposed to all non-Torah studies and this included philosophy, even Rambam’s Guide. Although he personally read the work thoroughly, he believed that if one’s beliefs were healthy there was no need to study such material, and he made his son Rabbi Moshe promise that he would never read it.14 (Interestingly, in 1950-51 Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a grandson of Rav Chaim Brisker, gave a year-long course at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Judaic Studies on Rambam’s Guide.)15
Rabbi Yaakov Emden (d. 1776) writes16 that kabbalah should be revealed only to special individuals, as opposed to the practice of the “new Chassidim” who regularly study the Zohar and have made study of Talmud and halachah infrequent. He adds that God is not desirous of these people. He then notes that the secrets of the Torah are only transmitted to an individual who is in the “middle of his days,” likely meaning over age thirty-five.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook seems to support the study of kabbalah. In a letter written in 1912 (see Iggerot Ha’Ra’ayah, Letter 414; cf. Letter 602), he explains that the restriction on studying Ma’aseh Bereishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah applies to practical kabbalah, such as using the Holy Names of God for purposes bordering on prophecy. But Rav Kook considers the intellectual study of kabbalah to be similar to the deeper study of midrash and mussar, which certainly require proper middot and fear of Heaven, but are not off limits. Further, he regards the study of kabbalah from books rather than from a master as not being true study of the esoteric. Therefore, he concludes, it need not be restricted. Particularly in the modern scientific era, Rav Kook considers the study of Ma’aseh Bereishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah to be legitimate intellectual pursuits (Shemoneh Kvatzim 1:597).
Today the study of kabbalah has become popular in the general culture and in academia.17 Concern about these pursuits within the traditional community has led some to cite an age requirement on the study of kabbalah. While, as stated earlier, there are indeed Torah sources that ascribe significance to the age of forty, many of these sources do not link it to the study of kabbalah. The bulk of the Torah sources on kabbalah make the study of the subject dependent on one’s level of Torah knowledge and one’s spiritual development. Moreover, this seems to be the approach followed by Jewish communities over time, evidenced by the fact that many major kabbalists throughout history did not even live to see their fortieth birthday!18 This includes Rabbi Isaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), better known as the Arizal who died at age thirty-eight; Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), who died at thirty-nine and Rabbi Elijah Baal Shem of Chelm (1550-1583), who was the first to be given the title “Baal Shem” and died at thirty-three.
1. See Moshe Idel, “L’toldot ha’issur lilmod kabbalah lifnei gil arbaim,” AJS Review 5 (1980): 1-20.
2. The implication seems to be that all of Tanach should be studied (Taz, YD 245:2). For many centuries there has been a systemic neglect of this endeavor and this has led some authorities to bemoan the situation (e.g., Bach, YD 245) and others to look for justification (e.g., Shach, YD 245:5).
3. Tosafot (s.v., v’ad) says it means forty years of learning, not age forty.
4. The exception being if the individual under forty is the biggest talmid chacham in the city. The Shulchan Aruch castigates a rabbi who issues halachic rulings despite not being worthy of such. He is called a shoteh rasha, a foolish, evil person who is haughty. See SA, YD 242:13.
5. On the problem of everyone publishing books and the resultant lack of quality control since the invention of the printing press, see the lament of the Chatam Sofer (6:61).
6. These are called “great matters” in the Gemara (Sukkah 28a; Bava Batra 134a).
7. Rashi explains that they ascended to Heaven by means of the Divine Name.
8. For an explanation of how Ma’aseh Bereishit could be physics, see Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Kovetz Ma’amarim V’Iggerot 1, p. 95 (13), who cites Derashot HaRan 1. See comment of Gra regarding Rambam’s position (Gra, YD 246:18).
9. The series of letters on this topic were published by Rabbi Abba Mari Moshe ben Yosef ha-Yarhi in Minchat Kena’ot. Some of the Rashba’s letters are also found in his Shu”t (414-418). A summary of these responsa is provided in note 8 to Shu”t Rema, 5731 ed.
10. See Pawel Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 (Jewish Culture and Contexts) (Philadelphia, 2015): 78-79.
11. See Norman Lamm, Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake in the Works of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries (Hoboken, New Jersey, 1989): 126.
12. Although the Sabbatean movement also reached Sephardic lands, Chassidut did not, and the edicts against kabbalah were the product of Ashkenazic lands. No such curtailments on the study of kabbalah were issued by Sephardim, although there was a major conflict in Yemen at the end of the nineteenth century regarding the authority of the Zohar.
13. See Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture (Johns Hopkins Jewish Studies) (Baltimore, 1997): 36-39.
14. See Shulamith Soloveitchik Meiselman, The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter’s Memoir (Hoboken, New Jersey, 1995): 109-110.
15. Notes on this course were recently published as Lawrence J. Kaplan, Maimonides—Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed (Jerusalem, 2016).
16. In his commentary to Gittin 60. For the full, uncensored text, see R. M. M. Segal Goldstein, “Iyunim u’berurim b’Mishnato shel Rabbeinu haYavetz,” Ohr Yisrael 43 (Nissan 5766): 203-204.
17. It has been suggested that authentic kabbalah is to romantic love as academic kabbalah is to biology and popular kabbalah is to pornography.
18. One of America’s greatest experts on kabbalah was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983). And while he lived past age forty, it was not by much. He clearly had begun studying kabbalah before the age of forty.