As understood today, the word Qabalah means a tradition or that which is received. It also means a very specific system of metaphysics. But in the ancient world "Qabalah" had a more general meaning, that of The Law. It could mean an oral law or it could be the law of Moses in the first five books of the Bible, The Torah (called the Pentateuch in Greek). It was not until the twelfth century that the term assumed today's precise meaning.20
There are two separate schools of Qabalah, that of Judaism and that which is the product of Italian Renaissance thought, termed the Hermetic Qabalah. A difficulty may arise here in that in any form of Qabalism God names are those of the Old Testament, Hebrew is the essential language and the primary texts are those of the Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, while Jewish and Hermetic Qabalah refer to the same literary sources, there are striking differences in both textual interpretation and practical work.
The most significant difference has to do with pictorial representation. Mosaic law forbids showing the human form: "It is likewise forbidden to draw a picture of a man, even only the face of a man. . . However, only a full face is forbidden, that is, when it has two eyes and a nose, but a profile is not forbidden."21 Idolatry of any sort was a sacrilege, which may explain the reluctance of some Jewish scholars to use even the Tree of Life in their publications.22 But more important, when a Christian mystic or Hermetic Qabalist will produce a pictorial vision as a "stepping off" point for inner exploration, the Jewish mystic seeks a direct experience of pure consciousness.
There are, of course, myriad other differences between Jewish and Hermetic Qabalahs, not the least of which is the way in which the Divine Names are applied. All of these differences are best understood in terms of the historical development of western occultism. It was around the second century A.D. that the Western Mystery Tradition began to emerge, although presumably based on elements handed down from a very ancient, and secret, oral tradition.
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