December 22, 2016

Kabbalah 101: What Madonna Didn’t Tell Us about the Little Red String.

Oluf Bagge - From Northern Antiquities

Kabbalah is an ancient and beautiful spiritual tradition.

But while it is on everyone’s news radar that Madonna is studying Kabbalah, you don’t read much out there about the practice itself.

What exactly is Kabbalah?

Kabbalah is an ancient form of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalists claim that the oral tradition was passed down from the time of the prophets, while most of the written texts were recorded in the Middle Ages.

As a practitioner, I find Kabbalah to be a profound daily practice. Kabbalah teaches the importance of constant presence. It includes Kabbalistic meditative practices. And it requires one to face oneself and become a better person.

Kabbalah requires an awareness of our thoughts and learning to clear one’s mind. Kabbalah also includes the idea that our physical forms are a reflection of the spiritual, so it incorporates the importance of body awareness and of the mind-body connection.

Kabbalah involves study, especially of the Tree of Life and the Hebrew letters. But in the end, it is something that one understands with one’s heart and soul.

Key Ideas in Kabbalah:

The Oneness of Everything: Nope, you don’t have to be Buddhist to believe in the Oneness and connection of everything. One of the core concepts of Kabbalah is Ultimate Unity and Oneness.

The Kabbalists say that nothing other than the Creator exists. Separation from our source of being is an illusion experienced by human beings, until the path of spiritual restoration brings us close to the Creator, and the realization of God’s Oneness and Unity.

As usual, so easy to say in words, but actual living realization of Oneness is a profound spiritual path, attained by very few indeed.

Linking Heaven and Earth

To Kabbalists, heaven is the spiritual world. Earth is the physical world of matter. And what unites and links the two? The human being. So the purpose of life is to live spiritually while in physical form. Thus, every physical action can be done in a spiritual way.

To be kind to one’s friend is a spiritual act. To drink a glass of water with 100% awareness and with gratitude for life is a spiritual act.

Physical actions can be used to learn inner principles. So if I can learn to clean my room, I can learn to clean up my character, for example. Nothing in life is to be taken for granted on the spiritual path.


One of the ideas of Kabbalah is that the world was made broken. And so there are wars, there is cruelty, there is unfairness. But it can be restored, and this is the creative work of human beings. Because humans were made in the image of our Creator, our role is to create good and restore the world to perfection.

This reminds me of an artist friend of mine who was living in Chicago. Everywhere she went, she found broken glass. So she found some old wood windows and figured out how to epoxy the glass on. In the end, she created artworks, similar to stained glass, but much more beautiful and multi-textured. This struck me as the human ability to take something broken and creatively transform it into something of perfection and beauty.


When I first started studying Kabbalah, a favorite awareness practice of mine was one that my teacher calls “Stop and Consider.” He advised that whenever I found myself to be distracted, stressed out, or rushing through life, I should freeze in place. Then, after a few breaths, start moving again in extremely slow motion. As I moved, I could gradually speed up until I was moving at normal speed again.

I remember one day when I woke up late, completely frazzled, hair unbrushed, trying to get out the door to catch a bus to Denver. I was afraid of being late, and while trying to grab everything I needed for the day at once, I kept dropping things. You know how it is—just when you’re running late, you spill your coffee all over your shirt and lose even more time having to go change.

This was a perfect time for practice. I froze in place, and, fighting every urge to rush, started moving in slow motion. I can’t say exactly what changed in that moment, but my thoughts slowed down, and instead of feeling distracted, I felt calmer and more present. I stopped dropping things, placed them one by one in my bag, and somehow I still made it to the bus on time. To me, that it is the power of presence. It felt like someone had taken an iron to a day that had started out wrinkled.

But what struck me even more was that once I got used to how that practice felt in my body, it started to transfer to other things. A roommate got frustrated when I cleaned up some of her dirty dishes. Instead of snapping back, I stopped completely still and took a breath. And then I laughed, “Shall we go to war over the dishes?” I jested, taking on a mock-boxing posture. She laughed back, and everything was fine. This is one of the things I love about Kabbalah—how the most seemingly ordinary parts of life become part of a bigger picture of constant spiritual exploration.

Ways to Start Exploring Kabbalah

Want to learn more about Kabbalah? Here are some first steps to take:

1. Learn about the Hebrew Letters and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.

2. Explore Kabbalistic Meditation.

3. Find a school or teacher to study with. Look for teachers in your area, or find an online class to start learning.


More Kabbalah Resources:

Here are some of my favorite Kabbalah resources:

The Invisible Stairway: Kabbalistic Meditations on the Hebrew Letters
This is an excellent guide with step-by-step instructions on Kabbalistic Meditation. I study with this book on a daily basis.

Meditation and Kabbalah
This book, by the legendary Aryeh Kaplan, contains many great Kabbalistic meditation practices.

Walking Kabbalah
Walking Kabbalah includes Kabbalah learning as well as daily kabbalistic spiritual practices.

Learn Kabbalah
Provides solid background on Kabbalah.

Bnei Baruch Kabbalah
Bnei Baruch has schools and study groups throughout the U.S. and also hosts a free online interactive course.

Go Kabbalah Now
This is the small Kabbalah school that I study with, in case anyone is in the Boulder area and wants to come learn.


Thanks for reading. As we know, any great spiritual tradition is much too large to fit into one article. There is so much depth and wonder to explore. But I hope this has piqued your interest. And next time you read about Madonna, maybe you will take pause and consider looking more deeply into this beautiful art and study of Kabbalah.


Author: Devorah Henderson

Image:  Wikipedia Public Domain

Apprentice Editor: Josie Myers; Editors: Travis May

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Devorah Henderson