Halacha And Kabbalah (Part 3): Acceptance Of Kabbalah Within Halacha

Given our earlier introductions we can now further elaborate on how the poskim view the kabbalistic literature against the classic halachic literature.

It is important to here point out that Ramban was a major figure in the times of the early Rishonim. He was also renowned for his knowledge in kabbalah to the extent that the Arizal singles him out amongst the Rishonim for his true kabbalistic knowledge. However, nowhere do we find that Ramban’s opinions in halacha are weighted more simply due to his kabbalistic knowledge. This attitude among the other Rishonim should in and of itself serve as notice that kabbalistic knowledge does not make one’s halachic opinion any greater than another great Torah scholar’s.

What remains to be seen is how to relate to the actual kabbalah texts. We will work with the assumption that the kabbalistic system is an authentic one. This includes the Arizal’s system (Lurianic kabbalah) as well as the Vilna Gaon’s, in addition to the earlier kabbalistic works. (We are not discussing Chassidic thought, which for our purposes is anyways based on the Arizal’s system of kabbalah. We shall thus assume that their system is consistent with his.)

The Rishonim make no mention of a general primacy of kabbalah over regular halacha; this includes even the late Rishonim, who some will categorize as early Achronim. The presumption is that it was obvious to them which one took preference in each individual case and they therefore felt no need to elaborate in a more general sense. We also generally presume that what later authorities say is consistent with earlier authorities unless they say otherwise. This is to say as follows: if, for example, it would be the case that the Rishonim held that kabbalah “trumped” the classic halachic sources, then a more recent authority choosing to argue in a particular instance, or reverse a ruling, would have to quote the Rishon’s opinion and state why he disagrees with it. As a rule, if he does not do this, then we can assume that he was either unaware of the Rishon’s contradictory opinion, or understood his own opinion to be in line with that of the Rishon’s. This concept is important when considering which authorities accepted kabbalistic rulings from previous generations, and so forth.

We are fortunate that this topic has already being discussed by the early Achronim. The Kenesses Ha’Gedolah (1603-1676), who himself was a Kabbalist, writes that we follow the Talmud and poskim over the kabbalah. However, if the kabbalah is more stringent in a particular case, then one should be more stringent. Furthermore, if there is no mention of a position in the classic sources then one cannot force others to keep said particular kabbalistic halacha. This opinion is the generally accepted one, quoted in the Yad Malachi, Magen Avraham (25:20) as well as the Mishnah Berurah (25:42). However, this is not to say that the poskim do not allow the kabbalah to influence halacha, and indeed, we find the Magen Avraham and others citing certain kabbalistic halachos and ideas throughout their writings.

We see from all of this that the general thrust of the poskim is to follow the “revealed” part of the Torah she’ba’al peh over kabbalah. However, they do not reject kabbalah completely and still give it legitimacy and are influenced by it.

In the next and final installment we will discuss which kabbalistic texts are given greater weight, and how different communities and certain individual poskim viewed kabbalistic influence.

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