For the sake of organization, outside of direct quotations “Kabbalah” will reference the Jewish tradition, “Cabala” with refer to the Christian interpretation and later adoption, and “Qabalah” will refer to the occult use of the term.
Kabbalah is nearly as difficult to define as “occult”. While it’s possible to trace a general history and outline prominent components, Kabbalah is a vast and still practiced tradition that has been shaped and interpreted by a number of prominent thinkers, rabbis, theologians, historians, and practitioners. Any exact understanding would take a lifetime of study and dedicated practice.
In broad strokes, Kabbalah began as Jewish exegesis, metaphysical model, and/or prophetic practices possibly stemming from the earlier “merkebah” tradition. The first textual evidence comes from the south of France in the 12th century with “The Baheel”. Roughly a century later, the most authoritative and influential book on Kabbalah, “The Zohar”, appears in Spain.
While the exact nature and interpretation of Kabbalistic knowledge and practice differed throughout the following centuries, two of the most prominent features are the “En-Sof” and the ten “Sefirot”.
The “En-Sof” is God in an infinite, transcendent nature. Unable to be comprehended by humans, the En-Sof acts as God’s light, presence, and creative force.
From the En-Sof emerge the ten Sefirot. From the hebrew root translating to “to count” or “to tell”, the sefirot are alternately considered as powers, traits, attributes, and/or the “revelation” of God. This makes them the perceivable and conceivable aspects of the divine that we interact with and experience to a greater or lesser degree. One of the popular understandings of the sefirot are that they represent the ten numbers (from 1-10) and the connections between them correlate to the twenty-two hebrew letters. Out of these ten numbers and twenty-two letters, God created the entirety of creation.
The sefirot are commonly arranged into a “tree of life” that represents their relationship with God, the physical world, and each other. Those higher up the tree are more difficult to understand and more powerful. The ones lower on the tree represent more human and earthly aspects that are susceptible to corruption.
On the topic of corruption, another defining aspect of Kabbalah in the Jewish faith is “tikkun”. The sefirot represent the divine realm and “tikkun” is the human ability, though our actions, to affect that realm. Negative human behavior disrupts the ideal harmony between the sefirot and consequently creates negative effects for the human world. Conversely, good and righteous behavior and following God’s commandments results in harmony between the sefirot and positive effects on the material world.
Beyond this basic metaphysical model, Kabbalisitc tradition and interpretation can vary. While Kabbalah enjoyed massive popularity starting with its inception in the 12th century, it lost much of its influence around the 18th century when the Hasidic and Reform movements gained momentum in Jewish communities. They rejected the largely mystical Kabbalah in favor of more modern, practical, and palpable practices that would allow for assimilation into European society.