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Thought for the Day: Backing into Kabbalah from Halacha

Do you like kabbalah?  Why?  I mean, I know why I find it interesting.  After all, I like theoretical physics.  I specifically studied physics because I wasn't interested in how anything in particular worked, I was only interested in how everything, everywhere worked.  I thought that if I knew the fundamental principles of how everything, everywhere worked, then I could figure out how anything in particular worked.  That was the working hypothesis.

A friend in the dorms once once trying to install a dimmer in his room (not authorized, of course).  He was downcast because the circuit breaker box was locked (shocking; pun intended) and so he couldn't shut off power to his room while installing the switch.  I, being a physics major (and with all the arrogance of youth on top of my own natural arrogance), quickly assessed the situation and announced my judgement: "As long as the dimmer is off while installing, no electricity will be running through it, so there is no problem installing it into a hot circuit."  They were all suitably impressed and handed the dimmer to me.  As I went to make the final connection, a huge spark through me back and destroyed the dimmer.  After a few days of sulking, I worked out that when making the connection, electricity will flow for a very brief fraction of a second (for those of you who care, even a bare wire has some capacitance; small, but not zero).  Not long enough to run anything useful, but enough that as it stops, the wire's small (but, again, non-zero) inductance is enough to start a spark... the rest is history.  I history, in fact, that was enshrined -- to my deep embarrassment -- with drawings and descriptive text around my friend's door for years afterward.

That's why if you want a dimmer installed, you hire and electrician.  Not a physicist (ok, ok... certainly not a junior who is a physics major), not even an electrical engineer.  While it is true that one who knows the fundamental principles of how everything, everywhere works, then he can certainly work out how anything in particular work; but only in principle.

That is why I spend most of my time on halacha and a fraction of my time on gemara.  Being that I am in charge of running my life, I want to really know the practical nuts and bolts of living; that is, halacha.  Of course, I also want a deeper understanding of how those practical rules are derived and would eventually like to be able to derive them myself.  Hence, I also learn gemara.  Ultimately, I am still going to want to have an appreciation for the deepest principles that guide our world.  Some day, therefore, I hope to he prepared to learn kabbalah.

In the meantime, just a bit of quantum mechanics is sometimes necessary to really understand how things really work (smart phones, for example), you sometimes need kabbalah to understand how things in our daily lives (תפילין, for example).  In hilchos תפילין, therefore, the Mishna Brura gives the hierarchy in determining halacha:
  1. If something is decided clearly in gemara and poskim, then that is what decides the halacha, regardless of the statements in kabbalah.
  2. If something is not discussed at all in gemara, then you are not obligated to follow anything said on that topic in kabbalah.
  3. If something is left undecided in gemara and poskim, then the kabbalah can be used to give strength to one side and decide the matter.
  4. Similarly, if the kabbalah is stringent, it is meritorious to follow that stringency.
Of course, everything is consistent from most bread-and-butter halacha to the deepest kabbalistic principles (the Mishna Brura occasionally notes that the Gr'a resolves this or that dichotomy).  The halacha, in fact, is nothing but the expression of kabbalah in our mundane world.  Learning some kabbalah, in fact, adds meaning and depth to our everyday experiences.  Trying to "use" kabbalah to draw your own conclusions about -- or much worse, to deviate from -- normative halacaha, is reckless beyond comprehension.

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