Kabbalah and Halakha
This seems to be going around. So I’ll talk about it here. Some people seem to think that there is a tension between Kabbalah and Halakha. Whether in regards to Tefillin, Shabbat Candle lighting, or lacing one’s fingers as was a recent topic of a good deal of discussion over at the Daat Torah blog. I can see how one could arrive at this assumption give that some Kabbalistic customs may seem to contradict what is minhag/halakha of certain communities.
First let me define Kabbalistic custom. For purposes of this post, a Kabbalistic custom will only be those things directly stated in the Kitvei Ha’Ari. While I know that Chassidim have a number of customs that they claim are based in Kabbalah, and they may well be firmly based in an Admur’s own pilpul of Kabbalistic texts, the vast majority of halakhic works only call things a Kabbalistic custom if it was actually written in the Kitvei Ha’Ari. So I am going to go that route as well.
It is important to understand that when Ari taught, the Shulhan Arukh had not been compiled yet, and when Rav Haim Vital codified the Kitvei HaAri the Shulhan Arukh was just going into publication, which in an era before the printing press, meant that it was being hand copied and sent off to various Gedolim, Yeshivot, ect. Until that point halakha was still rather loosely based upon what individual rabbis and poskim understood from the vast commentaries of the Rishonim.
The Arizal himself was an ilui in every branch of Torah, thus his customs and more importantly his own halakhic rulings while they may differ somewhat from what the Maran laid down as Sephardic halakha in the Shulhan Arukh, are not without significant basis in the works of the Rishonim. So they have rather strong basis in halakha. Second to that is that they have been reaffirmed many times over the last 500yrs by numerous Sephardi(and in some cases) Ashkenazi poskim.
Along with that, a vast majority of Kabbalistic customs are not actual halakhot. This is where Rav Ovadia Yosef tends to be at odds with the Kaf HaHaim, the Ben Ish Hai, and numerous contemporary Rabbis. A lot can be said about the reasons on both sides, but for now I am going to go with what has been said by Rabbi Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, and Rav Tzedakka ZTz”l, both of whom were mekubalim in their own right and staunch defenders of Rav Ovadia, simply there needs to be a Rav for the common person.
Kabbalistic customs are typically humrot and acts of personal piety. As much as some today seem like they would like to, you cannot force that whole sale on the Jewish populace(more on this in a future post). Before there was a nation, and more importantly when Jews were in countries hostile to them, it was a possibility to do that. However, both on the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sides we watched those religious societies crumble in astonishing numbers when the sword was lifted from their necks, in the haskala in Germany for Ashkenazim and later amongst Sephardim when they made their way to Israel.
Rav Karo wrote the Shulhan Arukh without many of the humrot that wrote in his commentary on the Beit Yosef. Five Hundred years later Rav Ovadia is recapturing that simple and standard halakha. The vast majority of Mekubalim see this as a good thing. As I have stated before many even instruct their own children according to the Rav Ovadia, allowing them to choose a more stringent path if they would like. All of this to say, that if you really think that Kabbalah is somehow contradicting Halakha you have got something wrong.