Sefirot: A brief history and explication
This work provides a brief history of the origins of Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism, and an explication of sefirot, a key aspect of Kabbalah. This paper is prepared as a jumping point for a discussion group and provides many opportunities for continued study..
Since there is no standard transliteration of Hebrew words into English pronunciation, I have taken the liberty of picking a spelling and sticking with it, even if source material uses a different spelling. This serves to help avoid confusion among those unfamiliar with the Hebrew language. The only exception to this is in the references section. Also note that in cases of direct quotes, I have maintained the source author’s grammatical choices (e.g., Oxford commas and capitalized words), as well as the author’s transliteration.
The reader will notice that I’ve leaned heavily on two sources (Matt, 1995 and Dennis, 2007), for the purposes of this paper. Since the primary purpose of this document is explication, a variety of viewpoints was not important; rather, finding two authors writing independently whose definitions corroborated each other in simple language was most useful.
I have also used G-d to refer to the deity. This is common practice in some faith circles and I expect will save me some angry email.
This paper was written in preparation for a Kabbalah discussion group, with the current topic suggested by Rabbi Robert Haas of Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, Georgia. It is only with his guidance on a starting point that this work would have been possible, and it is with deep gratitude to him that this work is presented.
Josh Shear, Savannah, Georgia, USA
January 2016 / Tevet 5776
If the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament of the Bible) tells us how we got here -- both the creation of the world and Jews as a people in their locations -- and dictates the rules for existing, and the Talmud explains both moral and ethical laws and really how we should behave, Kabbalah puts both Torah and Talmud in spiritual context, bringing to the Torah’s commandments what Matt (1995) terms “cosmic input” (p. 1).
While the written, or codified, Kabbalah, really comes to be sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries CE, Jewish mystical tradition starts, perhaps, with Ezekiel’s vision of G-d in the sixth century BCE, and later branches, sometime between the third and sixth centuries CE, into a mystical explanation of creation, starting with numbers and letters. It is out of the first ten numbers of creation we learn of sefirot
The purpose of this paper is to provide a simple explication of the sefirot, their attributes, their connection to our creation story, their relationships to each other and to the human body, and to provide avenues for additional exploration. The reader should not expect a comprehensive examination of writings on the sefirot; rather, this work provides a jumping point for the curious, or a satisfactory introduction for the less curious. The reader should expect, after absorbing this essay, to be able to advance in study or participate knowledgeably in conversation about sefirot.
This paper begins with an introduction to the sefirot as a concept, including some history and a brief discussion of the problem of duality. It then proceeds to introduce each of the ten sefirot and their relationships with each other. Finally, the paper examines the common two-dimensional rendering of the sefirot, with a comparison to other esoteric renderings, which certainly provides opportunities for further study and explication.
History and concept
Kabbalah begins with the notion that G-d needs human participation to be complete (Matt, 1995). Our overarching physical model for G-d -- the man on a throne many of us pictured from our Sunday school days -- begins with Ezekiel’s vision in about the sixth century BCE, when the prophet sees four angels, each with four wings and four faces, surrounding G-d seated on a chair with four omni-directional wheels. “Above the expanse over [the angels’] heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form” (Ezekiel 2:26).
G-d sends Ezekiel as a messenger to turn people to faith. In this, G-d requires not only the faithful, but Ezekiel specifically as an individual, as well. While the Bible never explicitly explains why G-d wants -- or needs -- people of faith, there certainly remains the possibility that G-d does need us -- humans -- to be complete, as Matt asserts.
Before Kabbalah emerged as a practice and a body of literature, mystic practitioners tried to recreate Ezekiel’s vision of G-d on a throne through an ascetic journey and the use of passwords. It was a journey that was dangerous to the person taking it. The Rabbis taught that four men entered the Garden of Paradise. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went crazy; Aher ruined the sacrifice (various translations say “cut the plants” or “mutilated the shoots;” castrated animals were not acceptable for sacrifice); and Akiba came away unharmed (Talmud, Chagigah 14b). That sounds like a precipitous journey, indeed.
While Ezekiel’s journey became one branch of the Judaic mystical tradition, another branch began, seeking to give a cosmological account of our creation story. The first written work in this branch is Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Creation), which appears to have unknown origins. While some say it appeared sometime between the eighth and early eleventh centuries CE, Kalisch (1877) notes that by the tenth century CE, scholar Saadjah Gaon was already writing about it as though it were an ancient text.
It is in Sefer Yetzirah we first read of sefirot, which later mystical scholars would assign as attributes of G-d. They start, though, as the original decad -- the ten numbers with which G-d begins creation.
Sefirot and creation
Inasmuch as we might be able to call a translated ancient mystical text “graspable,” Westcott’s (1887) translation of Sefer Yetzirah into English will do just fine as far as our guide in this section. It should be noted that this section sits somewhat apart from the rest of the paper in that the sefirot explained in Yetzirah are an introduction to what later become the sefirot in Kabbalah. Without the sefirot of Yetzirah, we have no sefirot, but for the purpose of this paper, this section primarily serves to detail the introduction of sefirot into the overall human knowledge base, without examining how we got from the sefirot of Yetzirah to the sefirot of Kabbalah, i.e., the sefirot of creation are the same sefirot we study later, but they must have gone through quite a few interpretive steps, which are not examined here.
In the beginning of Yetzirah, G-d first makes himself by way of thirty-two paths, ten numbers and twenty-two letters. Westcott’s (1887) translation opens, “In two and thirty most occult and wonderful paths of wisdom did JAH the Lord of Hosts engrave his name” (Sefer Yetzirah, 1:1). In the next verse, it is explained that “Ten are the numbers, as are the Sephiroth, and twenty-two the letters, these are the Foundation of all things” (Sefer Yetzirah, 1:2).
As we continue through the first chapter, the ten numbers or sefirot are described as a decad relating to the fingers (1:3), with an appearance of “scintillating flames” that “have no end” (1:6). The ten gain a deeper description, with G-d picking three letters as the first three sefirot, binding them together to form a name (the fourth), and then casting them in six different directions: up, down, north, south, east and west, as sefirot five through ten (1:11). As the first chapter comes to a close, the ten sefirot are listed as “the spirit of the living God, Air, Water, Fire, Height and Depth, East and West, North and South” (1:12).
Two things are worth noting here. One is that the three letters bound into a word become the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name for G-d found throughout the Bible (one of the letters repeats). For a more in-depth look at the tetragrammaton, see Toy and Lau (1906) and Brewer (1894). The other is that one of the works of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, the tetractys (a four-tiered equilateral triangle consisting of ten dots describing the perfect number), spawned two schools: one that studied the mathematics involved in and derived from the tetractys, and another that studied the mystical aspects of the figure (Kessinger/Tusweca, 2012).
Pythagoras is thought to have been born around 570 BCE (e.g., Douglass, 2005), so his life may have overlapped somewhat with that of the prophet Ezekiel. The primary origination points of the two different directions Jewish mysticism took, then, were alive at approximately the same time. A person who was young when Ezekiel was older would have still been alive when Pythagoras began his work. There were, then, people who certainly could have been influenced by both men as the mystic traditions began.
The duality problem
Before diving into the ten sefirot with which we are concerned -- those sefirot which make up ten aspects of G-d -- it should be noted that some scholars, notably Abraham Abulafia, have pointed out that attributing names to aspects or “parts” of G-d creates a duality problem. If a common criticism of the Catholic belief that the Holy Trinity -- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- is a question as to whether three separately describable entities can together comprise a single deity, how is it that we can ascribe ten individually describable sefirot as aspects of a single G-d (Matt, 1995)? In fact, we’ve already seen in Yetzirah that in order to engrave his own name, the Lord of Hosts described fully thirty-two distinct paths!
Egerov (2014) declares that duality is necessary for existence. It allows us to question ourselves, and to allow one part of ourselves to argue with another, while we reflect on which should win. That doesn’t make us more than one being any more than having distinct aspects should make us question the existence of a single deity. Ezekiel’s vision of G-d as human-like on the outside might help us make the leap that maybe G-d is something like a human on the inside, as well.
Ein Sof and the ten sefirot
Now that we understand where sefirot originated, it’s time to look at how our understanding of them evolved. By the thirteenth century CE, Moses de Leon was circulating tracts that later grew into the Zohar, which we know today as the seminal work in Kabbalah (Matt, 1995). In the Zohar, sefirot “appear as lights, powers and attributes,” (Matt, 1995, p. 5). While that certainly sounds similar to the way sefirot are explained in Yetzirah, the sefirot now morph into something much more powerful than what we understood in Yetzirah 1:12.
In this section, we’ll look at each of the ten sefirot. We’ll name them, explain a little about them, and introduce the sections that follow.
While Ein Sof is not one of the sefirot, it is an important concept to understand. Dennis (2007) gives probably the most succinct understanding: “Ein Sof is the term used in Kabbalah for the true but hidden essence of G-d, which is entirely unknown and unknowable to humans. All human knowledge of G-d is really knowledge of the ten emanated sefirot, which are ‘outside’ Ein Sof” (p. 78). It is from Ein Sof that the sefirot emanate, but we can never quite get to know Ein Sof. The sefirot, however, are within our grasp.
The first of the sefirot to emanate from Ein Sof, Keter is the crown when the sefirot are depicted in a top-down manner (see the section on two-dimensional representation below). It corresponds to the intentionality of creation, but is often thought of in terms of paradox such as in the phrase “hidden light,” or by describing what it is not. Being the first of the sefirot, Keter has a primordial power to it (Dennis, 2007). If the sefirot are depicted as a tree, Keter would instead be at the very bottom, the providing an anchor point for the roots (Matt, 1995). Keter, along with Chochmah and Binah, are the three top sefirot.
Sometimes described as the first being to emanate from G-d, Chochmah is wisdom. It is also called father (this becomes clearer as relationships among the sefirot emerge), and equates to Torah (Dennis, 2007). It might be noted here that since the Torah is the source of our legal code, instilling in Chochmah the notion of wisdom perhaps lends a tone of softness to an otherwise strict paternal figure. Chochmah also has an aspect of light to it (Dennis, 2007): consider that a wise person might be called “illuminated.”
Binah is the mother, both the offspring of, and complement to, Chochmah. While Binah is also called “palace,” giving a place for G-d’s light to rest, there is a darkness to Binah that complements Chochmah’s light. One of the root aspects of the Tree of Life, Binah gives birth to the lower sefirot (Dennis, 2007), which are more easily found than Keter, Chochmah and Binah (Matt, 1995).
The first of the sefirot to emanate from Binah, Chesed is love or kindness, and “is the principle of boundless divine mercy, grace, and blessing manifest in Creation” (Dennis, 2007, p. 50).
In balance with Chesed, Gevurah represents G-d’s power or justice. If there is too much of one or the other, reality becomes degraded. It also represents “evil, destructiveness, cruelty, and the demonic in Creation” (Dennis, 2007, p. 107). You can see, then, how Gevurah balances Chesed.
An equal balance of Chesed and Gevurah leads to the central sefirah, Tiferet, which corresponds to beauty or compassion (Matt, 1995). Tiferet represents a critical harmony in the universe (Dennis, 2007). Inasmuch as Tiferet emanates divine light, it is also the source of evil, which is conceived of in divine thought (Matt, 1995).
The mirror through which prophecy flows, Netsach is endurance, or eternity (Dennis, 2007; Matt, 1995).
Representing splendor or majesty, Hod is the other side of prophecy. If Netsach is represented by Moses, a strong, powerful, high-endurance figure in the Bible, Hod is represented by Aaron, Moses’ elder brother, who is granted a priesthood (Dennis, 2007).
Yesod is both phallus and foundation. Dennis (2007) calls it “the source of the vitality and sexuality that energizes the plane of existence” (p. 286). Yesod is also called tzadik, or righteous one. It is the cosmic pillar through which are channeled the light and power of the other sefirot as they move into Shechinah (Matt, 1995).
Shechinah (also called Malchut) is perhaps the most complex of the sefirot. Typically described as a woman and balancing the masculine power of G-d, Shechinah might be described as a divine light or radiance, and represents the Jewish people. Shechinah reveals herself to people as a bride in white, a dove, or an elderly mourning woman in black (Dennis, 2007). These representations are consistent with the elusive bride and dove who light the way for the traveler in The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (Rowe, 2000), the founding document of the Rosicrucian fraternity. She is the bride of Tiferet and “‘the secret of the possible,’ receiving the emanation from above and engendering the varieties of life below” (Matt, 1995, p. 9).
Two-dimensional representation and other esoteric representations
Figure 1 is a depiction of the sefirot. Keep in mind as you look at it that the Hebrew language is read top-to-bottom, like English, but right-to-left, so the sefirot are ordered as listed above, with Keter first, followed by Chochmah, Binah and so forth. Note that in this illustration, Shechinah is referred to as Malchut.
The right side of the figure is considered masculine, and the left feminine (Dennis, 2007), with the center line being foundational.
This section presents possibilities for further study. Further explications of concepts here would be necessary, as would research into some of the hypothesis about meanings. These are presented here as food for thought. The author finds them interesting; readers might as well.
Sefirot and the human body
If Keter is the crown supported by Chochmah and Binah, and Tiferet the groom to Shechinah’s bride, Yesod is the phallus that creates life from the betrothed sefirot. Chesed -- representing grace and love -- is the right arm, balanced by the left arm, the power and justice of Gevurot. If prophecy gives our faith legs to stand on, Netsach is the right leg and Hod the left.
Sefirot and Vitruvian Man
You may or may not recognize the title Vitruvian Man, but you’ve seen Leonardo da Vinci’s work of a man in two positions, overlaid on each other, one with arms at an upward angle and legs spread, the other with legs together and arms at shoulder height (Figure 2). This is based on the work of the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who wrote a large collection on architecture, complete with drawings, that included the notion that the proportions of temples be related to the proportions of humans (Berdan, 2004).
When the depiction of the sefirot is laid over Vitruvian Man (see Figure 3), the body parts described by the sefirot correspond to those on Vitruvian Man, with the three highest sefirot resting as a crown on the head, Tiferet landing on the solar plexus and Shechinah providing a standing base, a root of stability. Chesed and Gevurah line up at the arms, Netsach and Hod at the hips, and Yesod at the phallus.
Sefirot and the chakras
In the traditions of yoga and meditation, chakras are the wheels of energy aligning the body. There are seven, aligning from a seated base to the crown chakra above the head. The first, Muladhara, represents stability. The fourth, Anahata, is the heart center. It unites the lower three physical chakras with the upper three spiritual chakras. The seventh, Sahaswara, is known as the crown chakra and represents enlightenment (Fondin).
Figure 4 is a representation of the chakras as aligned on a human body, while Figure 5 overlays the rendering of the sefirot. Note that Shechinah, which holds everything together, aligns with Muladhara, the stability chakra; Tiferet, representing balance, aligns with Anahata, the chakra that brings together the material and spiritual; and Keter, the crown sefirah, aligns with Sahaswara, the crown chakra.
Sefirot and sacred geometry
The seed of life, flower of life and fruit of life are renderings of sacred geometry. To create the seed of life, first draw a circle, then draw a second circle using a point on the first circle as the centerpoint of the second (Figure 6). It represents, among other things, Day 1 of Creation. To draw the flower of life, continue this process, with the third circle emanating from a centerpoint that is at the intersection of the first and second circles, then a fourth circle starting from the intersection of the first and third, etc., until you’ve reached a total of seven circles, with six surrounding the original circle (Figure 7). The fruit of life, then, branches out, with two more rows of circles encompassing the inner two (Figure 8). For a full demonstration of this with more discussion, see Ruark et al. (2015).
While placing the depiction of the sefirot over the seed of life only suggests an idea, notice that the sefirot overlaid down the center of the flower of life (Figure 9) shows the sefirot landing on intersecting points. The sefirot overlaid in the middle of the fruit of life (Figure 10) shows the sefirot landing in the centers of more complex structures.
Conclusion and further study
We have here explicated the ten sefirot, with an attempt at the known history, providing a foundational introduction for further study. It should again be noted that this merely serves as an entree into the world of Kabbalah and the sefirot, and should be considered a starting point for the curious, not a comprehensive examination of any aspect of the mystical tradition within Judaism.
Several opportunities for further study and explication present themselves readily. A further in-depth study of each of the sefirot is a possibility, as well as their interrelationships. Ein Sof presents another opportunity. The other side branch of mystical tradition, that which seeks to recreate the visions of the prophet Ezekiel, remains wide open for exploration. Lastly, further research into the connections between sefirot and Vitruvian Man, chakras and sacred geometry are certainly avenues for exploration, with, perhaps, particular emphasis on where we get the depiction of the sefirot.
Figure 1: Representation of Sefirot
Figure 2: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci
Figure 3: Sefirot overlaid on Vitruvian Man
Figure 4: Chakras
Figure 5: Sefirot overlaid on chakras
Figure 6: Seed of life
Figure 7: Flower of life
Figure 8: Fruit of life
Figure 9: Sefirot overlaid on flower of life
Figure 10: Sefirot overlaid on fruit of life
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Overlay illustrations by the author.