The traditions of Kabbalism, a school of Jewish Mysticism dating back over a thousand years, have placed several restrictions on the study of their theories, especially the sacred “Sefiroth” or “Tree of Life”, with its roots in heaven growing toward Earth. Although not all of the readers of these articles are married Jewish men above the age of twenty, the Sefaroth is one of the most enriching and meaningful concepts of Western Religion, and certainly some introduction to it won’t hurt.
Kabbalistic Jews believe that the universe was created out of ten aspects of God (The Sefirot). These were used so that God would have the ability to see God’s own composition, or appearance. For this reason God withdrew into God’s own being, and the universe formed in the resulting negative space. It is important to remember that even though each Sefirot represents a different virtue, they are not different from one another, rather all are God. Ancient Kabbalists described it as Water flowing through nine differently colored bowls. The water does not change colour, but the colour which we perceive the water to be does change.
The Sefiroth on the Tree of Life depicts these ten points, and the twenty-three paths that connect them (the image included shows eleven points, but that will be explained). It only takes nine of the twenty three paths, however, to follow the path from the first point to the last. For the purpose of this introduction, we will limit ourselves to a study of these paths.
It is believed by some Kabbalists, that by following the same paths that God used to create the universe in our own lives, we recreate ourselves in the same way and order in which God created the universe. This allows us to become better and more complete people, more in tune with the world around us. Essentially, the Sefiroth is a potentially life-long imitation of God in our own lives.
The Journey Through The Sefiroth
It is important to note that the paths described below were named for our benefit as we use the Sefiroth as a tool for spiritual growth; they are instructions for us to build ourselves from nothing. As the Sefiroth is used to understand God’s creation of the universe we must remember that God did not need to follow these paths, rather the Sefirot came one from another organically and without effort, like ripples on the surface of water.
The first Sefirot is called “The Crown”. This is understood by some scholars to be something of a play on words referring to both the majesty of God, and the physical head of a man. This is not a point on which we work; it is the point at which we begin. In the personal advancement model this point symbolizes the adept, eager to grow. In the Creation model this point is the nothingness that existed before anything was made. Although most Kabbalists are careful not to associates Sexes and Genders with God, the aspects of God and creation are often allowed Sexes individually, and The Crown is the Male aspect of the Sefiroth from which the rest emanates, and from which the journey begins.
The path from “The Crown” to the Second Sefirot, “Wisdom”, is the practice of Humility. Here “Humility” is usually taken to mean the understanding that Knowledge, and our capacity to understand it, are both limited. Before learning can begin, the fact that one will never stop learning must be grasped.
Through Commitment we reach the third point, “Understanding”. Wisdom comes from within, but in order to grow, the capacity to comprehend that which comes from without must be attained. This ability is what this Sefirot, which has been described as “Wisdom Speaking”, can be taken to represent. It is important to know that Understanding is not always quickly earned, and skimming over something not completely grasped is of little aid. According to ancient Philosophers, we are able to understand only when we are ready to use the knowledge that we are trying to grasp. “The Lips of Wisdom are Closed, except to the Ears of Understanding”.
For the sake of our purposes, we can say that Knowledge is a working factual catalogue of experience of the world around us, which helps us to appreciate the world through the more spiritual Sefirot.
The fourth point in our model is not included in all versions of the Sefiroth, possibly because it is not easy to define in terms of the spiritual nature of the Sefiroth. “Knowledge”, when included however, maintains movement through ten Sefirot, since “The Crown” does not require effort or achievement. Essentially, when the Sefiroth is used as a creation model, “Knowledge” is not always included, because it was not required for God to have, or to create, but it is included in models of the Sefiroth as a tool for personal advancement, because it is required for us to have in order to appreciate and contemplate our surroundings.
At any rate, the path through Knowledge that connects Understanding to the next point, translated as either Love, Compassion or Mercy, is never defined. We can easily imagine that it is the most fluid
and natural transition in the Tree of Life, and the universe it represents. Only once one Understands, can one show Love, Compassion and Mercy.
From Mercy, Tenacity is required to bring us through perhaps the most difficult transition to the point known as Power, or Severity. Because Severity is dangerous when left unchecked, some mystics believe that all evil exists in the universe because it entered through this Sefirot, though it is still an aspect of God. Such notions make it clear why the Sefiroth is so important, difficult, and in a sense, dangerous. Surely it is no wonder why early Kabbalists wanted to be sure that their students were prepared to complete their journeys on the Tree of Life, before letting them begin.
A sense of Justice brings us from Severity to “Beauty”. I have never seen this Sefirot translated as anything except for “Beauty”, but “Harmony” or “Peace” may be more fitting, as it is not referring so much to aesthetics as to calm appreciation, which is difficult without Justice, and impossible if progression stops at Severity.
Conscience takes us from Beauty to Victory, though Victory is not the final step on the journey to ourselves. Victory can lead to dangerous ends just as easily as Severity. Indeed it can be easy to be complacent when so much has been achieved, but this journey is larger than ourselves, and this is no place to lose the sense of humility that needed to be developed to take our first step.
Cleansing is required to bring one from Victory to Splendor. Though another very desirable trait, Splendor is also not the final destination. In much the same way that a King is not done with his job after fighting a battle, but must now rule the kingdom in peace, so too must we rest and make ourselves ready for the rest of our journey.
A sense of how far you have come and how much you have accomplished, a sense of Fulfillment, is what brings the adept from Splendor to Foundation. In the self-improvement model, Foundation is a solid place of pride and safety to return to when you feel too tasked on your journey through the Sefiroth, or when you feel that it is not paying off fast enough. In the Creation model, this step represents the bare earth and the animals to which God could start over when humans turned their backs.
Unfortunately, the last leg of the Tree Of Life is one of the most cryptic and difficult to understand. Its meaning is difficult to sum up in a single word or concept, though it is essentially the concept that Eastern religions call “Enlightenment”. It is the understanding that every person is united through their interactions with each other and with the world in which they live, and that every moment is the result of every previous moment. This is the final path to the final goal. On the diagram that I have made to accompany this article this path is symbolized by the sign for “Infinity”.
Most versions call the final point translated as “Presence” or “The Kingdom”, and it
has many meanings. From a religious or mystical sense this is becoming one with God, or God’s becoming one with us. If we recall that the Tree of Life has its roots in the Heavens, “Presence” is where the leaves touch the earth. This presence, which is akin to God’s own spirit, manifests itself through all of us, and everything.
From a philosophical sense this means becoming one with your true self, having a new understanding of who you truly are and what your place in the world truly is. Just as The Crown was the male aspect of the Sefiroth from which the rest come and wherein our journey began, so too is Presence the female aspect from which the world was born, and in which we may take our rest.
Completing The Sefiroth
Some believe that it is not possible for a mortal to “complete” the Sefiroth. Some believe that once the end is “reached” the journey can be restarted with greater experience. Others believe that after the final Sefiroth is reached the path is reflected in reverse order, like light on water.
There is controversy over the significance of this nine-fold path through the Sefiroth; is it the only order in which to navigate through the eleven points? Is it simply the most efficient path through all of the points? Does order matter at all? While sometimes it seems that the order makes sense, other times it seems like advanced principles are required to avoid dangerous stopping points, like Severity, or Victory.
Some scholars have suggested that the entire Sefiroth must be practiced at once in order for any part of it to be of value, or that effective practice of all previous points, not just the last point is required to reach the next goal. For example, one does not move from Wisdom to Understanding to Mercy, rather Mercy is the sum of Wisdom and Understanding. If the path is viewed in this way, one also does not leave Mercy and move to Severity, but rather incorporates Mercy into Severity.
Still others suggest that Every Sefirot consists of all others at once, though this engaging explanation fails to explain why anything unpleasant or unjust exists in the world. It has also been said that certain people, through practice, become essentially embodiments of one particular Sefirot.
Meanings and Symbols Associated with the Sefiroth
Because Kabbalism was still highly developing during a time of wide-spread persecution, the Sefiroth and other concepts related to it were often developed in areas of great social and religious diversity, meaning that the Sefiroth may have gained deeper meaning, but it was also adopted and edited by people who didn’t fully understand its implications, and would try to make it suit their own purposes.
Alchemists, who believed that the Kabbalistic theory of creation (that all of the universe is made out of the same material, namely, God’s own being) could explain how one substance could be transmuted into another, believed that the Sefiroth was an instruction manual, and that whatever it instructed the adept to make was completed at “The Kingdom”. Many alchemists also believed that in order for their ventures to go as planned they needed to be as pure as the metals they used and produced, and that following the Sefiroth in all aspects of their lives would help them achieve these ends.
Noted Alchemists including the legendary Nicholas Flamel are known to have gone so far as studying Judaism for years during a period of persecution of both Jews and Alchemists in the belief that the understanding that they gained would help their practice. Later versions of the Sefiroth that were created by alchemists, magicians, and scientists included astrological, medical, scientific, and occult symbols and meanings. For example, in the original drawings of the Sefiroth the paths between the points all coincided with letters of the Hebrew Alphabet.
Later drawings done by members of other groups relate the paths to symbolism found in Tarot, the deck of cards commonly used for divination, the telling of the future. While these later group’s use or misuse of the Sefiroth may have distorted the view later scholars would have of the concept, it also allows researchers such as myself to interpret aspects of the diagram that were not previously accessible to anyone other than the most practiced kabbalists through use of a knowledge of other symbol systems. Likewise, later diagrams and concepts in a wide variety of fields utilize the Sefiroth, so knowledge of the Sefiroth can help us understand those documents as well.
It is recommended that the Tree of Life be studied at an academic level, and contemplated in deep thought or meditation. The Tree of Life is just one map of consciousness available for personal and spiritual growth, of which there are many. For example, see this Introduction to the Seven Major Chakras. Some systems will resonate well with you, so work with what you feel is right.
Whether using the Sefiroth as an educational tool, a metaphor for the universe, or a spiritual guide, it is worth getting to know, and this introduction should help. Just be ready for a lot of research and deep thought along the way.
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Guide to Symbols and their Meanings”. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Print. 1994.
Matt, Daniel, C. “The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism”. Harper Collins, San Francisco. Print. 1997.
Scholem, Gershom (Editer). “Zohar: Basic Readings from Kabbalah”. Schocken Books, New York. Print. 1949.
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