Sephirot (or "enumerations", Sephiroth, Sefiroth (סְפִירוֹת), singular: Sephirah, also Sefirah (סְפִירָה "enumeration" in Hebrew)), in the Kabbalah of Judaism, are the ten attributes that God (who is referred to as אור אין סוף Aur Ain Soph, "Limitless Light, Light Without End") created through which he can manifest not only the physical but the metaphysical universe.
Through a careful study of the Tanakh, Jewish sages identified ten Sephirot (ten being the number of divine perfection) known by the following names/characteristics from highest to lowest:
- Keter/Crown - Divine Plan/Creator/infinite light/Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh - I AM THAT I AM (Supreme/Total Consciousness)
- Chokmah - Divine Reality/revelation/Yesh me-ayin - being from nothingness (Power of Wisdom)
- Binah - Understanding/repentance/reason (Power of Love)
- Chesed - Mercy/Grace/Love of (intention to emulate) God (Power of Vision)
- Gevurah - Judgment/strength/determination (Power of Intention)
- Tipheret - Symmetry/balance/compassion (Creative Power)
- Netzach - Contemplation/Initiative/persistence (Power of the Eternal Now)
- Hod - Surrender/sincerity/steadfastness (Intellectual/Observational Power)
- Yesod - Foundation/wholly remembering/coherent knowledge (Power of Manifesting)
- Malkuth/Lower Crown - Kingdom/physical presence/vision and illusion (Power of Healing/Accomplishment/Level of Realization of Divine Plan)
The Da'at is the mystical state of unity of the 10 Sephiroth, also called the Tree of Life. These ten levels are associated with Kabbalah's (Zohar) four different "worlds" or "planes" which serve as the guide for returning to the Creator.
- Atziluth (אֲצִילוּת), or "World of Emanations", on this level of Creator, Reality/the light of the Ain Sof radiates and is united with its source.
- Beri'ah (בְּרִיאָה) or "World of Creation", on this conceptual level of creation ex nihilo without form, only the highest ranking Angels (purity of being) inhabit.
- Yetzirah (יְצִירָה) or "World of Formation" on this level, creation (creativity) is related to form.
- Asiyah' (עֲשִׂיָּה) or "World of Actions", on this level creation is relegated to the 'physical Asiyah' comprising our physical world with all its creatures.
Each of these worlds are progressively grosser and further removed from the Divine (Plan), however the ten Sephiroth manifest in all of them.
Whereas in the Zohar and elsewhere there are four worlds or universes (planes of existence), in the Lurianic system, Five Worlds, a fifth plane, Adam Kadmon-manifest Godhead level, mediates between the Ein Sof and the four lower worlds which can be understood as descriptive of dimensional levels of intentionality related to the man's natural "desire to receive" and a (secret Science of Kabbalah) method for the soul's progress upward toward unity with or return to the Creator.
The Sephiroth are organised into 3 different columns or gimel kavim ("three lines" in Hebrew):
- Central column:
Kether heads the central column of the tree, which is known metaphorically speaking as the "Pillar of Mildness" and is associated with Hebrew letter Aleph, "the breath", and the air element. It is a neutral one, a balance between the two opposing forces of male and female tendencies. Some teachings describe the sephirot on the centre pillar as gender-neutral, while others say that the sephirot vary in their sexual attributions.
- Right column, in Hebrew kav yamin:
Chokhmah heads the right column of the tree, metaphorically speaking the "Pillar of Mercy", associated with the Hebrew letter Shin, the fire element, and the male aspect;
- Left column, in Hebrew kav smol:
The left column is headed by Binah and is called the "Pillar of Severity." It is associated with Hebrew letter Mem, the water element and the female aspect.
While the pillars are each given a sexual attribution, this does not mean that every sephirah on a given pillar has the same sexual attribution as the pillar on which they sit. In Jewish Kabbalah, of all the sephirot only Binah and Malkuth are considered female, while all the other sephirot are male. Additionally (and this applies to both Jewish and Hermetic Kabbalah), each sephirah is seen as male in relation to the following sephirah in succession on the tree, and female in relation to the foregoing sephirah.
Alternative traditions consider the grammatical genders of the words involved. Thus, Gevurah is feminine because it has an atonal finial Heh. Thus, Severity or Justice becomes a feminine attribute while Chesed (Mercy or Lovingkindness) becomes a masculine one, despite the modern Western tendency to genderize these terms in reverse manner.
The Sephirothic Tree is sometimes depicted as being a human body and, as such, is thought to symbolize the first "Heavenly" Man: Adam Kadmon. Each of the Sephirah, as seen within the formation of the Sephiroth, correspond with a body part or organ of this prototypical man.
In a numerological sense, the Tree of Sephiroth also has significance. Between the 10 Sephiroth run 22 channels or paths which connect them, a number which can be associated with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition to each of this channels being assigned a letter of this alphabet, each path is also identified with one of the major trumps of the Tarot deck of symbolic cards. When combined with the 10 Sephiroth, these 22 paths make the number 32 which makes reference to the 32 Qabbalistic Paths of Wisdom and also the 32 degrees of Freemasonry.
To envision the tree, consider each of these ten spheres as being concentric circles with Malkuth being the innermost and all others encompassed by the latter. None of these are separate from the other, and all simply help to form a more complete view of the perfected whole. To speak simply, Malcuth is the Kingdom which is the physical world upon which we live and exist, while Kether, also call Kaether and Kaether Elyon is the Crown of this universe, representing the highest attainable understanding of God that men can understand.
Hypothetically there also exists an Eleventh Sephirah called Daath. According to Karen Chapdelaine, its meaning is the Abyss and its universal element is Neptune which makes it an important element of the Tree of Sephiroth. However, the first Qabbalists did not include any such sphere, making Daath a contested point of philosophical discussion. The Jewish Kabbalists that do accept this entity state that it is not a Sephirah, but rather that absence of one. In the Jewish tradition, the idea of an eleventh Sephirah is tantamount to blasphemy, as stated in the Sefer Yetzirah: "Ten Sephirot of Nothingness, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven.”
As to the actual significance of the numbers 10 and 22 in context of Judaism goes into Kabbalistic interpretation of Genesis. God is said to have created the world through Ten Utterances, marked by the number of times Genesis states, “And God said.” Upon scrutiny, there are only nine, but the Kabbalists count the first verse: “In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” (Genesis 1:1) This is because something was created, which parallels what happens every time “And God said” is stated. As for the 22 letter-paths, there must first be an explanation of the three different types of letters in Hebrew. See “Bahir Tree” of “Kircher Tree” image for reference.
- There are three “Mothers” (Aleph, Mem, and Shin) that represent the horizontal lines.
- Their difference from the other letters is a matter for another article.
- There are seven “Doubles” (Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, and Tav), which have two pronunciations and represent the vertical lines.
- Gimel, Dalet, Resh, and Tav’s second pronunciations are lost or disputed, with different dialects using different sounds. Tav has no second pronunciation in Sephardi, but Ashkenazi use a 's' sound when the dagesh is absent.
- The twelve “Elementals” (Heh, Vav, Zayin, Chet, Tet, Yud, Lamed, Nun, Samech, Ayin, Tzaddi, and Qof) have one pronunciation, and represent the diagonal lines. Other sources say that they correspond to the twelve zodiacal constellations.
Each letter grouping has significance in Genesis 1:
- The Mothers represent the three times Genesis states “God made."
- The Doubles represent the seven times Genesis states “God saw."
- The elementals represent the rest of the times “God” (Elohim in every instance of Genesis Chapter 1) is mentioned.
Spirituality and Parables
Jewish mysticism is really only the ability to understand analogies or parables.
According to the verse "Man was created in the image of G-d", this is interpreted to mean that by understanding our own mental and spiritual faculties we can have some weak impression of G-dliness. Anything that one thinks about has a beginning, middle and end. In truth the mystics have refined this to ten steps. Just as everything has a beginning, middle and end, it has the ten sefirot. (These ten gradations of our perception of any "thing" that exists are a logical tool, a natural outgrowth of the way that G-d has made the human mind to work. In terms of Jewish Tradition, the mystics derive these principles from the 13 hermeneutical principles of interpretation).
They are ten levels of gradation to any action or object. For instance in building a house, we could say 1) we need a house, 2) we build it, 3) we live in it; or we could describe this process more finely into ten steps:
- Need Rooms,
- Need Hallways
- Once you have rooms and hallways you make a Blueprint,
- Find Workers
- Negotiate payment
- Once you have the above you have make a Budget,
- Talented Workers,
- Actual Building,
- Living in the House.
These ten steps are like a great elastic rubber band which can be stretched bigger or smaller to fit any idea or concept. This finer level of detail allows us to find the corresponding steps between to objects, and allow us to make an analogy from one thing to another. This is the essence of a parable.
For us to use parables, we must have some source to make the parable from: This is the Torah, as interpreted by authentic Jewish tradition. It is written that every day the L-rd renews the acts of creation in His goodness. This means that the L-rd is constantly recreating the world at every moment. Because the Torah is the blueprint of creation, this means that the Torah is being replayed constantly. For us to "connect" with Scripture we must be able to see the analogies between the stories in the Bible and our lives. For example, going to the bank may be an aspect of Jacob and Lavan. Hosting guests may be an aspect of Abraham hosting guests in his tent.
This is what it means to teach in parables, and why it is so important to keep one's eyes and mind clear of filth and pollution so that we can make the proper, undistorted, analogies between ourselves and the Torah in absolutely everything that we do. For Noachides, these mystical concepts are very relevant because it allow us to find our place in the processes of the rectification, and to keep our actions aligned with Scripture, as interpreted by authentic Jewish tradition.
- The Sefer Yetzirah the book of creation: In theory and practice, translated and explained by Aryeh Kaplan (1997). Samuel Weiser, Inc. (ISBN 0-87728-855-0)
- The Bahir, translated by Aryeh Kaplan (1995). Aronson. (ISBN 1-56821-383-2)
- Lessons in Tanya
- Basics in Kabbalah - The Ten Sefirot: Divine Emanations (inner.org)
- Two Systems of Ten Sefirot (chabad.org)
- Short explanation of the purpose of the Sefirot (askmoses.com)