The concept of the Sefirot

Tuesday, 23 June, 2009 - 9:21 pm

The concept of the Sefirot


The nature of the Kabbalah is by definition esoteric and concealed. According to Jewish teaching there are four levels of the Torah, the plain (pshat), allegorical (remez), exegesis (drush) and esoteric (sod). The deepest level of sod, which means secrets, is the Kabbalah. This allows to read the scripture of the Torah and have no interaction with the esoteric, as it is concealed.


The same is true regarding the Jewish prayer book with which one can have a very meaningful experience of prayer without necessarily delving in to the deeper mystical aspects of the prayer book.


However, there are a number of prayers included in the prayer book which openly alludes to the esoteric. One is the counting of the Omer prayer that is said every night for the forty nine day period between the festival of Passover and Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.


It took 49 days to travel from Egypt to Mount Sinai. This period of preparation, signaled by the counting, is performed every year during that period. However, in addition to this simple idea of anticipation, the authors of the prayer book added the esoteric significance of counting 49 days during this period.


They allude the counting of seven weeks of seven days to the seven Sefirot, Divine attributes, when timed by seven.


What are the Sefirot and how do they express personal preparation for receiving the Torah, celebrated during the festival of Shavuot?


The Sefirot are mentioned explicitly in the introduction to a section of the Zohar called Tikunei Zohar in a discourse taught traditionally by Elijah the prophet.


The text of the discourse is as follows:


"You are who has brought forth ten garments and we call them ten Sefirot, through which to direct hidden worlds and revealed worlds; and through which you conceal yourself from man.


These ten Sefirot proceed according to their order: one long, one short and one intermediate. You have made garments for them, from which souls issue forth to man.


You have made for them a number of bodies which are called bodies in comparison to the garments that cover them; and they are describer anthropomorphically in the following manner: Kindness (chesed) – the right arm; Severity, power (gevurah) – the left arm; Beauty (Tiferes) – the torso; Eternity, victory (netzach) and splendour (hod) – the two thighs; Foundation ( yesod) – the end of the torso, the sign of the holy covenant; Kingship (malchut) – the mouth which we call the oral Torah; Wisdom (chachmah) – the brain; Understanding (binah) – the heart, by means of which the heart understands; and Supernal crown (keter) – crown of kingship, concerning which it is said “He declares the end from the beginning”.


You clothed Yourself in the Sefirot only to make known to mankind Your power and strength and to show them how the world is conducted through law and mercy – for there is righteousness and justice which are dispensed according to the deeds of man.


All these are to show how the world is conducted but not that you posses a knowable righteousness, which is law, nor a knowable justice, which is mercy, not any of these attributes at all."


This discourse is elucidated in the work Pardes Rimonim by 16th Century Kabbalist, Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570), popularly known by his acronym Ramak. He explains the concept of the Sefirot by analysing the numerous meanings that can be derived from the core of the Hebrew word Sefirah. The first explanation is that the word Sefirot is similar to the Hebrew word Sapir, as in a precious colourless stone that incorporates all opposing colours into one.


Another possible route of the word Sefirot is from the word Sipur, telling and communication. The Sefirot communicates the infinite, beyond the finite and the corporal. Another possibility meaning can be derived from the word Mispar, counting. He explains that counting something doesn’t make the counter finite itself but rather places it in the realm of the finite.


Another interpretation is that the word comes from the word Sipur, which means talking. This reflects the fact that one can comprehend the concept of the Sefirot and therefore it is also possible to talk and study about them, as oppose to the Infinite itself that one cannot possibly grasp.


A final interpretation is that it comes from the Hebrew word Sapor, which means port and boundary. It refers to the fact that the Seforot represents a boundary and limitation to the infinite.


It is clear from all the above interpretations that the Sefirot are in the realm of the finite. They are by their very definition antithetical to the levels of the Divine infinite.


They have the ability to communicate the infinite to he finite but the infinite itself cannot contain Sefirot for otherwise the infinite would be in the realm of the finite and not infinite.


Sefirot in the Infinite


A student of Rabbi Moses Cordovero, Rabbi Chaim ben Yosef Vital (1543-1620), who was born and lived in Safed, writes in Tree of Life (Etz Chaim) that there is also ten Sefirot in the Infinite (Igulim) that circles the lower spiritual worlds.


This seems to be contradictory to the idea of the infinite. How can the infinite have the limitation of number ten that are the defined character of the Sefirot?


In a work, published in 1912, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch explains this phenomenon based on the very teaching of Rabbi Moses Cordovero, elucidated above.


We explained that one interpretation of the Sefirot is that it comes from the word Mispar, counting. Rabbi Shlom Dovber explains therefore that there are two ways of counting: in speech and in thought. When one counts let’s say ten numbers in speech, the numbers become distinctive and separated one from another.


However, when in the realm of thought, one can think of ten numbers in a single thought.


Based on this he explains there exist ten Sefirot on various lofty plains transcending the revealed spiritual worlds, whereby, although they can conceptually be called ten Sefirot, in reality, however, they remain infinite and united.


The concept of the higher ten Sefirot, he explains, is merely revelation, rather than creation. It is a medium for revelation from a higher spiritual level to the lower, without necessarily meaning actual limitation, as in the lower ten Sefirot.


It is as though thinking about the potential and process to create ten limited distinct Sefirot through which the material world will be created but as it is still in the realm of thought and potential, they are in a state of unity and infinite. 




Rabbi Moses Cordovero explains that each of the ten Sefirot do not exist and function in isolation but rather in harmony with the other nine. This is compared to a human being who functions with all aspects of the self, even when seemingly engaging only one aspect of their faculties.


When a person performs a physical activity, although the emphasis is on a physical action and particular part of the body, there is inevitably the participation of emotions and intellect. Similarly, writes Rabbi Moses Cordovero, when performing kindness, the limitations of kindness is the reflected by the participation of judgement and severity, even if the face of the activity is the emotion of kindness. Therefore, in essence the ten Sefirot is really a mergence of the other nine and when considering the various permutations of this form, including the three levels of intellect, it adds up in total to one hundreds different expressions of the attributes. Similarly, on the level of seven emotions, when one omits the three intellects, the total number of expressions is forty nine.


Personal Sefirot


The expression of the Sefirot is also found within the person, reflected in the person’s ten faculties, including the levels of three intellect and seven emotions.


In 1958, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn elucidated this concept, illustrating the need for a person to scrutinize and rectify the details of the self during the forty nine day period between Passover and Shavuot.


An aspect of this process within the person is for example the emotion of kindness. Kindness within the person is the expression of love.


There are two possible modes in the expression of love. Love can be an emotion without any constraint whatsoever or there is the possibility of kindness that is blended with severity and constraint. Constraining ones love can be also an expression of love, when too much open love towards a child spoils the child it can cause harm.


This, he says, can be extrapolated further. Within ones desire to be kind and express love, one can have the possibility of a range of combined emotions together with love. This includes the possibility of absolute love (Chesed sh’b’Chesed); constrained love (Gevurah sh’b’Chesed); compassionate love (Tiferes sh’b’Chesed); determined love (Netzach sh’b’Chesed); combative love (hod sh’b’Chesed); intimate love (Yesod sh’b’Chesed); and verbal love (Maluchut sh’b’Chesed).


This same range of expressions exists also with other emotions making the total number of forty nine when one adds up the seven emotions with their combined possibilities of expressions of the other emotions.


During the days of the counting period, between Passover and Shavuot, in preparation for the renewal of the commitment to the Torah, we analyse our complete set of emotions enhancing our spiritual self and allowing the person to elevate oneself and become a higher moral being.



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