Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
What are the Sefirot?
The Sefirot– God emanates ten vessels through which the world is created, called sefirot, which are both part of God and created by God. These vessels are channels of light or water, and they also are light. They are God and of God, but they cannot define God or limit God – what is truly God is wholly beyond these descriptions, beyond the first sefirah, called Keter or crown, denoted by the term Ein Sof – without limit, without end.
When Kabbalists read stories in the Torah, every character and place represents a configuration of the Sefirot. For example, the binding of Isaac is Chesed (Abraham) overcoming Gevurah (Isaac). [For more correspondences between the Sefirot and the fathers and mothers click here.] A (secular) technical term for how the Sefirot function is that they are "hypostases" (sing. "hypostasis") – that is, abstract concepts imagined as beings or as parts of a reality that are more real than the physical world around us.
The Order of the Sefirot – the ten Sefirot are ordered from top to bottom and right to left in the most common depiction of the Tree of Life. They are depicted in triads: Keter-Chokhmah-Binah, Chesed-Gevurah-Tif'eret, Netsach-Hod-Yesod, with Malkhut standing alone (see Structure of the Sefirot and Image of God in the Body below).
Their names, from the highest to the most manifest, mean: Keter Crown, Chokhmah Wisdom, Binah Understanding, Chesed Lovingkindness (or Gedulah Expansiveness), Gevurah Might (Din Judgment), Tif'eret Beauty (also called Rachamim Compassion in very old texts), Netsach Victory or Eternity, Hod Majesty, Yesod Foundation, and Malkhut Kingdom (Shekhinah, the Indwelling Presence of God, also called Atarah Crown in older texts). [Click here to see a chart with labels.] It is no accident that the name for the first and the last are synonyms - for as Sefer Yetsirah teaches: "their end is wedged in their beginning".
Other Words for the Sefirot include: ma'amarot (Sefer Bahir), d'rag or darga, plur. d'ragin (Zohar), midot (measures – Nachmanides). They are vessels to receive light from the perspective of what is above them (i.e. Binah or understanding is a vessel receiving light from Chokhmah or wisdom), and they are light pouring into the vessels from the perspective of what is below them.
The order of the Sefirot represents the unfolding or chain of emanation through which the divine becomes manifest, called the Seder Hishtalsh'lut.
Later Kabbalists emphasized different ways of organizing the map of the Sefirot:
Moshe Cordovero (the Rama"k) emphasized the four worlds, which organize the Sefirot into these levels: Atsilut – emanation (Keter plus Chokhmah); B'riyah – creation/creating (Binah); Y'tsirah – formation/forming (Tif'eret plus the five 'limbs' of Tif'eret—Chesed-Gevurah-Netsach-Hod-Yesod—making a total of six k'tsavot or directions); and 'Asiyah – making or doing (Malkhut). The levels also correspond to the letters of the name of God, YHVH, with the very tip of the letter Yod representing Keter.
In the view of Isaac Luria (the Ari), the Sefirot were re-organized after they broke in the previous creation to become the Partzufim, faces or persons: Atika Kadisha – Holy Ancient One, Arikh Anpin – Long Face (both of these are aspects of Keter), Abba – Father (Chokhmah), Imma – Mother (Binah), Z'eir Anpin– Short Face (Tif'eret plus the five, son or the lower masculine) and Nukva – Female (Malkhut, daughter or the lower feminine).
While Chasidut drew on all of these pictures and systems, most Chasidic rebbes emphasized two dynamics within the Sefirot: 1) the drive toward unification of Tif'eret and Shekhinah/Malkhut, and 2) shifting of the balance of the cosmos from G'vurah toward Chesed. Where Lurianic Kabbalah shifted the focus to the very highest levels of the tree of Life, Chasidut did the opposite, focusing almost all of its interest on the lower seven Sefirot.
The Image of God in the Body – everything is created through the Sefirot and in the shape or configuration of the Sefirot. This includes especially the human body – it is because we are such a clear representation of the Sefirot that we are said to be in God's image. [Click here for more on correspondences with the body.] The soul and the body are both images of God – in this respect Kabbalah also rejected pre-Kabbalistic philosophy, which taught that the soul or mind was the image of God within the human being, but not the body.
The body as a whole represents the structure of the Sefirot: the three brains = Keter-Chokhmah-Binah, also the crown of the head and the two eyes; the two arms and the torso = Chesed-Gevurah-Tiferet; the two legs and the genitals = Netsach-Hod-Yesod, and Malkhut/Shekhinah, the feminine, often seen as companion to the (male) body delineated above, like the earth or moon to the sun, but also as the culmination of the genitals (actually described in some texts as the glans or clitoris). [For more on the body and the Sefirot, click here.] Each part of the body is also an image of the Sefirot – e.g. for the face we have: place of the tefilin or perhaps crown chakra as Keter; right eye as Chokhmah; left eye – Binah; nose – Tif'eret; nostrils or ears – Netsach and Hod; tongue – Yesod; mouth – Malkhut.
The Image of God Beyond the Body – Other dimensions or beings in the physical world also reflect this image or structure—including fruit trees, birds, the colors of the rainbow. Expanding the image of God to dimensions of the more-than-human world was one of the great innovations of the Kabbalah. The image of God is sometimes called the Secret or Mystery (Sod or Raza), the chariot, or the name YHVH; sometimes we find the statement that a certain thing exists in or through "the secret of the name YHVH" or "the mystery of the chariot". This is an esoteric way of saying it's an image of God.
The reason for the esotericism? It may be because the Torah tells us only that human beings are in the image of God. To expand this concept beyond the human realm could might have sounded or seemed like avodah zara (idolatry). This may also be a reason why much of the discussion of the Sefirot is treated esoterically.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006