Jewish Mysticism


The Ten Sefirot

Sefer ha Zohar



Kabbalah refers to Jewish mystical and esoteric doctrine and is derived from the Hebrew root Qof-Bet-Lamed, which means "to receive." It is also translated as "tradition." Its name refers to the practice of passing on the tradition orally. Kabbalah developed in Europe, specifically Provence and Spain. It was influenced by Syriac Greeks, Zoroastrian Babylonians, Gnostic Byzantine Christians and Pythagoreans. Whereas traditionally only an elite group of men studied Kabbalah, today more women study it. Personal desire for self-correction is the only requirement for Kabbalah study. Kabbalists learn how to access a sixth sense, a spiritual sense that allows them to begin to understand underlying meaning that was previously hidden to them. (Kabbalah Beginner's Guide)

"Tree of Life" from the Latin translation of Joseph Gikatilla's Gates of Light (1516)

image from Illuminations

The Ten Sefirot

    image from Kavannah: Resources for Kabbalah and Jewish Meditation

According to Kabbalah, only by describing what God is not can God be defined. God is Ein Sof, or "without end," without spatial or timely boundaries. God is never illustrated in human form and is without gender. God is outside the range of human comprehension and so transcendent that humans cannot interact with the divine realm. In order to allow humans access to God's power, God created ten sefirot, emanations of divine energy, which describe and express the manifestations of God in the human world. The ten sefirot exist within God, of God, and make up the unity and continuity that is God. All of creation, growth, and decay are embodied within them and they represent the unfolding of the universe. (Gateway to the Knowledge of Kabbalah and Chassidut)The sefirot are like channels that bring power to the universe in a form that humans can and need to use. Humans could not survive without the sefirot, and likewise, Ein Sof requires our belief, our participation in creation.

The ten sefirot correspond in descending order to qualities of God, including both feminine and masculine qualities. None is separate from the others and each are connected to the entire universe, affected by everything good and evil done by humanity. However, the sefirot do lie within a hierarchy, as each sefirah grows out of the previous one. Keter, the crown, is the beginning, all embracing sefirah, also called the Simple Point or Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9). Chokhmah is wisdom, the masculine essence that grew out of the ancient one. Binah is also known as Ima, or mother, is the highest feminine emanation of the sefirot, and refers to intuition and understanding. Chesed, kindness and greatness, is masculine. Geburah, mercy, power and justice is feminine. Tipheret refers to glory and is both masculine and feminine because it is the combination of Chesed and Geburah. Netzach is masculine firmness, victory, and might. Hod is feminine majesty and splendor. Yesod, the foundation, is a combination of Netzach and Hod. Finally, through Malkut, the kingdom, the nine sefirot above it travel from God to the physical world. Malkut is therefore also called Shechinah, or the Spirit of God. (Finkin)

The connections between the sefirot are described as sulam, a ladder, or etz, a living tree. upside down. The roots are Ein Sof, the infinite God, the kingdom, the trunk, the foundation the fanning out of the branches, with beauty and compassion at the center and the crown at the top. Da'ath is a secret sphere of knowledge existing in the Kabbalistic tree. Binah and Chokmah create a circulation of positive and negative energies throughout the tree. Da'ath exists where Binah and Chokmah combine in Tipheret, creating a void of formless energy, a balanced harmony that illuminates the human consciousness, providing creativity and knowledge to humans. (Finkin) Another way to configure the sefirot is into partzufim, profiles, or into a figure of human likeness. This supports the notion that humans were made in the image and likeness of God, with each sefirah corresponding to a limb or organ.

(See Shraga Friedman's essay, The Evolution of Matter and Soul, for a wonderful diagram of these relationships)

The sefirot interact through tzinorot, a network of channels. These networks align Chochmah, Binah,and Tiferet as having a cognitive dynamic, Chesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet having an emotional dynamic, and Netzach, Hod, and Yesod having an instinctual and functional dynamic.

Binah, the first feminine emanation, is the third of the ten sefirot, and the second conscious power of the creative intellect. It is on the left axis of the configuration of the sefirot and corresponds to the left hemisphere of the human brain. Binah is associated with conceptual analysis and comprehension and involves an ability to determine inherent truth or fallacy and to explain and clarify concepts to others. (Gateway to the Knowledge of Kabbalah and Chassidut)

Marriage contract from Lycos Image Gallery and Pictures Now

Within Kabbalah, the sefirot are seen as a complete symbolic body, Adam Kadmon, primordial man. According to the Kabbalah, this man was formed of light and is one of God's transcendent manifestations. Adam was then actually made in the likeness of Adam Kadmon . The two sefirot which most often describe the body are Tipheret and Malkut (Shekhinah). Tipheret is represented by the torso, heart, and spine and is the mediating force between judgment and mercy. It is the written Torah. Malkut is the feminine emanation that, in corporeal representations, is the mouth. It is the oral Torah. It is also figured as the queen, mother, and daughter, the outlet from which the divine spirit enters the world. Tipheret and Malkut never separate but complete each other. One can only be understood and discerned through the other. Their union represents the pairing of the right and left hemispheres of the brain and their mystical marriage in the divine realm brings harmony to the world. At the same time, humans are responsible for maintaining balance between the sefirot in order to not disrupt the harmony of the cosmos. In this way, the sefirot are represented as an organic being with a soul that yearns for redemption from and proximity to God.

This diagram from a Kabbalah manuscript shows the ways the sefirot for the body of adam kadmon.

17c. Kabbalah Deundata showing the head of Adam Kadmon and the structure of the sefirot

Sefer ha Zohar

"Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image . . . The Blessed Holy One does not place His abode in any place where male and female are not found together." (from Daniel Chanan Matt's translation of the Sefer ha-Zohar)

a page of the Zohar

image from Illuminations

A central text of Kabbalah is the Sefer ha-Zohar, the "Book of Splendor," a commentary on the Pentateuch. While it is ascribed to a second century rabbi, Simon bar Yochai, scholars believe it was written and distributed between 1280 and 1286. Moses de Leon, a native of Granada and part of the mystical school of Castile, Spain, claimed to have acquired the ancient manuscript, and simply written it down for publishing. However, after his death, his wife admitted that no such manuscript existed and Leon had created the Zohar himself. To confirm this, Leon wrote the book in the Aramaic language, but included translated Spanish words and grammatical errors. Also, the ideas and symbolism fit within the theosophy of thirteenth century Kabbalah, which developed out of Jewish Neoplatonism and Gnosticism of the Middle Ages.

The Zohar's format parallels the Torah. While it includes some interpretation of the Torah, it is more a novel that through fantasy, ecstasy and free association of biblical imagery, expands the way in which the Torah relates to the world. Its characters include Rabbi Shi'mon and his companions, biblical figures, and sefirot. It describes the esoteric nature of the world. Humans' task is to work to unify the male and female aspects of the universe. In the Zohar behind every word of the Torah and all the mitzvot are the sefirot, with the understanding that the truth of the Torah lies in its mystery and secrets.

"Each soul and spirit prior to its entering into this world, consists of a male and female united into one being. When it descends on this earth the two parts separate and animate two different bodies. At the time of marriage, the Holy One, blessed be He, who knows all souls and spirits, unites them again as they were before, and they again constitute one body and one soul, forming as it were the right and left of one individual." (from the Zohar)

A famous allegory of the Zohar involves a beautiful maiden who sits hidden in her castle with the knowledge that her lover is waiting for her. She shows her face to him for only a moment and then conceals it again. The Torah is likened to the beautiful maiden, the palace within the sefirot. Like the concealed maiden, the Torah is secretive and difficult to reach for those who truly yearn for it. The Torah has the ability to demonstrate true love to those who see just a glimpse of it, and then powerfully attract them. By opening the door to show her face to her lover, the maiden demonstrates her faith in her knowledge of the heart of her lover. The female-gendered Torah, "discloses herself to her lovers, so as to arouse them to renewed love."(Finkin)


"They shall make me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst" ~Exodus 25:8

"And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness." ~Leviticus 16:16
  A Painting by Marc Chagall from Lycos Image Gallery and Pictures Now

Shekhinah refers to the presence of God in the created world and within the community. It is the Keneset Yisrael, the spirit of the people of Israel. The word Shekhinah is derived from the biblical root shakhan, meaning to dwell. Shekhinah is also translated "indwelling." It is often considered a synonym for God, but many Jewish philosophers consider it a separate being of light with which humans interact. Shekhinah is not the place to find God, it is rather God's hidden presence manifest. It demonstrates God's presence and nearness to humans but also God's distance from them.

The first Temple in Jerusalem and the Tabernacle in the wilderness were considered places where the Shekhinah resided. At the destruction of the Temple, the Shekhinah wept and withdrew. The Shekhinah exists within the community even in their "uncleanness." Therefore, Rabbinic tradition tells that the Shekhinah accompanied the Israelites on their exiles and persecution and suffered with them. However, it is in the joy of fulfilling God's commandments that the Shekhinah thrives. The sins of Israel, especially pride, push away the Shekhinah while studying Torah and doing God's will invite the Shekhinah closer. Conversion to Judaism is referred to as "coming under the wings of Shekhinah." Shekhinah lives in the west, casting rays of divine presence like a setting sun.

"Through the contraction and withdrawal of the Shekhinah, to allow for the contracted world of human experiences what remains are the 'sparks' of that contraction (tzimtzum), each of which inhabits a human soul. This spark, within each of us, is a source of divine wonder and splendor, which through prayer and ecstatic dance, may more fully enlighten our face, showing us the holiness within which we dwell. The 'great way' is through deep inner prayer, in which that spark longs to return to its supreme Source. The soul, in inward contemplation becomes a Throne and in the light of the Shekhinah rests above the head and flows with luminous joy through and about the devout, deep in prayer." ~Zos Imos Jewish Mystical Traditions

Within Kabbalistic imagery, Shekhinah is represented as Malkut, "the daughter of God." The harmony that exists between Shekhinah as Malkut and the other sefirot sustain the earth with a constant flow of divine energy. She is also sometimes symbolized by the moon, which passively reflects the light of the sun. Legend tells that people have seen her in the form of a woman mourning at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Shekhinah's devekut (the highest spiritual state in which God remains continually in one's consciousness and one attaches oneself to God) is sexual in nature. Shekhinah is also often portrayed as a bride of Tiferet, the male composite of the nine other sefirot.

for a good outline of the various qualities and symbols associated with Shekhinah, click here


The emanations and characteristics of God are equally masculine and feminine, albeit within a hierarchy. The glory, wisdom, mercy and justice, majesty, intuition and understanding of God all are feminine. The creativity of human consciousness is dependent on the unification of feminine and masculine energy. These feminine forces are integral to both God and creation. Without the feminine, nothing would be as it is. One might conclude that therefore, God and creation are dependent on these feminine forces. However, that statement would challenge God's ultimate power. God created the sefirot as emanations of divine energy. God chose powers that stemmed from God's own nature. Thus, God's feminine power is naturally part of everything, inseparable, essential, and universal. This feminine spirit is apparent to humans in the world as, Shekhinah, the connector of all life. That the spirit through whom humans communicate, connect to, and interact with God is feminine shows the essential power of feminine energy. It also shows that God can relate to humans in varying forms, and that a feminine divine force is just as able to communicate with all people as is a masculine divine force. From this it may be concluded that human females are just as able to communicate, create, judge, glorify, understand, rule, and exist, as human men.


Unterman, Alan. Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991. 12, 175, 181, 210.

Solomon, Norman. Historical Dictionary of Judaism. London: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1988. 366.

Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi, Ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Jewish Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 629.

Beginners guide to Kabbalah

The Evolution of Matter and Soul by Shraga Friedman

Index to explanation of imagery and attributes of sefirot

Gateway to the Knowledge of Kabbalah and Chassidut: explanation of imagery and attributes of sefirot

Judaism 101: explanation of Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism

Maintaining God's Living Reality Through images of the Torah in the Zohar by Jordan Finkin