The Four Worlds
Kabbalah contains the idea of a chain of four worlds. These are Atzilut, the world
of emanation, Briah,
the world of creation, Yetzirah,
the world of formation, and Assiah,
the world of action or making. They are sometimes refered to using the
Kant suggested that space and time are pure forms of intuition, which means that
all experience is necessarily represented within the context of space and time. The
Kabbalistic notion of four worlds employs spaciality to
separate various concerns. The important question is: what is
space being used to represent? There are three recurring themes, mixed
in various combinations, themes that might be termed the literal, the spiritual and the cognitive.
The literal view
is derived from ancient cosmogonies that viewed the
realm of the divine as a real place that could be reached by travelling
upwards (although paradoxically the Merkavah mystics travelled down).
There was a sub-lunary realm, the spheres of the planets, the fixed
stars, and then various divine realms. The divine realm was structured
into heavens, or experienced as the palace of a king that must be
negotiated in a manner somewhat like the protagonist in Kafka's The Trial.
The spiritual view is
well-expressed by R. Ashlag when he observes that
distance in spiritual realms is expressed by similarity of form. Things
are close when they are similar, and far apart when they are different.
The example he gives is the two extremes of "giving", an energy that is
directed entirely outwards, and "receiving for oneself alone", an
energy that is directed entirely inwards. Distance from God can then be
expressed in terms of a mixture of giving and receiving, which
translates into a collection of related polarities: charity and
selfishness, love and anger, selflessness and narcissicm, holy and
impure, life and death, good and evil. The four worlds are strung out
like four Trees of Life, with the Keter
of one Tree overlapping the Malkhut
of another, Keter
representing the quality of pure giving and Malkhut
representing the quality of pure receiving.
The cognitive view
derives from Neoplatonism, which has a similar scheme of four worlds,
those of The One, The Intelligible, Soul and Matter. The basis for this
view is the observation that the reality we perceive depends on our
capacity for organising and structuring perception. An animal can
observe what human beings do, but is excluded from the entire cultural
sphere because it lacks language. A person can be fluent in the human
cultural sphere and still have no contact with the realm of the
Intelligible (which was closely associated with pure mathematics and
direct, timeless apprehension of truth). The four worlds would then be
aspects of attention,
we can choose to attend to the external world of sense impressions, to
the internal world of human culture, to the world of pure forms and
ideals, or to the undifferentiated One. This view is close to that of
the philosopher Plotinus, and has modern adherents
such as the philosopher Ken
Wilber, who posits seven levels of cognition. This view
overlaps with the various aspects of soul - see The Soul.
most consistent and enduring interpretation of distance/space in
Kabbalah is the spiritual one, although one finds clear evidence of
philosophic views derived from Plotinus or Aristotle, or the literal
view of the Merkavah mystics. The spiritual view distinguishes between
that which is most like
God, and that which is most unlike God
to be created!). There is a realm of impurity within the creation,
which although part of the overall scheme of things, should be avoided.
There are opinions that the realm of impurity had to exist, it is a logical necessity that comes hand-in-hand with freewill.Various commandments (mitzvot)
within Jewish law can be regarded as prohibitions on contact with the
realm of impurity. A person who follows the impulses of the
animal soul and sins frequently through contact with the realm of
impurity is a rasha,
an evil person. A person who tries to follow the commandments but sins
occasionally and repents is a beinoni,
an average person. A person who is able to avoid sin entirely, even in
thought, is a tzaddik,
a righteous one or saint. This view, from the Tanya
of R. Shneur Zalman, is probably the dominant view of
spirituality in modern Jewish Kabbalah, and gives us a sense of what
the spatiality of the four worlds represents.
A traditional view (from Tishby's commentary on the Zohar) of the occupants of the four worlds is that Atzilut contains
the realm of the sephirot, Briah
contains the Throne of Glory, the seven Palaces and the powers of the
is the abode of Metratron and the angels, and Assiah is the
physical world of the planets and the elements, this planet earth,
human beings, and the habitation of the husks and shells (klippot).
This stratification owes a great deal to contemporary Christian and
Islamic culture, where similar schemes derived from the philosophy of
late antiqity can be found - see Ascent. There is
also a correspondence with the parts of the soul: the neshamah
corresponds to Briah, the ruach
to Yetzirah and the nephesh
to Assiah - see The Soul.
In addition to the linear representation of the Four Worlds (above right), there are alternative representations, shown below.
|The traditional view of the Four
Worlds mapped onto the sefirot. Following the Kabbalistic holographic
principle, each world maps onto the Tree, but each world is a full Tree
in its own right.
||An alternative modern view of the Four
Worlds mapped onto the sefirot. This view maps onto the construction of
the Tree as four adjoining circles, and shows the worlds overlapping
and interpenetrating, a view shared with the Extended Tree (right).
||The Extended Tree, a view that extends the
Tree of Life through four worlds in a way that highlights deep
connections between sefirot. Keter, Tiferet and Malkhut overlap, as do Da'at and Yesod, Chokhmah and Netzach, and Binah and Hod. This view illustrates the flow of
energy between worlds, and clarifies the cognitive transition from one
world to another.