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 acronym A'B'Y'A'.

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.

Four Worlds - linearThe 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, where 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.

The 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 (and had 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 Chariot (merkavah), Yetzirah 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.

Four Worlds on the Tree of Life Four Worlds on the Tree of Life Extended Tree
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.