In Kabbalah the Shekhinah is the archetype of the divine female, characterised by the epithets Mother, Sister, Daughter, Beloved, Bride and Queen. According to the sefirotic system of the Tree of Life the Shekhinah is associated with the sefira Malkhut.

Prior to the medieval period Shekhinah (resting, dwelling) meant simply God's immanent presence in the world. According to aggadic tradition Shekhinah was originally fully manifest in the world, but the disobedience of Adam and Eve ruptured the flow of divine energy and the Shekhinah withdrew. The Biblical patriarchs caused a partial descent of the Shekhinah - it was pictured as riding on their backs  - but it was not until the time of Moses and the Covenant between God and the Jewish people that the Shekhinah had a home in this world, resting between the two Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. The Shekhinah accompanied the Jewish people on their journeys, and found a permanent home with the building of the First (Solomonic) Temple. From the Kabbalistic period onward the Shekhinah is depicted as being in exile with the Jewish people. Sometimes she is identified with Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15), and with the black-clad figure of Mother Zion.

During the early medieval period the Shekhinah was treated as identical with the divine Glory, an imminent, outward-facing aspect of God (in the sense of "The whole world is filled with his Glory"). However, there was still no sense of an internal relationship between aspects of God and the Shekhinah. It is in the Bahir that God and the Shekhinah appear in relationship, usually in the form of allegories concerning a king and his daughter. The evolution of the concept of God's immanent presence in the world towards a full-blown quasi-autonomous hypostasis within the divine pleroma is one of the most distinctive features of medieval Kabbalah.

The Kabbalistic traditions concerning the Shekhinah are complex and multi-faceted, and because they interconnect at so many points, they are difficult to dissect. However three key themes stand out:
  • the Shekhinah represented as the sefira Malkhut in the Tree of Life.
  • the Shekhinah as the divine archetype of Bride and Beloved, according to the imagery of the Song of Songs.
  • the Shekhinah as Queen of Creation.

Shekhinah as Malkhut

The Tree of Life is a progressive emanation of divine being through ten emanations or sefirot. In traditional sources these emanations are represented as the active potencies of the names of God. The Tree of Life provides a template of energies and internal relationships that form the basis for the rest of the creation, usually represented in the form of Four Worlds. Malkhut is the final and tenth emanation in the Tree, and as such, is the interface between the dynamic energies of the Tree and the rest of creation.

It is necessary to understand the internal dynamics of the Tree to understand the role of Malkhut. A key insight is that the Tree is a dynamic between two kinds of manifestation, both of which are positive when properly balanced, and both of which are negative when unbalanced. These manifestations are Judgement (setting boundaries, defining limits, holding back, punishing wrongdoing) and Mercy/Loving-Kindness (blessings, love, grace, giving, abundance). Traditionally Judgement is regarded as the more instrinsically negative of the two, although, as is often pointed out, an excess of Mercy is a sanction for wrongdoing and evil.

Malkhut is represented as the full manifestation of these two tendencies, and so regulates the flow of divine energy to the rest of creation. The key influence is human behaviour. When human beings neglect their spiritual obligations, the positive aspect of Malkhut is diminished and so a flow of Judgement is channeled into the creation. When human beings are kind and charitable and cognisant of the divine within, the opposite occurs and divine blessings and abundance flow into the creation. The character of Malkhut is, to an extent, determined by the moral and spiritual character of human beings.

In traditional literature this reciprocal relationship is used to explain historical events, such as the destruction of the Temple, and the Exile. On occasions when the conduct of human beings has been very bad, Malkhut has been drawn into the influence of the realm of the evil shells (unbalanced forces left over from the first failed attempts to manifest a stable configuration of sefirot) and the energy of Malkhut has then become demonically destructive. In this condition the Shekhinah is depicted as wearing the black clothes of Lilith, the evil demonic counterpart of the Shekhinah.

Many sources discuss two Shekhinahs. This derives in part from the creation story of Genesis in which God divides the firmament into an upper firmament and a lower firmament. These are the waters above, and the waters below. In terms of the Tree of Life, the waters above refer to the sefira Binah, and the waters below to the sefira Malkhut. The waters flow from the great sea of Binah through the channels and emerge in Malkhut, often depicted as a spring of pure water (e.g. Be'ersheva, the "well of seven", referring to the seven sefirot flowing into Malkhut). Both sefirot share the epithet "Mother": Binah is the superior Mother, and Malkhut the inferior (not in the derogatory sense) Mother. Sometimes Binah is called the "mother of form". Binah contains all the preconditions necessary for form.  According to this viewpoint, Malkhut is the realisation, the completion of a process in which form becomes manifest.

Shekhinah as Nukva

In the system of divine archetypes known as Partzufim, the Shekhinah is the partzuf known as Nukva Ze'ir (literally, "the woman of Ze'ir Anpin"). The primary source for this imagery is the Song of Songs, as extensively interpreted by the Zohar. In a dynamic that parallels the Tree of Life, a divine pleroma is depicted as comprised of five partzuf or archetypes that comprise a divine family of Patriarch, Father, Mother, Son (and King), Daughter (and Bride and Queen). The quaternary of Father, Mother, Son and Daughter are employed to illustrate the internal dynamics of the divine name of four letters, the Tetragrammaton.

The central dynamic is that of the King and Queen (who are also Son and Daughter). When they face each other in divine conjunctio, all the channels open and blessings (often depicted as a flow of pure spring water) flow into the world. When they turn away from each other the powers of evil are able to gain ingress. Samael, prince of evil, attempts intercourse with Nukvaand she then becomes Lilith, his evil consort. At this time the Shekhinah is filled with darkness and terrible judgements flow into the world.

Shekhinah as Queen of Creation

Enter in peace O crown of her husband
Even in gladness and good cheer
Among the faithful of the treasured nation
Enter O Bride, enter O Bride.
Among the faithful of the treasured nation
Enter O Bride, the Sabbath Queen.

Every Friday evening, the eve of the Sabbath, millions of Jews worldwide welcome the Sabbath Queen into synagogues and personal dwellings. The Shekhinah, the divine Glory and Holy Presence is welcomed in her dual aspect as Queen (Malkah) and Bride (Kallah). As Queen she is a stately presence, as Bride she is the centre of celebration and rejoicing. The verses above are from the final stanza of the Lekha Dodi, a song to welcome the Sabbath Queen composed in the sixteenth century by Solomon Alkabetz, teacher and brother-in-law of the great Kabbalist Moses Cordovero.

The Zohar is effusive in its praise of the Sabbath, saying "The Sabbath is equal in worth to the whole of the Torah, and whoever observes the Sabbath is like someone who observes the complete Torah." With regard to the preparations for the Sabbath Queen it observes:

One must prepare a comfortable seat with several cushions and embroidered covers, from all that is found in the house, like one who prepares a canopy for a bride. For the Sabbath is a queen and a bride. This is why the masters of the Mishna used to go out on the eve of Sabbath to receive her on the road, and used to say: 'Come, O bride, come, O bride!' And one must sing and rejoice at the table in her honor ... one must receive the Lady with many lighted candles, many enjoyments, beautiful clothes, and a house embellished with many fine appointments ...

The Sabbath is not only a day of rest, or of celebration and worship - it is suspension of cosmic business. All the negative judgements flowing into the creation are suspended, the Shekhinah is freed from the power of the malign shells, and she is able to turn towards her husband and embrace him. Blessings flow into the world, and each person celebrating the Sabbath is gifted with an additional soul. It is considered a sacred duty for a husband and wife to join the supernal Sabbath Bride and Groom  in consumating their relationship at midnight on the Sabbath Eve.

Further Reading

Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess