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
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
- 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
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.
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
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.
Queen of Creation
Enter in peace O crown of
Even in gladness and good
Among the faithful of the
Enter O Bride, enter O
Among the faithful of the
Enter O Bride, the
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
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.
Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess