The Tree of Life
Most brief explanations of Kabbalah begin and end with the Tree of
Life. The sephiroth are enumerated, their names given, a convenient
illustration is provided, and some explanation is attempted. Almost
nothing of value is communicated, and most people will come away
mystified. The Tree of Life is most emphatically not a ladder of lights
shining like a stained glass window in the sun - anyone trying to find
this pretty picture in any of the early classics of Kabbalah will come
away mystified. Tishby, attempting to elucidate this confusion in his
commentary to the Zohar
puts it very well:
"It is clear from the
passage just quoted that the sephirot, which are finite and measurable,
are not, however, static objects, like fixed, solid rungs on the ladder
of the progressive revelation of the divine attributes. They are on the
contrary, dynamic forces, ascending and descending, and extending
themselves within the area of the Godhead. This dynamism is found both
in their hidden existence, which is oriented upwards towards En-Sof,
and also in their association with the lower world, as forces of
creation and direction of the universe. They are in continuous motion,
involved in innumerable processes of interweaving, interlinking, and
union. Even their order changes as a result of their internal movement,
and "their end is fastened into their beginning". The lower sephirot
elevate themselves in their yearning to return and cleave to their
source, and the upper sephirot move downwards in order to give
sustenance to the lower, and to transmit divine influences to the
Tishby also observes that the
Zohar hardly ever uses the term sefirot:
"Instead we have a
whole string of names: "levels", "powers", "sides" or "areas",
"worlds", "firmaments", "pillars", "lights", "colours", "days",
"streams", "garments", "crowns" and others. Each term designates a
particular facet of the nature or work of the sephirot."
Indeed, visual depictions of the Tree are hard to find. One
of the earliest images comes from the Portae Lucis of Paolo Riccio,
a Latin translation of Gikatilla's Gates
of Light. It is rather vague. The classic image known to
so many appears in the Oedipus Aegyptiacus
of Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest, published in the middle of the
17th. century, four hundred years after the first kabbalists began
writing. The diagram of the Tree used by modern Jewish
is usually based on the diagram published in the print edition of
published in Cracow in 1591, and sometimes called the "Safed Tree".
|Frontpiece from the 1516 Latin
translation of Gikatilla's Gates of Light
||Tree of Life published in the 17th c.
by the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher.
||Tree of Life from a Zohar manuscript.
historic lack of imagery is all the more startling given the modern
begin and end with the diagram of the Tree of Life. This may have
something to do with
the Biblical prohibition on images, but almost certainly something to
do with the perplexing fluidity of kabbalistic
writing. Many readers will be looking for clarity and consistency, and
will adopt a disjunctive
view of conflicting metaphors and explanations: this OR this OR this.
Kabbalists tend to have a conjunctive
view: this AND this AND this, even when views appear to conflict. It is
useful to think of the Tree as a higher-dimensional construct that
cannot be described from a single viewpoint.
these observations it is possible to begin to try to describe something
about what the kabbalistic Tree of Life actually signifies. The Tree of
Life is a collection
of views of the dynamics of
between God and the Creation. It is a view because it is
created by human beings. It is a collection
because no single view captures the complexity of the relationship. It
because the relationship between God and the Creation is constantly
changing. And the Tree provides a view of relationship,
not a view of God, which kabbalists regard as unknowable,
beyond any kind of imaginative or conceptual description. Most
importantly, each view is of a whole,
not a collection of parts. Recall always
"Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One". The activity of
God with respect to the Creation is always that of a whole - the parts,
however described, have no autonomy.
The activity of God is the prototype for all activity, for anything we
can describe as "living", and so the Tree of Life is also a description
of the relationship of any living thing to the Creation. The activity
of human beings, for example is also characterised by the Tree of Life,
and as the "activity of a human being" is just another way of defining
the soul, the Tree of Life describes the soul. The Tree of Life is a
fractal structure that appears at every level of reality. Every element
of the Tree of Life, considered as a living thing, is another Tree of
Life. R. Moses Luzzatto (1707-1746) puts it concisely:
"Each of these Sephirot [in the Tree] is constructed of ten
Lights, each of which in turn is composed of an equal number of lights
and so on ad-infinitum. When, in one of these vessels only a
single light is illuminated it is called a sephira. When all ten lights are illuminated it
is defined as a Partzuf (Person)."
The recursive similarity of all levels of created existence leads to an
additional complication: kabbalists have a tendency to flip between
differing levels of description, so that one paragraph may use
descriptive elements from the Tree to refer to the activity of God,
another to the soul and its response.
The basic skeleton for the Tree of Life comes from an ancient document
that is often beautiful and poetic in its engimatic brevity:
Yetzirah. The Sepher Yetzirah describes how God
created the universe using number, language and speech:
mystical paths of Wisdom engraved Yah, YHVH of Hosts, God of Israel,
the Living God, God Almighty, high and exalted, dwelling in eternity on
high, and his name is Holy, and he created His universe with three
books, with text, with number, and with communication. They are Ten
Sephirot of Nothingness and twenty-two foundation letters."
The Sepher Yetzirah
was almost certainly a work of Hebrew Neopythagoreanism composed in the
Hellenistic Middle East in late antiquity, but it was the seed for
highly original readings in the atmosphere of southern Europe during
the Middle Ages. The ten sephiroth of the Sepher Yetzirah
became ten emanations of the divine, and the 22 Hebrew letters, divided
by the SY
into 3 mothers, 7 doubles, and 12 elemental (based on Hellenistic
cosmology), provides the framework of the Tree of 3 horizontal paths, 7
vertical paths, and 12 diagonal paths.
Tree of Life with 10 sephiroth and 22 paths - 3 horizontal, 7 vertical.
12 diagonals. This is an earlier version that is still favoured by
Hermetic Kabbalists, and is described in R. Moses
Cordovero's Pardes Rimonim. It is sometimes called "The Tree of
Tree of Life with 10 sephiroth and 22 paths - 3 horizontal, 7 vertical.
12 diagonals. This version appears as a diagram in R. Moses
and is the preferred form in modern Jewish Kabbalah. It is sometimes
called the "Safed" Tree after R. Isaac Luria who described
it, or "The Tree of Return".
The ten sefirot are
In some discussions Kether
is considered to be concealed, functioning as a token for En-Sof, the
unknowable inner aspect of God, and Da'ath, Knowledge
(shown as an unlabelled circle below Chokhmah and Binah) is
substituted as the effective tenth sephira.
Loving Kindness, Mercy, also Gedulah,
Strength, also Din,
Judgement, and Pachad,
Beauty, also Rachamim, Compassion
Victory or Triumph
Splendour or Glory
Kingdom, or Sovereignty
View - A
Chain of Emanation
This view, which shares much with Neoplatonism, has the sephiroth
forming a causal chain,
so that Kether
is the cause of Chokhmah,
which is the cause of Binah,
which is the cause of Chesed,
and so on down to Malkut.
"contains" all subsequent sephira in a latent, undifferentiated form,
in much the same way as an acorn contains an oak tree, so that Binah
contains the dual qualities of mercy and strict judgement as
possibilities that do not differentiate and manifest until the sefirot of Chesed and Gevurah.
ordering of the sefirot
is sometimes called the "lightning flash" order. It is characterised by
increasing differentiation, reification and structure, and what in
Neoplatonism is called alienation,
but in Kabbalah would be better termed attenuation.
The sense is that the pure light of divinity is progressively
attenuated. One of the common metaphors is a succession of veils, where
in the causal chain veils the light of the previous sefira, so that the
light is progressively diminished until one reaches Malkut,
at which point it is almost completely obscured. Cordovero gives the
example of a craftsman who places a crucible in a furnace. The heat is
too fierce, so he places a second crucible within the first, and then a
third within the second, and so on. Each crucible attentuates the
furnace, until finally conditions are reached that support the
creation. This metaphor suggests that the sephirot can be represented
like the layers of an onion, and Cordovero provides a calligraphic
depiction of this (see diagram right), using the first letter of each
sefira as a
|In Isaiah 45:7 the Lord declares: "I
form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil".
Kabbalists have interpreted this to mean that light and peace were
already part of the divine, but that darkness and evil were not, and
that the fundamental creative act was a withdrawal of God to create the possibility
of distinction, of separation, and definition. This idea is paralleled
in Genesis 1, where God manifests Light, and then separates Light from
primary duality has a technical definition in Kabbalah. Light is the
power of life, giving, mercy, loving-kindness, and water, and is called
Chesed. Dark is the power of death, taking,
separation, distinction and constraint, boundaries and fire, and is
diagram above attempts to condense several key ideas in Kabbalah. Light
is separated from darkness, creating a space where the power of Din predominates.
Light (divine creative energy) enters this space, and forms ten
progressively attenuated "layers" (i.e. sefirot),
which shield the primordial intensity of the light. No part of the
Light has autonomous existence. The structure of layers is created
through the interaction of Light with the power of Din, so that
from the interweaving.
The Tree of
Life embodies these ideas in the form of the interaction of the Pillars
of Mercy and Severity.
Viewing the sefirot
as an emanatory chain suggests that there is a top
a bottom (Malkhut).
Neoplatonic emanatory schemes certainly
do have a top and a bottom, with the One, or the Good at the top, and
Matter at the bottom. Matter is seen as a negative, as an absence,
completely lacking in form or being, but it is still necessary to
receive the imprint of form, like clay in a mould. Kabbalah avoids this
unsatisfactory dualism by connecting Keter and Malkhut. Cordovero
well aware of the potential difficulty, and references a well-known
verse from the Sepher
""Ten sephirot without
substance, the beginning is fixed in the end, and the end is in the
beginning etc". The Master is one and there is no other, and what do
you count before one? Although the sefirot are ten in relation to the
changing aspects, the end is fixed in the beginning. The head is the
end, and the end is the head, for they are part of God's single
substance. God is one with them and - God forbid - there is no duality."
In Kabbalah the Neoplatonic concept of Matter is missing. Its place is
taken by Din,
the abstract quality that defines and determines, and sets boundaries
and limits on things. One can think of it as form or constraint. A way
to imagine this is to picture a ball moving in space. If we confine it
in a box, it has less space to move in. If we flatten the box, it can
only roll in two dimensions. If we make the box small enough, it cannot
move at all. In an abstract sense the ball is being increasingly
constrained; ball-and-box together express the information or degrees
of freedom possible in the system. Another example would be the rules
of a game such as chess, that define how pieces can move. The rules
constrain the freedom of the pieces. Malkhut is the
final expression of rules and constraints that make the emergence of
- The Names of God
of the sefirot
is that they represent the executive power of the Names of God. That
is, the power of God manifests through His Names, and the nature of a
sefira is essentially identical with the power of a Name. One of the
most popular works of Kabbalah, translated into Latin in 1516 by a
German Jewish convert Paolo
Riccio, is Gikatilla's Gates of Light.
This work is a series of essays on the divine Names associated with
each of ten Spheres or Gates. Gikatilla justifies these attributions by
extensive quotation and interpretation of verses drawn from canonical
literature, mainly the Bible, and it is obvious Gikatilla is collating
views from an established tradition. His attributions have remained
largely unchanged to the current period. The Names given by Gikatilla
(see diagram right) are:
||YHVH, vocalised Elohim
||Shadai, El Chai
Hermetic Kabbalists use minor
variants of the Names. These
variants have a long history, dating back to the late renaissance, and
can be found in Cornelius Agrippa's Three
Books. See also Robert
Fludd's Tree of Life diagram (right).
||Aloah va Daat
||Shadai, El Chai
- The Divine King
"Earthly kingdoms are
like the kingdom of Heaven" - Mishnah
contain statues of kings sitting in state; that is, wearing a crown,
and holding formal regalia - sword, sceptre, orb etc. Christ is often
depicted as King in a similar way, sitting in his glory, surrounded by
ranks of saints and angels.
This imagery is of great antiquity. God is depicted in the Bible as
King; as Arthur Green (in Keter)
"The kingship of God
is a central theme of the Hebrew Bible, and kingship is probably the
most widespread single metaphor used to describe the relationship of
God, His Creation, and His people."
There is an important view that the Tree of Life represents a King. Keter is the Crown.
and Binah are cognitive
functions in the brain ... but also Father and Mother to the King. Chesed is the right
arm of authority and benevolance (sceptre) and Gevurah is the left
arm of justice and retribution (sword). Tipheret is the
are the legs, and also the hosts/armies (tzabaot) of the
King. Yesod is the phallus. Malkut
is simultaneously the Kingdom, and the Queen, beloved of the King (see
the Song of Songs
might also be considered as the throne.
To a considerable extent this image of God as King is conflated with
the image of the gigantic Primordial Adam (Adam Kadmon), the Partzufim, and also
human being considered as regent to the Creation.
are divine archetypes overlayed and integrated into the Tree of Life.
This is a complex topic and is discussed elsewhere.
A view that is expressed in the
frequently repeated, is the need for the divine "lights" and
"receptacles" that constitute the sefirot
to find a "balanced configuration". This is a configuration in which
receives light in proportion to its capacity to receive it, and
exchanges light with other sefirot
in proportion to their ability to receive and transmit. This is not a
given; there is an old midrash that God created many
worlds and destroyed them. The Zohar
interprets this as prior creations in which the sefirot failed to
achieve a balanced configuration. R. Isaac Luria developed this idea
the Shattering of the Vessels.
issue is the dynamic equilibrium between the powers of chesed and din, light and
dark. Too much chesed and
the receptacles cannot bear it; too much din
and we have what T.S. Eliot describes as "paralyzed force, gesture
without motion", the Tree of Death. The middle pillar of the Tree
represents the dynamic equilibrium between these tendencies.
R. Isaac Luria there has been a tendency to apply the Tree of Life at
every level of reality. Every functioning microcosm can be described by
a balanced configuration of sefirot.
There is a kabbalistic holographic principle that finds a Tree in every
so that reality can be decomposed at every level into the same,
fractal, self-similar structure ... not unlike a real tree, where every
part has the same branching structure as the whole. This is one way to
think about the statement in the Sepher
that their "end is in their beginning and their beginning is in their
end" - at every level one finds the same structure and dynamic. This is
an economy of means that is widely observed throughout the natural
world, and a reason why fractal generators (e.g. Apophysis)
are so successful at generating complex, organic forms.
to this view, the Tree of Life is an abstract template of organism, any
kind of organism: a carbon atom, an amoeba, the human psyche,
society, the organism of God. Anywhere one finds a whole composed of a
defined, dynamic equilibrium of parts, one finds a Tree of Life.
comes as no surprise that ideas of such scope and generality have been
discussed outside of Kabbalah. The thinker Arthur Koestler, studying
the emergence of complex systems, defined a holon
as an autonomous whole that is itself composed of holons, and is
capable of becoming a part of a larger holon. For example, atoms are
holons that can become parts of molecules, which are holons that can
become parts of proteins, which can become parts of cells, which can
become parts of organs ... and so on.
Holons have a defined and dynamic internal structure, and a homeostatic
mechanism to maintain that structure: this is their agency. Holons may
also be open in that they can relate to other holons to form larger
structures, larger wholes: this is their communion.
For example, the element carbon has the richest communion of any
element, and can become part of a vast number of organic molecules. The
element helium (along with argon, krypton and other noble gases) has a
very high agency which prevents it from forming chemical bonds with
other elements. Communion is synonymous with the Platonic/Renaissance
notion of Eros, the teleological "tie that binds".
The Tree of Life
as a Holon
Holons can become, via communion, part of larger holons: this is transcendence.
Something new has emerged that is greater than the sum of the parts. A
holon may lose its internal coherence and fall apart into its
constituent holons: this is dissolution.
These ideas map onto the Tree of Life with surprising accuracy. The
left-hand pillar, embodying the principle of din, corresponds to
agency. The right-hand pillar, embodying the principle of chesed,
corresponds to communion. The middle pillar corresponds to homeostasis
at the centre: upwards it corresponds to transendence, downwards to
dissolution (or alternatively, embodiment via lower-level holons).
An extensive discussion of holons and their relation to an integral
worldview can be found in Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.
- Metaphysical Dovecot
In his massive survey of Renaissance occult philosophy, Cornelius
Agrippa provides tables of correspondences
- "scales" - for all the numbers up to twelve. His scale of
number ten is essentially a table of correspondences for the sefira of
the Tree of Life - divine names, angel orders, archangels, planets,
animals, parts of the body and shells. This approach goes back to the
various tables that can be constructed out of the Sepher Yetzirah.
There is also a close relationship to the ancient hermetic notion of
sympathies, the idea that certain things have an underlying sympathetic
or harmonic connection via a higher world of the planetary or divine
Since the time of Agrippa these tables have grown. The
modern Hermetic Kabbalist is likely to encounter them in works such as
Mather's introduction to the Kabbalah
Unveiled, Gareth Knight's A Practical Guide to Qabalistic
Symbolism, Dion Fortune's The Mystical Qabalah,
and Aleister Crowley's amendation of Golden Dawn teaching material, Liber
Because many modern students of Hermetic Kabbalah tend to learn about
the sefirot ground-up from these lists, there is a view that the Tree
of Life is a kind of metaphysical dovecot in which related
roost and synergise together.
A negative consequence of a
preoccupation with lists and tables is their lack of subtlety. It
is difficult to merge two differing tables, which leads to a
confusing and inclusive (but functionally useless) metatable, or a
schismatic tendency amongst table holders. Debates about
correspondences occur with great frequency on forums, and tend to be
reminscent of the popular song:
You like potato
and I like potahto,
Another negative consequence of a
Tree whose essential nature is
indicated by myriads of interconnected attributes is that there is a
tendency to lose sight of the gestalt,
the essential dynamic wholeness. Nevertheless, the allusive richness of
the entire scheme of correspondences has many positive
especially from a theurgic perspective, and should not be dismissed
You like tomato and I like tomahto;
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let's call the whole thing off!
But oh! If we call the whole thing off,
Then we must part.
And oh! If we ever part,
Then that might break my heart!
- Days of Creation
the account of
creation given in Genesis,
God makes the world in six days, and rests on the seventh. The six
sefirot from Chesed
to Yesod -
are often grouped together. They are sometimes called the six
directions, after the section in the Sepher Yetzirah
where God seals the six directions of space with permutations of the
divine name YHV. They are the six sefirot that constitute the
body of Ze'ir Anpin
- see Partzufim. They are also called
the "six days", and
represent the six days of creation (see left). Malkhut is the seventh
day and Sabbath.
view is interesting because it relates the sefirot to the Biblical
account of creation, and deflects the thought that Kabbalah presents an