Ten sefirot of no-thing, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand in wisdom, be wise and understanding. Examine them, explore them. Know, contemplate, and visualize. Establish the matter thoroughly, and restore the Creator to his abode. Their measure is ten, yet infinite.
Sefer Yetzirah/The Book of Formation (2nd C.)
The ten sefirot — the lenses which refract the Light of the Infinite into the colors and shapes of our own experience — are a web of associations, symbolic references, and Divine potency. Each is like a node of meaning, bringing together hundreds, if not thousands, of literary, cultural, physical, emotional, historical, theological and magical concepts and, thus, demonstrating the interrelationship of them. When a Kabbalist hears the word "orchard," or "red," or "rainbow," he or she immediately associates it with the corresponding sefirah, and then with the dozens of other concepts which are likewise associated. Learning the sefirot is marinating the mind in a symbolic stew of Divine interrelation, and engenders a uniquely Kabbalistic mode of consciousness.
Historically, the concept of the sefirot has evolved over time. The quote above, from the 2nd century Book of Formation (actually, we're not sure exactly when it is written, but it is certainly among the oldest extant texts of Jewish mysticism), refers to "sefirot," and is a primary source for later Kabbalists who develop the idea. But in the Sefer Yetzirah, the word seems to denote numbers which, like the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, are tools of creation and the deep structure of the manifest universe. "Sefirot" is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for numbers, and, in a way, it might be useful to just think of them as level one, level two, and so on, since thinking in that way empties them of inaccurate projections and associations.
The sefirot are much more than numbers, however. By the twelfth century, they were essentially the emanations of the Divine which mediated, in a way reminiscent of neo-Platonism, between the One and the many. The sefirot are Divine, but are not, in their manifestation, the Divine essence; they are the characteristics of the overflowing of the Infinite. When the Bible speaks of God becoming angry, for example, the Kabbalists understood it to refer not to the Ein Sof — which, like the rationalist-philosophical God concept is beyond all attribution and ascription — but to the emanated world of the sefirot. And yet, text after text reminds us that the sefirot are Divine.
We can divide the sefirot into three triads, plus the tenth sefirah of malchut, which experiences separation from the other nine. The sefirot are frequently arrayed in one of two diagrams, both of which are pictured here. The first is a series of concentric circles, emanating out from the center to the circumference. This diagram conveys the sense of layers of depth. The second, and perhaps more common, diagram is in the form of a tree or — as I'll explain — the human body. This diagram conveys more the sense of vertical layers of reality from "lower" to "higher."
Now is a good time to explain a critical feature of the Kabbalah's view of hierarchy. On the one hand, Kabbalah is thoroughly hierarchical; it is all about layers of reality, and moving from upper to lower and back again. On the other hand, its hierarchy is very different from how most of us conceive hierarchy, in which "upper" is better, or more important, than "lower." This is not true in the Kabbalistic system. If you look at the sefirotic tree, for example, keter is clearly "higher" than tiferet. But it is not more important. Its role is different; it is more abstract, connected directly to the Infinite light, whereas tiferet synthesizes and balances the wheel of the manifest sefirot. But neither one of these roles is more important, and keter is not more powerful than tiferet, or more preferable.
It's very difficult for Westerners to wrap our minds around this view of hierarchy. Usually, hierarchy means power — which is why so many of us reject hierarchies in favor of more circular, collaborative models of human coexistence. But this either/or view of hierachy, as philosopher Ken Wilber has shown, leads to one of two unfortunate consequences: either an imperial hierarchy which oppresses on the one hand, or a flattened egalitarianism which does not recognize growth and evolution on the other. In the Kabbalah, the "third way" of hierarchy, growth, and evolution without gradations of privilege, quality and power is the way of the sefirot. There is higher and lower, but as you'll see throughout this portion of the site, to reject the lower in favor of the higher is to critically misunderstand the very purpose of the universe. Nothing less.
The "top" triad of the sefirot is, in a sense, the mind of God. Keter, meaning "crown," is transrational, and beyond all cognition. We can say almost nothing about it, except that it is the first stirring of what we would call "will" within the Infinite. In the world of keter, nothing exists: not "God," not the universe, only the Ein Sof, with the most subtle intention to expand into manifestation. (It's important that we keep reminding ourselves, by the way, that the spatial and temporal language of theosophical Kabbalah is analogical only. There is no before and after in this world of the Divine, and there is no near and far. Everything is now, and here; all these primordial processes are, from our perspective, constantly occurring.)
Hochmah, meaning wisdom, is like a point: no dimension of its own, but the beginning point for dimensionality. From our perspective, hochmah is that "higher wisdom" that some systems call primordial Awareness. It is the first quality to proceed from Nothingness: that Being knows. This noetic quality of the universe — that every leaf "knows" when to fall in the autumn, that every atom "knows" how to organize itself — is, for the Kabbalists, the most refined quality of the manifested world. If you'd like to imagine the emanation of the sefirot in terms of the Big Bang, hochmah is the singularity with no size, but with the "laws of nature" already instantiated. There is nothing there, but there is the Divine Wisdom which organizes all of creation.
—Binah, meaning understanding, is a kind of partner to Hochmah. The sefirot are often gendered (sometimes multi-gendered), and their interaction is often depicted as a series of erotic interchanges. In this case, hochmah is the male and Binah is female, the Divine womb, the generative principle of the rest of the universe. Binah gives birth to the sefirot, and thus to the world of manifestation itself. She is the concealed, hidden, supernal Divine mother. She is also the beginning of separation — binah is related to the words for knowledge based upon distinctions. Binah is the ocean, the many-chambered palace (note the Jungian flavor to the symbolic associations here), and womb in which Hochmah sows the seed of creation. She is the ground of space and time — not yet expanded, not yet contracted, but the principle of spatiality and temporality itself, ready to give birth to the world.
(You may see in some diagrams of the sefirot an additional principle known as "da'at," or knowledge. Da'at is usually seen as the synthesis of hochmah and binah, and a kind of reflection, in our minds, of keter. Da'at is not one of the ten sefirot, but as a mediating and synthesizing principle between hochmah and binah, it is important in some systems. We will leave it aside for now.)
Let's pause for just a moment to explore a few of the subtleties — just the tip of the iceberg, really — in these first three sefirot. First, notice that even at this highest, most abstract level, many of the themes of the Kabbalah are already in play. For those who expect only male god-language, and who suppose there is a hard and fast distinction between religion and sexuality — well, surprise. The Kabbalah is rich in feminine goddess-language, even as it strives to integrate these different faces of the Divine within a monotheistic system. The Kabbalah is also rich in erotic metaphor — if hochmah and binah seem surprisingly embodied, wait until we get to tiferet, yesod, and shechinah/malchut. Nor is eros merely metaphor — it's not "like" sexual union, it is the essence of sexual union; it's what generativity and sexuality are ultimately about. Whether the union between masculine and feminine takes place between two people, or within one person, it is ultimately about the play of the Divine itself.
Notice also the remarkable correlations between the Kabbalah and other systems of thought. Binah and hochmah map easily onto "left brain" and "right brain" thinking, even though the Kabbalists presumably had no scientific knowledge of the brain's internal structure. I have already made an analogy to the Big Bang theory of cosmic origination. Many people suggest similarities between the tree of the sefirot and the Hindu system of the chakras, energy-centers within the body. And, as we proceed through the remaining sefirot, you will see an astonishingly rich emotional, embodied, and cognitive vocabulary — perhaps not what you might expect from a group of medieval rabbis. How we relate to these similarities is up to us, but it's important to be aware of how you find yourself processing them. On the one hand, the chakras and the sefirot are different systems. We don't know of historical links between them, and there are differences as well as similarities. On the other hand, it would be overly narrow to deny the similarities, and it's interesting to speculate as to how two completely different systems arrived at such similar renditions of their truths. Clearly, in the case of sefirot/chakras, we all experience the world through similar bodily structures, so it makes sense that there will be some overlap. But it's a little harder to explain the Big Bang.
In any case, I would suggest, in the mode of the Kabbalah itself, a dynamic allowing of multiple discourses to take place within you at the same time. Keep your cognitive, historical, conceptual mind operating. But also let your intuitive, phenomenological, spiritual mind (and heart) soar, and play, and improvise with these concepts and ideas. Indeed, with all the combinations and permutations of sefirot, letters, breaths, and numbers, you may begin to feel that Kabbalah is just a matter of play. In a way, it is. Jumping from symbol to symbol is like playing with Divine toys, in God's playground. Try it! Play hide and seek with God and see who you find.
Next page: the triad of hesed, gevurah, tiferet.