Some searchengines give up highly of Sententia (note 17/5/07, “Sententia” was the name of my website ‘two names back’) when you search for “Kabbalah”, but so far there isn’t more about the subject than one book review. I have read various books about the subject in my time, but I definately don’t regard myself an expert. As a matter of fact, there is more that I don’t understand than what I do. Somehow Kabbalism keeps tickling my imagination, so I am again reading a book about it, called The Secret Doctrine Of The Kabbalah by Leonora Leet.
In this article I want to tell a few things about the Etz Chayyim or Tree Of Life. “Etz Chayyim” is actually the title of the 1959 book by Vital Chayyim (“vital life”?) and is quoted often in Leet’s book.
I will start with a version of the tree of life with which most of you will be familiar I suppose. It has the 10 sephiroth with the names in Hebrew and in with Latin letters and the 22 paths numbered with the letters of the Hebrew alphabeth. The image may need some information for some of you.
The circles are called “sephiroth” (plural of “sephira”) and according to the “Sepher Jetziràh” (“Book Of Forms” one of the major Kabbalistic texts) the sephiroth are the 10 lights that God sent out of his middle. “Sephiroth” is therefor often translated as “lamps”. As mentioned there are 10 sephiroth that got the names that you can see if the picture. Then there are 22 paths connecting the sephiroth which got the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabeth, which each also represent a number, these are not the numbers of the paths though!
What is less known, is that there are more versions of the tree of life, as you can see when you click on the picture on the left. This time you also get the translations of the names of the sephiroth. You may wonder what this 11th sephira “Da’at” is doing there. This is actually not a sephira, but is often mentioned anyway and it will come back later if this article. The difference between the two trees are obvious, the two paths from the sephiroth Hod and Netzach to Malkuth have been replaced by two paths from Binah to Chesed and Chokhmah to Gevurah. I do not intend to write at length about the reasons for this, but some of the logic behind it comes back later on. The picture comes from Leet’s book (-2- see below article) who named the first version the “Cordovero Tree Of Emanation” and the second the “Luria Tree Of Return”. Mozes Cordovero (1522-1570) was best known for his Kabbalistic poetry and his version of the tree is the best-known. Isaac Luria (1533-1572) is one of the greatest reformers of Kabbalism and generally accepted as being the founder of the new Kabbalism or Chassidism, which is more practically oriented in contradiction to Cordoveros theorethical / mystical Kabbalism.
This article is intended to be not more than a very brief and superficial introduction to the Tree Of Life and I do not think myself an expert enough to do anything more than to try to raise your interest and cause you to get your hands on a few books as well. The doctrine of the tree is one of the two pillars of Kabbalism, so I will have to leave a great many things out to avoid writing an entire book. Just a few lights here and there that will hopefully be a starting point for you.
A nice subject is the geometry of the Tree. Geometry is an important and interesting, but difficult, Kabbalistic subject. Many writers have tried to show the geometry of the tree, but so far I have seen nothing really convincing for why and how the tree looks like it does. The simplest explanation is as follows:
The size of the tree and the location of the sephiroth in the middle pillar have proportions of 1:1:2, shown in the form of three circles. The sephiroth on the left and right pillar lay on the crossing of the circles. This indeed allows you to quickly draw a tree with the help of a compass and ruler, but it seems a bit too simple for me.
Another version at least appears to be more ‘Jewish’, since it involves the ‘star of david’ or hexagram:
The same circles in the middle pillar and four extra circles around the triangles that form the hexagram. In my opinion this version doesn’t add too much to the previous, but a nice detail is that there is also room for the “En Soph” (circle above the Kether sephira) which is the Kabbalistic “God” who is of course above his creation.
If you look well, the hexagram is also in the tree itself, which actually brings a more logical geometry in my eyes.
Hm, not much left in the small picture. This is where Leonora Leet gets her sayso and she has some nice theories that I hadn’t ran into before.
I might have (should have?) started with a simpler version of this picture, but if you look well, you will see a rather large hexagram in the middle of the picture of which the triangle Hod, Netzach, Malkuth forms the lowest triangle. This hexagram allows the tree to rotate around it’s Da’at sephira forming a sixfold tree that is usually called “tree of knowledge” after the Da’at axis which translation is knowledge.
If you look well again, you can see that with only the large hexagram which forms the tree (actually these are three hexagrams, of which the middle in size stands dianogal on the smallest), only one version of the tree can be made, being the Luria tree. The so called Sabbath star consists of even more hexagrams than three and eventually both versions of the tree can be found in the lines of the Sabbath star. I find this geometry of the tree quite appealing. Try to find the logic and draw the Sabbath star yourself. If starts with a small hexagram (between the six upper sephiroth) that is ‘caugth’ in a larger diagonal hexagram, etc., but it also involves some shoving.
Then the last version that I want to show you, which I also found in Leet’s book. This time she based her design on descriptions from the Sepher Jetsiràh. It is even more complication to draw than the previous, but again you can clearly see all the hexagrams inside.
Again both versions of the tree are possible.
Yes I know the information is superficial and in Leet’s book you will get much more in depth information, but trying to find a some things yourself may also be quite usefull. Besides, Leet uses information from various different sources, making the geometry even more difficult than it is when you only see the drawings like present here.
Now, based on the tree I will shortly touch upon a two Kabbalistic doctrines, namely that of the ‘worlds’ and that of the ‘Parzufim’, giving you a small insight in theoretical Kabbalism.
In Kabbalism there are usually four worlds recognised, being Atsiluth, or world of emanation, Beriah or world of creation, Yetsirah or world of formation and Asiyah, the world of making and I named them from high to low. The ascribed sephiroth are three trios and a lonely Malkuth in Asiyah.
Atsiluth is said to be the world or Godly archtypes, Beriah houses the archangels, Yetsirah houses Metratron and 10 ranges of angels and the lowest world the souls in exile, us so to say.
Closely related are the 4 aspects of the soul, again from high to low being Neshamah, Ruach, Nephesh and material ‘soul’ (body?) of which I couldn’t find the Hebrew name, but it belongs to the world of Asiyah, which is the created world as we know it. The other three are a divine state (Neshamah), the moral of the human being as Ruach and Nephesh representing desire. Because of the lack of English equivalents the different aspects of the soul are usually referred to as “Ruach soul”, “Nephesh soul”, etc.
Naturally the sephiroth (especially those from the middle pillar) can be used for reaching higher states of consciousness, for example by means of contemplation, for example meditating on the sephira tiphereth (beauty) aiming for higher standards in moral and/or reaching the second-highest states of consciousness.
Another doctrine that can be hinted at with the tree of life in mind is that of the “Partsufim” or faces. The highest sephira Kether/crown is identified with the Partsuf “Arich Anpin” or big/long face (sometimes referred to as ‘old man’). The second sephira Chokmah/wisdom is the Partsuf “Ab” or “Abba” (father) and Binah/understanding “Imma” (mother). The last sephira Malkuth or kingdom represents the last Partsuf “Nukvah”.
There is also a “small face” formed by the remaining six sephiroth from the worlds of Ruach and Nephesh.
I haven’t been able to find much information about the Partsufim (yet), but if En-Soph, the unknowable, endless Divinity is above the tree of life (as we saw in the second geometry drawing), then the Arich Anpin much be a andronygus divinity causing Creation and the coming together of the male and female aspects of nature represented by Abba and Imma Creation itself, or the most material form of it.
Afterall I suppose that there is much more to tell about the tree of life, but for myself I haven’t really found out what it is exactly what the designer of it meant with it. Somehow it is a geometric drawing depicting the human body and soul, often compared to the Eastern doctrine of the Chakras, sometimes it is used to explain something about the divinity or the 4 worlds, while at other times a tree is placed in each of the 4 worlds. A remarkable point is that it even makes a good starting-point to learn/remember the Hebrew alphabeth, because if you take the 3 horizontal paths (chokmah-binah, chesed-gevurah and netsach-hod), they get the three so called “mother letters” of the Hebrew alphabeth (aleph, mem, shin or a, m and sh), 7 vertical paths with the 7 “double letters” and 12 diagonal paths for the remaining letters, making 22 in total.
I must say though that not many writers/drawers use the letters and paths like that and also the tree that I used in the article, just started with aleph in the right upper ‘corner’.
Naturally there is much more about Kabbalism than just the tree, but I just wanted to give you a small glimps of a mysterious, difficult, but very interesting tradition. A glimpse that will hopefully make some of you interested in one of the esoteric traditions of the West. And if you have a revelation about meanings, explanations or possible theories, I will be happy to hear so.
To close off I want to suggest a wonderfull internetpage which can serve perfectly for a beginning Kabbalist. It is an interactive research of various aspects of Kabbalism with much stress on the tree, the meaning of the sephiroth, etc. Once you get used to the manner of navigating, this page can keep you busy for hours and even direct you to some original insights.
Visit www.borndigital.com/tree/index.html if you are interested.
-1- “Kabbalah” by Charles Poncé
-2- “The Secret Doctrine Of The Kabbalah” by Leonora Leet
-3- “Tarot And Kabbala” by Rufus C. Camphausen (1993 no longer available, for 1 and 2 see bookreviews section)
“… and He had 10 rays of light come out of His middle, lights that
shine with light that in nature is derived from Him and that
spreads the light of a shiny day everywhere.”