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Introduction to the Ari's Concept of Shevirat haKeilim

Shattered Vessels

Shattered Vessels

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Shattered Vessels
Introduction to the Ari's Concept of Shevirat haKeilim

"The shattering of the vessels" (in Hebrew, "Shevirat haKeilim") of the world of Tohu is the key concept in explaining the basic problem of diverseness and multiplicity in Creation as well as the origin of evil1 and is a central component in the Arizal's system of Kabbala, where it receives a full exposition2

The concept of Shevirat haKeilim is linked together with the mystical account of the eight kings who "reigned in the land of Edom before any king ruled over the Israelites" (Gen. 36:31) and the Midrashic account of the building and destruction of the primordial worlds (Bereishit Rabba 3:7, 9:1), as will be explained below. Although the idea of Shevirat haKeilim is also found in several sections of Zohar (in Sifra d'Tzni'uta3, Idra Rabba4 and Idra Zuta5), the concept and its ramifications are very difficult to understand there without the elucidation of the entire subject in the writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. (For this reason, even here, many readers will find the roll-over glossary feature essential for comprehending this important piece.)

The Arizal explains that when it arose in the Divine Will to create the finite world, the first step was to "withdraw" or conceal the infinite Or Ein Sof in the process known as "the first constriction" or "tzimtzum harishon". The first "world" (plane of existence) that came into being after the tzimtzum is called Adam Kadmon. But even though Adam Kadmon is a post-tzimtzum world, it is still a "meta-world", so-to-speak - undefined, unified, and transcending time, comprising a single transcendent primordial thought. Light emitted from the eyes of Adam Kadmon … signifies a descent from an internal, essential level to an external 'sensory' level…

The existence of the finite world as we know it, and as G‑d intended it, is still not possible in Adam Kadmon due to its extremely lofty state. In order for a finite world to exist, the light in Adam Kadmon had to go through several more stages of quantitative contraction and descent. In one of these stages of descent, one of the several types of light emitted from Adam Kadmon is manifested as ten individual qualities or attributes that act as separate, independent points of light, or quanta of energy. Technically, this is called "light emitted from the eyes" of Adam Kadmon or "or ha-einayim". This metaphorical term signifies a descent from an internal, essential level to an external "sensory" level where the beam of light is refracted into discrete quanta. Each of these points is an extremely powerful concentration of light (the level of keter of each of the ensuing sefirot) as it descends from Adam Kadmon. These sefirot compose the world of Tohu (chaos or disorder).

The first "world" outside of Adam Kadmon is called Akudim. In it is the first development of a vessel, such that ten degrees of light are bound together (in Hebrew, "akudim") in a single vessel (Writings of the Ari, Shaar HaHakdamot, Derush 1 b'Olam HaNikudim).

The existence of vessels [for the lights that issued forth from Adam Kadmon] begins only in the world of Akudim - in which there is but one general vessel for all the ten lights - and below. Subsequently, the world of Nikudim [another name for Tohu] was emanated, in which ten vessels were formed for the ten lights. All of them were the aspect of keter of the ten sefirot, so that there were ten lights of keter of the ten sefirot. Each of these ten keter-lights had an individual vessel. The remaining nine parts of the lights [i.e., chochma, bina, chesed, etc.] in each of the sefirot were incorporated within the keter-light of each of the sefirot. For this reason they are referred to as ten "nekudot", meaning individual "points" of light, rather than as ten complete sefirot… Now these ten sefirot were emanated in such a way that they were situated one above the other. (Ibid., Shaar HaHakdamot, Derush 1 b'Olam HaNikudim) The sefirot of Tohu were situated one above the other in a single line … unlike the array of the sefirot in the world of Tikun, in which the sefirot are arranged in harmonious triads…

The fact that the sefirot of Tohu were situated one above the other in a single line indicates that they act as independent entities, unlike the array of the sefirot in the world of Tikun, in which the sefirot are arranged in harmonious triads. Thus each sefira of Tohu existed as an autonomous fiefdom, so to speak, independent of, and even in opposition to, the others. Moreover, each sefira in Tohu is the manifestation of an absolute and quintessential aspect of the light of Adam Kadmon (the level of keter of each type of light, as explained above).

Furthermore, the vessels themselves were in a state of immaturity and were therefore unable to contain the intense light flooding them.

"…Only the malchut aspect of the seven sefirot was emanated… and therefore they were called nekudot, for nekuda and malchut6 are synonymous. 7. In addition, not only were they [in a state of immaturity], even in this state they were not clothed one within the other, nor were they bound together as a unit. Nor were they divided into arrays, [namely,] of kindness in the right array, severity in the left array and the mitigation between them in the middle array [as in Tikun]." (Etz Chaim, shaar 9, ch. 8)

Due to the intensity and exclusivity of the lights and the inability of their vessels to contain them, the vessels of the lower sefirot of Tohu shattered and the lights they contained remained above. The fragments of these vessels then fell to lower levels, becoming absorbed into the various worlds below the world of Tohu. The three uppermost vessels had the ability to contain the lights designated for them and did not die…

"Since the lights of these ten nekudot were so intense and powerful… the [vessels] did not have the power to contain them and the vessels "died", meaning to say, they descended below to the level that is now called [the world of] Beriya. This descent was their demise. But this was only as regards the seven lower nekudot, whereas the three uppermost vessels had the ability to contain the lights designated for them and did not die… The vessels of the seven lower [nekudot] descended to the world of Beriya… but their lights remained above, exposed, without vessels." (Ibid.)

Scripture hints at this process in describing the succeeding kings of Edom: "These are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom before any king ruled over the Israelites8. Bela son of Be'or became king… He died and was succeeded as king by Yoav… Yoav died, and he was succeeded as king by Chusham… Chusham died, and was succeeded by… etc." (Gen. 36:31-39). The Arizal explained that this refers to the sefirot of Tohu, each of which rules exclusively, and then shatters and "dies."

Thus Tohu was a primordial form of existence that "was created in order to be destroyed, and destroyed in order to be rebuilt" in a superior form (see Mevo L'Chachmat HaKabbala part 2, shaar 6, ch. 7). The order of creation that followed the disintegration of the world of Tohu is called the world of Tikun (literally translated as "rectification" or "restoration"). Regarding Tikun, the Torah states, "And G‑d looked over everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). In the words of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 3:7; 9:2), as explained by the Arizal, "these please Me" refers to the sefirot of Tikun, whereas the sefirot of Tohu "do not please Me".

The sefirot of Tikun were emanated in such a way that they work together interdependently and harmoniously, as partzufim (literally, "visages" - sing. "partzuf") - compound structures of the sefirot. A partzuf is a metaphorical figure of human likeness, used to represent the expansion of an individual sefira (or group of sefirot) into a configuration with ten sefirot of its own. Partzufim include Atik Yomin, Arich Anpin, Abba, Imma, Zeir Anpin (ben), Nukva (bat)]. As mentioned, the partzufim work as symbiotic harmonious systems instead of the discrete, independent, overpowering nekudot of Tohu. What could not be elevated into Atzilut remained in Beriya

Although the sefirot of Tohu shattered and "died," nevertheless, a residue of the lights that were contained in the vessels remained clinging to the fragments of the vessels. These are referred to by the Arizal as the 288 nitzotzin (literally "sparks") - the initial number of fragments from the vessels that broke. The entire process is alluded to in Scripture in the first couple verses of Genesis: "In the beginning of G‑d's creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was tohu and void, and darkness was on the surface of the depths, and the sovereignty of G‑d hovered (in Hebrew "merachefet") above the surface of the waters…." The Arizal explains that the word "merachefet" is actually a compound of two words: "met" and "rapach" - signifying that 288 (the numerical value of rapach) fragments had died (in Hebrew, "met") - an allusion to the shattering of the vessels of Tohu into 288 initial sparks. (Mevo She'arim, shaar 2, ch. 8)

Although the fragments of the vessels initially fell into the world of Beriya, when their rectification (tikun) began, the most refined aspects of the vessels were able to ascend and became absorbed in the world of Atzilut. What could not be elevated into Atzilut remained in Beriya and became an integral part of it. What could not be absorbed into Beriya then descended into Yetzira and Asiya. The aspects of the vessels that could not be absorbed in even the lowest realm of holiness became the vitality of the realms of impurity, known as the kelipot. (Ibid.)

The shattering of the sefirot of Tohu is not a coincidence, nor does it signify a flaw in the creative process. On the contrary, it serves a very specific and important purpose, which is to bring about a state of separation or partition of the light into distinct qualities and attributes, and thereby introduce diversity and multiplicity into creation, as explained above. In addition, the shattering of the vessels of Tohu allows for the possibility of evil, and gives man the opportunity to choose between good (for which he gains reward) and evil (for which he is punished). Thus G‑d's attributes of chesed and gevura - the attributes from which reward and punishment derive - are revealed in the world9 , which is one of the primary purposes of creation. (See beginning of Otzrot Chaim)

See at length Rabbi J. I. Schochet, Mystical Concepts in Chassidism, ch. 7.
See Etz Chaim, Heichal HaNikudim (Shaar 8, ff.); Mevo She'arim, Shaar 2, part 2, chs. 1-11; Shaar HaHakdamot, Derush b'Olam HaNikudim.
Literally, "Book of Concealed Matters." This is a commentary on Bereishit - the first section (parsha) of the Book of Gen. (Zohar II, 176b-179a).
Idra Rabba, or Greater Assembly. In it Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai reveals the mysteries of the extremely recondite passages of the Sifra d'Tzniuta to his disciples (Zohar III, 127b-145a).
Lesser Assembly. Here are described the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and the teachings that he revealed just prior to his death (Zohar III, 287b-296b).
that Malchut does not have anything of her own. Etz Chaim, shaar 6, ch. 5; shaar 8, ch. 5.
The orot of the sefirot of Tohu are called nekudot for a different reason - because all of the lights are sublimated within keter.
Representing the rectification of Tohu as will be explained in the next section.
See Etz Chaim 11:6; Shaar Hahakdamot p. 228ff on the Mishna in Avot 5:1.
Rabbi Moshe Miller was born in South Africa and received his yeshivah education in Israel and America. He is a prolific author and translator, with some twenty books to his name on a wide variety of topics, including an authoritative, annotated translation of the Zohar. He has developed a coaching-type approach to dealing with life's issues based on Chassidism and Kabbalah—a tool for dealing with normal issues that everyone faces as well as issues psychologists usually address, often ineffectively. He also gives free live classes over the Internet.
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Discussion (11)
November 23, 2016
Solomon The Wise, one who could tell apart between good and evil.
Today I keep these words in my heart and in my mind: "the shattering of the vessels of Tohu allows for the possibility of evil, and gives man the opportunity to choose between good (for which he gains reward) and evil (for which he is punished)." I'm sure they will be useful in my everyday life.
To know what is good and what is evil is of more practical value than than to know the reasons that G-d might have had to create them. Whenever I read the book of Job I wonder why G-d allow the prosecutor to test us. Why to test Abraham Avinu, why to test me. We have to choose between good and evil and more important to know what is one and what is the other.
Qro. Mexico
September 7, 2015
As I understand it, there is no "evil" as such, but the absence of the positive. Not to have one or the other, but in a physical realm two items cannot share the same exact space. So the choice is more positive/higher, or less positive/lower power and behavior. There-in we are given the highest aspect of the physical part of creation; choice, or free will. Because of this, we share something with the Creator not even angels share - free will. Why have free will, if all is already laid out for you? Now, you say, we have the concept of evil! Where did this come from? There, you prove the point - you choose to call the higher and lower just that, and mandate (Made) the one good, and the other, well, shall i say it? Yes; evil. Have a good day and Shalom.
Nashville, Tennessee.
August 25, 2014
To Chanan
The seven emotional sefirot, from Chessed until Malchut, shattered. The three intellectual sefirot of ChaBaD did not shatter. What he says here about Malchut is that the vessels were only at the level of Malchut of each respective sefirah, and so was unable to contain all of the light. This is why the sefirot in Tohu are called "nekudot," dots, points without dimensions, and is what precipitated the shattering.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
August 21, 2014
Great article. I'm still not clear on what broke. Was it all the 8 sfiros from daas to malchus or only the malchus of each of the sfiros?
chanan gans
North york
February 20, 2012
cause of split
there is something missing here- there must be a prism below that causes the split- or is it the act of vessel degradation that causes the split - it sounds like the split is random rather than controlled- in other words where is the catalyst or the prism- if it is a prism is the act reversible?
London, UK
December 10, 2011
Amazing explanation. I wonder if it is possible to place illustrations of the stages of the sparks.
Andre Ranulfo
Rio, Brazil
July 19, 2011
This is incredible, the way you explained this. So presuming that the Tohu was only the second day of creation. Can you take this concept to the 7 days of creation and explain in more details the Sefirot and the 7 days of Creation.The creation of the Second Adam, and Eve. If you can shed some light on the Meta- world please
fresno, ca
May 2, 2011
tohu? why created?
if the sefirot of Tohu did not please Hashem, then why were they created?
la, usa
December 16, 2010
Shevirat haKeilim
Thanks for this article. It might be of interest to note more clearly the connection to Tikkun Olam.
May the Source of All Light and Life be with all of you at Ascent, always and in all ways.
Quincy Daniel OrHai
November 23, 2010
Great Article

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