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The Sefirot

The Sefirot

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The names of the ten Sefirot are:

Chochmah - wisdom,

Binah - understanding,

Daat - knowledge,

Chessed - kindness,

Gevurah - strength,

Tiferet - beauty,

Netzach - victory,

Hod - splendor,

Yesod - foundation,

and Malchut - kingship.

Everything that happens in the spiritual worlds takes place through the medium of the Sefirot. However, as previously mentioned, they are not G-d, and the Kabbalists warn that one should not pray to them. In the words of Tikkunei Zohar: Elijah opened his discourse and said: ‘Master of the worlds, You are One but not in the numerical sense. You are exalted above all the exalted ones, hidden from all the hidden ones; no thought can grasp You at all. You are He who has brought forth ten “garments,” and we call them ten Sefirot, and revealed worlds; and through them You conceal yourself from man.

You are He who binds them together and unites them; and inasmuch as You are within them, whoever separates one from another of these ten Sefirot, it is considered as if he had effected a separation in You.

As previously discussed, Tzimtzum is the concealment of the Or Ein Sof which allows a Seder Hishtalshlut, a “series of intermediary stages” or worlds that makes the creation of the finite world possible. Each of these worlds has a spiritual infrastructure, the most basic component being the Sefirot.

The Sefirot are ten modes or attributes through which G-d manifests Himself. The Sefirot are not G-d, but they are the medium through which specific qualities and attributes can be ascribed to Him. The word Sefirah is related to the verb lesaper, which means to “express” or “communicate.” This implies that the function of a Sefirah is to express a certain attribute. It is also related to the word “sapphire” (sapir). A sapphire is a gemstone that is brilliant and illuminating, implying that the function of a Sefirah is to give Light. Combining these two concepts, one may say that the Sefirot have two basic functions, one as lights or luminaries that serve to reveal and express, and another as Vessels that limit and define the Light so that specific qualities are manifest. The Sefirot may be compared to the two hands of a king. Sometimes the king operates with his right hand and sometimes with his left. Ultimately, it is the king himself who is acting through the medium of his hands.

In fact, every Sefirah is divisible into the two aspects of Lights and Vessels. The Lights of the Sefirot are simple and formless. They reflect G-d’s infinite power as revealed within the Sefirot. The Vessels have specific characteristics, and thereby reveal G-d’s power of limitation and finitude. It is through the Sefirot that the Ein Sof—which by definition is infinite—creates and conducts the finite worlds.

In order to understand the dynamics of the Sefirot we can take a look at man, for man was created in the image of G-d.

In many places in the Torah, scripture speaks of G-d as if He had human features, “the eyes of G-d”, the “hand of G-d,” etc.

Yet we know that G-d has neither body nor form of body.

Why then does the Torah use a human description of G-d? The answer is that the Torah speaks in the language of man.

G-d borrows terms from His creatures to express His relationship with the world. G-d has no eyes, yet He creates the eye and is aware of everything that happens in the world. G-d has no hand, yet He creates the hand and His providence guides the world’s destiny. When the Torah tells us that G-d made Man in His image, it means that Man is a microcosm of the Sefirot, with the entire spiritual infrastructure reflected in him.

It is the Sefirot that make it possible to speak about G-d’s immanence in creation—what He does, without referring directly to what He is. Those Divine attributes are reflected within Man, both in his spiritual makeup and more literally in his physical build. Hence, the Kabbalists chose to depict the Sefirot as corresponding to various limbs and functions of the human body. Still, when trying to grasp the dynamic of the Sefirot in the higher realms; one may make reference to the human conceptual model, and then reflect these concepts above. In this manner, we can speak in the language of man to appreciate the higher spiritual realms. One must be cautious in doing so, and realize that this human model is only a reflection of the Sefirot. All analogies have their human dimension which may not be applicable in the higher realms.

The Sefirot are also reflected in Man’s spiritual make-up, with each faculty in Man derived from the supernal Sefirot.

When one utilizes the ten soul powers within him in his Divine service here in this world, he is able to affect their source, the Sefirot, in the higher worlds.

The ten Sefirot are generally divided into two categories: Intellect (sechel) and Emotions (middot). The category of Intellect includes the three intellectual powers of Chochmah, Binah, and Daat—which are an acronym for the word ChaBaD. The emotive powers are represented by the seven channels of Chessed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchut. They are also referred to as the Three Mothers and the Seven Doubles.

The first three are viewed as “mothers” because they are the source and root of the other seven, just as a mother is the source of her offspring. The seven Emotions are called doubles because they manifest themselves in a two-fold manner as shall be explained.

The first of the Sefirot is called Chochmah. Chochmah is the soul faculty that conceives any matter, and hence is made of the words koach mah, meaning the potential of what is. It produces the original idea, and is often referred to as the first flash of intellect. It already contains within it all the details of the idea but as yet they are concentrated and obscured. It is everything in potential. This potential has been likened to a dot, in which everything is contained, but nothing is actualized or given definition. In the Tetragrammaton, this is represented in the first letter, yud, which resembles a dot.

The second Sefirah is Binah. Binah means, “to understand or derive one matter out of another matter.” Binah takes the original idea and expands and develops it both in breadth and depth. It crystallizes and clarifies the details of the idea that were obscured in Chochmah. That which was in concentrate form is now revealed and understood. In the name of G-d, Binah is the letter hey. Its shape, which is more elongated and comprised of strokes, implies the expansion of the dot in breadth and length. Chochmah and Binah are equitable to two good friends who can never be separated. The Zohar describes them as “a dot in the palace,” with the dot Chochmah being realized in the palace of Binah. The koach mah of Chochmah (potential of “what is”) is realized in Binah.

An idea once conceived may remain abstract. The meaning of Daat denotes attachment and union as in the verse, “and Adam knew (yada—from the word Daat) Eve.” The faculty of Daat brings the abstract concept into actuality. An idea must be felt and implemented, and Daat has the power to unite the intellect and the emotions. It is only by great attachment to an idea, by binding and unifying oneself to the idea to the extent that one not only understands the idea, but also feels for it, that it can be brought into practice. It is clear how Daat is the connector between Chochmah and Binah and the rest of the body (Sefirot). In the human body, the three cognitive faculties of ChaBaD correspond to the right cerebral hemisphere, left cerebral hemisphere, and cerebellum; from which stems the spinal cord connecting the brain to the rest of the body.

The next three Sefirot are the Emotions. In the body, Chessed corresponds to the right arm, Gevurah to the left arm, and Tiferet the heart. The Kabbalists draw parallels between the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the three supernal Sefirot of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet.

Chessed (loving-kindness) is the attribute which diffuses benevolence to all without limit. Creation itself is an act of Chessed, as it is stated, “The world was built with Chessed.” The attribute of Chessed is also called “greatness” (Gedulah), for life issues from Him to an unlimited number of worlds and creatures. As we learn from Abraham, it is the nature of the benevolent to do goodness. In Abraham, who embodies Chessed, we see the paradigm of endless loving-kindness. His tent was open on all sides and he extended the warmest hospitality to all.

Where Chessed is boundless, Gevurah is the attribute of restraint. It has the power and ability to limit and contract. In the act of creation, Gevurah conceals from the created beings the activating force within them. This enables them to exist as tangible entities, instead of being utterly nullified within their source. The patriarch Isaac is paralleled with Gevurah due to the dominance of this Sefirah within him. He restrained his emotions magnificently at the Akeida (the binding of Isaac).

Gevurah is also called “law” and “judgment” (Din). Judgment demands that Chessed be distributed justly in proportion to the recipient’s merit and not in a boundless, gratuitous fashion.

Without Gevurah, Chessed would not have the boundaries needed in order for Creation to exist. In terms of humanity, if Chessed was dominant, the earth would be full of sinners since love would cover all iniquity. Conversely, if Gevurah was dominant, no man could withstand the scrutiny of judgment.

Both Chessed and Gevurah operate successfully through a mediating faculty, the Sefirah of Tiferet. Tiferet blends Chessed and Gevurah with harmonious and beautiful results. It can be compared to a garment dyed with many colors and blended in such a way that gives rise to beauty and decoration. Within man, it is equated with the attribute of “compassion” (Rachamim).

Whereas Chessed would give even to a person to whom compassion is not at all appropriate; Tiferet seeks to pity a person to whom compassion is appropriate, and then to extend benevolence to him as well regardless of worthiness. Tiferet is also equated with “truth” (Emet) in the sense that both Chessed and Gevurah agree to its flow. In the body, Tiferet is the heart, whose central position in the torso mediates between right and left and creates harmony. In the Patriarchs, Tiferet is seen in Jacob, the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. The children of Jacob, who is the perfect balance of Chessed and Gevurah, were all righteous.

The next three Sefirot are Netzach, Hod, and Yesod. These three are extensions of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet. Netzach is an extension of Chessed, Hod of Gevurah, and Yesod of Tiferet.

In their parallels within the human body; Netzach and Hod correspond to the two thighs and Yesod the reproductive organ, the Brit Kodesh. Just as the thighs support the body and transport the body to its destination, so too Netzach and Hod channel the upper Sefirot. The Kabbalists parallel Netzach with the personality of Moses, Hod with Aaron, and Yesod with Joseph.

The word Netzach comes from the word menatzeach, meaning to “conquer” or “overcome.” Netzach therefore denotes the idea of dominance. By giving in an unlimited way, one is overwhelming the other, and in this respect it is an extension of Chessed. Hod is just the opposite. Being an extension of Gevurah, it denotes with strain to the point of submission. Hod stems from the word Hodaah meaning to “thank,” “admit,” or “submit.” Total dominance over another is a Netzach relationship, while total submission is a Hod relationship. Yesod balances the two, facilitates communication, and is therefore the foundation of the world.

The action of Netzach, Hod, and Yesod (known in its abbreviated form as NeHiY) on Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet (known in its abbreviated form as ChaGaT), may be analogous to a father teaching a son. Once ChaGaT is aroused, the function of NeHiY is to deliberate as to how the recipient will receive.

In the analogy, NeHiY has a triple function. If the father will impart the knowledge in its totality as it appears in his own mind, the son will be unable to absorb it. Rather, the father has to rearrange the subject matter in such a way that little by little the child will be able to understand. In this respect, Netzach and Hod are referred to in Kabbalistic terminology as “the kidneys that advise” and are “the two testicles” that prepare the sperm. This means that they adapt a subtle concept in the father’s mind, and modify it to match the capacity of the child.

Netzach and Hod are also referred to as “grinders” and “millstones.” Just as a millstone grinds the wheat germ into flour, so too a father has to break up concepts and determine which should be presented and which withheld. Netzach and Hod serve to contract a concept in all its dimensions. Finally, Netzach also allows for the father to prevail over himself and not withhold any beneficial influence or learning from his son.

Carrying this analogy further will also explain the Sefirah of Yesod. Even if the father will privately rehearse what he is going to teach his son, it cannot be compared to the actual moment of teaching. At that moment, the father binds his intellect to the child and communicates with love. He truly desires that his son understand the subject matter. The greater the desire and delight of the father is, the greater the influence and learning of the son. The son is able to absorb more and the father communicates proportionally. This bond uniting the father and son is the attribute of Yesod. Yesod acts as a funnel through which all the previous Sefirot are channeled.

We may now understand why the triads of ChaGaT and NeHiY are called doubles. ChaGaT are the emotions as they exist within one, without taking into consideration the recipient.

NeHiY are the powers that focus the emotions of ChaGaT so that they may be received by others. Hence, ChaGaT and NeHiY ride in tandem and are called doubles, as each is dependent upon the other.

In summary, Chessed denotes unlimited giving. Gevurah parallels unlimited restraint, while Tiferet is a harmonious blend of the two. Netzach and Hod adapt the influence for transmission, and Yesod transmits with deep attachment. The six Sefirot of ChaGaT and NeHiY are often grouped together.

Sefirotic Triangles

Kabbalistically, they are called “little faces,” Zeir Anpin. In the Tetragrammaton, yud represents Chochmah, Hey is Binah, and vov is Zeir Anpin.

The tenth Sefirah is called Malchut. It is the ultimate realization of the first Sefirah of Chochmah. Chochmah is koach mah—the potential of what is, and Malchut is called Mah— that which is. In the Tetragrammaton, Malchut is the final hey, and in the human body Malchut is the mouth. Kabbalah parallels Malchut to the personage of King David. Essentially, Malchut is the receiver or recipient of influence from the higher Sefirot. In this respect Malchut has a feminine quality. Just as a woman receives from a man and gives birth to a child, so too Malchut receives from Zeir Anpin and creates a new entity. In a kingdom, a king “receives” the people’s acceptance of his sovereignty and in return he provides all the people’s needs.

As the last Sefirah, Malchut does not exert any influence of its own except that which the other Sefirot pour into it. It is often compared to the moon which, though it has no light of its own, reflects the sun’s light as a new entity. The fusion of Zeir Anpin and Malchut is called in Kabbalah Yichud ZunZeir Anpin and Nukvah (Malchut) combined. As in a physical union that can procreate, all supernal diffusions are effected by the Yichud Zun.

The purpose of creation is to reveal G-d’s sovereignty through the creation of “subjects” who are separate entities.

These subjects are distant and distinct from the level of the king, and subsequently accept upon themselves the yoke of his kingship. This was the whole purpose of the Tzimtzum, to obscure and hide the life force of the world and thereby make it appear as an independent entity. It is through the Sefirah of Malchut that time and space came into being. In the dimension of space, we can call G-d a king “above without end and below without limit,” and likewise in all four directions. In the dimension of time, G-d reigns, has reigned, and will reign. Because Malchut is the Sefirah in which the Or Ein Sof becomes manifest within the creation, it is called the Shechinah.

Malchut is also identified with the “mouth of G-d” or “G-d’s speech,” for it reveals G-dliness to the worlds.

Although we have enumerated the ten Sefirot above as including the Sefirah of Daat, some Kabbalistic texts count the Sefirah of Keter instead of Daat. The word Keter means “crown” and stands above all the other Sefirot, like the crown stands above the head. A king’s crown distinguishes him from his people so that they can subjugate themselves to him. The subjects of a sovereign are called “subjects of the crown” due to their loyalty, and nullification to the crown and its authority. Keter is the Sefirah that stands above all the Sefirot, and is equated with “Divine will” (Ratzon) and “Pleasure” (Taanug). Divine will is the external level of Keter and Pleasure the internal level of Keter. The highest, most transcendent level is “Faith” (Emunah).

In the human model, Intellect and Emotions, intellect and emotions are soul powers that dwell within the body.

Intellect is in the mind and the Emotions in the heart. A person’s willpower and pleasure, however, transcend any particular organ. In a sense it is peripheral and is described as Keter. Keter has an internal dimension known in Kabbalah as Atik Yomin (lit. “the ancient of days”) and an external dimension called Arich Anpin (lit. “the long countenance”).

In any stage of the Seder Hishtalshlut, Keter acts as the intermediary between one level and the next. Malchut of the higher level becomes Keter of the next. For example, in the four worlds, Malchut of Atzilut becomes a Keter to Beriah.

The Atik Yomin of Keter is bound with the higher level and Arich Anpin is bound with the lower level.

We may now draw a diagram of the Sefirot as they group themselves within man, reflecting the supernal Sefirot.

THREE LEVELS OF Keter

Emunah (Faith). Taanug (Pleasure). Ratzon (Will)

Sefirot of Man

As mentioned above, the Sefirot are the infrastructure of all the worlds and are reflected with the microcosm of man.

They are the infrastructure of man’s soul; both his animal and G-dly soul (see Ch.22). Both souls are a combination of Intellect and Emotions. In the Nefesh HaBehamit (animalistic soul), the predominant powers are the Emotions and are often classically referred to as the Evil Inclination (Yetzer HaRah). Intellect is dominant in the Nefesh Elokit (G-dly Soul) and is referred to as the Good Inclination (Yetzer HaTov). The intellectual faculty of the Nefesh HaBehamit is used primarily to serve the Emotions, whereas with the Nefesh Elokit, Emotions are an expression of the meditative Intellect. The arousal of emotions in the Nefesh Elokit is primarily through the power of meditation, which affects the emotions.

The Sefirot all have their internal and external dimensions.

This is how they affect the person, and how they affect others.

Chessed is internally translated into love, and externally into kindness. Within the Nefesh HaBehamit, one may love the forbidden and be kind to the undeserving. The main thrust of Hassidism is Tikkun HaMiddot –“correcting the negative character traits” of the Nefesh HaBehamit. This shall be discussed at length in Ch. 27.

We will now study in more detail the Sefirot as they appear in the Nefesh Elokit. When a Jew utilizes the ten soul powers within him in his Divine service here below, he is able to affect their source, the Sefirot of the higher worlds. With regard to the Sefirot in the Divine soul, which are described as a “part of G-d above,” all the internal and external attributes of the Sefirot are directed to G-d alone. When a Jew utilizes the ten soul powers within him in his Divine service here below, he is able to affect their source, the Sefirot of the higher worlds.

Chessed: The internal aspect of Chessed is love of G-d and the great desire to cleave to Him. This affects the external attribute of Chessed in a way that the person desires to practice Chessed in order to emulate G-d and cleave to His attributes.

Gevurah: The internal aspect of Gevurah is the fear of G-d.

This expresses externally by reproving and chastising the wicked with the punishments of the Torah, prevailing over the Evil Inclination, and sanctifying himself in that which is permitted. By building a fence and hedge around the Torah, safeguards are put in place preventing transgressions.

Tiferet: The power to seek to glorify G-d and follow His Torah mercifully in all ways possible. This is expressed in Hiddur Mitzvah (the “beautification” and “punctiliousness” in the performance of Mitzvot), such as having beautiful tefillin and mezuzot, even when it costs more money. It is also expressed by praising G-d in all ways possible—in thought, speech, and action.

Netzach: The power to prevail over anything that would restrain Man from the service of G-d and from cleaving to Him. This includes external battles over the forces of evil in order to fill the earth with the glory of G-d, as in the wars fought by King David.

Hod: Through self-abnegation and acknowledging the transcendence of that which defies his mortal understanding, man seeks to prostrate himself and self-effacingly praise G-d.

Even though man sees a material world, he acknowledges that in truth it is G-d who animates and creates everything.

His limited vision is due to his earthbound perspective. He expresses gratitude to G-d for all the favors that He has bestowed upon us and offers thanks to G-d for all His praiseworthy deeds, attributes, and workings in the creation of the upper and lower worlds. In this context, Hod has the meaning of being sincere in one’s acts of gratitude.

Yesod: Cleaving to truth with intense desire and pleasure to the extent that one’s soul is bound up with G-d, the very source of life and truth.

Malchut: to accept the yoke of G-d’s sovereignty and to serve G-d like a true servant to his master, i.e. out of awe and fear.

All the above Emotions of the Nefesh Elokit are activated by the Intellect of the Nefesh Elokit. Chochmah is the source of the “selflessness” (Bittul) that comprehends G-d and His greatness.

Binah is the great “joy” (Simchah) that comes as a result of this comprehension in the length, breadth, and depth of understanding.

The deep comprehension of Binah along with the “unification” (Yichud) of Daat gives birth to the emotions of love and fear of G-d. Daat represents the bond and with which the soul is bound up in this understanding.

In summary, we may now see clearly how the Sefirot are represented in microcosm within man’s soul and how they reflect and affect the supernal Sefirot. We may also see that Tikkun HaMiddot is primarily affected through ChaBaD—a thorough intellectual attachment to G-d and His purpose in creation.

Sefirah Chart

Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov is director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK.
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Discussion (14)
December 1, 2013
Fantastic Job
I'd like to commend Rabbi Dubov on a very well written introduction to the basic framework of the Sefirot in a clear and directive way. Structure and context are perhaps two of the most important factors in understanding the Creation.

For someone who studies the works of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, who always stresses the need for structured learning in learning anything, especially Pnimius HaTorah, it was refreshing to see someone in today's world who understands that too.

Happy Hanukah
Daniel F
Hollywood, Florida
June 19, 2012
why
I saw at Zohar that letter "nun" equates with shehina. On what basis he states that? - is the source for that in Gemara? If not, from where does Zohar brings this statement?

Lev Nelik
atlanta, ga
January 14, 2012
Cordovero's nested diagram and Yesod
It is puzzling that the diagram representing the initial letters of the Sefirot should, it seems, show Yod for Yesod second to last but does not seem to do so. Is there an explanation for what looks like Tsadi here?
Thank you for your help.
Carol Slater
Alma, MI
August 19, 2011
wonderful
Thank you Rabbi for the wonderful article. I Never saw an article that combines various themes in kabblah and that too so simplistically.
Anonymous
sagar
April 16, 2010
Mazel Tov
Many thanks for this illuminating explanation of the mystical kabbalah. I found your comments enlightening. The light of the kabbalah teachings will only be understood when one is ready to receive that understanding..
Nathaniel Joshua Black
Nottingham
nottschabad.org
September 23, 2009
Sefirot
As I see it, the human vessel contains a soul only lost to us because our interaction with society and our mind's comprehension does not have the ability to find the true meanings of our Creator and then again maybe the mystery of life is what gives it meaning and the search for happiness is on going, rain, sunshine, etc. After all we are only a microcosm in this universe.
Richard (Moshe) Boswell
Port Orange, FL. USA
May 8, 2009
A question
With lag b'omer arriving, and its sefirah being hod that is in hod, I wish to understand hod better. I was fascinated to see it translated as sincerity in the microcosm in the wonderful table at the end of this article. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates it as empathy. Both hold true for Aharon the Kohen and the incident of the calf. I read a description of Hod in the back of the english-translated Tanya, by Rabbi Shochet, and found it harder to understand.
Thank you Rabbi Dubov for a clear exposition of these fundamentals. I am afraid to study them, but Tanya has taught me that if I want to do my inner service of Hashem and contemplate His greatness, I must have knowledge of myself, and as demonstrated in the article, the sefiros are a necessity for knowledge of self! So thank you.
Yehoshua Simcha Solomon
Silver Spring, MD
May 3, 2009
I didn't really like it, but here is a suggestion.
Oh! Wow. This was truly sooooo long and drony. Kind of like the way that I typed the word 'so'. Please make this more interesting for people to read!!! Good shabbos
Miriam Blumenthal
April 7, 2009
re. practical sefirot
There is a whole work devoted to integrating the sefirot into our lives. It is written by the teacher of the Holy Ari and one of the earliest Kabbalistic masters. The work is called "Tomer Devorah" "The palm tree of Deborah" by the RaMak (R' Moses Cordovero) And exists in 2 english translations. The old translation can be found free on the web <here: www.digital-brilliance.com/kab/deborah/deborah.htm ,>
and the newer (better) translation is published by Hermon Press.
mayshiv emet
September 24, 2008
Practical Sefirot
I like very much to read about the sefirot and also I have read Zohar which I liked also.

Howerver, (coming from a quantitative background) I wonder if there is more to sefirot apart from reading about them and while we are in eager anticipation to really read SOMETHING about them, the text ends.

Is there something that we can really do with them in a practical discipline or as a practical guide to lead us? For our spirituality and for our every day phisical lives?

Whenever I read about sefirot, always they repeat, repeat, repeat,... repeat their definitions! What else?

Thank you,
Christos Pikoulas, Quantitative Analyst/Developer (PhD, DIC)
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