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Monday, December 30, 2019

Introduction to the Sefirot (from the book)

The Sefirot

“And G-d said: Let us make man in Our image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26)

It is expressly written in the Book of Genesis that G-d created humankind in His image. According to Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and legal authorities of all time, men and women resemble G-d in that they received from Him divine attributes, such as the capacity for ethical behavior, rational thought, and free will.  We resemble G-d intellectually, emotionally and spiritually - not physically. Maimonides teaches that our purpose in this world is to emulate G-d’s ways. Just as G-d is merciful, so should we be merciful. Just as He is holy, so should we be holy.[1]

In addition, the Kabbalah explains that G-d’s attributes manifest themselves in heavenly spheres known as sefirot. Sefirah (sefirot in the plural) can be translated as emanation, characteristic, quality or divine attribute. We also have a reflection of these sefirot within us, which are also known as middot. By focusing on perfecting our own sefirot, we are able to emulate G-d and to better relate to Him. That is why it is so important to acquire a clear understanding of what the sefirot are and represent.[2]

One of the easiest ways to comprehend the meaning of the sefirot is through a better understanding of the “Seven Shepherds,” the seven tzadikim (righteous men) that the Jewish people has the privilege of “receiving” in the sukkah during the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The Jewish People have three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On the first night of Sukkot, the Jewish people have the honor of receiving Abraham. This patriarch is characterized by his tremendous kindness and generosity, represented by the sefirah of chesed. So imbued was the sefirah of chesed in Abraham that the kabbalistic work Sefer HaBahir states that the sefirah of chesed itself “complained” to G-d of its lack of purpose during the life of our patriarch.[3] Because Abraham was chesed personified, the attribute felt that it had nothing left to do. Abraham was extremely hospitable, always receiving guests at his home in an exceptional manner – even when those guests were completely idolatrous. Furthermore, Abraham went to war to rescue his nephew Lot, even though Abraham was well aware of his flaws. All of this demonstrates that our father had a very strong inclination towards chesed.

Next is the sefirah of gevurah, which signifies strength, discipline, and self-control. Isaac, Abraham’s son, visits the sukkah on the second night of the holiday. Pirkei Avot tells us that the one who is a gibbor (strong, literally one that has gevurah) is the one who dominates his or her physical impulses. This sefirah is connected with Isaac, who controlled his impulses to such an extent that he even allowed Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice. Gevurah also represents strength and the ability to restrain oneself and not to give to another when such giving may cause harm to the receiver, or when the receiver is simply undeserving. An example of this occurred when Isaac gave no additional blessings to his son Esau. Isaac loved Esau very much, yet he had just given all the blessings he had in store to Jacob. Isaac also appears to have finally understood that Esau himself was not deserving of those blessings.

Following this chronology, it is Jacob who comes to the sukkah meal on the third night. This patriarch is connected to the sefirah of tiferet, a balance between chesed and gevurah. Jacob, who later had his name changed to Israel, represents such harmony. He started his life more connected with the sefirah of chesed (he was his mother Rebecca’s favorite, and Rebecca, like Abraham also represents chesed). Later in life, Jacob had to wear the clothes of Esau, who is linked to the evil part of gevurah, in order to receive his father’s blessings. From that moment on, Jacob faced extreme challenges with tremendous courage and discipline, such as working for Laban, facing Esau's angel, and then facing Esau himself, before returning to the Land of Israel. The sefirah of tiferet is also known as rachamim, mercy. Rachamim, mercy is not pure kindness like chesed. It contains an element of gevurah in that it provides for a certain leniency in the context of a judgment, din. Din and gevurah are also kabbalistic terms that are often interchangeable.

After the presence of the three patriarchs, on the fourth night of Sukkot, the Jewish people receive in their sukkah a new guest: Moses. This great leader is characterized by his humility, perseverance, redemption and victory, symbolized by sefirah of netzach. Moses, the humblest man on Earth, firmly persevered against Pharaoh in Egypt, who represented the pinnacle of arrogance. It was through Moses that G-d redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt and gave them the Torah.

During the fifth night of Sukkot, Aaron, the brother of Moses, visits the sukkah. On this night, the focus is on the sefirah of hod. Hod can be understood by gratitude, acknowledgement and glory, but also as devotion and self-sacrifice in divine service, as well as nullification before G-d. This sefirah is connected to Aaron, who was the first High Priest, serving, thanking and glorifying G-d with his whole being, totally nullifying himself before Him. Aaron served the Jewish people in a similar manner, always seeking harmony and peace for those around him.

On the sixth night, Joseph comes to the sukkah. Joseph is connected to the sefirah of yesod, which means foundation, firmness and uprightness. Joseph stood firm and resisted the seductions of Potiphar's wife, and preserved his Jewish identity even after many years alone in Egypt. It is noteworthy that of all Seven Shepherds, Joseph is the one known as Yosef Hatzadik, “Joseph the Righteous.” The tzadik is the foundation of the world,[4] and is characterized by the sefirah of yesod, representing the source of spiritual and material sustenance for the whole world, as was Joseph.

Finally, on the last night of the festival of Sukkot, the Jewish people receive a visit from King David, who is linked to the sefirah of malchut. This sefirah can be translated as kingship or royalty, and represents the ability to make an impact on this material world. Malchut absorbs the qualities of all the other sefirot, and puts them into practice. The sefirah of malchut is also linked to the attribute of speech, as it is mainly through speech that a king wields power. King David represents well this sefirah given that his reign, as well as that of his son Solomon, is the greatest example of the manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d in this material world. It was Solomon who built the Temple, G-d’s home on Earth, after King David had laid its physical and spiritual foundations. King David also instituted the reading of the Psalms (again, connected to the attribute of speech), and taught the world of the great power of repentance and return to G-d, teshuvah. Moreover, malchut is the only emotional sefirah that is feminine. Therefore, in addition to King David, malchut often is symbolized by our matriarch Rachel. The Shechinah, the Divine Presence in this world, which is also female, is represented by the divine attribute of malchut as well.

There are ten sefirot in total, three intellectual and seven emotional. However, it should be noted that during the Counting of the Omer, the three intellectual sefirot are not worked on simultaneously with the emotional sefirot. This is because on Passover, G-d provides us with a higher level of these three sefirot: chochmah, binah and da'at (or keter), respectively: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (or crown). Chochmah represents the first contact with wisdom; that initial “eureka” feeling when an idea lights up in our minds. Binah represents the development of a concept after it is first conceived. Da’at is the application of that knowledge to the reality of everyday life. Endowed with these qualities, we now have the ability to further develop his emotional attributes during the Counting of the Omer. After this task is completed, as a reward, on Shavuot, G-d gives us an even higher level of these intellectual sefirot, in a way that is completely above physical limitations.[5]


[1] Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Hilchot De’ot, Chapter 1:6
[2] One of the authors once dreamt with the title of this book. In the dream, the book was entitled, “All of these are like G-d, none of these are G-d,” a reference to the sefirot.
[3] Hayom Yom, 22nd of Cheshvan, p. 106
[4] As in the Hebrew phrase, “Tzadik Yesod Olam.”
[5] Heard from Rabbi Casriel Brusowankin, the Rebbe’s emissary at Chabad of Aventura, FL.

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