In the Sefer ha-Bahir, the ten sefirot involved in the creation of the world—described as numbers in the Sefer Yetzirah—become emanations, or qualities, of God. Listed in order of their appearance and with a literal translation of their Hebrew meaning in parentheses, they are Keter (crown), Binah (understanding), Chochmah (wisdom), Gevurah (strength), Chesed (love), Tiferet (beauty), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation), and Shekhinah (kingdom). Each sefirah represents many things, including one of God’s qualities, a stage in the creation of the world, a biblical character, and a part of God’s body. Kabbalists portray the ten sefirot on a Tree of Life that serves as a visual map. The location of each sefirah on the Tree of Life represents a variety of qualities, including the sefirah’s gender and position on God’s body.
The first sefirah that emerged from God lies at the top of the Tree. Then, beginning with Keter, each sefirah arose out of and slightly modified the sefirah (or sefirot) that preceded it. Binah came from Keter. Gevurah came from Keter and Binah, altering both of them. The sefirot on the left side of the Tree (Binah, Gevurah, and Hod) are associated with feminine traits, whereas those on the right side (Chochmah, Chesed, and Netzach) are thought to be more masculine. Those in the center column (Keter, Tiferet, Yesod, and Shekhinah) are neutral. All of the feminine aspects are thought to be the daughters of Binah, who is known as the mother of the ten sefirot.
One of the most mysterious and powerful aspects of the ten sefirot is that they exist separately and together at once. Even more puzzling, they are both a part of God and are God at the same time. Sefirot are God’s messengers, or extensions of God. Because God is infinite, God’s energy is too vast for the finite material world that humans inhabit. God used the sefirot to translate God’s energy and infinite qualities into the finite world. As a result, the sefirot are formless and consist purely of energy. Their energy reflects the source of all energy in the universe—God. Kabbalists most often describe the sefirot as lights.
The Tree of Life shows the importance of women and femininity to Kabbalah. In the Tree of Life, male and female energies complement one another, preserving harmony in the universe, despite their intrinsic differences. This reinforces the idea that the pairing of male and female is a natural and necessary pairing. The masculine side of the Tree represents pure energy: force, expansion, and expression. The left, or feminine side, represents limitation, restraint, and strength, all of which provide guidance and direction to the energy on the right side. The two sides need each other and thrive off of what each provides the other.
Nothing distinguishes Kabbalah from mainstream Jewish thought more than the sefirot. The underlying implication of the sefirot is that God is composed of many things, but the Torah strictly demands a belief in only one God, a belief known as monotheism. Polytheism, the belief in more than one God, is entirely unacceptable to Jews, and many Jews consider Kabbalah a polytheistic religion due to the sefirot. Kabbalists argue that the sefirot are not separate from God. They arise from God, but always remain a part of God, extensions of God’s presence throughout the world.
Keter, the first of the ten sefirot, means “crown” and serves as the link between the finite human world and the infinite world of God. In the stages of creation, Keter represents the point at which material reality—the world we can touch, taste, and smell—begins to come into existence. Similarly, Keter represents the part of God’s body that’s also the source of sensory experience within our bodies—the head. As the first of all sefirot, Keter produces and affects the nine other sefirot that follow.