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.
Chochmah, which arises from Keter, means “wisdom” and is the second of the ten sefirot. In the stages of creation, Chochmah represents the origin of thought and mental energy. Chochmah channels the pure energy of Keter into a kind of energy that can be put to use in the form of intellect. Chochmah is on the right side of the Tree of Life, and all of the sefirot on the right side are associated with force and masculinity. The part of God’s body Chochmah represents is the right hemisphere of the brain.
Binah means “understanding” and is the first sefirah on the left side of the Tree of Life. The left side of the tree represents structure, and femininity. In the stages of creation, Binah comes after Chochmah, refining Chochmah’s pure intellect into specific thoughts and ideas. Binah, as the first female presence, receives the seed of Chochmah and conceives the lower sefirot. Binah is considered the mother of all ten sefirot, and from her comes all created being. Binah represents the left hemisphere of God’s brain.
Keter, Chochmah, and Binah are the three upper sefirot and together make up the head of God. A mix of masculine and feminine energies, these three sefirot combine to create a force powerful enough to create seven more sefirot. From their union comes the formidable combination of energy and the forces necessary to harness and use that energy. The example of these three sefirot shows how Kabbalah teaches that God’s strength derives from its masculine and feminine aspects. Chochmah without Binah would have no direction. There would be the potential for thought, but no specific thoughts. The implication here is that men and women need each other, just as the masculine and feminine aspects of God need each other.
The roots of the Tree of Life lie at the top, not the bottom. The sefirot emanate from Keter, the crown, at the top of the Tree. Keter connects the Tree to the infinite energy of God, and channels that energy into the Tree, and by extension into the finite human world. Energy moves in order through the sefirot from Keter, the first sefirah, to Shekhinah, the tenth. While real trees draw energy up from below, the Tree of Life draws its energy down from God’s light, which is everywhere. While energy from God moves down the Tree outward to the human world, human energy must move up the Tree in the opposite direction. In the finite world, humans begin with the knowledge of Shekhinah, who represents the presence of God in the material world, and move closer and closer to Keter and the infinite world as we learn and grow.
Chesed, the fourth sefirah, is the first offspring of Binah, and represents “love” or “mercy.” It lies on the right side of the Tree of Life, the side associated with force and masculinity. In the stages of creation, the arrival of Chesed heralds the beginning of emotional energy. Chesed tempers Chochmah’s intellectual energy with mercy. Chesed is associated with God’s right arm and is the brother of Gevurah, the left arm, who represents judgment. Gevurah and Chesed together represent two opposite poles of God’s identity. Chesed represents love given freely without restraint, and Gevurah stands for limitation and control. Just as Binah and Chochmah balance and modify one another, so do Chesed and Gevurah. Chesed is also identified with the biblical character of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews.
Gevurah means “strength” or “judgment” and is located on the left (feminine) side of the Tree of Life. Like Chesed, Gevurah represents the development of emotional energy, but Gevurah harnesses that energy by imposing judgment. As opposite forces, Chesed and Gevurah must balance one another in order to preserve order in the universe. Gevurah represents God’s left shoulder and is often associated with Isaac, Abraham’s son and Jacob’s father. Gevurah is sometimes also called Din.
The sixth sefirah, Tiferet, represents beauty and compassion, the balanced union of Chesed’s loving mercy and Gevurah’s judgment. Tiferet lies in the center of the Tree and is associated with the center of God’s chest, or torso. Kabbalah views judgment without compassion as the root of all evil, and labels compassionless judgment Sitra Aha, literally “the other side.” According to this view, evil arises during the creation of the universe, but only when Tiferet fails to balance the energies of Chesed and Gevurah. Tiferet is often associated with the biblical character Jacob, Isaac’s son, who produced twelve sons. Tiferet is sometimes called Rahamim.
Kabbalah’s notion that evil could originate naturally from God’s creation of the universe is highly controversial. Most religions attribute evil to the mistakes that people made after God created an otherwise perfect world. Kabbalah’s doctrine of Sitra Aha presents God’s actions as the actual source of evil. God and creation are to blame—not men and women. It’s important to understand that Kabbalah does not blame God for creating the evil in the universe. Instead Kabbalah considers evil a natural, even necessary force that the sefirot exist to silence or subdue. Kabbalah leader Isaac Luria, known as the sage of Safed, greatly expanded on the concept of Sita Aha, but not until the sixteenth century.
The biblical characters associated with each sefirah follow a chain of origin, just as each sefirah springs from its predecessors. Chesed is associated with Abraham, who fathered Isaac. Isaac is associated with Gevurah, which comes from Chesed. Isaac is also the father of Jacob, associated with Tiferet. This descent from father to son reinforces the idea that each sefirah is as a product of all the sefirot that precede it. Like children to parents, each sefirah both arises from and significantly impacts its predecessors.
Netzach, the seventh sefirah, means “endurance” or “victory,” but most often is associated with the idea of God’s limitless mercy. Netzach appears on the masculine side of the Tree of Life—the right side—and represents God’s right leg. Netzach is often associated with the biblical character Moses, who led enslaved Jews out of Egypt.
The sefirot following Netzach, beginning with Hod, are more closely linked to experiences in the human world, often referred to in Kabbalah as “material reality.” The eighth sefirah, Hod, represents the world of sensation—smells, sights, sounds, and so on. Where Netzach is a kind of undefined spiritual energy, Hod gives that energy form, much like Gevurah tempers the mercy of Chesed. Hod is the left leg of God and is often associated with Aaron, Moses’ brother and the first high priest of the Jews.
Yesod is the ninth sefirah and appears in the middle of the Tree of Life. Yesod has two main roles: it balances out Netzach and Hod, and it channels the energy from the upper sefirot to the final sefirah, Shekhinah. Yesod means “foundation” and is associated with God’s circumcised penis, which unites Tiferet, the son of Binah and Chochmah, with Shekhinah, the final sefirah, which represents the human world. The biblical character associated with Yesod is Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers and there interpreted the dreams of the Egyptian pharaoh.
The tenth and final sefirah, Shekhinah means “kingdom” or “immanence” and represents God’s presence in the everyday human world. Appearing at the base of the Tree of ife, Shekhinah gathers all of the energies of the previous nine sefirot and transmits them to the human world below. Because Shekhinah serves as the foundation of the other nine sefirot, it is most often associated with God’s spine or feet.
Shekhinah serves as a bridge between the realm of God and world humans inhabit. In fact, Shekhinah is the only sefirah that descends into the human world. The goal of all kabbalists is to bring about the union of Shekhinah, the feminine representative of God in the human world, and Tiferet, the masculine side of God. Kabbalists believe that righteous action on the part of believers stimulates Yesod (God’s phallus) and hastens the divine union of Shekhinah and Tiferet. Marriage and sexual intercourse among human beings are believed to be symbolic of Shekhinah and Tiferet’s divine union. Shekhinah’s biblical character is David, the second king of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Kabbalists aim to unite Shekhinah and Tiferet to restore God to a state of wholeness, the ultimate goal of Kabbalah. Achieving this union is no easy feat, of course, and Shekhinah ends up bearing most of the burden. As the sole sefirah to appear in the human world, Shekhinah is an exile, someone removed from her homeland. Because Shekhinah is stuck in the material human world against her will, kabbalists liken her plight to the exile of the Jewish people from their holy land of Palestine. Kabbalists believe that by doing good deeds, they can bring together the male (Tiferet) and female (Shekhinah) aspects of God, which accomplishes three aims at once: the restoration of God to a state of wholeness, the rescue of Shekhinah from exile, and, symbolically, the return of the Jews to their holy land.
Whereas many religions shy away from embracing, or even addressing, the sexual side of life, Kabbalah makes the sexual act the source of the religion’s highest aim. In most kabbalistic writing, the longing of Tiferet for Shekhinah (and vice versa) is described explicitly as sexual desire. Their lust for one another is said to stimulate God’s penis, which brings the two together in sexual bliss. Perhaps most surprising is that Kabbalah followers believe that the only way for them to restore the wholeness of God is to stimulate God’s penis by studying Kabbalah and doing good deeds. Another way kabbalists believe they can honor the union of Tiferet and Shekhinah is by getting married and having sex. Kabbalists have long considered Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, Shekhinah’s holiest hour and therefore the ideal time for marriages and sex to take place.