The Zohar is composed of many separate parables, or stories, that together form the core of Kabbalah’s religious teachings. The “Essence of Torah” parable tells the story of a man who journeys from the mountains to the city. In the mountains, the man grows wheat and eats it raw. In the city, he tries bread for the first time and enjoys it very much. Next he tries cakes, which he likes, and then pastries, which he loves. When he learns that the pastries are made from wheat, he begins to gloat. He describes himself to the city people as a master of bread, cakes, and pastries, because he eats their essence raw—whole grains of wheat.
In this parable, wheat, bread, cakes, and pastries symbolize four different levels of religious knowledge, and specifically knowledge of the Torah. Wheat is the simplest level. At this level, one knows the stories and laws in the Torah. Bread, cakes, and pastries represent the three higher stages of understanding. Bread represents homiletical, or moral, understanding. Cakes represent allegorical, or spiritual, understanding. Pastries symbolize mystical understanding, the highest level of understanding, at which readers of the Torah feel a close understanding of God’s presence.
The man from the mountain in this parable believes that because he has mastered wheat, the most basic level, he has also mastered the more delicious and enticing products of wheat, like pastries. But he is mistaken. The process of understanding works gradually and cannot be mastered in one stroke. Kabbalah teaches that the only way to attain the highest level of understanding is through extensive study, deep meditation, and extremely thorough readings of religious texts.
“The Creation of God” describes the very origins of the universe. Dense and contradictory, the story describes how a “spark of impenetrable darkness” flashed within Ein Sof the moment before it created the universe. Colors streamed out, and a ring of vapor formed around that spark. Ein Sof then “split and did not split,” which caused a single light to shine. For followers of Kabbalah, this moment marks the beginning of the universe and the crux of their concept of God as a force that exists nowhere (“not split”) and everywhere (“split”) at the same time.
Out of a dark void of nothingness, Ein Sof flashed a light that was so bright that it could not be seen. With that begins the central paradox of Kabbalah: God is everywhere and nowhere, blindingly bright yet invisible at once. This spark, the first act of Ein Sof, is understood to be the source of all the energy in the universe, the source that powers Ein Sof and all of Kabbalah. The ring of vapor that forms around the spark has been commonly interpreted as the first sefirah, called Keter, which means “crown.” The colors that form around Keter are believed to be the nine other sefirot, which together compose the ten “emanations,” or aspects, of God.
Though the origins of the universe as depicted here leave many questions unanswered, such as the creation of the universe out of nothingness, Kabbalah as a religion thrives on the unknowable. Just as God is unknowable yet everywhere at once, followers of Kabbalah consider the paradox of creation a source of inspiration. They use the parable of the “Creation of God” to fuel their mystical meditation, rather than dismiss it as an insufficient theory about the origins of the universe.