What role did Shabbetai Tzvi play in the history of Kabbalah?

Many religions, including Christianity and Judaism, believe in a messiah, a spiritual deliverer who will someday return to earth to restore the kingdom of God. Throughout history, a number of false messiahs have arisen claiming to know God. In Judaism and Kabbalah, perhaps none is more infamous than Shabbetai Tzvi and his prophet, Nathan of Gaza. The Tzvi debacle began in the early 1660s when Nathan of Gaza claimed to have had a vision of Shabbetai Tzvi’s name inscribed on a fiery throne in heaven. He journeyed to Tzvi’s home, fell to at his feet, and declared him the Messiah. Within months, Tzvi and Nathan had convinced hundreds of thousands of Jews that Tzvi was indeed their messenger from God, the long-awaited Messiah. By 1664, however, the tide had turned and both Tzvi and Nathan of Gaza were banished from the major Jewish communities, cast off as frauds.

The “false messiah” episode caught Jews and kabbalists at a particularly dangerous and vulnerable time. Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, their tribulations during the Inquisition, and their casualties in large-scale massacres throughout Europe, Jews were eager for some sense of hope and deliverance. Kabbalah thrived off of this need for hope as it portrayed the human world as deeply flawed, desperately in need of repair. Jews came to view Kabbalah as a religion sympathetic to their plight, and they flocked to it in droves. Whereas Judaism portrayed God as a distant presence out of touch with the Jews’ current struggle, Kabbalah presented God as a part of that struggle, a fellow sufferer who required their help to restore the world to a state of wellness. As Jews fled into the rest of Europe from Spain in the late 1400s, they increasingly took up kabbalistic traditions and spread them throughout the continent. Shabbetai Tzvi benefited from the rapid spread of Kabbalah across Europe, but kabbalists soon discovered that his messianic claims were just another example of the human world’s profound flaws.

As a final proof of his phoniness, in 1666 Tzvi agreed to convert to Islam after the Sultan of Turkey threatened him with death if he refused. Though Tzvi’s conversion struck most Jews and kabbalists as unforgivable, a large contingency of Shabbetaens held fast to their faith that Tzvi was indeed the Messiah. Following their leader, they converted to Islam and recognized Tzvi as the Messiah for at least another century. Kabbalistic leaders took the Tzvi episode as an indication that the booming religion required some reins. Rabbis imposed limits on overly charismatic kabbalistic leaders and encouraged their followers to shun any individual or group that claimed to have messianic ties.

What are the sefirot?

The concept of the sefirot is perhaps the most important theme in all of Kabbalah. When Ein Sof (God) created the universe, it withdrew within itself to make room for everyone and everything that would inhabit the world of “material reality,” the world in which humans live. But Ein Sof’s energy proved too powerful and all encompassing for the human world, so Ein Sof had to translate its energy into another form—the sefirot. The sefirot, which translates to “emanations” or “aspects,” represent Ein Sof’s energy, its presence in the human world. Kabbalists describe Ein Sof as pure energy, formless and unknowable. The sefirot serve as messengers or translators of God’s energy, each conveying one quality of God.

There are ten sefirot. Kabbalists typically depict the sefirot as a ladder or tree, which has come to be called the Tree of Life. Much like the Bible depicts the human body as created in the image of God, the Tree of Life presents the sefirot as parts of God’s body. Each sefirah appears in a specific location on the Tree, which also corresponds to its location on God’s body. For example, the sefirah Yesod means “foundation” and appears at the base of the Tree, where it symbolizes God’s penis.

Each sefirah is classified as masculine, feminine, or neutral, and the nine main sefirot split into three main groups of three, followed by Shekhinah, the final and only solo sefirah in the material world. In addition to representing a part of God’s body, each sefirah is a part of a broad subgrouping. The three groups and the sefirot within each are: intellect (Keter, Chochmah, Binah), emotion (Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet), and action (Netzach, Hod, Yesod).

What is Shekhinah?

Shekhinah, the tenth sefirah, represents God’s presence in the world of “material reality” in which humans live. Shekhinah, the daughter of Binah, is a feminine sefirah whose role is to channel all the energies of the upper nine sefirot into the everyday human world. Without Shekhinah, humans would have no concrete understanding of divinity. Kabbalistic literature typically portrays that Shekhinah as an outcast, a lone sefirah. Her separation from Ein Sof and the other sefirot parallels the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland of Israel. Because Shekhinah is a part of Ein Sof, Ein Sof can never be whole or healed until Shekhinah returns from exile, just as Jews can never know peace until all Jews can return to Israel. Kabbalistic literature symbolically represents this return in the sexual union of Shekhinah and Tiferet, the sefirah that represents God’s beauty. Kabbalists all share the same aim: to unite Shekhinah with Tiferet through faithful devotion to Kabbalah, and in turn bring about the restoration of Ein Sof.