Aramaic is a Semitic language that’s no longer spoken. The term “Semitic” refers to the people and languages of the Middle East, namely North Africa and Southwestern Asia, though the common term “anti-Semitic” has come to mean “anti-Jewish.” Aramaic served as a common language for people of the Middle East and was at one point the primary language of Jews. Both the Talmud and the Zohar were first written in Aramaic.


Nothingness. When Ein Sof began to create the universe, it had to make yesh, (something) out of ayin (nothing). Before Ein Sof created the universe, only ayin existed.


Abbreviation for “before the common era” and refers the period of time before the birth of Christ, which marks the start of the Christian calendar.


Binah means “understanding” and represents structure and femininity. In the stages of creation, Binah comes after Chochmah, when specific thoughts and ideas begin to exist. Binah, as the first female presence, is also considered the mother of other sefirot. Binah represents the left hemisphere of God’s brain and lies on the left (feminine) side of the Tree of Life.


Abbreviation for “common era” and refers to the era after the birth of Christ, which marks the start of the Christian calendar.


Chesed, the fourth sefirah, represents love, or mercy. In the stages of creation, Chesed heralds the beginning of emotional energy. Chesed is also identified with the Biblical character Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews. Chesed is associated with God’s right shoulder or arm and lies on the right (masculine) side of the Tree of Life.


The second of the ten sefirot. Chochmah means “wisdom.” In the stages of creation, Chochmah represents the beginning of thought. Chochmah represents the right hemisphere of God’s brain and lies on the right (masculine) side of the Tree of Life.

Dybbuk (dibbuk)

A demonic evil spirit. Dybbuks are doomed souls that take over living human beings, causing their victims to suffer severe mental illness and speak in strange languages. The presence of dybukks was often viewed as a consequence of sin.

Ein Sof

Kabbalists call their God “Ein Sof,” which means “the infinite.” Kabbalists believe Ein Sof exists everywhere in the form of energy. Though its presence and power are infinite, Ein Sof remains a distant unknowable God, entirely devoid of form. Kabbalists all aim to reunite with God by restoring Ein Sof to its original form through righteous acts and devout study of Kabbalah.


The first book of the Torah and the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates the universe and Adam and Eve.


Gevurah is sometimes also called Din, and means “strength” or “judgment.” It is the fifth sefirah and represents the specific emotional energy that creates feelings. Gevurah represents God’s left shoulder and is often associated with Isaac, Abraham’s son. Gevurah lies on the left (feminine) side of the Tree of Life.


The Hebrew word for reincarnation. Kabbalah’s views on reincarnation split into two main theories: ibbur and dybbuk, (see).


A golem is a living being created by reciting holy words or inscribing the word emet (Hebrew for “truth”) on the creature’s forehead. The most common golems were fake people made from dust by Kabbalist sages. Golems had life but no spirit. Because golems could move, but not think or feel, some believed kabbalists used golems to commit crimes.


The eighth sefirah, Hod represents the world of sensation—smells, sights, sounds, and so on. Where Netzach is a kind of undefined physical energy, Hod represents contained energy. Hod is the left leg of God and is often associated with Aaron, the first high priest of the Jews. Hod lies on the left (feminine) side of the Tree of Life.


The kabbalistic theory of reincarnation that says souls can enter the body of a living human being at any time, even just briefly. Ibbur is similar to the idea of “possession,” but ibbur souls are not necessarily evil spirits.


The first and highest of the ten sefirot. Keter means “crown” and is the link between the finite world we inhabit and the infinite world of Ein Sof. In the stages of creation, Keter is the stage in which material reality begins to come into existence. Keter is associated with God’s head and appears at the top of the Tree of Life.


“Shells” or “husks.” Klippot are demons who draw their strength from the netzutzot, or sparks of divine light, which they jealously guard. Kabbalists believe they must save the netzutzot from the klippot to restore Ein Sof.


The name of a female demon, also sometimes portrayed as the queen of all demons. Lilith is a spirit intent on populating the world with her own demon children. To do so, she tries to kill pregnant women, women in labor, and newborns. Lilith also tries to have sex with men while they are asleep. Newer legends concerning Lilith say that she was the original wife of Adam. Because she refused to submit to Adam’s rule, she was banished from paradise and turned into a demon. Eve was then created from Adam’s rib so that she would be submissive. Lilith has recently been claimed as a symbol of feminine independence. The popular “Lilith Fair,” a showcase of female musicians, takes its name from Lilith.

Material Reality

The world of matter, sensation, and physical reality that humans inhabit. Kabbalists distinguish between the reality that we experience, and the larger reality inhabited by the sefirot and Ein Sof, only parts of which humans can perceive. Though Ein Sof and the sefirot exist in material reality, material reality is only a small part of reality in total.


The belief in direct communication with God or gods through physical and spiritual experiences. Mystics, including kabbalists, tend to think of God as an infinite source of energy, without personality or form. As God exists everywhere at all times, mystics tend to think of everyone and everything as part of God and therefore capable of interacting directly with God.


The seventh sefirah, Netzach stands for limitless energy, endurance, and victory. Netzach represents God’s right leg and is often associated with the biblical character Moses, who led the Jewish slaves out of Egypt. Netzach lies on the right (masculine) side of the Tree of Life.


The sparks of divine light that fell to Earth when Ein Sof attempted to transfer its radiance into the vessels it created. To restore Ein Sof to a state of wholeness, kabbalists are expected to liberate the netzutzot through righteous acts and meditation.


Though it means “my master” in Hebrew, the word rabbi is not always used to refer to ordained leaders of religious Jews. It can also refer to scholars expert in Jewish laws and customs. It can also be used more generally to mean “teacher.” Many of Kabbalah’s most important leaders, such as Simeon ben Yohai and Isaac Luria, were rabbis.


A village above the Sea of Galilee and the geographic center of Kabbalah as of the mid 1500s. The people of Safed believed that to make the Messiah appear, only one city needed to act in a godly way—they believed Safed could be that city. The people of Safed introduced many core traditions to Kabbalah, including the keeping of the Sabbath. Moses Cordovero and his pupil Isaac Luria were leaders of the religious community in Safed.

Sefer Yetzirah

The Sefer Yetzirah, which means “Book of Formation,” explains the creation of the universe. Many kabbalists consider it the first book of Kabbalah, a gift from God to Abraham, the father of the Jews. These kabbalists argue that since Abraham received the Sefer Yetzirah years before Moses received the Ten Commandments, Kabbalah actually predates the Bible and the major religions that follow it, including Judaism and Christianity. Others argue that the Sefer Yetzirah was written between the second and third centuries in Palestine. Perhaps the Sefer Yetzirah’s most important contribution to Kabbalah ideology is its explanation of the sefirot, the ten aspects of Ein Sof (see Sefirot).


The sefirot are the ten “emanations” or “aspects” of Ein Sof that transmit Ein Sof’s energy to the world. Existing separately and together at once, the sefirot are always a part of God—they are God. The ten sefirot, with English translations in parentheses, are Keter (crown), Binah (understanding), Chochmah (wisdom), Gevurah (strength), Chesed (love), Tiferet (beauty), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation), and Shekhinah (kingdom). Each sefirah (the singular form of sefirot) represents many things, including a quality of God, a stage in the creation of the world, and a part of God’s body. Shekhinah, the sefirah that represents God in the human realm, is the most accessible of the sefirot. Kabbalists believe that devout study of Kabbalah can lead from awareness of Shekhinah through each successive sefirah to Keter, the highest level of understanding of God human beings can attain. The brief descriptions below of the Tree of Life and of each sefirah only scratch the surface of the innumerable meanings of each emanation of God.

Shekhinah (also called Malchut)

Shekhinah means “kingdom” or “immanence” and is the tenth and final sefirah. Shekhinah is associated with God’s feet or the base of God’s spine. Shekhinah represents the presence of God in the everyday world in which humans live. Shekhinah’s biblical character is David, the second king of the twelve tribes of Israel. Shekhinah lies in the center of the Tree of Life at its base.

Shevirat ha-kelim

The “Breaking of the Vessels” When Ein Sof created the universe, it made vessels to contain its light. Due to the strength of Ein Sof’s radiance, the vessels shattered. The shattering process is known as shevirat ha-kelim.


The Talmud is a compilation of Jewish writings that cover laws, customs, ethics, and myths. The Torah dictates the rules that Jews must follow, whereas the Talmud tells Jews how to follow them and specifies when each rule applies. The Talmud divides into two main texts: the Mishna, a book of the “Oral Law,” written in Hebrew; and the Gemara, a collection of commentaries on the Mishna, written in Aramaic.


The sixth sefirah, Tiferet represents beauty and is associated with the center of God’s chest. As the mediator of Gevurah and Chesed, Tiferet balances mercy and judgment. Tiferet is often linked to the biblical character Jacob, who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. Tiferet lies in the center of the Tree of Life.


In Hebrew, torah means “teaching,” “instruction,” and “law.” Modern Jews often use the word torah to refer to Jewish scripture and oral tradition in its entirety. In The Essential Zohar, Rav Berg, the recent spiritual leader of Kabbalah, described Torah simply as “truth.” To kabbalists, Torah means a commitment to accepting the truth that “God is One,” and that every kabbalist must act righteously to restore God to its original state of oneness, or wholeness. Kabbalists consider Torah study a privilege and an honor that never ends: they believe one can spend an entire lifetime studying Torah and still only scratch the surface of its limitless meanings and teachings. The actual text of the Torah contains only the five books of Moses, which make up the Bible’s Old Testament. These five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Tree of Life

A visual rendering of the ten sefirot, the Tree of Life shows how the ten sefirot relate to one another. The Tree divides into three main columns. The left side contains the three feminine sefirot, and the right side holds the three masculine sefirot. The two sefirot in the middle column are considered neutral. At the top of the Tree is Keter, the first sefirah, while Shekhinah, the most accessible of the sefirah, lies at the bottom. The location of each sefirah relates to the part of God’s body the sefirah represents and to other symbolic traits of each sefirah.


Kabbalah’s rabbi Isaac Luria developed the theory of tsimtsum, which explained how Ein Sof had to first withdraw from the universe in order to make room for its creation. Tsimtsum, also spelled zimsum, means “withdrawal.”


Something. Yesh is the first “something” that emerged from the ayin, or nothingness, before creation.


The ninth sefirah, Yesirah represents individuality and serves as the mediator of Netzach and Hod. Yesod is usually associated with God’s penis. The biblical character associated with Yesod is Joseph, Jacob’s son. Yesod lies in the center of the Tree of Life.


Zohar means “The Book of Radiance” and refers to the Kabbalah’s five main books. Most of the Zohar is written from the point of view of Simeon ben Yohai, a famous rabbi of the second century and the book’s supposed creator. The Zohar consists of stories of Simeon ben Yohai wandering through the desert of Galilee, commenting on the Torah and exchanging kabbalistic wisdom with his companions and followers. The Zohar has been translated into English in a twenty-two-volume set.