The second commandment states that “You shall not make for yourself a statue or any image”. The Jewish Kabbalists found a rather unique and complicated way to circumvent this prohibition…
From the 12th century, clandestine groups of Jewish scholars began to speak of the “Kabbalah” – a new code name for secret teachings, which, despite being new – emphasized that these were actually a transmission or reception of esoteric ancient knowledge, and not a groundbreaking innovation (the word kabbalah literally means “reception”). As part of this new-old interpretation of Jewish tradition, Kabbalists began proposing a new, unprecedented system to refer to aspects of the Divine: the Kabbalistic Sefirot.
The Kabbalists found the word sefirot in an ancient esoteric book known as the Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Creation,” which dates back to the first centuries of the Common Era. In the book, there is no mention of prayer, life after death, the End of Days or messianic redemption, or even of the Jewish people.
But, what it does contain, and in abundance, is reference to creation. Just not the creation we know from Genesis. It propounds a completely different kind of creation. How, then, according to the Book of Creation was the world created? By the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot (probably a reference to the first ten numbers). These are seen as the building blocks of the world. Hence Creation, according to the Book of Creation, is based on the laws of language.
Taking the unique word sefirah (plural: sefirot) from that mysterious work, the Kabbalists changed its meaning. For them, God had two distinct aspects: one is the Ein Sof – The Infinite – about whom nothing can be known, this is the hidden God; the other is the Divine Presence in the world, which emanates from the Ein Sof through the ten Sefirot – divine categories that represent the powers, qualities, attributes (and so much more) of the revealed God.
From the fourteenth century, the Kabbalists began to formulate a visual representation to encode their ideas about the formation of this divine system, the names of the Sefirot and their attributes and qualities. They viewed it is a graphic representation of God and of the world, a visual and conceptual image of the manifestation of the Godhead. This was a glimpse of the order that governs the universe.
The Kabbalists often referred to the structure of the Sefirot as a system of pipes through which the divine emanation – the concealed Ein Sof – flows down to us humans here on earth. Of course, as anyone familiar with the Kabbalah will tell you, people also have a role in this system. Every person has the ability to influence, repair and preserve the entire divine system. Because what happens in the lower spheres affects the upper ones and vice versa. The Kabbalists called this tikkun. The repair happens through intention – through prayer directed at the qualities and powers of a particular aspect of the Divine (one of the Sefirot)– in order to achieve that repair in the world.
One must understand, as Prof. J.H. Chajes explains in his new (and highly recommended) monumental book, The Kabbalistic Tree, that the graphic representation of the Sefirot is not a mnemonic tool, but a religious device, one that is comparable to a tree of many branches. The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, for example, recommended using one’s imagination to envision the tree of Sefirot during prayer in order to better concentrate on a particular Sefirah in each and every prayer. Hence the tree is a body on which the Kabbalists drape the spiritual reality.
Eventually, the Kabbalah spread throughout the entire the Jewish world, and this technique spread along with it. We find representations of the tree of Sefirot in Jewish communities all over the world. The earliest “tree” to come down to us was created in Spain, the birthplace of Kabbalah, in 1284, in the shape of a wheel.
But as noted, the tree of Sefirot is common throughout the Jewish world – in Europe, North Africa, Israel and the Middle East. A unique tree discovered in Kurdistan helped researchers to uncover a Kabbalist community about which they knew nothing before.
Researchers distinguish between two types of Kabbalistic trees (Ilanot in Hebrew): the tree of the early Kabbalistic period and the tree that developed in light of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), known as the “Ari”. The “classic” tree presents the Divine according to the Sefirot diagram. The Lurianic tree preserves the Sefirot format but offers an enriched and more intricate structure and visualization of the divine system. At the end of this article, we include a complete Lurianic tree from Morocco to give you an idea of its complexity.
This does not mean that the older trees did not include additional details, and even illustrations supplementing the text. In fact, every tree – whether of the classic or Lurianic model– “required” the student to read a non-continuous text, and to jump from detail to detail in order to try to grasp the whole picture.
Ahead of the move to its new home, the National Library of Israel has acquired a rare and important collection of Kabbalistic trees, which join the existing material in the field of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the Library’s Gershom Scholem Collection, the largest collection of its kind in the world.
The new collection, which includes 36 parchment and paper scrolls – some of them the longest of their kind in the world (up to 36 feet long!) – joins the 25 scrolls already in the Library’s collection. With the addition of the new manuscripts, the National Library of Israel is now the world’s largest repository of Ilanot, with over sixty scrolls dating from 1660 to 1920, originating from Jewish communities around the world: from Western and Eastern Europe, Yemen, Kurdistan, Morocco, Iraq and more.
And finally, as promised, we present here a Lurianic Kabbalistic tree created in Morocco in 1800. Click on this link to see them item in our online catalog.
Photos: Ardon Bar-Hama.
J. H. Chajes, The Kabbalistic Tree (Pennsylvania University Press, 2022)
The Ilanot project at Haifa University