Although the origins of the Kabbalah are unknown, it is clear that it syncretised cultural influences from a number of sources including ancient Greece, Egypt, Sumer/Babylonia, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. played a key part in the development of its philosophies.
“The term Kabbalah was first recorded in the teachings of the Jewish Rabbi Isaac the Blind (1160-1236 CE), in Provence, France, who was known as the ‘Father of Kabbalah’. The main Kabbalistic texts and teachings stem from the tenth-twelfth century CE onwards, however one of the most important source texts used by Kabbalists, the Sepher Yetzirah (‘Book of Formation’), dates back to the second century CE thereby suggesting earlier origins. Moreover many of the other philosophies and cosmologies which influenced the Kabbalah and its development, such as Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, also date back to this earlier period.”
The Kabbalistic Tree of Life is a glyph which distils and focuses the philosophies and ideas of the system of magical philosophy and spiritual practice known as the Kabbalah. It is commonly viewed as a collection of ten circles, called Sephiroth(emanations, sin. Sephira) aligned in three vertical columns, and joined by twenty-two lines (or paths). These Sephiroth represent the manifestation of the divine from the pure undifferentiated divine essence at the top to the physical expression of form that is our world at the bottom. Contained within these ten Sephiroth and twenty-two paths are numerous symbolic expressions, including the seven classical planets, the four elements or air, fire, earth and water, and the signs of the zodiac. Each Sephira emphasises a particular concept in its essence, which is influenced by both its horizontal position in the Tree of Life, as well as its vertical position, i.e. which column (or pillar) it is in. The Sephiroth are also divided by their horizontal position into Four Worlds, with the first three Worlds each containing three Sephiroth, and the fourth World containing only the tenth Sephira, Malkuth (Kingdom).
In the Zohar (C13th CE), symbolic reference is made to the whole Tree of Life as the Shekinah, with the words:
“There are ten curtains, which are ten expanses. And who are they? The curtains of the Dwelling, which are ten and are susceptible to knowing by the wise of heart.”
This passage is describing the ten Sephiroth (as curtains or expanses), which comprise the Shekinah as the Tree of Life (Dwelling). The wise of heart hints at both the Shekinah (wisdom) and also the Tree of Life itself, as the numbers attributed to the letters of heart (Lev) adds up to thirty-two, the number of paths and Sephiroth of the Tree of Life.
A question people sometimes ask is how can the Shekinah, who embodies the divine feminine wisdom, also represent the Sephira of Chokmah (Wisdom) on the Tree of Life, which is at the head of the Masculine Pillar and is usually considered male? This is a question we addressed in The Cosmic Shekinah when exploring the wealth of Kabbalistic attributions associated with the Shekinah, which is based on perspective up and down the Tree of Life:
“We know that the Shekinah is seen as wisdom, and yet the second Sephira of the Tree of Life Chokmah (Wisdom) is usually viewed as being masculine. However this is entirely relative to how its position is interpreted on the Tree of Life. Each Sephira is viewed as being negative to the one above it and positive to the one below, so is it also the case that each Sephira is feminine to the one above it and masculine to the one below. This is expressed in the grimoire Sepher Raziel, which stated, “Of understanding, receive wisdom.” This also means that the tenth Sephira of Malkuth (the Earthly Shekinah) is the only one on the Tree which is wholly female.”
Hence although Chokmah is known by titles such as the Father (Aba), this is in respect of its relationship with the third Sephira of Binah as the Mother (Ama), not in its relationship to the first Sephira of Kether, where it is perceived as feminine (Chokmatha). This is best illustrated in the thirteenth century Kabbalistic text, the Zohar (5.136-138), which observed this in relation to the letter Heh’s attributed to the Shekinah in the Tetragrammaton [Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh]:
“From this nose, from the openings of the nostrils, the Spirit of Life rusheth forth upon Microprosopus. And from that opening of the nose, from those openings of the nostrils, dependeth the letter Heh, in order to establish the other and Inferior Heh. And that Spirit proceedeth from the hidden brain, and She is called the Spirit of Life, and through that Spirit will all men understand ChKMThA, Chokmatha, Wisdom.”
The hidden brain is a title of Kether, the undifferentiated divine. From Kether come the manifestations of divinity as feminine (Shekinah) and masculine (Yahweh), and through their interaction, creation expands and multiplies through the Worlds. It is interesting to note that this quote also refers to the Shekinah as the Spirit of Life which proceeds from Kether, a reference to her manifestation as Ruach HaQadosh (the Holy Spirit). This also intimates the connection between the Shekinah and the breath of life, as she rushes forth from the nostrils upon man (Microprosopus). Indeed the Zohar also describes the Shekinah as the Breath of Life as well as the Spirit of Life.
Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176-1238 CE), one of the first great propagators of the Kabbalah, said of the Earthly Shekinah (Sepher ha-Hokhmah, C13th CE) that:
“The Shekinah is called the daughter of the creator … and she is also called the tenth Sephira and royalty (Malkuth), because the crown of the kingdom is on his head.”
It is clear that the presence of the Shekinah is to be found throughout the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, which is to be expected from such a all-pervading divine force.
D’Este, Sorita & Rankine, David (2011) The Cosmic Shekinah. London, Avalonia
Ginsburg, Christian D. (1970) The Kabbalah, its Doctrines, Development and Literature. London, Routledge
Mathers, S.L. MacGregor (1912) The Kabbalah Unveiled. New York, Theosophical Publishing Co.
Matt, Daniel Chanan (2003-2009) The Zohar, Pritzker Edition (5 vols). Chicago, Stanford University Press
Scholem, Gershom (1990) Origins of the Kabbalah. Princeton, Princeton Paperbacks