Tree of life (Kabbalah)
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The Tree of Life, or Etz haChayim (עץ החיים) in Hebrew, is a classic descriptive term for the central mystical symbol used in the Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism, also known as the 10 Sephirot, and the 22 Paths. Its diagrammatic representation, arranged in 3 columns/pillars, may derive from older sources and is not known to the earlier Jewish tradition. The tree represents a series of divine emanations of God's creation itself ex nihilo, the nature of revealed divinity, the human soul, and the spiritual path of ascent by man. In this way, Kabbalists developed the symbol into a full model of reality, using the tree to depict a map of Creation.
The symbolic configuration of 10 spiritual principles (11 can be shown, of which Keter and Da'at are interchangeable), Jewish Kabbalah usually refers to the symbol as the 10 Sephirot, while non-Jewish Christian Cabala and Hermetic Qabalah generally terms it universally as the Cabalistic/Qabalistic Tree of Life. This metaphor derives from Judaic Kabbalah, though is understood less universally. In the Jewish Kabbalist view, both of the two trees in the Biblical Garden of Eden, the Tree of knowledge of good and evil and the Tree of Life were alternative perspectives of the Sephirot: the full array of 10 as seen respectively from the last Sephirah Malkuth, and the middle Sephirah Tiferet.
From the Renaissance onwards, the Jewish mystical concept was adopted by some esoterically inclined Christians as well as some Hermeticists. Christian Cabala also places emphasis on Christ as Sustainer and Preserver of the Universe, and the Malkuth of Jewish Kabbalah is absent, as it is considered of a different order-of-being. Hermetic Qabalah's use of the Tree continues as a contemporary Western esotericism tradition, with alternative Esoteric Christian and Occultist emphases.
Jewish Kabbalah interpretations
|The Sefirot in Kabbalah|
Kabbalists believe the Tree of Life to be a diagrammatic representation of the process by which the Universe came into being. On the Tree of Life, the beginning of the Universe is placed in a space above the first sephirah, named Keter ("crown" in English). It is not always pictured in reproductions of the Tree of Life, but is referred to universally as Ain Soph Aur (Ain, "Without"; Soph, "End"; Aur, "Light"). To Kabbalists, it symbolizes that point beyond which our comprehension of the origins of Being cannot go; it is considered to be an infinite nothingness out of which the first "thing" (usually understood in Kabbalah to be something approximating "energy") exploded to create a Universe of multiple things.
Kabbalists also do not envision time and space as pre-existing and place them at the next three stages on the Tree of Life. First is Keter, which is thought of as the product of the contraction of Ain Soph Aur into a singularity of infinite energy or limitless light. In the Kabbalah, it is the primordial energy out of which all things are created. The next stage is Chokhmah, or Wisdom, which is considered to be a stage at which the infinitely hot and contracted singularity expanded forth into space and time. It is often thought of as pure dynamic energy of an infinite intensity forever propelled forth at a speed faster than light. Next comes Binah, or Understanding, which is thought of as the primordial feminine energy, the Supernal Mother of the Universe which receives the energy of Chokhmah, cooling and nourishing it into the multitudinous forms present throughout the whole cosmos. It is also seen as the beginning of Time itself.
Numbers are very important to Kabbalists, and the Hebrew letters of the alphabet also have a numerical value for the Kabbalists. Each stage of the emanation of the Universe on the Tree of Life is numbered meaningfully from one (Keter) to ten (Malkuth). Each number is thought to express the nature of its sephirah.
The first three sephirot, called the Supernal Sephirot, are considered to be the primordial energies of the Universe. The next stages of evolution on the Tree of Life are considered to exist beyond a space on the tree, called the Abyss, between the Supernals and the other Sephirot, because their levels of being are so distinct from each other that they appear to exist in two totally different realities. The Supernal Sephirot exist on a plane of divine energy. This is why another correspondence for Binah is the idea of suffering because the Supernal Maternal energy gives birth to a world that is inherently excluded from that Divine Union. After Binah, the Universe gets down to the business of building the materials it will need to fulfill its evolution and be creating new combinations of those materials until it is so dense that, by the stage of Malkuth, the initial pure limitless energy has 'solidified' into the physical Universe. Since its energies are the basis of all Creation, the Tree of Life can potentially be applied to any area of life, especially the inner world of Man, from the subconscious all the way to what Kabbalists call the higher self.
But the Tree of Life does not only speak of the origins of the physical Universe out of the unimaginable but also of Man's place in the Universe. Since Man is invested with Mind, consciousness in the Kabbalah is thought of as the fruit of the physical world, through whom the original infinite energy can experience and express itself as a finite entity. After the energy of Creation has condensed into matter, it is thought to reverse its course back up the Tree until it is once again united with its true nature: Keter. Thus, the Kabbalist seeks to know himself and the Universe as an expression of God and to make the journey of "return" by means of the stages charted by the Sephirot, until he has come to the realization he sought.
Tree of Life window 1 in the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam
Tree of Life window 2 in the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam
Tree of Life window 3 in the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam
- Tree of death (Kabbalah)
- Tree of life (biblical)
- Tree of the knowledge of good and evil
- Tree of Life
- Flower of Life
- The Tree of Life – Kuntres Etz HaChayim, A classic chassidic treatise on the mystic core of spiritual vitality by Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn of Lubavitch, translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Kehot publications. Extensive comparison of the 10 Sephirot views of the two trees
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- The Ilanot project The Ilanot Database seeks to create a searchable descriptive catalogue of kabbalistic diagrams in manuscripts and books from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The database is being developed by the University of Haifa Younes & Soraya Nazarian Library under the direction of Dr. J. H. Chajes & Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten, with the financial support of the Israel Science Foundation.