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What Qabalah Is
Qabalah is Jewish mysticism. Hermetic qabalah, the tradition we are studying here, is as Dion Fortune describes is, not so much a body of thought as a way of thinking. Qabalah provides a way to understand the Divine, to explicate religious texts, and to open ourselves to insight and spiritual connection, all through the metaphor of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life maps a path from the Divine to creation, providing a blueprint for manifestation and outlining a way to move between heaven and earth.
The root of the word qabalah means to receive. Qabalah is an oral tradition, and so the teachings were received from mouth to ear, or from the teacher to the student. But although we receive knowledge from our teacher, the wisdom and understanding of this knowledge is received directly from the Divine. Qabalah is a system that teaches us to become receptacles so that we can receive the influx of the Divine.
The Origins of Qabalah and its Primary Text
Because qabalah is an oral tradition, its origins are not documented. All dates for early developments in this tradition are highly contested. The first qabalistic text is the Sepher Yetzirah, the Book of Creation. The Sepher Yetzirah is attributed to the biblical patriarch Abraham, and whatever its initial development and trajectory, it was probably first put into writing in the third century of our common era, based on teachings from a first century rabbi. It wasn’t until the tenth century that we start getting a variety of commentaries on and renderings of the basic text of the Sepher Yetzirah. Then in 1550 Rabbi Moshe Cordevero compiled the ten best manuscripts and chose the one that most closely fit the philosophy of the time. This text was then further refined a generation later by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari, meaning the Lion. A final text was compiled by the 18th century Talmudist Rabbi Eliahu, Gaon of Vilna, known as the Gra (an acronym for his title and name). This version retained the name of the previous compiler, being known as the Gra-Ari Version. This text, without commentary, is only about 1800 words long.
The title of this work, Sepher Yetzirah, means The Book of Creation. Sepher means book. But in biblical Hebrew words are written without vowels, leaving the exact meanings mutable and open to interpretation, and only a rabbi can clearly explain them. In the first verse of the Sepher Yetzirah, it is stated that G-d “created His universe with three books, with text, with number, and with communication.” In this sentence, text, number, and communication are all spelled identically or very closely. Sepher is text or book, Sephar is number, and Sippur is communication or telling. These three words represent quality, quantity, and communication, and refer to the Universe, Year, and Soul: the three divisions of creation. The “three books” therefore relate to Space, Time, and Spirit. This is the basis for work within the tradition. To gain understanding, we visualize the physical form of the letters in space, we work with the numerology of them, and we tell them by saying them aloud, which connects us to the spiritual dimension. The Hermetic tradition, the primary lineage we are working with, uses techniques based on these three dimensions to open us up to receive the wisdom of this tradition.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is the primary glyph in qabalah and symbolically explains the origins of creation as emanated from the Divine. The paths of the Tree give us a route for ascending from the level of creation back up to the Divine realm, which is beyond the Tree. The Tree represents only what we can glimpse from our limited consciousness, but gives us a metaphor for what might be beyond—by studying and understanding below, the manifest world and our own consciousness, we can extrapolate what lies above, the esoteric levels of Divine consciousness.
In the Hermetic qabalah, in order to discover the origin of the Tree of Life, we begin by looking for the source or cause of things. From Kether, the highest sphere of the Tree of Life, labeled 1 in the diagram, we ask where it came from and discover that it is composed of light made solid—it was concreted from the limitless light, Ain Soph Aur. The Limitless Light must arise from the limitless, Ain Soph, and that in turn from nothing, Ain. Ain means “not” or “nothing.” Ain Soph means “without end” or “limitless.” And Ain Soph Aur means limitless light. These three qualities are called the Veils of Negative Existence, the levels of being which precede being.
In the Hebrew tradition, there is a different explanation for the origin of the Tree of Life. In the beginning G-d took up all of time and space; there was nothing but G-d. But G-d wanted something to interact with and decided to create something other than Himself. But because he took up all of time and space, there was no room for anything else. So G-d first had to constrict himself to create an empty space. This constriction is called the Tsimtsum. Then G-d sent a ray of light into the dark emptiness that resulted.
This ray of light can be compared to the letter vav. If you think of learning to write on lined paper, the yod (also spelled “yud”), which means “the hand of G-d,” does not touch the lower line. But the vav extends all the way down to the bottom line. The yod, which you will find on tarot cards such as the Moon, the Tower, and three of the four Aces in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot, represents the Divine energy which emanates from G-d. The vav represents that energy extending all the way into creation. Vav means “nail” or “hook” and is used grammatically as the conjunction “and.” By sending this ray of light into the darkness, G-d created other—G-d And something else. This is the connection of heaven and earth.
From this ray of light, there emanated the four worlds. From the four worlds arose the ten sephiroth. And from the ten sephiroth arose the paths of the Tree of Life. And thus creation came into being, along with the method of traversing from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven.
This story also introduces two of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, yod and vav. These two letters are part of the ineffable four-letter name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton (name of four letters). A third letter, heh (“window”), is also part of the Divine name. The Tetragrammaton is spelled yod-heh-vav-heh (YHVH). YHVH is a verb meaning “to be” and is one of the names of God used in the Bible. It also becomes an important metaphor for understanding the process of coming into being, as we’ll see below.
The Four Worlds
The four worlds arise from the extension of light into the darkness along the line of the vav as drawn by the hand of G-d. These worlds create a hierarchy that descends from the most ethereal and spiritual down to the most solid and real, from perfect Divine Unity to perfect worldly diversity. The four worlds outline the steps that Divine energy goes through in order to solidify into creation.
The first world is known as Atziluth, which means Emanation. The world of Emanation is the highest of the four worlds and arises directly from the ray of light, making it the closest of the manifest worlds to G-d. Atziluth is associated with the element fire, the tarot suit of Wands, and the letter yod of the Divine Name.
The second world is Briah, Creation. Briah is associated with the element water, the tarot suit of Cups, and the first occurrence of the letter heh in the Tetragrammaton.
The third world is Yetzirah, Formation. The correspondences for Yetzirah are the element air, the tarot suit of Swords, and the letter vav of the Tetragrammaton.
The fourth and final world is Assiah, Manifestation. This world is associated with the element earth, the tarot suit of Pentacles, and the final letter heh of the Tetragrammaton.
The chart below summarizes these correspondences.
Each name means “creation.” That’s why the Sepher Yetzirah is translated “The Book of Creation” and not “The Book of Formation.” But each of these words provides a nuanced connotation of the more general term creation, producing the four titles used to describe the worlds.
To understand the four worlds, it’s helpful to think of the metaphor of the process of creating something. Let’s say I’d like to make a pot. I want something pretty to go on an entryway table, perhaps a large showpiece. My first spark of a thought, “Wouldn’t a pot look nice here, perhaps I’ll make one” is the world of Atziluth, something – in this case the inspiration of an idea – comes out of nowhere—our budding tarot Wands.
In Briah, the level of Creation, I imagine all the possibilities of how my pot could look—I visualize and fantasize and let my mind wander. This is the tarot suit of Cups.
Then in the world of Yetzirah, I have to make the blueprint or pattern for my pot. I might realize, for instance, that I don’t have enough clay to make a big pot and have to make my vision fit my reality. The word Yetzirah comes from the root yatsar, meaning potter, which is where I came up with this metaphor! The potter must take the raw materials and give them shape and form, something that is not done in the earlier two levels. This world is associated with measuring, cutting, and editing – great for the tarot suit of Swords!
In the final world, Assiah, I have my finished pot, real, solid, and tangible, sitting on my entryway table. This is the suit of Pentacles.
If you’ve ever made anything, you probably have noticed that frequently our final product does not match the initial vision we had. Each step we take away from the Divine toward reality loses something. The highest level is the most perfect, the most in touch with and reflective of G-d. Each step away from G-d loses something of Divine perfection, even as it gains something of material reality. The more we can strive to understand and reconnect with the Divine, the more we will reflect the spiritual level in our own creations, and the closer to perfect they will be.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into the most active and one of the largest tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a psychic and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2016 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.