Chassidic Thought and Concepts

    May 2011          
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Primer of Chasidic Concepts, Part 4

By Yechezkel Gold

For Part One, click here

For Part Two, click here

For Part Three, click here

The exterior aspect of the Divine Crown, Keser, is the Divine Will. Hasidic mysticism calls this aspect Arikh. Before being drawn to a particular objective, Keser itself is entirely indescribable and boundless. Often it is simply described as the Infinite, Ain Sof, and it is only a potential, not an actual involvement in creating or directing the universe.

The first stage in engaging with and ultimately creating the universe is called "the Will to Will". The next stage is when Arikh wills a particular objective (in particular, Torah and the Commandments). At this juncture we can speak about "the light surrounding the world" and "the light filling the world". The former preexisted creation and refers to creation's ultimate source and purpose and the will to create accordingly. As such, the light surrounding the world is unbounded; the world exists entirely for it and in its terms, which could have been otherwise in an infinity of ways. The light filling the world is Godly Light within the creation, connecting to the world by animating the sefiros and thereby revealing Godliness in a manner adapted to the character of the created worlds. Generally speaking, the light surrounding the world refers to Keser whereas the light filling the world relates to (not necessarily human) wisdom, understanding, attitude and feeling.

One of the main concepts of Hasidic mysticism is light and vessels. It is the classical depiction of how Godliness acts within the world. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero compared this to white light shining through colored glass. The light itself has no color but is seen as color depending on the tint of the glass through which it shines. Similarly, the Divine Light, deriving from Keser as described above, has no specific character, as the verse states: "you beheld no image", but operates in the world through the 10 sefiros, 10 tools through which the Divine is revealed. This is the Light that fills the world.

The ten sefiros are vessels that God used in creation. Paralleling the notion of ten sefiros in Cabala, the Talmud (Chagiga 12a) states: "Rav Zutra the son of Tuvia said in the name of Rav: The world was created with ten things, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and ability and power and glare and righteousness and justice and with generosity and with compassion."

For thoughtful people, the idea may seem outrageous. Creation was ex nihilo (from nothing), so where did vessels come from? Besides, God's omnipotence surely requires no outside help!

Besides, what are these "vessels", anyway? Cabala compares them to "colored glass through which the light shines". One may find such imagery not very helpful. Nevertheless, there is a way to understand this fundamental concept.

The universe's structure suggests something about how it was made. Behavior is lawful, suggesting that principles precede and govern the details of creation. Forming and following principles is called intelligence: "wisdom, understanding and knowledge". The creation has an inside and an outside; the universe manifests only part of what is potential. There being Torah and Commandments, a system describing how reality should be, suggests that the creation has a purpose, too, not revealed in the physical world. Torah's reality is "inside". In directing the universe, God "relates" to his creatures, analogous to various attitudes and emotions: "with ability and power and glare and righteousness and justice and with generosity and with compassion". There are beneficial and detrimental interactions between creations. These modes of being such as purpose, intelligence, manners of relating - of which Cabala states there are ten whose imprints and effects are manifest in the universe, are the sefiros.

Let us replace the word "vessel" with "tool". A tool enables us to do certain jobs, like hammering or holding. It leaves its mark on what it was applied to; hammers drive in nails, while pliers hold things fast. We have mental tools, too. Logic is a different tool from intuition, and yields a different kind of product. Similarly, each part of the creation reflects the particular vessels used to create it.

Humans relate to their surroundings according to various modes. Each is a general approach to things which can produce an array of behaviors. We approach some situations intellectually, others, emotionally. Love is one emotional mode. Fear, beauty, triumph, and gratefulness are other human attitudes.

Behaviors express the modes we adopt. They do not arise independently of a mode. The kindness mode can be expressed in the behavior of giving a gift, and animosity, in striking someone. We give the gift to be kind, not just because we want to perform this action. On a molecular level, bestowing a gift or striking someone are pretty comparable. They mainly differ on a spiritual plane, in their significance. The meaning of the first act was "kindness", and of the second one, "animosity". These modes exist in a sphere above the physical, and the physical is only their means of finding expression.

We infer someone's attitudes from his actions. By analogy, we attribute these sefiros to God based on the form of the universe. For example, we ask Him to treat us mercifully. Human behavior, even the various modes of relating to the world, arises from something deeper. Intuition and analysis, love and fear, aesthetics and sincerity, each expresses an aspect of a more profound level of humanity, the soul, which subsumes all of them. Similarly, the course of the universe expresses a deep level of Divinity. This is the Divine Light, radiating through the various colored glasses, the sefiros, each revealing a different aspect of the whole, yet none containing the whole.

Generally Hasidus describes four worlds, Atzilus, Briya, Yetzira and Assiya, in each of which there are ten sefiros. The first and highest realm of sefiros is the world of Atzilus. It is a purely Godly, spiritual world. The term "Atzilus" derives from the Hebrew word for adjacent. Atzilus is spiritually adjacent to the realm of the light that surrounds the worlds, the Godliness of Keser and all that preceded. Atzilus is a true reflection and expression of that Godliness. While above Atzilus we might say that there are no Godly attributes at all, as Torah admonishes regarding God's bestowing the Torah at Mount Sinai: "You beheld no image." However, certain characteristics reflect Godliness. We implicitly conceive of God as the epitome of good, infinitely wise, powerful, true, magnificent, etc. These "traits" are the sefiros of Atzilus.

The notion of sefiros is a perspective that attributes reality indeed, utmost importance - to life's spiritual dimension as well as to the physical. It contrasts sharply with reductionist materialism and the spiritual and emotional narcissism and indifference that they often engender. Our training might reflexively attribute primacy to physicality, but serious contemplation readily reveals that our inner lives, and the spirituality to which our inner life gives us access, are the most real. The material realm is substratum and backdrop.

The 10 sephiros come from Keser. Unlike Keser however, each sefira has a particular character manifested in its products. Thus, for instance, the innermost aspect of chesed is manifested as closeness and intimacy and openness. The middle aspect of chesed is manifested as love and positive feelings, while benevolence and generosity express the outer aspect. Keser on the other hand, without any particular manifestation of its own, causes the 10 sephiros to operate and be manifested thereby. Keser is compared to simple human will. Our will causes our different faculties, such as various aspects of intellect and attitude, to operate. However, the will itself, especially when not directed by our intellect or feelings, transcends each of these faculties.

Nevertheless, one can speak of sefiros on the level of Keser when Keser actually is drawn to an objective. These are not sefiros proper, not yet the specific operations performed by the individual sefiros, but nonetheless they give implicit form to Keser. This is different from the state described above, before Keser was drawn to an objective, in which there is no form and Arikh is like simple, infinite potential.

The sefiros proper are not objectives in their own right but rather tools through which the desired product is achieved. For example, when the boundless potential of Keser is drawn to produce an insight, the sefira of wisdom, chochma, is aroused on the level of Keser, as a desire for wisdom. This in turn engages the sefira of chochma on the level of Atzilus, the "tool" for producing the insight.

Note that at this level the insight derives purely from above, reflecting the upper realms before any creation has occurred. That is, Chochma of Atzilus is the beginning of revelation of the supernal realms above Chochma. Hence, Chochma of Atzilus relates more to the purpose and essence of creation than to the creation itself. Nevertheless, because Chochma is a purpose and essence (of something), the beginning of revelation, it relates ultimately to creation: it reveals the Godly purpose of creation.


from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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