The Kabbalah is an extraordinary system of theoretical and practical wisdom designed to provide its students not only with a path of mental and spiritual growth, but also with a symbolic map of creation itself. Rooted in 3rd-century mysticism, the Kabbalah developed in an essentially Hebrew tradition, and the earliest known Kabbalistic text, the Sefer Yetzira, appeared some time between the 3rd and 6th centuries. The powerful appeal of the system led to its incorporation into certain aspects of Christian thinking in the 15th century. The Italian scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola argued that "no science can better convince us of the divinity of Jesus Christ than magic and the Kabbalah". Other Christian writers felt that the Kabbalah contained a revelation to mankind, now lost, by means of which it was possible to comprehend fully the classical Greek teachings of Pythagoras, Plato and the Orphics.
Essentially, the Kabbalah is an esoteric teaching centred on a system of symbols, which are held to reflect the mystery of God and the universe, and for which the Kabbalist must find the key. At the theoretical level, these keys allow him (the Kaballist has traditionally been male) to understand the spiritual dimensions of the universe, while at the practical level they allow him to use the powers associated with these dimensions for magical purposes (that is for the processes of physical, psychological or spiritual transformation). The keys to the Kabbalah lie hidden in the meaning of the divine revelations which make up the holy scriptures: just as God is hidden, so too are the inner secrets of his divine message. These secrets may be revealed by decoding the scriptures through a system of numerical equivalences or gematria, in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a number associated with it, or can be permutated or abbreviated in certain ways.For example, the brass serpent (Nehushtan) constructed by Moses and set on a pole so that "if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass he lived" (Numbers 21:9) is converted through gematria to the number 358, which is also the numerical equivalent of the word "Messiah". Thus, the brass serpent is held to be a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, who will save all those bitten by the longing for spiritual truth. This led Christian Kabbalists to adopt the symbol of the serpent draped over the cross to represent Christ.
In its fundamental interpretation, the sefiroth explains creation. The reason for existence is held to be that God wished to behold himself: to accomplish this, he withdrew his presence - the Absolute All - from one place so that he could "gaze upon his own face". In the act of calling the universe into being, God revealed ten of his attributes, each of which is represented in the sefiroth by a sefirah. The sefirah are linked together in a set of precise relationships: the path begins at Keter (the crown) which denotes all that was, is and will be, and leads eventually to Malkhut (the kingdom) which corresponds to the presence of God in matter. The direction of the path from Keter to Malkhut, through the attributes of wisdom, understanding, mercy, judgment, beauty, eternity, reverberation and foundation, is governed by the three Divine Principles of Will, Mercy and Justice. In most visualizations of the sefiroth, the path takes the form of a zigzag or lightning flash as the three divine principles, which are associated with balance (Will), expansion (Mercy) and constraint (Justice), operate in turn.
Although all the laws relating to being and creation are embedded within the sefiroth, they exist as unrealized plans. In order to account for the many manifestations of God, the Kabbalah contains the concept of the Four Worlds or cosmic cycles, each of which has its own Tree of Life. The Four Worlds - Manifestation, Creation, Formation and Action - can be seen as the different aspects of God through which the universe was brought into being. They refer also to the hierarchy of the Worlds revealed to the 6th-century prophet Ezekiel who, in a vision, saw the likeness of the glory of God (Manifestation) on a throne (Creation), riding in a chariot (Formation) above the world (Action). Each world possesses all the characteristics of the one above, and so is more complex and subject to more laws. The Four Worlds are usually depicted as four interlocking sefiroth - the extended tree of life.
The patterns and relationships enshrined in the sefiroth are fundamental to being and can therefore be applied to all areas of knowledge and endeavour. Properly used and understood, the sefiroth is a blue-print from which all phenomena - from cosmic forces to human relationships, from the ascent of the soul toward God to the fate of world economies - can be explained and ultimately controlled.
The Kabbalah is essentially an oral tradition, and the initiate is usually guided by an experienced mentor who stands in for the student's imperfectly developed consciousness and steers him away from the dangers inherent in mystical experience.The initiate usually starts by studying the ten sefirah, ascending the tree towards full enlightenment. Each sefirah represents an aspect of the self that must be fully developed before the student can proceed to the stages that lie beyond. For example, unless he has come properly to terms with Malkuth, the world of the body and its energies, he is unable to advance in any complete sense to Yesod, the link between body and mind. Once in possession of a theoretical understanding of the ten sefirah, the Kabbalist, through further study and meditation, and by learning how the tasks associated with the twenty-two paths between the individual sefirah can assist his progress, is able to begin in earnest his ascent through the tree. Such an ascent may form his life's work and few reach the end of it, but once in Kether one can know God and move beyond symbolism to experience infinity itself.
|The House of Man : The dynamics of the sefiroth can be applied to any organism, system or transaction. In this 17th-century print, the design of a house and human anatomy are interpreted according to the principles of the tree of life.|
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