From the Mouth of a Sage (Introduction) by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
It is known from books and from authors that the study of the wisdom of Kabbalah is an absolute necessity for any man of Israel. And if one studies the whole Torah and knows the Mishnah and the Gemara by heart, and if one is also filled with virtues and good deeds more than all his contemporaries, but has not learned the wisdom of Kabbalah, he is forced to [undergo a new life] cycle in this world in order to study the Secrets of Torah and the Wisdom of Truth. This is brought down in several places in the writing of our sages.
This is what the Zohar writes in the commentary to the Song of Songs, explaining, If you do not know, O fairest of women (Song of Songs 1:8), which our sages interpreted as the soul entering before the Throne after death. The blessed Holy One tells her: If you do not know, O fairest of women—although you are the fairest of women and virtuous in good deeds more than all the souls, if you do not have knowledge in Secrets of Torah go out in the tracks of the sheep (ibid.)—leave here and never return to this world. And graze your goats by the shepherd’s shelters (ibid.)—go there to the academies and learn Secrets of Torah from the mouths of the disciples of our sages [see Zohar Ḥadash 70d].
We must understand their words, conditioning one’s perfection on the study of the Wisdom of Truth. Seemingly, how is it different from other words in the revealed Torah? Nowhere do we find that one is obligated to understand all areas of Torah, and that he will be lacking if one area of Torah is missing. Moreover, our sages said “Not learning but doing is the main thing” (M Avot 1:17). Our sages also said, “Whether a man offers much or little, as long as he directs his heart to heaven” (BT Menaḥot 11a) [cf. BT Berakhot 17a], and there are many such sayings.
In order to attain the depth of their words, we must first understand what has been written many times in the Zohar and the Tiqqunim, wisely and exquisitely: “The Torah, the blessed Holy One, and Israel, are one.” This seems very perplexing.
Before I elucidate their words, I will inform you that our sages have a great principle for us, regarding all the holy names and appellations in the books. These are their golden words: “Anything that we cannot attain, we do not give a name” [cf. Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, Commentary on the Ten Sefirot, in Rabbi Me’ir Gabbai, Derekh Emunah, 2b–c, 3a–d: “Ein Sof cannot be conceived, certainly not expressed, though it is intimated in every thing, for there is nothing outside of it. No letter, no name, no writing, no thing can confine it”].
Interpretation: It is known that there is no thought and perception in Him whatsoever, as is written in Petaḥ Eliyyahu at the beginning of the Tiqqunim of the Zohar [see Tiqqunei ha-Zohar 17a: “Elijah opened and said, ‘Master of the Worlds! You are one—but not in counting. You are higher than the high, concealed from the concealed. No thought grasps You at all. It is You who generated ten adornments—called by us the ten sefirot—by which concealed, unrevealed worlds are conducted, and revealed worlds. In them You conceal Yourself from human beings, while You are the One who binds and unites them. Since You are within, whoever separates one of these ten from another—it is as if he divided You”]. For that reason, even the thought of the עַצְמוּת (atsmut), essence [or: self], of the Creator is forbidden, much less the speech. All the names we call Him do not refer to His essence, but only to His lights, emanating from Him to the lower ones. Even the holy name, Ein Sof, presented in the books of Kabbalah, is also regarded as light that emanates from His essence. But since He determined that His light, which emanates from His essence, will be attained by the lower ones as Ein Sof, we shall therefore describe it with that name. Yet, this does not refer to His essence, since there is absolutely no perception or thought in Him whatsoever. Thus, how shall we define Him by name or by word, since anything that we cannot attain we do not give a name?
Any novice in the Wisdom of Truth must contemplate this great principle before any scrutiny in a book of Kabbalah, that even the thought is forbidden in His essence, since there is no perception in Him whatsoever. Therefore, how can we utter a name or a word of Him, indicating attainment? However, it is a great mitsvah to probe and discover His illuminations, emanating from Him, which are all the holy names and appellations brought in the books. It is an absolute must for any man of Israel to study and understand the Secrets of Torah and all the ways of He bestows to the lower ones, which is the gist of the Wisdom of Truth and the future reward of the souls at the end of correction.
It is written in the words of our sages, in the Zohar and the Tiqqunim, that all the upper worlds and all the holy sefirot of the five worlds, AQ and ABiYA, in their quantity and quality, were prepared from the outset only for the perfection of the children of Israel. It is so because the soul of one of Israel is a part of God above and “Last in deed, first in thought” (Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabetz, Lekha Dodi) [cf. Isaiah 46:10: Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done].
It arose in His simple will to delight with reward their labor. And for this reason, the entire reality emanated before Him by way of cause and effect, rungs descending through the worlds of AQ and ABiYA (Primordial Man, Emanation, Creation, Formation, Actualization). Finally, they brought forth two discernments clothed in one another: the soul from the coverings of heaven, which emanates and clothes the material body. The essence of reality emanated [or: the root of reality expanded] till the last rung, which is the physical body with a soul. Similarly, the sequence of cause and effect, the manner of His giving, hang down by gradations.
Thus, the supernal light is higher than high but will ultimately emanate and actualize the soul clothed in the material body of this world, as is written, For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH (Isaiah 11:9); And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know YHWH: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them (Jeremiah 31:34). Our sages write, and it is also found in The Book of Zohar, “Torah is the name of the blessed Holy One” [see Rabbi Ezra of Gerona, Peirush le-Shir ha-Shirim, 548; Naḥmanides, introduction to Commentary on the Torah, 6–7; Zohar 2:60a, 87a, 90b, 124a; 3:13b, 19a, 21a, 35b-36a, 73a, 89b, 98b, 159a, 265b, 298b; Rabbi Moshe de León, Sefer ha-Rimmon, 341-42; Berit Menuḥa, Haqdamah; OY; Galante]. All the stories and laws and verses, all are His holy Name. According to what was already explained, that “Anything that we cannot attain we do not give a name,” you will thoroughly understand the meaning of the holy names of the blessed Holy One. These are the attainments that emanate from Him to His servants, the prophets and the righteous, each according to his merit, as is written, That I and Your people may be distinguished from every people that is on the face of the earth (Exodus 33:16).
We are distinguished through reception of the Torah and the keeping of mitsvot, first only in the revealed way. It has the merit of purifying our bodies and enhancing our souls to such a measure that we become worthy of attaining the whole Torah and its mitsvot as His names. This is the entire reward intended for the souls at the end of correction. However, it is in this world, too, as is written in the Gemara, “May you see your world in your lifetime” (BT Berakhot 17a).
[This explains to us why] he calls the 613 mitsvot “613 types of advice” in several places in the Zohar [2:82b; 2:97a], but in many other places in the Zohar he calls them 613 “decrees,” [for] man must keep Torah and mitsvot in order to purify his body and enhance his soul. Then the 613 מִּצְווֹת (mitsvot), commandments, are [indeed like] “613 types of advice,” for him, עֵצוֹת (etsot), tips, by which to gradually purify and be awarded coming before the King, and receiving the light of His face. This is because keeping Torah and mitsvot gradually purify him, until he is rewarded with the light of the King’s face [on Torah as advice, see Sifrei, Deuteronomy 322; Avodah Zarah 17b; Midrash Tanna’im, Deuteronomy 32:28; Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana 12:12; Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah on 8:5].
Also, it is written: “What difference does it make to the blessed Holy One whether one slaughters an animal from the neck or from the throat [as the law dictates]? The mitsvot were given only to purify people” (Bereshit Rabbah 44:1).
However, after he has been sufficiently purified and merits the light of the King’s face, his eyes and soul open and he is awarded the attainment of the 613 sacred lights found in the 613 mitsvot. These are His holy names, the ones he can attain.
By keeping each of the mitsvot, he takes the share of light deposited in that mitsvah, since the mitsvah is a vessel in which the light is clothed, meaning a holy name that belongs precisely to that mitsvah. This is the meaning of For a mitsvah is a lamp and teaching a light, [and the way of life—stern rebukes]” (Proverbs 6:23).
At that time, he calls the 613 mitsvot “613 פִּקּוּדִין (piqqudin), decrees [alluding to פִּקָּדוֹן (piqqadon), deposits].” It is like one who keeps precious stones and gems in a vessel and says to his beloved: “Take this vessel for yourself but guard it from thieves and robbers.” Thus, they only speak of the vessel, but their main concern is the precious stones kept there.
It is known in the books of Kabbalah that the meaning of the holy name, הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא (ha-Qodesh Barukh Hu), the Holy One, blessed be He, or קֻדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא (Qudsha Berikh Hu) brought down by our sages and in the Zohar [in Aramaic], is named after the יהוה (HaVaYaH). This holy name contains all the holy names until One higher than high. Thus, we learn that “Torah and the blessed Holy One are one,” albeit the masses do not see Him in the Torah, but merely stories, verses, and laws [cf. Zohar 3:73a: “There are three rungs, interlinked—the blessed Holy One, Torah, and Israel”].
Indeed, I have already explained that the 613 “deposits” are called golden apples in silver carvings (Proverbs 25:11), as our sages said, “The whole Torah is the name of the blessed Holy One.” Hence, the Torah and the blessed Holy One are one. Yet, there are general and particular, where the blessed Holy One is the conglomeration of all the names and the general [or: universal] light, and the Torah is divided into 613 lights. It follows that all of them together are one, and are the blessed Holy One Himself.
Now, there still remains for us to explain the discernment of Israel. First, you must understand the matter of multiplicity of separate forms in spirituality, meaning how they are divided and in what. Material things are separated by a knife and such, or time and space separate and distinguish them. Yet, this is unthinkable in spirituality, as it is known to be above time and space. However, know that the whole difference in spirituality between the upper lights is only in the שִׁינוּי הַצוּרָה (shinui ha-tsurah), disparity of form. For example: the intellectual souls of people are certainly divided into separate souls. Each individual has a different soul. Yet, the essential difference between them is nothing more than what stems from their disparity in form, that the soul of one is good, the other’s is bad; one has acquired wisdom, and the other folly and so forth. Of this our sages say, [“One who sees a crowd says, ‘Blessed is He who knows the secrets.] Just as their faces are different one from the other, so are their opinions different one from the other” (JT Berakhot 9:1).
Now we can understand that if all people were to come by the same concepts and inclinations, without any difference whatsoever, all the souls of all the people would be regarded as one soul [cf. M Sanhedrin 4:5: “Man was first created as one נֶפֶשׁ (nefesh), soul, to teach you that anyone who destroys a נֶפֶשׁ (nefesh), person, is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a person is as if he saved an entire world”]. Its worth would be like the light of the sun: the light enclothes within all the inhabitants of the world, yet we do not discern that there are separate forms in the sunlight. Similarly, one conceptual soul would enclothe in many bodies, since space does not separate at all in spiritual matters if there are no separate forms in their qualities.
Now we shall come to the actual scrutiny: It is known that the meaning of the souls of the children of Israel is that they are a part of God above. The soul cascaded by way of cause and effect, descending rung by rung until it was fit to issue into this world and clothe in the filthy material body. By keeping Torah and mitsvot, she ascends rung-by-rung until her stature is completed, and she is fit to receive her reward from the Perfect. This has been prepared for her in advance, meaning attaining the holy Torah by way of the names of the blessed Holy One, which are the 613 “deposits.”
Now you can see with your own eyes that “Torah and Israel are one.” And the only difference between Torah and the soul is due to the disparity of form in the soul, which has been reduced to a very, very small light, and the Torah is simple light that emanates from His essence, whose sublimity is endless, as is written, “Torah and the blessed Holy One are one.” However, when the soul is complete in her full stature and receives the Torah by way of His names, namely attains all the light deposited in Torah and mitsvot, you find that, in any case, the light of the soul is equal to the light of Torah. This is because she has already attained all the light in Torah.
She is still considered incomplete as long as there is some deficit in attaining a small and subtle part of the general light of Torah. This is because all its light has been prepared for the souls, as I have explained above, “Anything that we do not attain, we do not give a name.” And since the light has been prepared for the attainment of the soul, and the soul did not attain all of it, it is therefore deemed incomplete, as in, “I will keep the whole Torah except one thing. Certainly, he is a complete wicked man” [cf. BT Bekhorot 30b: “If a gentile comes to accept the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him”]. However, such as that you can declare in the keeping of Torah and mitsvot in attaining the 613 “deposits.” It is incomplete when lacking even one thing, great or small.
Hence, it will ultimately come to complete perfection, namely attaining the whole light of Torah. At that time, there will be no disparity of form between the light of the soul and the light of Torah anyhow. Thus, you find, exquisitely stated, that “Torah and Israel are one,” literally. Because there is no difference or disparity of form between them, they are absolutely one. And since we have already proven that “The blessed Holy One and Torah are one,” and now we have proven that “Torah and Israel are one,” it is therefore evident that “Torah and the blessed Holy One and Israel are one.”
From all the above, you find that there are two parts to Torah and mitsvot:
Torah and mitsvot as they appear to all, being the keeping of mitsvot and the study of Torah in the form of “613 types of advice.” These have the power to purify and cleanse the body, and enhance the purity of the soul, to be worthy and merit receiving the light of the King’s face, as the soul was in its root, before it diminished and came into this base body, in this base world.
Keeping the mitsvot and studying Torah in the form of 613 “deposits,” namely the matter of attaining His names and the full reward of the souls. The merit of the latter part over the former is as the merit of the Heavens over Earth. This is because the first part is mere preparation, and the second part is the actual completeness and the purpose of Creation. This explains our above question about the words of our sages, that even if a person excels in Torah and good deeds more than all his contemporaries, if he has not learned the secrets of Torah and the Wisdom of Truth, he must undergo [a new life] cycle in the world.
We asked, “What is the difference between this subject, the Wisdom of Truth, from other subjects in Torah?” We found nowhere that one is compelled to delve into all the areas of Torah. On the contrary, we have found opposition to that in many places, such as, “One does much, the other little, as long as they aim their hearts to Heaven,” and also, “It is not the study that is important, but the act.”
Now the matter is clarified—the whole part of revealed Torah is but a preparation to become worthy and merit attaining the concealed part. It is the concealed part that is the very perfection and the purpose for which man was created. Hence, clearly, if part of the concealed [teaching] is missing, although one may keep Torah and mitsvot in the revealed part, he will still be forced to undergo [a new life] cycle in this world and receive what he should receive, namely the concealed part, by way of 613 “deposits.” Only in that is the soul perfected, the way the blessed Holy One predetermined for her.
You can therefore see the utter necessity for any man of Israel, whoever he may be, to engage in the internality of Torah and Her its secrets. Without it, the purpose of Creation will not be fulfilled in him. This is the reason why we undergo [new life] cycles, generation-by-generation through our current generation, which is the residue of the souls upon which the purpose of Creation has not yet been fulfilled, as they did not attain the secrets of Torah in the past generations.
For this reason, they said in the Zohar: “The secrets of Torah and its mysteries are destined to be revealed at the time of the Messiah” [see Zohar 1:116a–18b: “Verging on the days of the Messiah, even children of the world are destined to find hidden treasures of wisdom”]. It is clear to anyone who understands, that since they will be fulfilling the purpose of Creation, they will be awarded with the coming of Messiah. Hence, inevitably, the secrets of Torah will be revealed among them openly, since if the correction is prevented they will be forced to undergo [a new life] cycle. This will explain to you what we should ask about this interpretation in general, for who am I and who are my fathers that I have been awarded making the interpretation to expand the knowledge of the hidden secrets in the Zohar and the writings of the Ari? Moreover, why have we thus far found no other to interpret this wisdom as openly as me?
Now you can see that because our generation is really the time of the Messiah, and we are all standing at the threshold of the complete correction, and the only thing that detains us is the total abandonment of the Wisdom of Truth in this generation, due to the difficulty of the language and the dispersion of the matters. In addition to all that, there is the smallness of mind [or: narrow mindedness] and the abundant troubles in our generation. Hence, as the LORD wishes to hasten the redemption of our souls, He has passed a privilege to my hand in order to disclose a measure in this interpretation, and the will of God succeeded in my hand.
And I had another reason for making this open interpretation: “It is incumbent upon a person who studies wisdom to study some foolishness” (Zohar 3:47b), as is written, [And I saw that wisdom surpasses folly] as light surpasses darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13). After I served my time in the city of Warsaw in the state of Poland, confined to my chamber, having nothing to do with the darkness of my surroundings, I have been blessed with settling in the Holy City of Jerusalem.
And when I walked among the people here, I saw the poverty of my people, the poverty of their mind. Their foolish laughter was in my ears as the noise of pots beneath the city, mocking and trampling the heart and soul of our yearnings, slandering the LORD, His Law, and His people in a loud voice, without any wisdom, understanding, or knowledge in the wisdom of Kabbalah at all. Rather, [they regard the Wisdom of Truth to be merely] an anthology of words and names, with no sense and no moral, only literal words. [Such people believe] it is a privilege to chatter idle words in the written text with complete faith that they are holy things, and that thus the purpose of Creation will be realized in us. And when those who study the literal [sense of the] texts with complete faith increase in number, the Messiah King will come immediately, for by that the entire תִקּוּן (tiqqun), correction, will be completed, and nothing more is needed.
Finally, I met with the famous ones among them, people who have already worn out their years delving into the writings of the Ari and the Zohar. They have become astonishingly proficient and conversant in all the writings of the Ari. They have a reputation as being the holiest people in the land [namely, the mekhavvnim (‘intenters’) of the Reḥovot ha-Nahar community and Yeshivat ha-Mequbalim of the Bet El Synagogue]. I asked them if they had studied with a Rav who attained the essence of matters. They replied: “Perish the thought. There is no internality here whatsoever, only precise texts handed down to us, and nothing more.”
I asked them if Rav Ḥayyim Vital had attained the essence of the matters. They replied: “He certainly did not attain more than we do.” I then asked them about the Ari himself. They replied: “He certainly did not know the essence more than us! All that he knew, he had handed down to his disciple, Rav Ḥayyim Vital, and thus they came into our hands.” I mocked them: “How then were the matters composed in the heart of the Ari without any understanding and knowledge?” They replied: “He received these matters from Elijah, and he knew the essence, because he is an angel.” Here my wrath poured out on them, for my patience to be with them had ended. And when I saw that their foolishness had taken root in nearly everyone engaging in this wisdom at that time, woe to the ears that so hear, Is it also to force the queen with me in the house? (Esther 7:8) [cf. Iggerot ha-Sullam, № 35, № 47, № 48, № 52, № 62].
The holy Zohar has already lamented bitterly the denial of such offenders, telling themselves that there are no inner secrets in Torah, as is written in the portion Va-Yerah: “Woe to the person who says that Torah intended to present a mere story and ordinary words! [For if so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and more laudable than all of them. If to display matters of the world,] even worldly potentates possess words more sublime. [If so, let us follow them and make a Torah out of them!]” (Zohar 3:152a). Our sages said that they cut the shoots, for they only take Malkhut.
What would the authors of the Zohar say themselves in view of the culture of such erring people, denying that there is any knowledge or wisdom in the words of the Zohar and the Wisdom of Truth? Of the very secrets of Torah they say that there is no knowledge or discernment revealed in this world, but merely empty words. Thus, they have come to force the holy Shekhinah inside the King’s palace. Woe unto them, for they have caused themselves harm.
Our sages said that the holy Torah mourns before the blessed Holy One: “Your sons have turned Me into a song in public-houses.” But they do not even make of the Torah a semblance of a song, only frightening words to any listener that arise contempt and wrath. Furthermore, they wish to be rewarded like Phinehas, saying that they do it in perfect faith. The Writings says about them: Since this people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, [and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men] (Isaiah 29:13), and this is the reason for the ruin of the First Temple.
The devil still dances among us, precisely at the time of the Messiah, the time of the end of the Secrets of Torah. The zeal of YHWH of Armies came as fire that will not quench in my bones. Because of that, I have been roused to remove the gown to such an extent that they will know that there is wisdom in Israel. This has been among the main reasons which made me arrive at this explanation. You must see in every purpose and every goal that it is utterly simple. All the wit, the cleverness, and the many issues form during the preparation, until the goal is reached. For example, when one wishes to sit in a house, he needs wit and knowledge in the design, in artisanship, and in the quality and quantity of the rooms and the possessions.
The final goal is but a simple thing—to dwell there. This is the meaning of the words, According to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house (Isaiah 44:13). It is a simple thought, without any proliferation of concepts or wit, but a simple will. Know that all the sophistication in the knowledge is mostly mistakes that should fall before the truth. Yet, the truth itself is simple, without any wit. There is a secret in that, mainly being the iron wall that separates us from our Father in Heaven: There are things that are hidden because of their great height and depth, and there are things that are hidden because of their extreme subtlety, like flies in the air, too small to be seen.
Since His light is such simple light that the human mind, which senses only a tiny fraction of something, simply does not perceive. It is like the smaller things from that measure, requiring an actual instrument to see [i.e., a microscope]. This is so because although not all of the depth of the height and the depth of the width are perceived, you can nonetheless perceive the proximate. However, with subtle things, it seems as though they do not exist at all, since you do not attain even the slightest bit of them.