The Nature of the Wisdom of Kabbalah by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
Before I start to elucidate the history of the wisdom of Kabbalah, discussed by many, I find it necessary to begin with a thorough clarification of the nature of this wisdom, which I believe so few know. And of course, it is impossible to speak of the history of something before we know the thing itself. Although this knowledge is wider and deeper than the ocean, I will make the greatest effort, with all the strength and knowledge I have acquired, to clarify and illuminate it from all perspectives, enough for any soul to draw the right conclusions, as they truly are, leaving no room for fools to mislead themselves, as is often the case in such matters.
What does the Wisdom revolve around?
This question arises for any intelligent person. To answer it properly I will give a reliable and lasting definition: This wisdom is no more and no less than a sequence of roots, hanging down by way of cause and effect, according to absolute laws, entwining towards a single sublime purpose: The revelation of His divinity to His creatures in this world. And here there is general and particular:
General—the whole of humanity, obligated to come to this great undertaking in the end, as is written, [They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain:] for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHWH, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9); And they shall teach no more every man his fellow, and every man his brother, saying, Know YHWH: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, [says YHWH: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their offence no more] (Jeremiah 31:33); Yet shall your Teacher not be moved into a corner any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher (Isaiah 30:20).
Particular—even before the perfection of the whole of humanity, this matter is fulfilled in a chosen few individuals in each and every generation. These are the ones who are endowed, in each generation, with certain degrees of revelation of His divinity, blessed be He. And these are the prophets and men of the Name.
And as our Sages said, “There is no generation which does not contain men like Abraham… and Jacob, [Moses, and Samuel]” (Bereshit Rabbah 56:7). Thus you see that the revelation of His divinity is brought about in each generation, as our Sages, whom we find trustworthy, say.
The multiplicity of פַּרצוּפִים (partsufim), configurations, סְפִירוֹת (sefirot), and עוֹלָמוֹת (olamot), worlds
However, according to the above, a question arises. Since this wisdom has but one, unique, clear purpose, why is there a multiplicity of partsufim, sefirot, and interchangeable connections, which are so abundant in books of Kabbalah? Indeed, if you take the body of a small animal, whose only task is to nourish itself so that it exist in this world long enough to father and propagate its species, you will find in it a complex structure of millions of fibers and tendons, as physiologists and anatomists have discovered. And there is much there that humans have yet to discover. From here you may draw the analogy of a vast array of networks [lit., chariots and channels] that must connect in order to actualize that sublime purpose.
Two conducts—from above downwards and from below upwards
This wisdom is generally divided into two parallel, identical sequences, like two drops in a pond. The only difference between them is that the first sequence emanates from above downwards, to this world, and the second sequence travels from below upwards, precisely by the same ways and chariots fixed at the root when they appear from above downwards. The first is called “the descending sequence of the olamot, partsufim, and sefirot,” in all their manifestations, whether enduring or transient. The second is called “attainments, or degrees, of prophecy and רוּחַ הַקוֹדֶשׁ (ruaḥ ha-qodesh), the Holy Spirit.” One rewarded with this must follow the same paths and ways, attaining each degree one by one, precisely by the same laws fixed in them upon their emanation from above downwards. A revelation of divinity does not appear immediately, but gradually, over a period of time, depending on the cleansing of the attainment, until one discovers all the degrees from above downwards. And because they come one after the other, and one above the other like rungs of a ladder, they are called מַדְרֵגוֹת (madregot), “rungs.”
Many believe that all the words and the names in the wisdom of Kabbalah are abstractions. This is so because it engages with what is divine and spiritual, which is above time and space, where even our imagination has no power. For this reason they conclude that surely, these matters speak only of abstractions, even more sublime and exalted than abstractions, as from the outset they are totally devoid of imaginings. But this is not the case. On the contrary, Kabbalah uses only names and epithets that are concrete and real. It is an unbending rule for all the kabbalists that, “All that we do not attain, we do not define by name or word” [cf. Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, Commentary on the Ten Sefirot, in Rabbi Me’ir ibn Gabbai, Derekh Emunah, 2b–c: “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”]. Here you must know that הַשָׂגָה (hasagah), “attainment,” implies grasping the final rung. Derived from the expression, “within תַּשִּׂיג (tassig), reach.” That is before something becomes absolutely apparent to the eyes, as though held in the hands, the kabbalists do not consider it attained, but only “understood,” and so forth.
The concreteness of the wisdom of Kabbalah
There are things, even in the material reality set before our eyes, whose essence we have no perception of. Such as electricity or magnetism, [formerly] called “fluidum.” Nevertheless, who can say that these terms are not true, when we know their function vividly? We could not be more indifferent to the fact that we have no appreciation of the essence of the thing itself, as with electricity.
This name, “electricity,” is as tangible for us as though it were entirely perceived by our senses. Even little children are familiar with the word, as well as they are familiar with words like “bread,” “sugar,” and so on. Moreover, if you wish to exercise your tools of perception a little, I will tell you that in general, as there is no perception of the Creator whatsoever, so too it impossible to apprehend the essence of any of His creations, even things we can touch with our hands.
Thus, all we know of our companions and those close to us in the world of actualization before us is nothing more than acquaintance with their activity, stirring our senses, which render us complete satisfaction although we have no perception whatsoever of the essence of the thing. Furthermore, you have no perception or attainment whatsoever even of yourself. All you know of yourself is nothing more than the activity emanating from your essence.
Now we can easily see that all the names and epithets that appear in books of Kabbalah are indeed concrete, even though we have no attainment in the matter at all. This is because those who engage in it are satisfied with their sense of its ultimate perfection, meaning only an awareness engendered by the encounter of the supernal light and those who attain it. Yet, this is quite sufficient, for this is the rule: “All that is reckoned and emerges from His providence, blessed be He, so as to be actualized in Creation, is completely satisfactory.” Similarly, one cannot hope for a sixth finger on one hand, because five fingers are quite sufficient.
The value of concrete language in the books of Kabbalah
Any reasonable person will understand that when dealing with spiritual matters, much less with the divine, we have no words or letters with which to contemplate. This is because our entire vocabulary is but combinations of letters of our senses and imagination. Yet, how can they be of assistance where there is neither imagination nor senses? Even if we take the subtlest thing we can in such matters, namely “supernal light,” or even “simple light,” it is still imaginary and borrowed from the “light of the sun,” “candlelight,” or the “light of satisfaction” one feels upon resolving some great doubt. Yet, how can we use these in spiritual matters or divine ways? They [seem to] offer nothing more than falsehood and deceit. Especially where one needs to find some rationale in these words to help him negotiate the research of this wisdom. Here the sage must employ rigorously accurate concrete definitions for those who seek.
Should the sage fail with a single word, he is certain to confuse and lead astray. One will not understand what he is saying at all, neither before or after, nor anything connected to that word, as is known to anyone who examines books of wisdom. Thus, one should wonder how is it possible for the kabbalists to use false words to explain the interconnections in this wisdom? Also, it is known that there is no definition by means of a false name, for “a lie has no legs” (BT Shabbat 104a), and no stance. Indeed, here one must have prior knowledge of the law of root and branch by which the worlds link to one another.
The law of root and branch by which the worlds are linked
The kabbalists have discovered that the form of the four worlds, namely אֲצִילוּת (atsilut), Emanation, בְּרִיאָה (beri’ah), Creation, יְצִירָה (yetsirah), Formation, and עֲשִׂיָּה (asiyyah), Actualization, beginning with the first and highest world, Atsilut, and ending in this material, tangible world, Asiyyah, is exactly the same in any particular instance. This means that all that occurs in the first world is found unchanged in the next world below it as well. So too in all the worlds that follow, down to this tangible world. There is no difference between them, only a difference of rung, perceived in the substance of each world. The substance of the elements of reality in the first supernal world, is more refined than in all the ones below it. And the substance in the second world is more coarse than in that of the first world, yet more pure than all of a lower rung.
Similarly, this continues down to this world before us, whose substance of the elements in reality is coarser and darker than in all the worlds preceding it. However, the forms and elements of reality and all their phenomenon come unchanged and equal in every world, both in quantity and quality. They compared it to the impress of a seal: all of the seal’s contours and intricate details are perfectly transferred to the impression. So too with the worlds, in which each lower world is a replica of the world above it. Hence, all the contours of the higher world are meticulously copied, in both quantity and quality, in the lower world [see BT Sanhedrin 37a; Tiqqunei ha-Zohar 3b].
Hence, there is no element of reality, nor a single phenomenon in a lower world, for which you will not find the likeness of in the world above it, as identical as two drops in a pond. And they are called שׁוֹרֶשׁ (shoresh), root, and עָנָף (anaf), branch. Which is to say, any detail in the lower world is deemed the branch of its model, the root, in the higher world.
That was the intention of our Sages when they said, “You cannot find a single blade of grass below that does not have a מַזָּל (mazzal), constellation [or: flux], in the sky, striking it and telling it: ‘Grow!’” (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6) [cf. ZḤ 57a]. It follows that the root, called mazzal compels it to grow and assume its quality and quantity, as with the impress of a seal. This is the law of root and branch, which pertains to every detail and phenomenon in reality—in each and every world, and in relation to the world above it.
The language of the kabbalists is a language of branches
This means that the branches point to their roots, being their דוּגמָאוֹת (doogma’ot), models, that necessarily exist in the upper world. This is because there is nothing in the reality of the lower world that is not drawn down from its upper world. As with the impress of a seal, the root in the upper world compels its branch in the lower world to reveal its entire form and content, as our Sages said, that the mazzal in the world above, corresponding to the “grass” in the world below, strikes it, forcing it to acheive its full growth. Because of this, each and every branch in this world defines its model fixed in the higher world very well.
Thus, the kabbalists have found a lexicon sufficient for an excellent spoken language. It allows them to converse with one another on the phenomena of the spiritual roots in the supernal worlds by merely mentioning the lower, material branch in this world that is well defined for our senses. Those who hear understand the supernal root to which this material branch points because it correlates to it, being its impression. Thus, all that exists in this material creation and all its phenomena have for them become familiar words and names, indicating their supernal roots. Although there cannot be a verbal expression in their spiritual place, as they are above any imagination, they have earned the right to be expressed by their branches, arrayed before our senses here in the material world.
This is the nature of the spoken language among the kabbalists, by which they convey their spiritual attainments from person to person and from generation to generation, both by word of mouth and in writing. They fully understand one another, with all the requisite accuracy for negotiating the research of this wisdom, by precise definitions with which he cannot fail. This is so because each branch has its own natural, unique definition, and this absolute definition points to its root in the supernal world.
Bear in mind that this language of branches in the wisdom of Kabbalah is better suited to explain the terms of the wisdom than any of our conventional languages. It is known from the theory of Nominalism that the tongues have been corrupted in the mouths of the masses. Due to excessive use, words have been emptied of their content and there are great difficulties conveying precise inferences by word of mouth or in writing. This is not the case with Kabbalah’s Language of the Branches: it is derived from the names of the creatures and their phenomena, set before our eyes, and, as I said by the unalterable laws of Nature. Those who read or listen will never be led astray into misunderstanding the words presented to them, since these natural definitions are utterly unwavering and cannot be breached.
Conveyance from a wise kabbalist to an understanding disciple
Thus wrote Naḥmanides in the introduction to his Torah commentary: “And I bring with true covenant to all who scrutinize this book, that of all the hints that I write in the Secrets of Torah, I resolutely assert that my words will not be grasped by any mind or intellect, except from the mouth of a wise Kabbalist to the ear of an understanding recipient.” Likewise, Rav Ḥayyim Vital wrote in his introduction to Ets Ḥayyim, and also, in the words of our Sages: “The Account of the Chariot is not expounded to one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge” (BT Ḥagigah 11b).
Their words are thoroughly understood when they say that one must receive from a wise kabbalist. However, why the necessity for a disciple to first be wise and understanding with his own mind? Moreover, if he isn’t so, then he must not be taught, even if he is the most righteous person in the world. Additionally, if one is already wise and understands with his own mind, what need has he to learn from others?
From the aforementioned, their words are understood with utter simplicity: We have seen that all the words and utterances of our lips cannot help us convey even a single word of spiritual, divine matters, above imagined time and space. Instead, there is a special language for these matters, being the Language of the Branches, indicating their relation to their supernal roots.
However, this language, though very well suited for its task of delving into this wisdom, more than other languages, is only so if the listener is wise in his own right, meaning that he knows and understands the way the branches correspond to their roots. It is because these relations are not at all clear when looking from below upwards. In other words, it is impossible to find any deduction or semblance in the supernal roots by observing the lower branches.
Quite the contrary, the lower is studied from the upper. Thus, one must first attain the supernal roots, the way they are in spirituality, above any imagination, with pure attainment. And once he has thoroughly attained the supernal roots with his own mind, he may examine the tangible branches in this world and know how each branch corresponds to its root in the supernal world, with all its sequences, in quantity and quality.
When one knows and thoroughly understands all this, there is a common language between him and his master, namely the Language of the Branches. Using it, the kabbalist may convey studies in the wisdom, conducted in the upper, spiritual worlds, both the ones he has received from his masters, as well as his expansion of the wisdom, which he discovered on his own. This is because now they have a common language and they understand each other.
However, when a disciple is not wise and comprehends the language on his own, meaning how the branches point to their roots, naturally, the master cannot convey even a single word of this spiritual wisdom, much less negotiate with him in the scrutiny of the wisdom. This is so because they have no common language they can use, and they become like a mute. Thus, it is necessary that the wisdom of Kabbalah will not be taught unless he is wise and understands with his own mind.
We must ask further: How then, has the disciple grown so wise as to know the relations of branch and root by tracing the supernal roots? The answer is that here one’s efforts are in vain. It is divine assistance that we need. He fills those who capture His fondness with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to acquire sublime attainment. Here it is impossible to be assisted by any flesh and blood. Indeed, once He grows fond of a man and has endowed him with sublime attainment, he is then ready to come and receive the vastness of the wisdom of Kabbalah from a wise kabbalist, for only now do they have a common language [cf. BT Berakhot 55a: “Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The blessed Holy One gives wisdom only to one who already has wisdom, as it says, In the heart of every wise-hearted man I have set wisdom (Exodus 31:6). Rav Taḥalifa from the West (i.e., Israel) heard and repeated it before Rabbi Abbahu. He said to him: You learn it from there, but we learn it from here: He gives wisdom to the wise (Daniel 2:21).” On blessing not appearing in an empty place, see Naḥmaindes on Exodus 25:24; Zohar 1:88a–b, 240a, 250a; 2:63b, 67a, 87b–88a, 154b–155a, 157b; 3:34a].
Epithets foreign to the human spirit
With all that is said above, you will understand why we sometimes find epithets and terms quite foreign to the human spirit in books of Kabbalah. They abound in the principal books of Kabbalah, which are the Zohar and the Tiqqunim, and the books of the Ari. It is indeed baffling why these Sages used such lowly epithets to express lofty, holy notions [for example: Zohar 3:97a–b, 152b, 255a–b (both RM)].
Yet, once you have acquired these notions you will understand fully. This is because it is now clear that no language in the world can be used to expound the wisdom, except one intended for just that purpose, namely the Language of the Branches, corresponding to their supernal roots. Thus, obviously, no branch or the appearance of a branch should be neglected because of its inferior rung, or not be used to express the desired idea in the network of the wisdom, since there is no other branch in our world to take its place.
As “two hairs do not suck from the same follicle” (BT Bava Batra 16a) so we do not have two branches that pertain to the same root. Hence, by neglecting any phenomenon, we forfeit the spiritual idea corresponding to it in the supernal world, since we do not have a single word to utter in its place, with which to indicate that particular root. In addition, such incidents impair the entire wisdom in all its vastness, since there is a missing link in the chain connected to that idea. This damages the entire wisdom, for there is no other wisdom in the world in which matters are so thoroughly interconnected by way of cause and effect as with the wisdom of Kabbalah—connected head to toe just like a long chain.
Therefore, even with a brief lapse in understanding, the entire wisdom darkens before our eyes, for all its parts are powerfully linked to each other, coalescing into one, literally. And from now on there is no wonder at the occasional use of strange epithets. They have no freedom of choice with epithets, to substitute the bad with the good, or the good with the bad. They must always use the branch or the phenomenon which points precisely to its supernal root with all the requisite measure. Moreover, they must broaden matters until they can be brought into focus for their fellow observers.