Lesson 2) System of Sephirot
It’s great to see all of your lovely faces again for another journey into the depths of alchemical mysticism! I hope that your first round of Year Six courses went well. I will say that for me, personally, it’s been a little challenging running between the third and fifth floors and still having enough time to grab a snack from the kitchens. I suppose we can’t win all the time. Nevertheless, let’s move onto our topic for today: Kabbalah!
Kabbalah (also transliterated as Cabala or Qabalah) is an esoteric tradition that developed from Jewish communities as a way to explain the relationship between Ein Sof (“The Infinite”) and the mortal, finite universe. Its foundation is based on finding a way to define the nature of the universe, the purpose of existence, the essence of humanity, and other concepts that will eventually lead to a spiritual realization or enlightenment. Like many other esoteric traditions, there is a belief that Kabbalah stemmed from ancient knowledge passed down by Tzadikim (also known as the “righteous ones”), which eventually formed the blueprints for modern thought in subjects such as philosophy, science, art, politics, and more. However, history shows that Kabbalah actually stemmed from earlier forms of Jewish mysticism in the areas of Southern France and Spain around the 12th to 13th century. It was then reinterpreted in the 16th century and gained momentum in the Ottoman Empire-controlled Palestine. If you are familiar with Judaism, you’ll recognize some of the information we will be discussing in the lecture today. With that being said, I would like to mention that Kabbalah is not Judaism, nor is it a religion itself. Kabbalah is not considered a part of mainstream Judaism, although Mekubal (also known as kabbalists) consider it a necessary study of the Torah.
Due to its Jewish origins, kabbalists use classical sources such as the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and other Rabbinic literature (such as the Torah) as an aid to describe and demonstrate fundamental concepts. In turn, they also look within these classical Jewish texts for a deeper, inner meaning. Kabbalah’s foundational text, the Zohar, is actually a collection of books that include scriptural interpretation and commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah, mysticism, cosmogony, and psychology. According to the Zohar, the Torah can be interpreted on four different levels: Peshat (direct), Remez (allegoric), Derash (midrashic/Rabbinic meanings with imaginative/historical comparisons), and Sod (inner/metaphysical). For example, they will take a passage from the Torah, such as the verse where God says “let there be light,” and interpret it in these four different ways. The one that specifically pertains to our study is Sod, which would state that the light is actually wisdom or enlightenment and the separation of light from darkness is the creation of esoteric knowledge that isn’t available to everyone.
Now, you are probably all wondering “what does this have to do with alchemy?” and, admittedly, when I first learned about this during my years at Durmstrang, I thought the same. Well, Judaism and alchemy date back to ancient times, or at least from Hellenistic Egypt. Zosimos wrote at some point that the Jews acquired the “sacred craft of the Egyptians” and their knowledge of gold through dishonest means and spread the knowledge of alchemy to the rest of the world. Not only that, but there are moments mentioned in scripture about either alchemy or figures being prominent alchemists, such as when the Queen of Sheba presented a “precious stone” (the Philosopher’s Stone) to King Solomon to test his wisdom on the subject. However, she was unaware that Solomon was gifted Philosopher’s Stones earlier in his life by King David (who was considered to be an alchemist) and thus was able to provide “silver and gold in Jerusalem as stones.” There are also ancient Greek manuscripts on alchemy that are attributed to Jewish figures such as Moses of Alexandria (not the biblical Moses), Bezalel, and King Hoshea of Israel.
The main connection between alchemy and Kabbalah came during the Middle Ages when alchemists used biblical texts as a way to seek the Philosopher's Stone. The idea was to appeal to the grace of God through the methods of Christian and kabbalistic concepts in order to be granted the stone. There is a kabbalistic outline titled Solomon’s Labyrinth that dates back to the 11th century by an early alchemist named Saint Mark. Salomon Trismosin, a German alchemist attributed with writing the Splendor Solis manuscript and the mentor of Paracelsus, proclaimed that he based his knowledge on kabbalistic writings, and as so, Paracelsus himself stated that a thorough knowledge of Kabbalah is needed as a prerequisite to learn the art of alchemy. Paracelsus even based several of his theories on kabbalistic beliefs, such as creating homunculi through alchemy. There are pages of the Zohar that highlight alchemical lore found in the Torah and the use of alchemical language and imagery. It’s also important to note that alchemy took a turn in the 17th century through the rise of alchemical orders such as the Rosicrucians. During this period, Kabbalah and alchemy became integrated with not only Christianity, but the spread of Hermeticism. This created a big melting pot of various knowledge that resulted in several different esoteric branches based on the approach and goal. This is why alchemy can’t be lumped into one generalized study, as there are different approaches (spiritual or physical) towards different goals (enlightenment, transmutation, immortality, and more).
Like alchemy, Kabbalah isn’t one generalized study either, but several different branches. The two branches that specifically have the most influence on alchemy are Hermetic Qabalah and Christian Cabala. However, today’s content is more in line with Theosophical Kabbalah, as we are simply laying down the foundation and studying the basics. We won’t be going over every single thing Kabbalah has to offer, as that would definitely span more than the time we’re allotted for this lecture and derail completely from our topic of alchemy. However, what will be discussed today will help your understanding as we delve into mysterious orders and organizations of alchemy that stemmed from this time period in the next lesson.
One of the most prominent ideas of Kabbalah is the idea of the Sephirot, or the Tree of Life. Sephirot (singular: sephirah) are the ten emanations or attributes of how Ein Sof reveals himself and creates both the physical and metaphysical realms. These ten sephirot are separated into three columns (gimel kavim), with one sephirah per column as the “head,” and each column has different esoteric attributes, some of which you will probably recognize from Hermeticism. There are slight alternative versions of the Tree of Life within Kabbalah depending on the specific branch (i.e. more or less paths), however, they generally follow the shape of the picture on the right.
The column on the right is known as the Pillar of Mercy (kav yamin). It consists of the Chokhmah (wisdom), Chesed (mercy), and Netzach (victory) sephirot with Chokmah being the head sephirah. It is associated with the Hebrew letter Shin (ש), the element of fire, and masculinity.
The left column is the Pillar of Severity (kav smol). It’s headed by Binah (understanding), with Geburah (severity) and Hod (splendor) following after. It’s typically related to the Hebrew letter Mem (מ), the element of water, and femininity.
The central column is what is known as the Pillar of Mildness. It contains Keter (crown) heading the sephirot with Tiphareth (beauty), Yesod (foundation), and Malkuth (kingdom or physical realm) as well. It represents the Hebrew letter Aleph (א), the air element, and “the breath” that gives us life, and it’s seen as a neutral column to balance out the male and female forces of the other two. Some representations of the Sephirot include Da’at (knowledge) between Keter and Tiphareth, which is a location at which all ten sephirot are united as one. There are even some representations that count Da’at as a sephirah on its own instead of Keter to depict the finite creation by using Da’at to symbolize the inner dimension of the infinity of Keter.
The associations of masculinity and femininity here are very similar to the Principle of Gender that we looked at in Year Four with Hermeticism. The gender assigned to the columns isn’t referring to a physical gender, but traits belonging to a mental gender. Think of the Pillar of Mercy as the Red King, the Pillar of Severity as the White Queen, and the Pillar of Mildness as Rebis. I would also like to mention that although the pillars have their own gender attribution, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the associated gender with the sephirot themselves. To make this slightly more confusing, there isn’t really a consensus across Kabbalah on which gender goes with which sephirah, so there are several alternative theories. In Jewish Kabbalah, only Binah and Malkuth are feminine while the rest are masculine. Both Jewish Kabbalah and Hermetic Qabalah additionally believe that each sephirah is seen as masculine in relation to the following sephirah in succession on the tree, while also feminine in relation to the foregoing sephirah. Another alternative takes into account the grammatical genders in the Hebrew language to determine the associated gender of the sephirah. For example, Geburah is considered to be feminine due to it ending with the atonal Heh, while sephirot such as Chesed would be masculine. Interestingly enough, this would make severity feminine and mercy masculine, which is a reverse of how the Western world tends to genderize these terms.
I would also like to mention that seers and arithmancers frequent Kabbalah as well, particularly in Hermetic Qabalah’s version of the Sephirot. There is a spread that specifically uses this layout of the Tree of Life, and there are also various Kabbalah-themed tarot decks. The Sephirot is also heavily tied with numerology. The ten emanations are a reference to the ten words that God used to create the world in Jewish texts and the lower seven sephirot refer to the sea splitting into seven streams. If you look back up at the diagram of the Tree of Life, you’ll notice that there are numbers associated with not only the sephirot, but also the paths between them. The ten sephirot and twenty-two channels connecting them are referred to as the 32 Paths of Wisdom. Even within the Hebrew language, there is a system called gematria where Hebrew words and phrases are assigned a numerical value. As much as I would love to talk more about that, I’m afraid that I’m not an expert when it comes to the divining arts; even more so, my personal grade in Arithmancy when I was a student was… lower than what I would like to admit. However, you can always find Professor Lorien in the Divination Tower if this peaks your interest.
I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today. Hopefully you have gathered a good sense of what Kabbalah and the Tree of Life are today. Though, do remember that the Tree of Life we discussed here is only one variation across several different cultures and mythologies. In other words, no, this isn’t the same tree as the Norse Yggdrasil nor the Taoist Tree of Life that bears the peach of immortality. It’s less an actual tree and more a diagram.
All of that being said, you will definitely need to retain this information for the next lesson. Your assignment today is simply going to consist of a short quiz to test your comprehension of the material. As usual, leave your assignment on my desk when you’re done. I’ll take my leave now. Hopefully I can beat the rush to the Great Hall… I heard that trifles are on the menu today!