How Many Sefirot are Involved in Creation?

 

Question:

I’m a beginner at chassidic studies; I especially enjoy perusing the spirituality articles on your site. I’ve noticed something that looks like an inconsistency: In many articles (e.g. The Sefirot and Fantasy), the authors explain that G‑d employed ten building blocks in the creation of worlds—the ten sefirot. Yet other articles (e.g. The Fiftieth Year and What is the Mystical Significance of the Star of David?) explain that G‑d used seven attributes, sefirot, in the course of creation.

Perhaps you can provide some insight in this matter.

Answer:

Indeed, there are altogether ten sefirot:

  1. Chochmoh (Wisdom)
  2. Binah (Understanding)
  3. Da’at (Knowledge)
  4. Chesed (Kindness)
  5. Gevurah (Severity)
  6. Tiferet (Beauty)
  7. Netzach (Perseverance)
  8. Hod (Splendor)
  9. Yesod (Foundation)
  10. Malchut (Royalty)

(Please note that the translations are imprecise and somewhat simplistic. They’re the closest I can get to translating these multi-nuanced Hebrew words.)

On the surface there do seem to be contradictory statements in the midrashic and kabbalistic texts with regard to how the world was created—with ten sefirot or only the final seven.

On the one hand the Sages tell us that the world was created with ten qualities1 and ten utterances2—which the mystics understand3 to correspond to the ten sefirot.4 This explains why ten is considered a "complete" number.5 Examples: a) Every physical object comprises three dimensions. Each dimension is composed of a beginning, end and body. Together with the space it occupies, every entity has ten components. b) A person’s life is divided into decades; each decade with a unique theme.6 c) A quorum of ten is needed to constitute a minyan.7

On the other hand, we find other sources that speak of G‑d creating the world with only the final seven8 sefirot.9 This is why the world was created in seven days—each day corresponding to one of these spiritual tools, and the creations of each day are a reflection of the divine attribute that dominated on that particular day.

The answer lies in the basic difference between the first three sefirot and the seven that follow.

The first three are G‑d’s mochin, intellect, as opposed to the last seven which are midot, emotive attributes—Kindness, Severity and their various combinations and offshoots.

An understanding of the difference between human intellect and emotions gives us a glimpse into the nature of their divine counterparts.

Cognition is an intensely personal experience. Even when I am thinking about others, it is me thinking about them—these thoughts are hidden from them and, most importantly, have no direct impact on them. Furthermore, intellect does not require another. Even when I am alone, without someone with whom to share an idea, I can contemplate and theorize.

Emotions, by contrast, require a recipient. This is where others actually enter the picture. Because emotions are directed at another entity. For example, the attribute of kindness requires someone to receive one’s generosity and kindness. And an emotion towards another – whether positive or negative – normally leads to a direct consequence that will affect that individual.

But intellect – though personal and detached from others – spawn emotions. Positive thoughts lead to positive emotions and vice versa.

So, ultimately, the intellectual attributes do have an impact on others, but indirectly—via the emotions they generate.

The same is true of the divine sefirot. Directly involved in the creation of the world are only the seven emotional traits. But G‑d’s Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge are heavily invested in creation,10 albeit in a more concealed and indirect manner.11


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FOOTNOTES
1.

Talmud Chagigah 12a.

2.

Ethics 5:1.

3.

See Midrash Shmuel on Ethics ibid.; Zohar II 42b ff.

4.

The fact that the first three sefirot, the intellectual faculties, are also involved in creation is also evident from Sefer Yetzirah (1:1), "The world was created by three: …the Book, the Scribe, and the Narrative." Chassidic teachings (see e.g. Ushavtem 5634) explains this as referring to Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at.

5.

Since the Torah is the blueprint of all creation (see below, footnote 10), the fact that the world was created with ten tools (which results in ten being a "perfect" number) is because the Torah itself is rooted in the Ten Commandments.

6.

Ethics 5:22.

7.

See Likutei Sichot vol. 30 p. 2 ff.

8.

In many of the sources, it speaks only of six Sefirot—i.e. Chesed through Yesod. This is because the final sefirah, Malchut, possesses no distinctive quality; its function is to absorb the energies of the higher six attributes and use them to actually descend and create—and "reign" over the created entities. (Malchut is often compared to the moon, which merely reflects the light of the sun.)

9.

See Zohar I 3b, 15b, 247a.

10.

This is why the Zohar (vol. II 161b) tells us that the Torah is the blueprint of creation: "G‑d looked in the Torah and created the world." This is because Torah is G‑d’s intellect, which is the source of (the midot that create) the world.

11.

The primary ideas expressed in this response are taken from Maamar Isa B’Midrash Tehillim.

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