Toledano Kabbalah - an Introduction
Kabbalah, a Hebrew word meaning “to receive” has become more well-known and high profile in the last 25 years thanks to a number of Hollywood A listers studying the subject. The advent of the internet has also made public much information that was previously well below the radar but in 1992, when I first encountered the Toledano School of Kabbalah through Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi that had yet to happen.
Then, Kabbalah was known mainly as something rather mysterious and not quite safe – only to be studied if you were Jewish, male, over forty and married, preferably with children.
Since a number of major Kabbalists in the past had failed to fulfil all these obligations either by dying before the age of forty or writing major works on Kabbalah while still in their twenties there seemed to be some flaws in this particular argument.
Early on in my studies I came to realise that these conditions were a metaphor meaning that one should only venture into this Work if one has a secure foothold in the physical world and some degree of psychological maturity.
The tomb of Moses Cordovero at Safed, Israel.
The Hebrew lettering forms the acrostic which gave him the name by which he is often known. The Ramak – The Rabbi Moses Cordovero.
As an example of the necessity of meeting theseconditions there is a story told of four Rabbis who entered esoteric work. One died, one went mad, one lost the faith he had held previously and only one - the legendary Rabbi Akiva – returned to resume his ordinary life in a state of sanity and with some degree of wisdom.We learn from this that there are many pitfalls and that much caution is required – one must first be grounded in daily life before attempting to unravel the secrets of the hidden worlds. As another tradition puts it “Trust in Allah but first tether your camel.”
Although Kabbalah is an esoteric system particularly associated with Judaism, it is but one expression of universal truths which explain the way the world is constructed, the way it works and the very purpose of existence.
In addition to providing access to Kabbalah as an expression of universal principles Halevi has always spoken of another aim of the Toledano School which is that it should be a path for those who were born Jewish but who had become disaffected with the religious or spiritual education they received. In my own case, from the disaffection I felt in 1992 (and for some years prior to that) after 23 years as a student of Kabbalah, I found myself re-integrating with the Jewish community in 2015 even though I had had minimal contact with it during that period.
To enter Kabbalah as taught within this system there is no particular requirement for a formal religious upbringing. The only requirement is a belief in God by whatever Name the student feels most comfortable with. The word “God” has negative associations for many people and Universal Force, Presence or the One are also acceptable alternatives for what can never be fully described.
However, without accepting there is some design and purpose behind existence by Something greater than ourselves, then the student of Kabbalah or any other esoteric system may be limited in the progress he or she can make.
This is the book in which Halevi defines the charactristics of an Esoteric Group and how it is part of a School.
These ideas are not for everybody. There is another story (retold in Halevi’s School of Kabbalah) which says only 1% of people will be interested in such Work but only 1% of that 1% will still be doing anything about it by the end of their lives. Like the story of the four Rabbis this is probably best treated as a metaphor for the reality that this way of working is only for a minority of people for the time being.
It is in this book that Halevi defines the charactristics of an Esoteric Group and how it is part of a School.
Even so, for its maintenance and progress, the world always needs people who do have this overview – you may well be one of them if you are reading this. There is nothing special about doing this job - understanding the principles of existence may sound very highfaluting but if the washing machine is leaking then, however good my esoteric knowledge may be, it is the skills of a plumber which are more valuable in that moment. In the beginning, it is said, God wished to behold His own image (in Genesis we read that God created man
in His own image) and so the universe was created.
Since only God is perfect, the work of mankind is considered to be the assisting of God in polishing of what is known as the mirror of existence which is required for God to behold His own perfect image. (Feminine or gender neutral pronouns may be inserted if the reader wishes but concentrating on these matters is something of a distraction – the masculine is used as shorthand covering all genders and none).
When this objective has been achieved everything will therefore be perfect as a reflection of God’s own perfection. Everything means everything.
It is also said that the world was created with ten utterances which symbolise ten different aspects of the one God and these ten aspects eventually came to be shown in the diagram which is known as the Tree of Life. In this diagram the arrangement of the ten Sefirot (singular Sefirah) are arranged with 22 connecting paths which correspond to the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Although this diagram is only believed to have been formulated around eight hundred years ago its existence is hinted at in the much older text of a book known as the Sefer Yetzirah. This is often translated as the Book of Creation but a more accurate translation is the Book of Formation. The exact age and authorship of the book are unknown but attributed by some to the biblical figure of Abraham himself.
It is a short book – versions vary with even the longest being less than 3,000 words – but the density of the text is such that it has generated a vast literature as successive generations of students have sought to penetrate the mystery of its meaning.
One legend says that the principles contained in this book go back even further than Abraham - to the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden after he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam, apparently. was given this information by the archangel Raziel in something called the Book of Secrets so that he, Adam, could find his way back to the Garden of Eden from his exile.
Everything in existence can be placed upon the Tree of Life and correspondences found between them whether this is the human psyche, the structure of a family or the archetypal characters in the Bible.
Although belief in a single deity is perhaps the only doctrinal requirement for working with Kabbalah – and, indeed, understanding the rules of existence - there is one other concept which, even if not obligatory, is hard to avoid if one is to make some sense of the world and that is the idea of re-incarnation – or gilgulim (cycles) – to use the Hebrew word.
It is a subject which can polarise opinion.
On the one hand it makes no obvious sense to a person concerned with the purely physical level of existence that a human being should have a soul which manifests through different physical vehicles.
On the other hand it makes a great deal of sense if we are to find an explanation for childhood prodigies such as Mozart to quote just one obvious example. What sort of a universe do we inhabit if we think that these skills were somehow acquired or allotted at random from birth? It seems more “logical” if we accept that they were acquired as the result of accumulated study and practice in previous lives when the soul was manifested in different physical bodies.
Part of the case for re-incarnation which seemed to make particular sense to me was the notion of a just universe. Newton’s third law of motion states that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Newton may have been formulating his laws with particular regard to the physical world but it is a concept which holds true in psychological, behavioural and spiritual terms as well. This is widely recognised in such phrases as “what goes around comes around” where many people observe that an individual will at some stage reap the rewards or punishments in respect of their earlier actions.
But what happens at the end of a physical life when not all debts have been paid or rewards received? If Newton’s laws make sense at all levels then these outstanding balances cannot simply be swept away in the profit and loss account of a single life or the universe would become a very unjust place. Rather, these outstanding balances are carried forward like psychological debtors and creditors to the next accounting period – or incarnation.
The basic mechanics of the diagram of the Tree of Life are that the ten Sefirot or circles represent different qualities of God. They, and the 22 paths which connect them form a series of levels, columns and triads which describe the various stages and aspects of existence.
The three columns represent the states of activity on the right and passivity on the left while the central column is knowns as the column of consciousness. The objective in our existence is to remain on the central column leaning sometimes towards activity and sometimes towards passivity but never so far that we become unstable and overbalance.
The different levels represent the states of consciousness from the mineral to the Divine with all points in between. The diagram shows the human psyche set out on the Tree of Life.
At the base of the Tree is the Sefirah known as Malkhut or the Kingdom. This corresponds to the most basic physical needs of the human being and at a psychological level is sometimes known as the mineral level. It is the human being in a static mode and the consciousness solely of the body itself.
Next comes Yesod, the Foundation, which is the need of the body to perpetuate its own existence through food and drink and the urge to reproduce.
The human psyche set on the Tree of Life (after Halevi)
The two Sefirot Hod and Netzach work in partnership. Netzach brings each cycle or season of life into existence, while Hod maintains its function until altered by a fresh impulse.
The cycle of childhood, for example, is maintained until the hormonal release of puberty which is a fresh impulse altering the mind from train sets and dolls to the attraction of the opposite sex.
In this great lower triad bounded by Hod, Netzach and Malkhut life continues in a cycle of daily existence wherein we spend our time participating in daily life (action), thinking about what we are going to do, doing or have done (thinking) and experiencing feelings about our existence (feeling).
Modern therapeutic methods may correctly advocate the separation of thoughts and feeling in order to process particularly difficult moments but the occasions when we are able to bring all three together in harmony are the times when we do our best work. The concert pianist has to think which keys to strike, to perform the action and to inject feeling into the process in order to be successful. The orchestration of this comes from a higher part of the psyche which directs operations.
To live life in this endlessly repeating cycle is enough for some people and is known as the vegetable level of existence. This is not said in a derogatory sense but because it mimics the existence of a vegetable which maintains an annual cycle of planting, growth and decay without ever leaving its place of planting.
For some human beings this is not enough and they find the need within themselves to achieve more than those who are happy to live continuously in the same environment. This is not yet the place of the individual but of the competitor who knows he or she has to be the best at something. The part of the psyche which describes this is the awakening triad bounded by Netzach, Hod and Tiferet.
Tiferet is at the centre of the Tree of Life and is connected to every other Sefirah directly except Malkhut to which it is connected through Yesod. Tiferet is known sometimes as the junction box because it is at the centre of psychological operations.
While Yesod, sometimes known as lower consciousness or the personality, is the manner in which we work in the world, this can be dangerous if it is handed total control. Tiferet, greater consciousness, knows what is best for us and has a greater sense of what is good for us in the long term rather than giving way to the passing desires of Yesod. Tiferet is our friend for life.
Tiferet also forms one point of a critical triad known as the Soul Triad. This triad may be said to overlay the Tree itself and represents the point where we exercise our freewill and act in accordance with our conscience. The other Sefirot in this triad are Hesed which represents the principle of lovingkindness and Gevurah which corresponds with Strength.
The root of the word Gevurah implies the overcoming of obstacles and it is also translated (loosely) as discipline and discernment. In earlier versions of the Tree of Life Gevurah was known as Pechad (fear) and Din (law) while Hesed was known as Gedulah (greatness). The variation in names gives us clues to the subtlety of interpretation.
The “side triads” of Tiferet-Hesed-Netzach and Tiferet-Gevurah-Hod correspond with the emotional level of the psyche and represent the pleasure and pain respectively which we experience as we go through life. These emotions are retained in the psyche for many years in contrast to feelings, with which they are sometimes confused, and which can change a dozen times a day.
The two sefirot at the top of the side columns – Hokhmah and Binah – embody the principles of wisdom and understanding respectively. Developing this further we see Hokhmah incorporates the ideas of innovation, revolution and the wildcard maverick in society while Binah represents established tradition and the limitations of what is possible. Faith versus reason is another contrast which be made between these two Sefirot.
The “upper side triads” of Tiferet-Hesed-Hokhmah and Tiferet-Gevurah-Binah represent the society in which we are placed and how that affects us. The first of these triads symbolises our religious or spiritual upbringing while the second defines the political and national society in which we are raised.
The great triad of Hokhmah-Binah-Tiferet is known as the triad of the spirit and shows how Grace may descend upon us and how we may experience what is known as the Dew of Heaven. We can see that the lowest part of this – together with the upper side triads – is overlaid by the soul triad.
This configuration shows how we have a conscience which, when we listen to it, will guide us in the actions we take in connection with society and whether, sometimes, we are better to take no action at all but to depend on heaven to sort matters out to the best advantage of all concerned.
Within the middle of the Triad of the Spirit lies the “non-Sefirah” of Da’at. The diagram which is being described here is that of a single world but the Universe itself is, according to Kabbalah, composed of four worlds which are interleaved.
The diagrams below show the unified Jacob’s Ladder which incorporates the four worlds and also the way in which the four worlds are interleaved to form it.
The unified Jacob's Ladder on the left and the overlapping four worlds on the right which form it
The highest world is Atzilut in which all is potential. The word means “near to” and is the first world which came into being with the universe. There is no action and no time in this world and it corresponds to the traditional element of fire.
The second highest world is Beriah – the world of creation or spirit which corresponds to the element of air. The Genesis story begins at the Keter of Beriah.
The third world is Yetzirah – the world of forms corresponding to water.
The fourth world is Assiyah – the physical world of action which corresponds to the element of earth.
The word Da’at means knowledge and, in a diagram of the interleaved worlds, corresponds to the Yesod (Foundation) of the next highest world.
So, for example, the Da’at in the world of the psyche which is being depicted in this explanation of the Kabbalistic system, corresponds to the Yesod of the world of Beriah (creation, spirit and archangels).
The Da’at of our Psyche allows us an occasional glimpse of the Heavenly world and to interpret, if we are lucky, the knowledge that is available from that world.
The highest triad on the Tree and on the central column is Keter, the Crown, the potential from which creation commences. Together with Hokhmah and Binah it forms the Triad of the Divine, which is unconcerned with everyday matters, but which infuses our lives with Divinity.
The origin of the Jacob’s Ladder goes back at least to tenth century Yemen but it was only published in its present form in the mid-1970’s by Halevi. It is one of the hallmarks of the Toledano School although it has gradually come to be used by other Schools.
The unified Jacob's Ladder also enables the "fifth world" to be identified by placing the Sefirot on the central column to form a Kav (staff) - see diagram at right. This is clearly visible on the original Yemeni image which even distinguishes the Da'at of Atzilut from the surrounding Sefirot.
This represents the interval between the Keter of Atzilut and the Tiferet of Atzilut which is where the Creation story in Genesis commences - the Tiferet of Atzilut corresponds to the Keter of Beriah, the highest point in the world of Creation/Spirit.
A Divine Image of the perfect man known as Adam Kadmon, is also represented at the Tiferet of Atzilut and, it is said, each person is a single cell of this being. When a person has finally perfected themselves (after many incarnations) then they return to this place and go through the Da'at of Atzilut to merge with the Divine.
For further material on this aspect of Kabbalah see particularly pages 76 and 109 of Introduction to the World of Kabbalah by Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi ISBN 1905806213.
The other factor which distinguishes the Toledano Schools from the majority of Kabbalistic teaching is the question of the Breaking of the Vessels (shivrat hakeilim in Hebrew). Classical Kabbalah as taught in the Toledano School takes its guidance from the teaching of Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) in Safed, Israel.
During the last two years of Cordovero’s life one of his students was Isaac Luria, known by many as the Ari (from an acrostic of his name). Luria, like
The Jacob's Ladder including the placement of the Kav (staff) on the central column which forms the fifth world
many of his time was searching for an explanation for the evils which had beset the Jews for many centuries and evolved the theory that, during the creation of the universe, the vessels (Sefirot) had not been strong enough to receive the Divine light of creation. They had therefore shattered, scattering the shards to all corners of the world. It became the duty of humanity, Luria concluded, to carry out tikkun olam – the repair of the universe – although the word tikkun may perhaps be better translated as “perfection” rather than “repair.”Perfecting the universe in order to assist God to behold His own image is something done with a very different motive to perfecting or repairing the universe which is broke – something which presupposes a design fault on the part of the Creator who, as we know, is perfect.
The ceiling of Eglise Saint-Christophe de Montsaunès, near Toulouse.
The beginnings of the diagram of the Tree of Life are clearly seen on this thirteenth century design with three circles in each of the two outer columns and four circles on the central column.
Further, in the creation story in Genesis we read that at the end of each day God looked at his work and considered to be either good or very
good. This could not have been the case if the vessels had shattered.
As mentioned briefly earlier, the account of creation in Genesis is of the world of Beriah whereas the vessels which Luria considered to have been broken were the sefirot of Atzilut, one world higher.If the world of Atzilut had fallen apart then there could have been no Beriah and, on the principle of “as above so below,” then if every day of creation in Beriah was perceived by God to be good or very good then the same must have been true in Atzilut.
Kabbalah adapts to the need of every age and while the Toledano School can trace its lineage through the hills of sixteenth century Safed to thirteenth century Provence and Girona, tenth century Yemen and beyond the job in hand is to adapt its principles to the needs of the present day and for future generations to adapt it to theirs.
© Jonathon Clark 2019-2023