The Jewish Year and The Tree of Life
(For an introduction to the principles of Kabbalah please click here)
Every religious tradition has its calendar of feasts, festivals and fasts which punctuate the cycle of everyday existence.
Judaism is no different and an extra dimension is added to the celebration of these events when we realise that each occasion corresponds to one of the Sefirot of the Tree of Life. The whole annual cycle becomes an opportunity to align with the different aspects of the Divine which are represented by the qualities of the feasts, fasts and festivals.
This article will discuss the principal festivals as they relate to a Kabbalistic scheme. For the sake of completeness I have included a table at the end of the article showing how the festivals fit on the calendar and listing the minor fasts and feasts.
There is no event as such at the highest Sefirah of Keter. Rather, this reminds us of the Unity of the Calendar and how there is a design behind what might otherwise appear to be a set of random events.
Each Sefirah is represented by an event which is specifically mentioned in the Torah while Netzach and Hod also have correspondences with festivals that have been added later.
The Festivals of the Jewish Year set on the Tree of Life
Rosh Hashanah (New Year)
“And in the seventh month on the first day you shall have a holy festival of remembrance for you by blowing horns.” (Leviticus 23:24).
The Shofar (Ram’s horn) is blown throughout the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, as well as on the festival itself and to signal the end of Yom Kippur.
Although the beginning of the world is commemorated on the first day of Tishri this is referred to as the seventh month since the Torah counts the first month as Nisan in which the Israelites were freed from slavery. Trying to describe the moment of creation would be a hazardous task to undertake. One popular theory or traditional belief is that of the Big Bang – that there was a single moment when there was a huge explosion and the world came into being. Nothing could be a better description of the quality of Hokhmah where flashes of inspiration may occur.
Rosh Hashanah fits perfectly to this Sefirah according to the myth of the Big Bang.
One of the most well-known aspects of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the Shofar, the Rams Horn. The blasts from the trumpet are redolent of single moment in which the world was created. A further layer of symbolism exists according to the tradition that each Sefirah on the Tree of Life contains a full Tree within it.
Thus there are 100 Sefirot (10 x 10) in total on the Tree. This is echoed – literally - in the construction of the blasts.
Each of the four calls consists of a different number of notes as follows:
Tekiah (1), Shevarim (3), Teruah (9), Tekiah Gedolah (1 – equivalent to 10 single notes)
These calls are sounded in the following order – the length of the note is in brackets:
Tekiah (1) Shevarim (3) Teruah (9) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Shevarim (3) Teruah (9) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Shevarim (3) Teruah (9) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Shevarim (3) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Shevarim (3) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Shevarim (3) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Teruah (9) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Teruah (9) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah (1) Teruah (9) Tekiah (1)
Tekiah Gedolah (10)
Grand Total = 100
Click here to see and hear an example of the shofar being blown at:
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
“And on the tenth day of this seventh month is a day of atonement….you shall afflict your souls.” (Leviticus 23:27).
If the single blast of the shofar represents Hokhmah then the long process of repentance over a 25 hour period of abstinence from food and drink is the time when an understanding is gained of the consequences of our actions in the previous twelve months.
Binah is also associated with limitations and Yom Kippur is known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths when there are more limitations on what must be avoided than at any other time of the year. Binah is the place of seriousness where joy is absent. In addition to refraining from food and drink the pleasure derived from washing, sexual activity, using creams or oil on the body and wearing leather are all no go areas.
It was not always like this – in the time of the Second Temple young men would greet their prospective brides in the afternoon after the sacrifices had been made in the morning. It is possible that what has happened is that the need for a festival conforming to the archetype of Binah has resulted in an increasing atmosphere of solemnity around this day so that the annual feast and festivals form a complete set of correspondences to the Tree of Life through the annual calendar. Yom Kippur has come to be the Binah of the calendar that was initially missing.
The period of ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur known as the Ten Days of Repentance or the Days of Awe can be taken to represent the ten Sefirot of the Tree of Life - one day at a time. Each day therefore offers the opportunity for contemplation of a particular Sefirah as follows:
1 Tishri Keter – first day of Rosh Hashanah
2 Tishri Hokhmah – second day of Rosh Hashanah
3 Tishri Binah
4 Tishri Hesed
5 Tishri Gevurah
6 Tishri Tiferet
7 Tishri Netzach
8 Tishri Hod
9 Tishri Yesod
10 Tishri Malkut – Yom Kippur
“And on the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles.” (Leviticus 23:34)
Universal law demands a constant rebalancing of the world in order that equilibrium is maintained. If there is too much suffering and misery then existence will be crystallised while too much pleasure produces excessive forces causing the fragmentation of existence.
The same idea is seen in other traditions such as the symbol of the Tao. The diagram on the right shows the white Yin and the black Yang each containing the seed of the opposite quality within it, mirroring the model of the Tree of Life used in Kabbalah where the two side pillars represent activity and passivity.
In complete contrast to the seriousness of Yom Kippur the festival of Succot is meant to be celebrated with joy. The word Succah (plural Succot) mean booth or tabernacle and commemorates the existence of the Israelites in the desert after they had left Egypt when they had no permanent homes.
Yin and Yang. Statements of universal principles are adapted to fit different cultures,
We hurry to joy with such speed that the practice of building one’s own Succah starts with the first pole being put in place even before the fast of Yom Kippur has been broken.
Succot, falling in the autumn in the northern hemisphere, is one of a trio of agricultural festivals in Judaism and roughly corresponds with the harvest festival of the Christian calendar. It is a time when joy is expressed at the wondrous nature of the earth - the seeds and plants sown many months earlier have grown and ripened to produce fruit which is ready for consumption.
One of the other well-known aspects of Succot is the experience of the Lulav and Etrog.
The Lulav consists of the leaves of the palm, willow and myrtle which are bound together and shaken in six directions (forward, right, behind, left, up, down) as a reminder of the universal presence of God. The Etrog is not actually mentioned in the Torah which refers to “fruit of majestic trees” but was taken to be an Etrog by the authors of the Talmud.
The Lulav and Etrog also have an esoteric significance as they remind us of the four worlds of the universe each of which is associated with one of the four ancient elements – Atzilut (Emanation - fire), Beriah, (creation - air), Yetzirah (formation - water) and Assiyah (action - earth).
Many people observe the commandment to “dwell in the Succah” by eating their meals in it for the seven days of the festival and – in warmer countries – by sleeping in it.
The palm tree represents Beriah since it is so tall and reaches into the air (or heaven), the willow signifies Yetzirah as it grows near water while Assiyah is symbolised by the myrtle which is a shrub that remains close to the earth.The powerful and impressive aroma of the Etrog reminds us of Azilut, the highest world of all. Azilut contains only the potential for existence as we know it and so is quite different from the three lower worlds. In the same way, the Etrog is a fruit and therefore
Since the intention is for Succot to be celebrated with joy as a balance to the solemnity of Yom Kippur so the esoteric reason for Shemini Atzeret is to place a limit on that celebration and ensure it does not become excessive. Shemini Atzeret has an ambivalent relationship with Succot since it is simultaneously considered part of the festival as well as a festival in its own right.
Simchat Torah is perhaps more well known than Shemini Atzeret and marks the end and beginning in the annual cycle of readings from the Torah. It is a late addition to the cycle of festivals and was only introduced around the fifteenth century. In Israel and Progressive/Reform communities Simchat Torah is combined with Shemini Atzeret into a single day although orthodox communities in the diaspora treat it as an additional festival on the day following Shemini Atzeret.
Although it is a well known festival, the late addition of Simchat Torah makes it almost superfluous to the consideration of the Calendar in a Kabbalistic context. The joy of Hesed is expressed in the festival of Succot and extended by Simchat Torah while having a limit placed on it by the solemnity of Shemini Atzeret.
quite different from the leaves which form the Lulav. The Etrog, as a symbol of fire which is the element corresponding to Atzilut, is ripened by the warmth of the sun.
Sukkot lasts for seven days and, in the same way as each of the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are symbolic of the ten Sefirot of the Tree of Life, so the seven days of Succot may be seen as symbolic of the lower seven Sefirot with each of them contemplated on one of the days as follows:
15 Tishri Hesed
16 Tishri Gevurah
17 Tishri Tiferet
18 Tishri Netzach
19 Tishri Hod
20 Tishri Yesod
21 Tishri Malkut
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly and Rejoicing of the Law)
“On the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you…it is a day of solemn assembly)” (Leviticus 23:36)
The Lulav and Etrog are held in the right and left hand and shaken in each of six directions.
“And in the first month on the fourteenth of the month at dusk is the Lord’s Passover….seven days you shall eat unleavened bread…..the seventh day is a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:5-8)
Pesach has two distinct aspects to it. The first – and probably more familiar - is the celebration of the Children of Israel being liberated from slavery in Egypt.
Although the liberation itself is a cause for joy, the festival commemorates the 400 years of suffering as slaves and is therefore connected with the Sefirah of Gevurah, one aspect of which is sharpness or bitterness.
In Kabbalistic astrology Gevurah resonates with the planet Mars which governs blades while in the Archangelic world of Beriah it is Samael who corresponds with Gevurah. Samael is known as the angel of death and is therefore associated with the last of the ten plagues in which all the first born in Egypt were killed even though it is made clear that God Himself, and nothing else, implemented this plague.
The matzah (unleavened bread) does not contain yeast and therefore does not rise. This is symbolic of a life which lacks a spiritual dimension, commemorating the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.
Pesach also marks the barley festival – the early cereal crop which is unrefined. Barley, an essential ingredient in most beers, is what provides their bitter flavour.
One way in which the festival is marked by not eating leavened food such as bread. The outer explanation for this is that the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry and there was no time for the bread to rise.
At another level we might consider that bread is composed of three elements which signify the three lower worlds. Flour is clearly representative of the world of Assiyah as it comes from the physical crop of wheat while water is the natural element of the world of Yetzirah. Yeast, although it is a physical substance resonates with Beriah, the world of the Spirit. We become lighter when we are infused
with Spirit just as the dough becomes lighter when yeast is added to it and creates pockets of air. The dough is baked in an oven which corresponds to Azilut – the world symbolised by the traditional element of fire. Matzah (unleavened bread) is an incomplete food since, symbolically, it contains only three worlds with the yeast (Beriah) omitted. Eating matzah may be a novelty in the early part of the week of Pesach but many people find it can produce indigestion (or worse) if eaten in excess and it is a tangible reminder of a world in which Spirit is absent just as the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and existing only on a physical level.
The celebration of the Seder service at the beginning of Pesach is one of the most potent rituals in Judaism – you can read more about its Kabbalistic significance here
Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost)
“After the seventh week you shall number fifty days and present a new meal offering.” (Leviticus 23:16)
Like Pesach, Shavuot has two distinct aspects to it. It is another agricultural festival, marking the time of the wheat harvest.
While barley is used principally for animal feed wheat, as a more refined crop, is used to make bread which is used for human consumption.
Although the Torah does not make any reference to Shavuot being a festival, it marks the date when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive it. Moses remained on the mountain for forty days and smashed the tablets of stone after his descent when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf so he went back up the mountain for another 40 days to collect a second set of tablets.
The exact date on which the Torah was handed over is therefore uncertain and one of the other names for the festival – Z’man Matan Torateinu (the Season of the Giving our Torah) specifies a season rather than an exact date.
From a symbolic and Kabbalistic viewpoint the alignment of Shavuot with Tiferet is a natural fit. The inner truth of the Torah corresponds with the inner truth which an individual demonstrates when they operate from this level of consciousness. The authorship of the Torah and its Divine status is a topic that belongs to a different and lengthy discussion.
The three agricultural festivals therefore symbolise the three aspects of the soul triad on
The Torah is written by hand onto parchment and an extract is read each week in the synagogue. The verse stating that the Torah was not just given to those standing at Mount Sinai “but also with him that is not here” is generally taken to mean that the Torah is binding on future generations but also hints at the concept of re-incarnation. (Deuteronomy 29:14)
the Tree of Life – the joy of Succot at Hesed, the commemoration of slavery at Pesach at Gevurah and the essence of the Calendar– the Torah itself – at Shavuot when it was given to Moses by God.
As we shall see later, the lower face of the tree of life is symbolised in the calendar by the everyday weekly and monthly cycle of existence but, on three occasions every year, the Israelites were told to remove themselves from this:
“Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which He shall choose” (Deuteronomy 16:10).
Although the city of Jerusalem is not specifically mentioned in this verse it is referred to by Isaiah as “the city of our appointed feasts” (Isaiah 33:20).
From a Kabbalistic point of view this recognises that humankind lives in the ordinary world most of the time but that it is important to have set times when a deliberate ascent is made to a higher level of consciousness. The Soul triad is the Jerusalem of our psyche.
Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) and Purim
“And in your new moons you shall present a burnt offering to the Lord” (Numbers 28:11)
When the human psyche is placed on the Tree of Life, Netzach is the Sefirah where action is initiated at the physical level. In many situations which are described in terms of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life it corresponds with the launch of a new cycle of activity as is the case here.
The New Moon was used to fix several of the festivals in the Jewish Calendar – Pesach, Succot and Purim fall on a Full Moon as well as the more recently revived festivals of Tu B’Shevat and Tu B’Av which have to do with fruit and trees.
Additionally, the date of Rosh Hashanah is lunar dependent since it falls on a New Moon while both Yom Kippur and Shavuot are counted from festivals fixed by the phase of the Moon. It is therefore no surprise that the appearance of the Moon each month became a minor festival in itself such was the importance of the Moon in the proper function of the calendar.
The tradition of dressing up as characters from the Purim story and being unable to distinguish Haman from Mordecai has given way to broader themes of inclusivity and general merriment. Every tradition has its season of licensed “topsy turvy” and Purim fulfils this role in the Jewish Year.
Purim – which celebrates the escape of the Jews from the intended genocide by Haman – dates not from the Torah but from events in Persia in the third century BCE. Its nature, however, is pure Netzach with parties, fancy dress and a tradition to drink so much that one is unable to distinguish between Mordecai (one of the heroes of the Purim story) and the evil Haman who planned the destruction of the Jews.
Sefirat Ha’Omer (Counting the Omer) and Chanukah
“And you shall count.……seven weeks” (Leviticus 23:21)
The period between Pesach and Shavuot is known as the Omer, and the 49 days between these festivals are counted with a verbal declaration each evening and morning throughout the period. Shavuot occurs on the 50th day.
On the Tree of Life Hod is the place of repetition and maintenance of the established order. Where Netzach changes or initiates, Hod preserves and continues what has been started. The Counting of the Omer is therefore a ritual which is a perfect demonstration of this aspect of ourselves and of the Divine.
Although the conventional method of counting the Omer is a simple statement of the number of the day the Kabbalistic method offers another and deeper method for contemplation.
Betting on the outcome of the dreidel (spinning top) is a traditional game played at Chanukah which evokes two of the qualities of the Sefirah of Hod – counting and games. Just as Purim is a time of licensed drinking so Chanukah is a time of licensed gambling.
Each week is assigned one of the lower seven Sefirot in sequence (starting with Hesed) and then the days of the week are numbered in the same way. Thus the first day is the Hesed of Hesed, the second is the Gevurah of Hesed and so on until the Malkut of Malkut is reached on the 49th day.
The combinations of the Sefirot provide the material for reflection each day. For example the Hesed of Gevurah (the first day of the second week) might be a time to consider the benefits of “tough love”) while the Tiferet of Hod could be the occasion for presenting information in as clear a way as possible so that the truth was seen more readily. Keeping a journal of these reflections further deepens the experience and increase the number of insights.
Chanukah is another late addition to the calendar, commemorating the revolt by the Maccabees against the Greek occupation and desecration of the Temple in the second century BCE.
At this time there was only enough oil to last for one day even though a light was supposed to burn continually in the Temple. The miracle of Chanukah was that this oil lasted for eight days until a fresh supply could be arranged. In commemoration of this miracle and the subsequent rededication of the Temple a single candle is lit on the first of the eight nights of the festival, two on the second night and so on until eight candles are lit on the eighth night.
It is another exercise in counting and further resonances with Hod are found in the tradition of playing indoor games throughout the festival – Hod is also associated with the archetype of the trickster and games player.
“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8)
At first sight it might be surprising that Shabbat- which is mentioned specifically in the Ten Commandments while other festivals are not - should be placed at Yesod.
Why Yesod, which corresponds to everyday consciousness when Tiferet corresponds to higher consciousness? Surely Shabbat is the most important festival of all when the commandment is to rest (as God did from Creation) and to take pleasure in it?
There are also more restrictions around Shabbat than around the festivals apart from Yom Kippur as mentioned earlier. This is explained by the realisation that the further one descends in the Tree (Existence) in any setting the more numerous and complex the laws become.
Shabbat (Sabbath) - is the seventh day of creation and introduces the idea that rest is a part of that process. Continual activity is as unproductive as continual passivity. The blessings over wine and bread are part of a Kabbalistic ritual discussed in another article.
The broad principles set out in the Ten Commandments were expanded into the whole Torah and then further by Rabbinic commentary many years later.
Shabbat, special as it is, is a crucial part of the weekly cycle rather than an annual event. There is a Shabbat in every week and even though it is set aside as something special it still forms a part of our everyday existence.
One tradition holds that, since shabbat is so special, we are saying goodbye to the last Shabbat from its
official ending on Saturday night until the following Tuesday at which time we start to prepare for the next Shabbat. The festivals are each celebrated once a year – Shabbat is celebrated every week.
“And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” (Genesis 1:5)
The feasts, fast and festivals of the Jewish Calendar belong to the totality of the calendar of the solar year – the time which it takes for the earth to make one orbit of the Sun.
While orbiting the Sun, the earth spins on its own axis over a period of approximately 24 hours which describes one day. This is the smallest component of the year which can be identified by a recognisable cosmological event although this is subdivided mathematically into hours, minutes, seconds and fractions of seconds.
The day is Malkut, the first and most basic unit of the calendar of the Jewish Year and the first unit of time which is mentioned in the Torah.
While special times are mentioned for the observance of particular rituals and recitation of special prayers, these would not be special without the ordinary days which comprise the rest of the year. It is the intervals of silence between the notes which prevents continual noise and enables us to make music.
The temporal spaces created by the placement of feasts, fasts and festivals enable the music of the year to be played but the notes that are sounded are the notes of the ordinary days of our lives and the festivals are the intervals.
Each day is a strand in the fabric which is woven into the tapestry of our life. The extent to which we can bring the additional consciousness of the feasts, fasts and festival into the ordinary days will determine the degree to which we can have a positive effect on the world and assist in the Work of Unification.
Calendar of Main Jewish Holidays
The first day of each of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, the seventh day of Pesach and Shemini Atzeret are celebrated as a full festival in all orthodox Jewish communities with restrictions on such activities as use of electricity, writing, travel and work.
Orthodox communities outside Israel add a second day to the above five festivals. Progressive and Reform communities worldwide do not follow the same restrictions although they still celebrate the festivals.
The intermediate days of Succot and Pesach do not have restrictions on work and travel although the restriction of not eating leavened food still applies at Pesach.
Although they do not have significance within this Kabbalistic scheme and are more recent additions to the calendar the following days are also part of Jewish life in the early part of the 21st century according to individual choice and local custom.
14 Nisan - Fast of the First Born
A fast undertaken by the first born in the family in thanks for the first born of the Israelites being spared from the tenth plague while the first born of the Egyptian died.
27 Nisan - Yom Hashoah
Commemoration of the holocaust in which six million Jews died in the Second World War (1939-1945).
4 Iyar - Yom Hazikaron
Remembrance for those who have died as a result of wars in which Israel has been involved since 1948 and victims of terrorism in the same period.
5 Iyar - Yom Ha’atzmaut
Israeli Independence Day
18 Iyar - Lag Ba’Omer
Traditionally celebrated as the ending of a plague in the first century CE in which 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died and the staging of a revolt by Bar Kokhba against Roman rule. The festival has been re-interpreted at various times according to prevailing enthusiasms or political agendas.
17 Tammuz - Fast of Tammuz
Commemorates the breaching of the walls three weeks before the destruction of the Second Temple. The fast is from dawn to dusk and marks the start of the “Three Weeks” which is a period of semi mourning.
9 Av - Tisha B’Av
A fast is observed for 25 hours starting on the evening of 8 Av. This commemoration the destruction of both the First and Second Temples as well as a number of other, later, disastrous events. It also marks the end Three Weeks, a period semi-mourning between the Fast of Tammuz and Tish B’Av.
15 Av - Tu B’Av
Traditionally marked the beginning of the grape harvest. Although hardly acknowledged for many years it has now been revived in Israel as a day of romance. Every culture needs its equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
3 Tishri -Fast of Gedaliah
A fast from dawn to dusk to commemorate the murder of Gedaliah, the righteous Babylonian governor of Judea in 582 BCE (approx.).
10 Tevet - Fast of Tevet
A fast from dawn to dusk in recognition of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar which led to the destruction of the First Temple eighteen months later.
15 Shevat- Tu B'Shvat
The New Year for Trees – variously celebrated as the day on which the first leaves of the new season were seen on the trees (earlier in the Middle East than England…..), a day for planting trees and, more recently, a day for promoting ecological awareness. The “Tu BiShvat Seder” conducted to celebrate this festival was devised by the Kabbalists of Safed in the sixteenth century and will be the subject of a future article on this web site.
14 Adar - Fast of Esther
The fast is from dawn to dusk and commemorates the three day fast which Esther undertook in the story of Purim before approaching the king to plead for him to spare the Jews from the intended genocide by Haman.
15 Adar - Shushan Purim
Purim was celebrated one day later in the walled city of Shushan, the capital city of the Persian Empire at the time the events of Purim took place, as the Jews in that city did not defeat their enemies until 14th Adar and rested on 15th Adar whereas Jews in unwalled cities had defeated their enemies on 13th Adar and rested on 14th. Adar. Purim is observed on 15th. Adar in walled cities such as Jerusalem in recognition of Shushan’s status.
© Jonathon Clark 2020