The She’ma – a Kabbalistic Perspective
(For an introduction to the principles of Kabbalah please click here)
The She’ma, one of the two main prayers of Judaism, is recited twice a day, morning and evening, and consists of three sections of the Bible:
Numbers 15: 37-41.
However, it is the first section which is generally considered to be the most important as the opening sentence of that paragraph is the declaration of the unity of God, the central concept of Judaism: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
The She’ma is the prayer which is taught to young children before they go to sleep each night and, ideally, is the last thing said before death.
From a Kabbalistic point of view the words and phrases in the first paragraph of the Shema can all be identified with various points on the extended Tree of Life (Jacob’s Ladder).
If the person reciting the Shema is aware of these correspondences during the act of prayer then it allows him (or her) to unite more closely with that diagrammatic image of the Divine and, in turn, with the Divine itself. This is not possible if the passage is simply recited by rote.
The five verses which follow the statement of God’s Unity neatly evoke each of the four worlds in the sequence Azilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, Assiyah.
The first line of the She’ma is the statement which defines the central concept of Judaism – that there is one God. As such, this statement of the essence of God can be attributed to the Tiferet of Azilut, the world which consists solely of the names of God and where all of creations is held in potential. Tiferet is the sefirah which describes the essence of each of the worlds.
As we make the opening declaration of the She’ma – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” we align ourselves with this place, the Tiferet of Azilut. (Figure 2.)
The Tiferet of Azilut overlays the Keter of Beriah which corresponds to the beginning of the Creation story as told in the book of Genesis.
This statement of God’s unity comes at the highest level of our awareness. The Keter of Azilut, the highest world and the topmost sefirah on Jacob’s Ladder simply marks the point at which humanity begins its return to the Divine.
Having invoked the highest point (Keter) of Beriah the next line of the She’ma takes us to the Tiferet of Beriah (Figure 3).
This is known as the place where the three highest worlds meet for the Tiferet of Beriah is overlaid by the lowest point (Malkut) of Azilut and overlays the highest point (Keter) of the world of formation, Yetzirah. The upper part of this last world is represented by the higher part of the human psyche.
At this place where the three upper worlds meet we are given the first instruction – “And you shall love the Lord your God.” This is to be done in three different ways.
The first way is “with all your heart,” which indicates the place of Tiferet in Yetzirah – the centre of our psychological vehicle.
The second way is “with all your soul.” Which corresponds to the Yesod of Yetzirah. At first sight this might seem strange for, surely, the soul would occupy a higher place in the psyche than the heart?
However, there are five words for soul in Hebrew and the word which is used here derives from “nefesh” meaning the life force. As such, it is attributable to the Yesod of Yetzirah which is where our ego or personal consciousness keeps us moving through our lives every day.
The third way, “with all your strength,” which clearly invokes the physical world and so is attributed to the Malkut of Yetzirah which overlays the Tiferet of Assiyah, the central point of our physical body.
The instruction here is for mankind to love - God Himself remains passive. We might therefore consider this first part of the She’ma to be the equivalent of Azilut in the scheme of the four worlds – it emanates (the word is used deliberately as Atzilut is sometimes referred to as the world of Emanation) from the Malkut of Azilut.
The four parts of the verse also correspond to places in each of the four different worlds as shown above.
The next verse corresponds to the next world, Beriah. “These words” refers to the whole of the She’ma which includes not just a statement of the unity of God but also of the laws of cause and effect and the various practical methods of maintaining unity with God. (Figure 4).
“Which I command you this day” corresponds to the Yesod of Tiferet since Yesod is the sefirah where the concepts held at Tiferet are delivered to Malkut for implementation and manifestation.
“Shall be upon your heart” is both the manifestation of this commandment at the Malkut of Beriah and their embodiment within human heart at the Tiferet of Yetzirah.
Use of “upon” rather than “in” shows that this sefirah on the Jacob’s Ladder corresponds to two different worlds – the commandment (in the world of Beriah) is laid upon he heart (in the world of Yetzirah.
This verse corresponds to the world of Beriah and finishes in Yetzirah; the next verse works expresses what needs to be done within the world of Yetzirah while touching the world of Assiyah (Figure 5).
“And you shall teach your children and say to them” is an instruction that the lower part of the psyche (that which is below Tiferet) must be kept under discipline in order to serve the higher part of the psyche. These are instructions to our psychological children.
“V’shinnantam”, which is usually translated as “teach,” actually means “to sharpen.” In other words, “you shall make your children (lower parts of the psyche) sharp.”
“When you sit in your house” indicates the passive state of thinking.
“When you walk by the way” is the opposite, showing the triad of action.
“When you lie down and when you rise up” shows the two states of consciousness – Katnut and Gadlut – lesser and greater consciousness respectively or, in modern psychological terms, personal consciousness and self- consciousness.
The final verse of the first paragraph of the She’ma corresponds to the world of Assiyah and takes us back up the Tree. (Figure 6).
The previous verse corresponded to Yetzirah, and contains a single instruction of what we should say in various places and states of consciousness.
Figure 1: Jacob's Ladder containing four worlds, showing each of the sefirot in each of the world and where they overlap.
Figure 2: The Statement of God’s Unity
Figure 3: The Commandment to Love God – The World of Azilut
Figure 4: The Commandments of the She’ma from God –
the World of Beriah
Figure 5: Educating the Psyche – the World of Yetzirah
Figure 6: Rituals – the World of Assiyah
This verse speaks of practical, physical, actions to be taken and therefore corresponds to the world of Assiyah or action. The actions involve two rituals.
Firstly there is the ritual of Tefillin – two small boxes, usually known as phylacteries, containing portions of the Torah which are wound about the hand and placed on the head during the recital of the morning service. Secondly there is the ritual of Mezuzah – a portion of the Torah is placed in a case and fixed to the door of each living room of the house and on the main doors into the property.
The path between Hesed and Gevurah signifies the emotional level and this is shown by the phrase “they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.”
Nobody really knows the meaning of the word “totafot” so it is usually rendered as “frontlets.” The important point is that they are placed between the eyes – we may see what is going on physically with the eyes but it is the heart which sees the reality of a situation and knows what is going on in truth – it can read between the lines. We see emotional truth with our hearts rather than with our eyes.
The human psyche is sometimes referred to as our psychological vehicle. One meditation for establishing our current psychological states makes use of the imager of a house as a metaphor for our psyche and so our “house” becomes our psyche. We therefore take care to set the words of the Torah - or universal truth - on the boundaries of our being, our psychological existence. To “write them upon the doorposts of our house therefore corresponds to the “posts” of our psyche, the active and passive pillars.
Finally, the gates refer to the topmost sefirot of the two outer pillars, Hokhmah and Binah. These are the gates which are placed on top of the posts and which mark the ultimate boundaries to our being.
At the outer level, the practical performance of these Mitzvot (commandments) confers the obligation to put on Tefillin each day and place Mezuzot* on our doorposts. At an interior level, by aligning our thoughts and consciousness with the places on the Tree as we recite the She’ma we fulfil the Mitzvot in a different way.
* The word Mezuzah (plural Mezuzot) is the one which actually means doorpost so we are told to write “them” i.e. the words upon the doorposts. The words in the casing are not actually the Mezuzah although it is usually referred to in this way.
Much of the evolution of this paper came about as a result of my conversations with Issy Benjamin who was a tireless worker in the Toledano School of Kabbalah from 1984 until his death.
We discussed the She’ma, Tefillin, Noah’s Ark, theatre, families and much more in our meetings and travels together. His emails contained an abundance of enlightened thinking peppered with a splash of schoolboy humour – they remain, happily undeleted, on my computer.
Issy was born in South Africa of Lithuanian heritage and came to the UK in the early 1960’s. He was an architect by profession, a proud father of two sons, Jewish to the core and a great friend and mentor to everyone who was fortunate enough to meet him.
He held a brown belt in karate and exercised on his terrace most mornings – year round - until he was in his late 80’s. The windows of his flat were usually open and he often wore a short sleeved shirt, even in the middle of winter, while those of us who visited him shivered in wonderment at his constitution.
It was said that if you asked Issy a question you never got an answer – just another story!
He is much missed.
© Jonathon Clark 2020
Issy Benjamin (Reb Yitzhak ben Chaim z’l)
29 December 1925-19 October 2015