The Kabbalistic Conception of God

The medieval mystics made a distinction between the infinite, unknowable God and God's revealed aspects.

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Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from What Do Jews Believe?.

The Kabbalists introduced a distinction between the hidden and revealed aspects of God. The hidden, infinite aspect of God is called "the Infinite" (Ein Sof, "without end"). This name was understood as the proper one for the hidden aspect of God. It suggests that God exists without implying anything about His character.

According to the Kabbalists, God should be called It rather than He, although there is no neuter gender in the Hebrew language. Actually, because of the great sublimity and transcendence of God, no name at all can be applied to "the Infinite." The name Ein Sof conveys only that God is unlike anything we know. According to these mystics, Ein Sof is not the proper object of prayers, since Ein Sof has no relationship with His creatures. The personal aspect of the hidden God is mediated by the ten sefirot, ten knowable aspects of His being. There are, therefore, two natures of God, the infinite, unknowable essence and the ten discernible aspects.

mystical godThe word sefirot originally meant "numerals," and was taken from the earliest Hebrew text on the nature of numbers and letters, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation). Sefirot is a generic term that means that the aspects of God's being, or the instruments of God's activity, can be counted. There are ten sefirot just as there are ten cardinal numbers. Some Kabbalists explain that the word comes from the Hebrew root sapper, "to tell," implying that these aspects tell us about God. Others have suggested that it derives from the Hebrew word for sapphire, since the sefirot illuminate our knowledge of God like a precious and radiant gem.

There have been a variety of attempts to translate sefirot into English. They have often been called "spheres," "radiances," or other occult terms. The sefirot, however, are numerically identifiable symbols of the various aspects of God's being or activities. A more faithful English rendition would be "calculi," a word that signifies both a means of reckoning and the use of symbols. Since there is no good English translation of sefirot, the use of the original Hebrew term is still preferable.

The sefirot are the bridge across the abyss, the connective tissue between the infinite God and the finite world. They are the link that makes it possible to maintain God's absolute unity while preserving the relationship between God and man. They, and not Ein Sof, are the object of human prayers. By differentiating between Ein Sof and the sefirot, it is possible to say that God is incorporeal, immaterial, and unchangeable while still adhering to the traditional notion of the personal God. All anthropomorphic and anthropopathic references (i.e., references to God that use human physical and emotional descriptions) and the traditional notion of an active, personal God refer to the sefirot. All the statements that imply corporeality, composition, and change in God refer to the sefirot, not to Ein Sof. The sefirot, not Ein Sof, is the God of the Bible. Therefore, a Kabbalist can justifiably claim that, "Ein Sof is nowhere mentioned in the Bible." The Bible refers only to the sefirot, the knowable God, not the hidden God.

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Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.