Mystical Explanations for the Existence of Evil

According to the kabbalists, evil is a bi-product of the relationship between humans and the sefirot, God's manifested attributes.

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For these kabbalists the evil forces are engaged in a battle with the powers of holiness. These evil powers came into being through the supra‑abundant growth of the sefirah of Judgment (Din) when it separated from the sefirah of Compassion (Rahamim). This realm is continually strengthened through human sin.

In an interpretation of the Garden of Eden, Adam’s eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is understood as an allegory of the first appearance of evil. Here Adam is understood as separating the Tree of Knowledge from its fruits, thereby activating the potential evil contained within the Tree by bringing about a division in the divine unity. Thus the channels between the upper and lower worlds were unsettled: the lowest sefirah Kingdom (Malkhut) was separated from the others, and the unity between Creator and creation was divided. Other sins in the history of ancient Israel were also interpreted in a similar light—in each case divine unity was disturbed, and it is only through the good deeds of biblical heroes that cosmic repair can take place.

According to the Zohar, evil is like the bark of a tree of emanation: it is a husk or shell in which lower dimensions of existing things are encased. As the Zohar relates:

“King Solomon, when he penetrated into the depths of the nut garden took a nut shell (kelippah) and drew an analogy from its layers to these spirits which inspire sensual desires in human beings, as it is written, ‘and the delights of the sons of men (are) male and female demons’ (Ecclesiastes 2:8). This verse also indicates that the pleasures in which men indulge in the time of sleep give birth to multitudes of demons. The Holy One, blessed be He, found it necessary to create all these things in the world to ensure its permanence, so that there should be, as it were, a brain with many membranes encircling it. The whole world is constructed on this principle upper and lower, from the first mystic point up to the furthest removed of all the stages. They are all coverings one to another, brain within brain, and spirit within spirit, so that one is a shell to another.”

In this context evil is understood as a waste product of all organic process—it is compared to bad blood, foul water, dross after gold has been refined and the dregs of wine. Yet despite this depiction, the Zohar asserts that there is holiness even in the Sitra Ahra regardless of whether it is conceived as a result of the emanation of the last sefirah or as a consequence of man’s sin. The domains of good and evil are intermingled, and it is man’s duty to separate them.

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Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a widely published and eminent scholar of Judaism, and is currently Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.