The Four Worlds and the Economy

Reb Zalman writes: 

The Four Worlds and the Economy was transcribed from talks I gave on two occasions covering how the Four Worlds impacts on the Physical Plane and, by extension, the economy.

“We are eager to find solutions for the current financial breakdown of society and the marketplace.  While we are giving our support to President Obama and giving him credit for his efforts to solve a global financial crisis, there is another perspective which comes from an awareness we can garner from our mystical tradition.  From the Four Worlds, we learn that changes in the Physical World, (i.e., financial), are energized from other planes of existence.  

“We must activate the repair across the board: Physical; Affective / Emotional; Mental / Intellectual; and Intuitive / Spiritual.  If we can successfully integrate with all the levels and access those other worlds, then we will nurture ourselves on higher planes along with our physical (financial) needs.  

“I hope these thoughts will help show ways we can do our part and this will thereby help with the president’s efforts so that they will bear fruit.  May you gain insights you need to steer through the difficulties of these times and may our efforts heal the markets of labor and goods, and of employment and housing.”

The Four Levels

by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

The union of male and female needs some explanation. 

[Note:  “The union of male and female” is employed frequently in traditional liturgy and chassidut representing redemption.  A world out-of-balance is like a husband and wife in separation, or the Shechina / Feminine God-aspect (literally, “Indwelling Presence”) exiled from the Kadosh Baruch Hu / Masculine God-aspect (literally “Holy One Blessed be He”).  Another usage is from the way of interpreting Shir haShirim / Song of Songs as an alegory of love between God (here considered masculine) and Israel (here considered feminine).  While traditional symbolism portrays this as a heterosexual union, this image may not work for all Jews.  Nonetheless, Reb Zalman’s point here is related to the physical and and the higher worlds and this message transcends orientation.  gabbai Seth.]

We understand the union of male and female as meaning a sexual union.  When therapists work with couples on deepening intimacy, contrary to what, without looking more deeply, one might expect, it often turns out that the most important interventions or adjustments are not necessarily in the realm of physical.  

Researchers, trying to find out what blocked completion and remove barriers,  originally studied orgasm only from the point of view of physiology.  One of their findings was that even after full physical functioning was restored, subjects were still lacking a full level of satisfaction; in other words, an approach that was only from the perspective of physical was not sufficient.

This is to illustrate that a fully successful intervention will include attention to more than just the physical level; it will include an approach that will deal with the Four Worlds.

Sooner or later in everyone’s life, each one begins to realize that satisfactions that come from only a physical realm alone are not enough.

“Alright then, what else is there,” one might ask.  And so, we learn that we must tap into the other worlds. 

There is a very deep structure that goes through the universe, i.e., the deep structure of the Four Worlds: The Physical; the Affective/Emotional; the Mental/Intellectual; and the Intuitive/Spiritual. 

The Four Worlds have different laws than our Physical Laws.  If one denies their existence, as, e.g., people frequently did in the nineteenth century, then one has no choice but to try to solve everything on the Physical Plane. 

Understanding the economics of nature which God has built into the universe is very crucial to dealing with problems on the Physical Plane. One can never solve all the problems on one plane alone.

Consider the problem of being overweight:  Hunger of feelings cannot effectively be dealt with through physical things which can only partially satisfy these longings.  People who struggle  with overweight find that a different kind of  hunger, a void one sometimes feels inside even as one is stuffing  oneself with food, (i.e., a physical approach to address the need), may not cause satisfaction. The reason is that the real hunger is from another level and needs another kind of “food” coming from that other level (e.g. an affirmation, a hug, etc.)

Reb David Zeller, (olav hashalom), used to paint a wonderful illustration of this that bears repeating.  First, when we were little:

  • Baby is hungry; baby cries. Then mother takes the baby to breast; and baby relaxes:  Ah, good!
  • Baby is lonely; baby cries.  Then mother takes the baby to breast; and baby is calm.
  • Baby is confused, (too much buzzing, blooming confusion going on around it, too many people around); baby is unsure; baby begins to cry.  Again, mother takes the baby to breast. Ah, mechayeh.

When the baby grows up:

  • Child is hungry and goes to the fridge.
  • Child is lonely and goes to the fridge.
  • Child is confused and goes to the fridge.
  • Child looks for spiritual connection and goes to the fridge.

The physical fridge does not contain what is necessary to satisfy the needs from the other levels.

While they were satisified when in infancy because with the breast came all the levels, i.e., love, understanding, a sense of being at home in the universe, and the psychic connection, (they were all there), once we are grown up, they cannot be dealt with through just eating, through just the physical plane; the fridge does not have what’s needed on the other levels.

So this is the point:  When we are working on those places having to do with problems that are inter-personal, problems of understanding, problems of setting goals, problems of a search for meaning, or questions of philosophy and making sense of things,we cannot fix them through obtaining  handouts of physical things; this won’t work because it doesn’t bear upon the plane where we have the deficit.

Our wonderful friends, Shaya and Bahira are involved in the Arica work.  With this background, they often speak of  the different “logic” one finds in each realm.

Physical Plane

On the Physical plane, it is a kind of logic that fits with physical, i.e. a tangible, palpable cause and effect is best. A greater effort toward influencing a cause will have a corresponding result with regard to the related effect. Stimulus will beget response.  The approach is very plain and works well on the level of basic behavior of organisms, and it works even better on physical things that can be manipulated.

Affective/Emotional Plane

Because the Affective/Emotional plane has a different inherent “logic,” trying to apply an approach that would achieve positive results on the physical plane to the emotional plane would not have the same positive results. 

An example:  Imagine that one’s emotional needs were handled with a physical plane focus on cause and effect.  Here’s the scene:  One person monitors the emotions of another and constantly responds with whatever was requested every time the other has an emotional need.   

On the surface, this would seem to be the best course for the needy one, since the response is aimed at satisfying the needs.  In reality, this kind of approach will most likely have the opposite from the desired effect and ultimately may lead to a rejection of the one who is helping because the emotional “logic” works differently. 

Here’s how it might play out:  The one being monitored asks, “Do you see me? Do you see value in me?”  The response is, “Yes, I see you,” and, “Here.  I give you this affirmation and that affirmation.” 

But, before long, the one in need might start thinking, “I am being treated like a baby.  I am not satisfied to receive all the time and to be dependent on you for the handout.  I want to be able to be seen as someone who also has a contribution to make.  If I’m always on the receiving end and never on the giving end, then I am being infantilized in this process.  I’m not being honored that way.” The more one fills another’s needs on that level and makes the other dependent on one, the less the other will be able to tolerate being in that place.

[Comment from Eve: Let’s talk about the Sefirot as a way to approach this discussion of the different logic of the emotional:  Chesed, the embodiment of pure generosity, is what you’ve just been describing. Gevurah is limit setting, nay-saying. If one is  responsible for helping another in connection with growing into emotional maturity and reaching potential, then there’s also a role for Gevurah through withholding, i.e., not always giving forth with Chesed, with full generosity, so that the other may be intentionally sent back to fend for hirself, to draw upon hir own resources, to discover the source of what s/he needs, which can’t be given by the other person. Perhaps up to that point, the other person was trying to protect, but now, that protection has led to the opposite, it has created a  a stop in the energy of the flow, and the person must be forced to a higher level through withholding of what s/he seems to need.]

As I mentioned earlier, each plane of existence has a different logic; each is in a different mode; and each has  a different operating system, so that on the physical plane we work with one operating system and on the affect plane, we work with another.  The clearer one is about the plane s/he is focusing on and the better one understands the way the operating systems work,  the better it will be.

The Mental/Intellectual Plane

Next, let’s look at the logic of the next level, the Mental/Intellectual

When it comes to the mental, intellectual plane, it isn’t just that I provide an antithesis to your idea, i.e., it is not just as simple as mere dialectics.

Let’s review:  As I stated above, on the physical plane, we find the logic of a cause bringing an effect.  On the emotional-affect plane, this is where one often deals with dialectics, opposites that want to be integrated.

What is the level above dialectics, above either / or, i.e., what is the level of mind?  We don’t want to overshoot and go to Intuition/Spiritual.  What is the level of Mental/Intellectual? 

Moving up from dialectics, we need to stretch.  How do we make stretching happen?  By holding the thought and insisting that no side of the “equality” can be dropped.

[NOTE:  Reb Zalman is speaking of equality in terms of validity and value, not equality or essence.  Essences are not equal.  On this level, we are stretching so that things that feel like opposites are both, a priori deemed required, not changed, not compromised.  Gabbai Seth] 

The equation has to do with realizing that on the highest level of mind, the veracity of all propositions are equally true, even those that we perceive as contradictory ones. 

On this level, we will stretch ourselves toward creative solutions in a way that takes care of each of the opposites. We must not cut one down in order to make the other one win. We must hold onto both.  One principle may not demand the negation of the other; we must resist those demands to maintain the equality.

Also, in the mental/intellectual/philosophical ordering of things, a “creative” solution must  not arise by changing the substance of the conflicting propositions, taking a ‘yes’ side, then modifying the content so that the contradiction with the ‘no’ side is reduced or eliminated. Rather, in the mental realm, we are dealing with the creation of synthesis. 

Synthesis does not happen until both sides are affirmed and the creative solution is discovered to encompass both.

This is the logic of the level of mind. It takes patience and a willingness to endure an attention between two contradictory alternatives until a creative solution appears.


Each time, we must reach into the higher world to create a solution for the world just immediately below.

For example, if I run into a paradox that I cannot, with plain, cause-and-effect, physical plane logic resolve, then I draw upon affective/emotional plane dialectic and hydraulics. A higher level is drawn down so that a lower level may be raised up.

When I am dealing with the affective/emotional plane, the integrating dialectic works well.  But if I want to create a real, lasting peace, I have to reach into the intellectual/mental world, where both sides are affirmed together in equality and harmony.

So I reach, in general, to the higher world and get the answer from there.

They once asked the Baal Shem Tov, “You don’t seem to have the same schooled knowledge that some of the other rabbis, the misnaggdim have. And yet, why do you seem to know more of the answers than they? How did you learn this?  It seems that the regular, discursive, intellectual ways they have learned didn’t yield the same fruits.”

The Baal Shem Tov answered:

Whatever is a question on any one plane, that question is answered on the higher plane.

On the higher plane the questions become different questions.

When you raise a question with me, I just reach one plane higher and I pull down the answer from the next plane.  This is the way I solve the one on this level.  But then, I’ve graduated to another one, and now I have to deal with the problem on that one.

It seems there is almost an infinity of levels that we can reach for resolution of questions.

This story illustrates the value of seeing the Four Worlds stacked one on top of the other in a hierarchical way.


In davvenen, we begin with body;  then we rise to affect; then we move to mind; then we go to spirit.

We learn that each one of these four realms is what we have to touch in our spirituality. I call this the Psycho-Halakhhic process (renamed Integral Halakhah).

Let me give you just an illustration, specifically  for people who can handle Halakhic language. It goes like this:

How long do I have to wear the t’fillin to fulfill my obligation?  (Someone is standing there with a stopwatch.  How long do I have to wear them?) The answer given is that it must be worn for as long as it takes a person to walk four cubits. Hillikh dalet ammot — Four cubits.

Get that? The reason is that a person’s space is four square cubits. (A cubit is about 24 inches). This space that would then be four square cubits, that’s the amount of space to which every person is entitled.

It is called my dalet ammot: my personal space. As long as it takes to traverse the four cubits, that’s the minimum time that I have to have that t’fillin on. That’s the rule.

From a kabbalistic point of view it means more than just the four steps that one takes.

It means that if I wear the t’fillin in action; and if I wear the t’fillin in affect; and if I wear the t’fillin in mind; and if I wear the t’fillin in intuition; these are the four cubits.

And then I fulfilled my obligations.

From that highest level, we learn that to have all these four is what is holistic for us.

Leave a Reply