So You Want To Learn Kabbalah

Regarding Kabbalah / Jewish Mysticism, Reb Zalman says:

“All blessings to you in your studies.  As you hear these ideas from time to time, and as you allow yourself to be receptive to the images that they stir up in you, I hope that the words of the Kabbalah will be transparent to you, and that you begin to understand, feel and know depths that you couldn’t previously.”

Many thanks go to Rabbi Marcia Prager for her permission to include drawings from her Siddur called, “A Siddur for Shabbat Morning.” Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)


By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Table of Contents:

Being Receptive
The Universes
Divine Names
B’Tselem Elokim / In God’s image
Ten Sefirot
Looking Inside
A Blessing
As Below, So Above
Reformatting Hierarchical Into Humanistic
Sayings of the Hasidic Masters
Mystery of the Shechinah
Movement and Prayer
When One Must Reprove
Beyond Mind


Being Receptive

Kabbalah / Jewish mysticism:  The word itself comes from kabel / to receive.  It points to being in a state other than the usual active state, a state in which one is open to receive that which comes from God, that which the Bible characterizes as the small still voice, (or more precisely, the sound of subtle stillness).

In receptivity, things are revealed.  It differs from a reaching out, as one sometimes reaches out for concepts, reaches out for ideas.  Rather, if I allow myself and my imagination to become receptive, to become engaged to receive the images that arise, even when I am reaching out for concepts and ideas, then too, a receptivity will lead me to attuning myself to worlds, those worlds to which the concepts or ideas refer.

The Universes

In Kabbalah, we begin by saying that this universe, the universe we talk about as the one in which we live, the world of sensation, the world of technology, our social world; we begin by saying that this universe is not the only universe.  Underneath this one is another entire universe which focuses on energy and their flows. 

If we could somehow see the flow of that energy universe, if we could somehow make it visible, could somehow feel it as it flows, could somehow tune into it, then we would be attuned to an energy universe called the Spiritual Aspect of the World of Function and also called the World of Assiyah.  At the same time, this universe, the one we talk about as the one in which we live, the world of sensation, of technology, our social world, this one is also called The World of Assiyah, the World of Function.  So there are two parallel worlds, this universe itself, the one in which our phenomena occur, and this one’s spiritual aspect, the one described as the way in which energy invests into the phenomena.

Deeper still, in the sense that we become more in touch with it by reaching farther within ourselves, still deeper than the energy universe, is the world where our feelings are.  Feelings have ebbs and tides. There is day-feeling and there is night-feeling, and there are feelings of compassion and of mercy and of grace, and there are feelings of rigor and severity. The world where feelings operate is called the World of Formation, the World of Yetzirah.  It is seen as a world beyond the spiritual World of Assiyah.

Deeper still, beyond these feelings and its world, is another world:  The world where all ideas, theories, understandings, reality maps and myths are located; Plato’s form of forms.  That world is called the World of Beriyah, the world of creation.

The World of Assiyah, the World of Yetzirah and the World of Beriyah are all spiritual worlds.  And beyond these, there is another world, a Divine universe called the World of Atzilut, the universe of emanation.  It is a place where the attributes of God are at home, a place where the great archetypes are located. And so, when we feel that we are connected into God as a child is connected to a parent, father aspect or mother aspect, these deep archetypes are another way of saying the Divine has dressed itself into vestments from the World of Atzilut, that the Divine has faced us.

Divine Names

These four worlds are also connected to the four letters of the Divine name, sometimes spelled Jehovah, sometimes Yahweh.  For now, think of it as YHVH, as the Hebrew letters Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey.  These four letters are associated with the worlds we have just described.

The highest world, the place where the attributes of God are at home (Atzilut) is the world of the Yod. The world where all ideas are (Beriyah) is the world of the Hey. The world where the feelings are resident (Yetzirah) is the world of the Vav. And the world of energy (Assiyah) is the world of the other Hey.

And this universe, this physical world, the world of sensation, of technology, our social world, is governed by the other Divine name, Adonai.  That’s the name which we express whenever we talk of Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey.   Adonay has to do with a totality of God’s dimension of governance of all that there is. 



All of this, points to the first strong principle of the Kabbalah:  We simultaneously inhabit four universes, and in each one of these universes there exists that which we call “in the image of God.”  

B’Tzelem Elokim / In God’s Image

When we speak of human beings as made “in the image of God,” the Hebrew word for image, Tselem, literally means a kind of silhouette. The silhouette can be seen by taking the Yod and placing it over the Hey, then placing the Yod and Hey over the Vav, and then placing all three letters over the other Hey.  It becomes person-like in form.  The Yod is where the head is, the Hey is where the arms and shoulders are, the Vav is where the spine is, and the second Hey is where the legs and pelvis are.


Ten Sefirot

So by applying the first principle of the Kabbalah, we can see b’tselem elokim / in the image of God in each one of the regions of being, in each of the worlds.  The image is the divine attributes, the ten Sefirot, as if to say ten dimensions in each world.

The first dimension is called Keter / the crown. The will for the totality of existence to exist is at home in Keter.

The next dimension is called Chochmah / wisdom, Sophia. The deep ratzon / will for the first notion of wisdom arises there.

The next is called Binah / understanding.  When that first notion of wisdom arose in the Chochmah dimension and lit up the mind like a lightening bolt, like a spark, we still could not speak of understanding something until that spark of insight landed in the womb of Binah, of understanding, where it assumed shape and form, difference and detail.

And we have the first three:  Keter, where the will is, and then Chochmah and Binah, wisdom and understanding, corresponding to those places in us where cognition and consciousness arise.

Continuing down, next is ChesedChesed is the realm of grace, the generously giving, bestowing right arm.  This sefira corresponds to the first day of creation, “Let there be light,” giving all blessing and all light to the universe.

Next after Chesed is Din, Gevurah, the fourth sefira after KeterGevurah is the realm of making distinctions, the severe and judgmental left arm.  This sefira corresponds to the second day of creation, “Let there be a firmament dividing the Heaven from below.” 

Next is the sefira of TiferetTiferet is the realm of the working together of Chesed and Gevurah, the intersection of grace with severity which begets the place of compassion, the most intensely feeling heart.  It is where the seat of compassion for all creation is.

Next is the sefira of NetzachNetzach is the realm where all things effective, efficient happen, the victorious right leg.  This sefira corresponds to the fourth day of creation, the clockwork of the Heavens. 

Next is the sefira of HodHod is the realm where all beauty and elegance exist, balancing the effectiveness of Netzach with the left leg of beauty.  This sefira corresponds to the fifth day of creation, when the egg layers are formed, the fishes and the fowl to balance the fourth day.

Next is the sefira of YesodYesod is the realm where foundation happens, begotten of the collaboration of Netzach and Hod, effectiveness and beauty, it is also connected to the feeling in us of libido, reproduction, genitalia, the place of begetting and offspring.  

Finally is the sefira of MalchutMalchut is the realm of majesty and kingdom, proceeding from the sefira of Yesod, that place where we are caused to surrender ourselves to God. Malchut is our connection to all the others of the ten sefirot of the Divine.

And these ten, b’tselem elokim / in the image of God, are replicated in each of the four universes.


Looking Inside

By such a reality map, we can now proceed to look into what is in the interior of human beings.  We find a body animated by a Nefesh / out-breath.  Deeper still we find an aspect of soul called Ruach / spirit, the seat of feelings, emotions.  Beyond these is the seat of the intellective soul, where all consciousness and awareness for reaching outside of ourselves resides, called Neshamah. Deep seated in Neshamah and beyond it the place where our deepest longing to become united with the One is, an aspect called Chayah. Deeper still, is that aspect of the soul called Yechidah, as if a part of a hologram.

So are we part of the living infinite God.

A Blessing

In the sections above, you have just read the words that accompany the Kabbalah.  First, let me say, all blessings to you in your study of Kabbalah.  As you hear these ideas from time to time, and as you allow yourself to be receptive to the images that they stir up in you, I hope that the words of the Kabbalah will be transparent to you, and that you begin to understand, feel and know depths that you couldn’t previously.

As Below, So Above

As we perceive these patterns within ourselves, as we perceive a flow through will (Letter: Yod; Sefirot: Keter, Chochmah; Universe:  Atzilut), through intellect (Letter: Heh; Sefirah: Binah; Universe: Beriyah), through emotions (Letter: VavSefirot: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod; Universe: Yetzirah), through functions (Letter: Heh; Sefirah: Malchut; Universe: Assiyah), the light from above becomes real for us. 

Just like the Kabbalist who felt a stirring to understand that as below so above, similarly, our understanding of ourselves as human beings is a pattern that also applies for describing and encompassing a larger cosmos than we human beings.

The Kabbalist saw the process of the ten sefirot going up through ten sefirot as larger patterns, as a cosmic person, as an incarnation coming from the infinite, investing itself into the world. The process of the investment was described through the ten sefirotKeter is the will that there should be a universe of all these dimensions, Chochmah is the plan’s beginning, Binah is where the plan is detailed, Chesed is the aspect where God so loved creation it could become possible, Gevurah is where God set limits to firm it, Tiferet is where God filled it with compassion so that all life could be possible, Netzach is where God created paths so that there could be a flow of energy from world to world and an interaction of life, Hod is where beauty made what we now perceive as being ecological aspects of creation, Yesod is where that intense energy that led all creation to want to procreate started, and finally Malchut built into it that which caused it to be transformational and forever recycling.

So we have reviewed how this showed itself in the Sefirot.

Reformatting Hierarchical Into Humanistic

One who studies the Kabbalah will encounter a dilemma:  When one reads traditional, Kabbalah sources, material from the past, one will be disappointed about wording and its rhetoric not being quite right, not being quite at home in our current understanding and our current reality maps. So as we read these texts and become acquainted with them, as we hear cosmologies that are hierarchic, divisions between good and evil, divisions between us Jews and others, between above and below, between permitted and forbidden, and between male and female, all of which are seen as one higher or better than the other, (these are basic and ingrained into these traditional texts), then as humanistic Kabbalists, we must reformat these deep teachings for the present.  We now understand things more deeply, differently, that everything is organically connected, that each needs the other in order to balance, that male needs the female, that physical needs the spiritual, that all is integrated. And if we hear it in this way, it is no less authentic to our day and age, than an earlier version had been authentic in its time.

Sayings Of The Hasidic Masters

Hasidim and Rebbes:  The teachers are the Rebbes, and the Hasidim are the followers who turn to the Rebbes for guidance, for teaching, for blessings, and for intercession in prayer. Sometimes Hasidim tell stories of their masters. Sometimes they report the sayings of their masters. 

Now I will share some of the sayings of the Hasidic Masters with you.

One was from Reb Pinchas of Koretz, a’h.  He was asked, “How can we pray for someone else to repent, when this prayer would curtail another person’s freedom of choice if granted? Is it not said by the Rabbis that, ‘Everything is in Heaven’s Hands, except the fear of Heaven?'”

And he answered, “What is God?  God is a totality of souls. Whatever there exists in the whole (i.e. in the totality of souls), can also be found in the part (i.e. in a particular soul).  Therefore, in any one soul, all souls are contained, (because we all contain the totality of souls within us).  Therefore, if I turn in teshuvah / repentance, since I already contain within me the friend I wish to help, and since the friend contains me in him/her, so my turning in teshuvah, while making me better, also makes the part of me that is my friend better and also makes the part of my friend that is me better.  These make it so much easier for the him in him (or her in her) to become better too.”

Mystery of the Shechinah

A person can live in the same house as a Tzaddik and still be unenlightened.  Having heard a word, learned a lesson, s/he thinks it is now all known, that s/he is already there. But the association is not enough for him/her to be a Tzaddik too.  Besides this association, some action is necessary on his/her part.  S/he struggles:  “What do You expect me to say, God?” 

There’s a missing part:  The Brachah, the blessing, is not found in what is manifest to everyone’s eyes. 

What is a Brachah? It is the very mystery of the Shechinah / the Divine Presence, what the Zohar calls a true blessing. You will have a Brachah when all the chambers of the body vibrate with it.  Then you have it.

Movement and Prayer

There are clouds that hover over the mind and to disperse them you will need wind. The wind comes from the movement and prayer which are like the in-breath and out-breath of the lungs. It is what the Zohar calls Ruach, the spirit, the breath. This simple rule would have sufficed, had I given it some years ago.  Had people followed this and served God by breathing in this way then all the clouds that hover over the mind would by now have dispersed.

When One Must Reprove

Sometimes a person needs to be just told, but sometimes a person needs to be reproved.

This is what Rabbi Moshe Cordevero a’h said in his Pardes:  When a person must be reproved, I tell that one something gentle and wise. It helps one get in touch with the soul.  The soul then gives life to the owner so the owner can begin to live the soul-life. So we help the one get in touch with the soul.

Sometimes I help that one get in touch with the soul by telling a joke. Ha!

Still there are those in this generation of ours who preach morals at people, urging them to repent.  But unfortunately, the poor one, the one who receives the preaching, is not given a way to be able get to repentance if they can’t get in touch with their living soul.  Through preaching of morals, this one does not receive the necessary tools. So this is why I tell something gentle, something wise and sometimes a joke.

Beyond Mind

In the Tikuney Zohar, the holy book connected to the Zohar literature, it is stated: [There are some] hidden worlds that can be revealed and [there are other] hidden worlds that cannot be revealed.

So there are deep insights one ought not to reveal at all because in talking about them one causes the God within the insight to die away.

Now if a person talking about the insights of hidden worlds speaks these insights with the feelings of love and awe they contain, God will not die away from within the expression of the insight. But this is extremely difficult for those who haven’t learned to offer their feelings along with their speech.

But if one serves God from the place of the insight for at least half a year, that one thereby moves himself/herself and the whole world toward the scale of blessing and merit to receive that insight. Then s/he will have made it possible for the insight to accumulate so much power, so that even if s/he talks about it, the God within the insight will not die away.

Try and understand this very deeply.

Our sages tell us that all of scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs, that book in which the love between the lover and the beloved is celebrated, the Song of Songs, the Shir Ha Shirim, that, our sages have said, is the most holy of all holies.

All scripture is holy and it is the connecting link between this world and the higher ones.

So according to one’s inner connection, one can understand the scripture. However, the Song of Songs is so holy, that it connects this world to the Ayn Sof infinities, and these are way beyond mind.

6 Responses to “So You Want To Learn Kabbalah”

  1. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    Friends: If you print out this article, please make sure you keep the printout with other sacred texts in your residence. Because this article contains an image of God’s name, there are specific rules to be followed related to its disposal. The same cautions must be followed here as with any Jewish sacred books. If you should decide you want to print it out and you later decide to discard it, please bring it to your local synagogue for handling. Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

  2. Viktor Says:

    I would like to post a question. During prayer, usually I pray at night and morning, the viabrations are so strong in my body that my muscles begin to jump and goose bumps run up and down my body from head to toe. I am used to these sensations and in fact I more or less understand what they are. What confuses me is, when I meditate after prayer my body becomes frozen, a great pulsation of energy goes through my body continuously and a noise in my ears appears something like a low level Shhhh, reminding somewhat of when you put your ear to a sea shell. This noise also appears after prayer not just after meditation. I also have an idea of what this is, but my dreams sometimes are strange and I feel in my dreams that I am staying in the lower world and not ascending, these dreams are usually very materialstic and sometimes crude. I also don’t feel rested in the morning and when I wake up the sea shell sound is still in my ears and continues for hours.

    So the stronger my prayers and sensations the worse I sleep afterwards, can you explain this and maybe provide some advice.

  3. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    Dear Viktor:
    I am not sure if it will help, but here’s my reactions to your note.

    You say that the vibrations in your body are strong. I would explore the possibility of controlling this and not being controlled by it. I don’t believe that this is something out of your control. It seems like you are praying to an idea of God that is somehow dominating you and you are speaking about it in a way that gives the impression that it is taking you over. I see prayer as a collaboration. You should be able to shape it.

    Try approaching it with gentleness. Look for a still small voice rather than a booming.

    The noise in your ear is a concern and must be a nuisance. I would perhaps go to a doctor about it, because it should be checked out.

    Does it happen also when you do not pray? If that is the case, try sitting quietly at minyan rather than participating until you can figure a way to control this too. If you do not davven in a minyan, experiment with it. Don’t just accept it as a necessary occurrence. Once again, look to control it.

    With respect to meditation, keep the breathing natural and focus on gentleness. Meditation, in my experience, will have a positive effect on dreams.

    In terms of your dreams, approach them with acceptance. Ultimately, all the worlds are connected. If your dreams are more “mundane” just note them and don’t put judgments on them. If they are troubling, try to figure out what they are telling you.

    Gabbai Seth

  4. David Says:


    First G-d’s blessings on you for creating this site, I am glad I found it.

    I have the opposite issue as Viktor. I believe in G-d with all my heart, I always have. I pray every morning and evening, I go to minyan when I can and keep a Kosher home.

    My whole life I have been listening for that small still voice, but I have never heard it. Why?


  5. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    Dear Friend:
    I am delighted you have found this site and would welcome your thoughts, comments or questions as they arise.

    Are you sad about this situation? Or are you puzzled? Is it important to you? Are you thinking that your prayer is not having an effect?

    These are some questions that come up for me as I try to think about what you are asking. One thing that Reb Zalman has stressed is that spending time with a text in English and going through it more slowly may be worth more than rushing through an entire service without having deep feeling or connection.

    Another thing that Reb Zalman has taught and I’ve tried is reading a psalm to another person and then in the other direction. The listener is to play the part of God and the reader tries to imagine that hir words are being spoken to God. A lot of time when we pray, we feel we are talking only to ourselves and so the excercise can be very powerful because it is sometimes easier to connect to the aspect of God to be found in the other person than it is to feel something when we are only “talking to ourselves”.

    L-shana tova,
    Gabbai Seth

  6. David Says:

    You ask a reasonable question, I guess I am more puzzled than sad, although I am disappointed in myself. I feel a connection to G-d, I feel I need Him in my daily life but in some ways I feel “robbed” that I have never heard that still voice. I know it’s wrong of me to feel that way, He does not owe me anything, I owe my very existance to Him so I am puzzled on how to reconcile that.

    I feel like when I pray it is sincere and from the heart, I guess I just want to feel like He is listening.

    L-shana tova, and an easy fast

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