In keeping with conventional Jewish monotheism, early Kabbalah had a strictly dualistic view of things. Above was God, below was Creation, and between the two, an unbridgable abyss. The Sefirot were stages of manifestation within God himself (like the Christian Trinity), not mediating stages between the unknowable Godhead and Creation.
But very early in the history of Kabbalistic thought, this strict dualism began to be supplanted. Even in the early 13th century, a distinction was made between the "world of unity" of the Sefirot, and the "world of separate intelligences" or angels below them, but above the physical world [Scholem, Kabbalah, pp.117-8]. A little later, the sphere of Merkavah mysticism, which sought to give the mystic a vision of the "throne" of God, was, reasonably enough, interpreted as being located below the Kabbalistic world of the Sefirot. The latter pertain to the nature of God Himself, not merely the vision of the glory of his appearance on the throne [Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p.206-7]. The world of the "Throne" was referred to as "creation" (beriah), since it is outside the Godhead [Scholem, Kabbalah, p.118]. Associated with all this was a rich angelology that by the 13th and 14th centuries still had not been systematised, each Kabbalistic writer giving his own order of hierarchies [Ibid]. The outcome of this speculation on angelic hierachies, spiritual worlds, and so on, in which Jewish, Aristotlean, and Neoplatonic ideas all mingled together, was a complex cosmology of successive "Worlds" or "Universes" (olam).
16th century Safed Kabbalists like Cordovero, Luria, and their successors went into great detail systematising the succession of Worlds and Sefirot. Each of the Kabbalistic Worlds was divided into ten Sefirot, and each of these in turn into ten sub-Sefirot, and so on ad infinitum. In the Lurianic system, these worlds and Sefirot, are shown in the form of concentric rings, "like layers of an onion", with the physical world in the centre.
"The ten Sephiroth of the world of Emanation [Atzilut] comprise a portion of the Infinite Light which is circumscribed for the purpose of supervising or bestowing to Creation [Beriah]....Thus Creation is as a body to the soul, which Emanation imparts. Creation in turn supervises through the powers of its soul (which are actually the power of will of Emanation) the world of Formation [Yetzirah]...In the world of Formation reside the angels and thus the power which is transmitted from Creation to formation is vested in the angels. In this way the powers of Creation become the soul to the powers of Formation. Similarily the power is transmitted from Formation to the world of action [Asiyah]...to its spheres all the way down to earth."
[Rabbi Levi I. Krakovsky, Kabbalah, the Light of Redemption, Research Centre of Kabbalah, 1970, p.125]
What this implies is that each higher world serves as the "supervision", "power", "will" or "bestowal" to the World beneath it. Or in simpler language, each higher World is like "Spirit" or Creator relative to the next World.
Moreover, just as each of the Sefirot are divided fractal-wise into sub-sefirot, and thos einto further sub-sub-sefirot, so the same applies with the doctrine of worlds. Thus there is an Atzilut of Atzilut, Beriah of Atzilut, Yetzirah of Atzilut, Asiyah of Atzilut, Atzilut of Beriah, Beriah of Beriah, and so on down to Asiyah of Asiyah.
Rabbi Moses Cordovero explains this (to quote the paraphrase given by Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Mystical Concepts in Hassidism Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn New York, 1979, p.111 note 24) by means of an analogy to a silversmith who grades his silver according to the purity of the metal: the first grade is the most pure silver, free of base metal; the second one is less pure than the first, the third is half pure and half impure, and the fourth contains more base metals than silver. However, even the first grade silver cannot be wholly and totally pure. There always are some dross that cannot be removed. Thus even the first grade can be subdicvided into the four general categories of silver as such. The same would apply to the other three grades, with each sub-division differering from the others in the degree of purity (Pardess Rimonim 24:10).
Here of course we have the basic principle of emanation and privation; the degree of Divine essence ("silver") or it's lack determining the gradation of planes of existence. This is also a concept that features in very large measure in Neoplatonism, but reached it's ultimate development in the teachings of the great Safed Kabbalists like Cordovero and Luria
page historypage uploaded 21 March 1999