This selection from Louis Jacobs’ Jewish Ethics, Philosophy and Mysticism includes a translation from Hayyim Vital’s Etz Hayyim (Treatise 1, Part 2) with a commentary by Jacobs. The passages from Etz Hayyim are in bold, and Jacob’s commentary follows. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Know that before there was any emanation and before any creatures were created a simple higher light filled everything. There was no empty space in the form of a vacuum but all was filled with that simple infinite light. This infinite light had nothing in it of beginning or end but was all one simple, equally distributed light. This is known as “the light of Ein Sof.”
These extremely difficult meditations are those of Isaac Luria but were written down by his disciple Hayyim Vital. Vital wrote a number of books expounding his master’s theories and they are the major source of books on the Lurianic kabbalah. The Zohar holds that the world was created by means of ten emanations, the Ten Sefirot. The Lurianic kabbalah considers what happened even before these were caused to be emanated. This is more than an effort to explain the ancient puzzle of how creation came to be. By this teaching, Luria wants to explain the continuing relation between the Infinite and the finite, and to lay the groundwork for explaining how evil came into the good God’s creation. Ein Sof (without limit) is the kabbalistic name for God as He is in Himself, i.e. apart from His self‑revelation to His creatures.
Two things have to be said before studying this passage. First, although the kabbalists use terms like “before” and “after” in describing Ein Sof’s creative activity, they really think of these processes as occurring outside time altogether. (It is, of course, impossible for us to grasp this idea of existence outside of time, but for the kabbalists, as for some of the philosophers, time itself is a creation.)
Secondly, all the illustrations of a vacuum, an empty space, a line and the like are seen by the kabbalists as inadequate pointers to spiritual realities. They never tire of warning their readers not to take them literally as if there really is, for instance, a space in God. God is outside time and space. Similarly, terms like above and below are only figurative. Unless this is appreciated the whole subject becomes incredibly crude.
There arose in His simple will the will to create worlds and produce emanations in order to realize His perfect acts, His names and His attributes. This was the purpose for which the worlds were created.
In the “simple light of Ein Sof” there emerged a will to create. (Note the way in which it is avoided saying that Ein Sof willed directly, because this is considered as touching on a mystery too deep for human understanding.)
Ein Sof then concentrated His being in the middle point, which was at the very center, and He withdrew that light, removing it in every direction away from that center point.
In the Lurianic kabbalah, creation is only possible by God withdrawing Himself. The logic is simple. Where there is God there cannot be any creatures since these would be overpowered by His majesty and swallowed up, as it were, into His being. This idea of Luria’s is known as tzimtzum (withdrawal).
There then remained around the very center point an empty space, a vacuum. This withdrawal was equidistant around that central empty point so that the space left empty was completely circular. It was not in the form of a square with right angles. For Ein Sof withdrew Himself in circular fashion, equidistant in all directions.
If the “empty space” left after Ein Sof’s withdrawal were to be depicted as a square this would suggest that after the withdrawal Ein Sof is nearer to the center at some points more than others, whereas the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the center at all its points.
The reason for this was that since the light of Ein Sof is equally spaced out it follows by necessity that His withdrawal should be equidistant in all directions and that He could not have withdrawn Himself in one direction to a greater extent than in any other. It is well known in the science of mathematics that there is no more equal figure than the circle. It is otherwise with the figure of a square, which has protruding right angles, or with a triangle or with any other figure. Consequently, the withdrawal of Ein Sof had to be in the form of a circle.
Ein Sof is infinite and it cannot, therefore, be said that He is nearer one point than another. The great difficulty here lies in the whole concept of a limitation of the Limitless.
Now after this withdrawal of Ein Sof (which left an empty space or vacuum in the very center of the light of Ein Sof, as we have said), there remained a place in which there could emerge the things to be emanated, to be created, to be formed and to be made. There then emerged a single straight line of light from His circular light and this came in a downward direction, winding down into that empty space.
Even after God’s withdrawal there has to be something of Ein Sof in the empty space otherwise nothing could exist there (nothing can exist without God’s power). Therefore a line of light (figuratively speaking, of course) is said to wind downward into the empty space. The figure is of a kind of deep hole in the center down into which the line of light winds itself. In the empty space left after Ein Sof’s withdrawal, the various worlds emerged. In the kabbalah there are four main worlds, corresponding to the four infinitives mentioned. These are: 1) The World of Emanation (the realm of the Sefirot) 2) The World of Creation (lower in degree than the former); 3) The World of Formation (lower in degree than the first two); 4) The World of Action (or Making), the world as we know it, the physical universe (or, as many kabbalists understand it, the spiritual source or counterpart of this world of ours). All four worlds are seen as emerging in the empty space or vacuum.
Pronounced: ZOE-har, Origin: Aramaic, a Torah commentary and foundational text of Jewish mysticism.