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.


In the following article, the authors discuss various mystical explanations for the existence of evil. All the explanations relate in some way to the sefirot, the ten attributes of God. The sefirot are essentially dynamic; thus the authors can discuss one sefirah separating from another. Indeed, the sefirot are constantly interacting with each other and with humanity. Human sin engenders fragmentation in the world of the sefirot, which can have a negative impact on the human world. Conversely, positive human activity encourages unity in the sefirot, which, in turn, positively affects the human world. The following is reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

For the kabbalists [the medieval mystics] the existence of evil was a central issue. According to one tradition evil has no objective reality—human beings are unable to receive all of the influx from the sefirot [the emanations/attributes of God], and it is this inability which is the origin of evil. Created beings are therefore estranged from the source of emanation and this results in the illusion that evil exists.

evil fireAnother view, as propounded in the Bahir [the earliest kabbalistic work], depicts the sefirah of power as an attribute “whose name is evil.” On the basis of such a teaching Isaac the Blind [13th century] concluded that there must be a positive root of evil and death [i.e. evil does not arise from the inability of humans to receive the emanations of the sefirot]. Following this view, most kabbalists believed that evil is “the other side” (Sitra Ahra) which is opposed to divine abundance and grace. According to some kabbalists, the Sitra Ahra should be conceived of as counter‑sefirot, a realm of dark, unclean powers opposed to holiness and goodness. Thus the Zohar [the most important kabbalistic text] states:

“At the beginning of the night, when darkness falls, all the evil spirits and powers scatter abroad and roam about the world, and the ‘other side’ sets forth and inquires the way to the King from all the holy sides. As soon as the ‘other side’ is roused to this activity here below, all human beings experience a foretaste of death in the midst of their sleep. As soon as the impure power separates itself from the realm above and descends to begin its rule here below, three groups of angels are formed who praise the Holy One in three night watches, one following another, as the companions have pointed out. But whilst these sing hymns of praise to the Holy One, the ‘other side,’ as we have said, roam about here below, even into the uttermost parts of the earth. Until the ‘other side’ has thus departed from the upper sphere, the angels of light cannot unite themselves with their Lord.”

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

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