All worlds are the result of a constriction and lessening of the Infinite Light (the Ohr Ein Sof), and are, to one degree or another, limited and defined. That is to say, the revelation of G‑d is less or more limited, depending on which world is referred to. Therefore the word for "world" in Hebrew, "olam," is etymologically related to the word "he'elem," meaning concealment — referring to the concealment of G‑d's Infinite Light. In the higher worlds the Infinite Light is more revealed, and in the lower worlds the Infinite Light is less revealed.

The light is revealed in each world by what Kabbala calls the sefirot. These are divine emanations by which G‑d reveals Himself to man and by which He conducts the worlds, as the introduction to the Zohar states, "You are He who brings forth ten…sefirot."

The sefirot constitute the inner structure of each of the worlds

The sefirot are not distinct entities or intermediaries, which might imply duality or plurality in the Infinite Light or in G‑d. Quite the contrary — they are nothing other than various phases and levels of G‑d's revealing Himself to man. Thus, in Sefer Yetzira the sefirot are called bli-mah, "without substance". The sefirot constitute the inner structure of each of the worlds, somewhat like the way in which bones give shape and form to the human body. How and to what degree the sefirot reveal the Infinite Light in each world gives each particular world, each plane of reality, its individual character. Furthermore, the sefirot account for the dynamic interactions that take place in each of the worlds.

Even though the sefirot in all of the worlds bear the same names, it is nevertheless self-understood that the quality and power of the sefirot in the elevated world of Atzilut, for example, are of incomparably greater quality and power than those of the world of Asiya, for in the world of Atzilut the Infinite Light is revealed through the sefirot to a much greater extent and in a much more elevated way than in any of the worlds below it.

The origin of the word "sefira" is explained in four ways in the classical texts, and each one of these four explanations corresponds to the sefirot as they exist in each of the four worlds of Atzilut, Beriya, Yetzira and Asiya:

  1. Regarding the sefirot of the world of Atzilut, the world of Emanation, the word sefira is explained as deriving from the word "sapir" — a diamond or sapphire in Hebrew. Just as the beauty and value of a sapphire is determined by its clarity and purity (how perfectly and flawlessly it reflects light), so too, the sefirot of Atzilut are characterized by the flawlessness and purity with which they reveal and manifest the Infinite Light.
  2. Regarding the sefirot of the world of Beriya, the world of Creation, the word sefira is explained as deriving from the word "sippur", meaning "story" in Hebrew, as is mentioned in the verse in Psalms, "the heavens tell of (mesaprim) the glory of G‑d." A good story describes an event clearly and succinctly to someone who did not see the event himself, and the person listening to the story can then picture the event in all its details in his mind. Nevertheless, one who hears a story experiences the event only second hand. It is obviously not the same as experiencing the event oneself. This is therefore the proper explanation of the word sefira as it applies to the world of Beriya, since the sefirot of Beriya do not reveal and manifest the Infinite Light to a degree comparable to that of Atzilut. They only "tell the story," so to speak.
  3. Regarding the sefirot of the world of Yetzira, the world of Formation, the word sefira is explained as deriving from the world "sfor", meaning boundary or border. This is very much the characteristic of the world of Yetzira. The light that descends into the world of Yetzira is given form and dimension. In a spiritual sense, borders signify a qualitative limitation. This means that in Yetzira the light is limited qualitatively just as the natural limitations of the power of sight or of hearing in a human being are limited to a certain range of physical light or sound which a person can see or hear.
  4. Regarding the sefirot in the world of Asiya, the world of Action, the word sefira is explained as deriving from the word "mispar", meaning number. Numbers signify a quantitative limitation, stressing the idea of finitude. The effect or power the light will have is severely limited by its descent into the world of Asiya.
  5. Although we just now explained that the ten sefirot of the world of Atzilut are very different from those of Beriya, and the ten sefirot of Beriya from those of Yetzira, etc., nevertheless, in a certain sense, the sefirot of all the worlds are similar to each other. The reason for this is quite simple. The ten sefirot of the world of Asiya derive from the ten sefirot of Yetzira, and those of Yetzira derive for Beriya and those of Beriya from the sefirot of Atzilut. In the language of Kabbala, it is said that within the ten sefirot of Asiya are the ten sefirot of Yetzira, and within the sefirot of Yetzira are the sefirot of Beriya and within the sefirot of Beriya are the sefirot of Atzilut, in which abides the light of the Ein Sof.
Delving…into the essence of these divine manifestations, one can come to … elevated planes of reality

Each individual sefira can be placed in the context of any of the four worlds, only that in the more elevated worlds the sefirot are more abstract. By a process of increasing abstraction, delving deeper and deeper into the essence of these divine manifestations, one can come to greater understanding of the inner structure of the increasingly elevated planes of reality and to ever increasing awareness of G‑d's revelation of Himself.

The ten sefirot are called keter, chochma, bina, chesed, gevura, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod and malchut. In certain Kabbalistic texts an additional sefira is mentioned, but in reality there are only ten sefirot, not eleven. Sometimes, however, keter is counted in the ten, and at other times daat is counted instead of keter, depending on whether one is looking at them from the point of view of the Creator or from the point of view of the created. In the process of creation, in which the sefirot emanated from above, i.e. from G‑d to the physical world, keter is counted and not daat, since it is the first emanation, the manifestation of the Divine Will, the place from which all other emanations derive. When the process is from below to above (i.e. man elevating himself from level to level in his desire to cleave to G‑d), daat is counted and not keter, since the latter is a level so sublime that it is generally beyond the scope of the average individual's ability to comprehend.

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