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Iggulim and Yosher: The Kabbalistic Theory

of "Circles" and "Lines"

Sanford L. Drob

The Sefirot as "Circles"

In his systematic work on the Lurianic Kabbalah, Sefer Etz Chayyim. Chayyim Vital describes how previous Kabbalists have been divided on the question of the precise organization, at the time of their emanation, of the Sefirot, the ten value-archetypes through which God creates and structures the world. Some Kabbalists, Vital informs us, held that the Sefirot were emanated as a series of concentric circles or spheres, others held that they were emanated in linear fashion "in the image of a man who has a head, arms, thighs, body and feet"[1].

In the first model, a hollow (chlal) or primordial space which was formed as a result of the God's contraction and concealment is irradiated with divine light. This light emanates from the Or Ein Sof (the light of the Infinite God), and moves in a circular fashion parallel to the hollow's perimeter and only gradually approaches the hollow's center. In moving in this circular fashion, this kav, or ray of divine light, is said to have progressively produced the Sefirot, first creating Keter, the highest and most exalted Sefirah, closest to the hollow's perimeter. Progressively this kav revolves and produces the other nine Sefirot, culminating with the formation of the final Sefirah, Malchut at the center of the hollow, where we find the origin of our own lowly world. Each Sefirah, in this scheme, is a self-contained sphere, and each from Keter to Malchut is progressively closer to the center of the hollow, and therefore, progressively further from the light of the infinite God. 

"Lines": The Sefirot in the Shape of a Man

In the second model, the Sefirot are emanated in a manner that organizes them into an organic, living unity. The term Yosher (straightness, upright) is derived from the verse in Ecclesiastes (7:24) "God made man yasher (upright)." [2] Vital informs us that on this model the Sefirot are emanated in a sequence of three lines which ultimately take on the form of Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man. The Sefirot are here conceived as corresponding to the organs of the human body, as implied in the following passage in the Zohar:

For there is not a member in the human body but has its counterpart in the world as a whole. For as a man's body consists of members and parts of various ranks all acting and reacting upon each other so as to form one organism, so does the world at large consist of a hierarchy of created things, which when they properly act and react upon each other together form literally one organic body [3].

The Sefirah Chochmah, for example, was conceived by the Kabbalists as corresponding to the brain, Binah to the heart, Gevurah to the right arm, Chesed to the left, etc.

In addition to the corporeal figure of primordial man, the scheme of Yosher organizes the Sefirot according to three lines or triads, Chochmah-Chesed-Netzach on the right, Binah-Gevurah-Hod on the left , and Keter-Tiferet (Rachamim)-Yesod-Malchut in the center. This arrangement underscores the dynamic relationship amongst the Sefirot, for example, the mediating or harmonizing functions of the middle group, in which Tiferet or Rachamim is said to harmonize the bounty of Chesed (kindness) with the severity of Din (judgment), and where Malchut is said to channel or mediate all of the other Sefirotic powers.

Dual Perspectives

Vital tells us that each of these two points of view are "the word of the living God", that each are different perspectives on the same metaphysical events. The circular (Iggulim) view, according to Vital, has the advantage of emphasizing the cosmic aspects of the creative process, those aspects that link the Kabbalah to the (Aristotelian) system of heavenly spheres. Indeed, as Scholem points out, the scheme of Iggulim, in which the Sefirot are depicted as concentric circles surrounding a central emanative point, is the closest the Kabbalists came to equating the Sefirot with the ancient and medieval cosmological picture of a world composed of ten spheres; the sun, the moon, seven planets and the sphere of the fixed stars. The Sefirot, according to the scheme of circles, are the most perfect and equanimocal of geometric figures, reflecting the sublime harmony and balance of the original divine act (tzimtzum) which brought them into being.

The second view, involving the emanation of the Sefirot in linear fashion, and ultimately into the form of Adam Kadmon (Primordial Man) has the advantage of representing the Sefirot as reflecting the physical and spiritual qualities of humanity. On this view, Vital tells us, "The kav itself (the ray of divine energy which filled the Sefirot with light ) is composed of ten Sefirot in the secret image of man." The whole linear scheme is called "the image of God," alluding to the verse in Genesis that speaks of God creating man in His own image. Vital tells us that this scheme dominates the Zohar, a work that, on its own account, is written exclusively "from our point of view"[4].

We should note that the metaphor of "circle" and "line" has traditionally been associated with the pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides held that the universe was "one" and like a circle, which always returns to any of its points, not susceptible to genuine development or change. Heraclitus, on the other hand, regarded change and development as the essence of the cosmos, and therefore likened the world to a line, which never returns to the same point twice. Like Hegel, several centuries later, the Kabbalists were satisfied with neither view alone, preferring to hold them in a dialectical relationship [5], whereby the One (the circle) can only become itself through a process of linear change and development, and, what amounts to the same thing, God can only become himself through man.

Coincidentia Oppositorum

What is of interest in Vital's discussion of Iggulim and Yosher is not only the fact that Vital believes that two seemingly contradictory views of the origin of the Sefirot can be reconciled, but rather that these views compliment one another precisely because they are, symbolically speaking, each other's inverse or contradiction; for as we read in Etz-Chayyim, what is "outside" for one is "inside" for the other. Here we have an illustration of the Kabbalistic principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the complimentarity of opposites.

Vital understands the model of Iggulim, of the Sefirot as circles, as issuing from the perspective of the heavens, asking whether this model "is not the firmament and the spheres that orbit this lowly world" [6]. Indeed, in this model it is the outermost Sefirah that is the most spiritual and exalted, the one most closely associated with the ultimate godhead, Ein Sof. This is because from such a cosmic point of view, Ein Sof, through an act of Tzimtzum (concealment and contraction), removes Himself from a circular hollow, and subsequently emanates a series of Sefirot and worlds into that hollow from the outside in. His light diminishes by degrees as it approaches the center, in such a manner that the innermost point of the hollow, our world, is the least exalted finite entity, distant and alienated from its source in God.

The opposite, however, is the case from the perspective of Yosher, in which the Sefirot are said to be emanated in the image of primordial man. This model, Vital intimates, is constructed from the perspective of "the dwellers of this lowly earth", and from this point of view it is the innermost Sefirot which are the most exalted and sublime. Vital's discussion here is complex and not (as far as I can tell) completely consistent, but in essence he tells us that in Yosher (which is the perspective of the Zohar) it is the innermost Sefirah which is the closest to Ein-sof. This is because each Sefirah is a "brain" or mind to the one that surrounds it, in such a manner that Ein Sof is the "inner brain to them all." Indeed the Zohar itself declares:

The whole world is constructed on this principal, upper and lower, from the first mystic point up to the furthest removed of all the stages, they are all coverings one to another, brain within brain and spirit within spirit, so that one is a shell to another. The primal point is the innermost light of a translucency, tenuity, and purity surpassing comprehension [7].

Although at first a vestment, each stage (each Sefirot) becomes a brain to the next outer stage.

Although Vital continues his discussion of the brain and its surrounding tissue in physiological terms, the import of what he says is that from our perspective (the perspective of Adam Kadmon) we must look inward, towards an inner core of mind to discover the essence of divinity. In the first model, Ein Sof is a cosmic creator, on the outside looking in; in the second model he is an inner brain or mind, on the inside looking out.

Two Models of the Universe

From our contemporary point of view, we might say that Vital, in his description of Iggulim and Yosher, is contrasting two models of the cosmos, one centered in a transcendent cosmic deity, the other centered in man. The first, we might equate with the transcendent perspective of traditional theology, or even (Aristotelian) science, the second with the immanent perspective of history and the humanities. In the first, man is a lowly creature, alien and distant from what is truly exalted and significant in the cosmos, in the second he is the most exalted of all creatures, who, by turning inward towards his own soul, discovers divinity itself. These dual perspectives, of transcendence and immanence, permanence and change, cosmos and man, or (in a contemporary idiom) science and the humanities, compliment one another in coincidentia oppositorum, in such a manner as to suggest that the world's outside is wedged in its inside and vice versa. Ein Sof is both the most transcendent of beings, actually lying outside the cosmos, and the most immanent, to be discovered within the innermost "brain" of man.

A "Chinese Box"

These metaphors can provide us with a template for understanding many other oppositions, between God and man, reality and illusion, good and evil, etc.. When we reach the center of the Chinese Box, the innermost box changes positions with the outer one and we must start anew. Carl Jung, for example, (working, we might say, in the model of Yosher), thought he could understand the gods immanently, through an awareness of man's collective unconscious [8]. But perhaps, if he were to take Vital's metaphors to heart, such a psychological understanding of religion would itself lead out to the transcendent gods once more, like water that has been poured into a "Klein bottle", a bottle whose neck leading inside ultimately leads out again, and then in, ad infinitum.

In Vital's interpretation of the doctrine of Iggulim and Yosher we are witness to a sophisticated dialectic between transcendence and immanence, and between God and man. There is an acknowledgment not only that opposite perspectives on reality are each "words of the living God", but that they are both true precisely because in their opposition to each other they manage to encompass the broadest possible range of phenomena. Earlier, the Kabbalist, Azriel, had spoken of God and the Sefirot as the "union of everything and its opposite" [9], and later Kabbalists utilized the term Hashawah to denote the coincidence of opposites which defines the divine plenum [10]. Such a view, illustrated here in the doctrine of Iggulim and Yosher, enabled the Kabbalists to move beyond the linear thinking, which Hegel later referred to as common "understanding", to a more reflective, dialectical point of view on God, man, and the world.


1. Chayyim Vital, Sefer Ez Chayyim I:1b

2. See Chayyim Vital, Sefer Ez Chayyim 8:1

3. Zohar 1:134a ( see The Zohar , trans. by H. Sperling & M. Simon, London: Soncino Press, 1931-34), Vol. 2, p. 136

4. Zohar 176a

5. Cyril O'Regan, The Heterodox Hegel (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994) pp. 297-8.

6. Sefer Etz Chayyim I,1d

7. Zohar I: 119b (Sperling and Simon Vol. 2, p. 83)

8. For a collection of Jung's writings relevant to this theme, see, R. Segal, The Gnostic Jung (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

9. Azriel, "On The Sefirot", translated in , J. Dan, Ed. The Early Kabbalah, Texts Trans. by R.C. Kieber (New York: Paulist Press, 1966), p. 94.

10. On the concept of hashawah in later Jewish mysticism see R. Elior, Rachel "Habad: The Contemplative Ascent to God", in Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth Century Revival to the Present, Ed. by Arthur Green (New York: Crossroads Publishing Company, 1987) p. 163




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