Worlds, the Four

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The use of the term "world" in the sense of a separate spiritual unit, a particular realm of being, came to the halakhic kabbalists from the heritage of neoplatonism. At an early stage, from the beginning of the 13th century, many such "worlds" are mentioned, representing a mixture of original Jewish, gnostic, and neoplatonic concepts. In the development of the doctrine of the ten *Sefirot, each Sefirah was considered as a complete world in itself which, in a way, had a mystical topography of its own. The world of *emanation could be seen as such a unit, but so could every single component or some of its configurations. Medieval philosophy knew of three worlds: the higher world comprising the separate intelligences often identified with the angels, the middle world of the spheres of heaven, and the lower, sublunar, world of nature and man. It was a natural step to add the world of the Godhead which could be identified with the world of emanation (Aẓilut, or the ten emanations) to this scheme. That way, four worlds would emerge. However, this did not occur in the development of the Spanish Kabbalah, where the doctrine of the four worlds originated. Rather, it had its origin in speculations connected with the interpretation of Isaiah 43:7: "Everything called by my name – for my glory I have created it, have formed it, yea I have made it." The three words used here, creation, formation, and making or achieving (beri'ah, yeẓirah, asiyyah), were interpreted by many authors as pointing to the progressive stages of divine activity. These stages could be seen in two perspectives: as declining from the purely spiritual to the material, or as progressing from as yet undetermined forms of being to more and more manifest ones, which in the stage of "making" would achieve a perfect shaping of the original divine purpose. In kabbalist literature these two tendencies complement each other and appear beside one another, first in the writings of the kabbalists of Gerona and later in several parts of the *Zohar. The Hebrew word asiyyah combines the two meanings of making and acting, and it was in this latter sense of activity that the term was frequently used by the kabbalists.

In the writings of *Azriel of Gerona, the three potencies of creation, formation, and activity are already defined as being comprised within the highest potency of divine emanation (Aẓilut), but they are never spoken of as worlds. This transition occurred first in the writings of *Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon. In one of his Hebrew books, Maskiyyot Kesef, written after 1293 (ms Adler, 1577), he quotes from an unknown source called Yerushalmi – in fact a lost part of the Midrash ha-Ne'lam in the Zohar – a statement according to which the soul of man "is from the world of creation and from the world of formation, and its completion [or perfection] is nowhere but in the world of action which is this our world." When a man leaves the world, his soul is comprised of all the three worlds – if he actually has fulfilled his task. Allusions to such three worlds are indeed found in the Aramaic text of the Zohar without being elaborated (for instance: i, 62a). Another stage of this development is documented by the Tikkunei Zohar, the latest stratum of the Zohar which clearly differentiates between four stages in the development of creation without calling them "worlds." The author knows of "ten Sefirot of Aẓilut in which the king, his real self and his life, are one," whereas this is not the case in the "ten Sefirot of beri'ah, or creation": "The highest cause radiates into the ten Sefirot of Aẓilut and the ten of beri'ah, and also shines in the ten orders of the angels and the ten spheres of heaven, and he calls these ten ranks of angels the ten Sefirot of Yeẓirah, or formation." In other passages of the same stratum four manifestations of the figure of man are already mentioned, clearly pointing to four layers of being: they know of an "Adam of Aẓilut, an Adam of beri'ah, of yeẓirah, and of asiyyah" (i, 22b, and end of Tikkun 67).

These are the preparatory stages from which a fully fledged theory of four worlds emerged at the beginning of the 14th century, particularly in the writings of *Isaac b. Samuel of Acre and the anonymous "treatise on emanation," Massekhet *Aẓilut. Here, God is said to have created four worlds, corresponding to the four letters of His name:

(1) the world of Aẓilut, which is like a garment of light to the source of all being;

(2) the world of beri'ah, creation, which is essentially the sphere of the throne of God and the seven palaces surrounding it;

(3) the world of yeẓirah, formation, which is the world of the *Merkabah seen by Ezekiel, and of the ten ranks of angels, dominated by *Metatron;

(4) the world of asiyyah, filled with the lower ranks of angels, who receive the prayers of man, but also with the hosts of *Samael and his devilish companions. This world is dominated by the angel *Sandalfon. Evidently there was no clear-cut definition of the status of the sublunar terrestial world which sometimes is made a part of the fourth and sometimes remains outside of this hierarchy. The realm of the powers of evil, the kelippot, could be identified with the world of asiyyah, at least as a part of it, but could be located outside this scheme, as indeed it sometimes was in later writings.

It is equally clear that this order of four worlds expressed a declining order of being, from the divine down to the nearly or completely material. This scheme could be relatively easily combined with the teachings of the Zohar, and became accepted doctrine of the kabbalists from the early 16th century onward. Especially the worlds of beri'ah and yeẓirah were elaborated in great detail in the writings of Moses *Cordovero and Hayyim *Vital, Isaac *Luria's disciple. Cordovero tended to include the realm of the kelippot and the whole visible creation within the fourth world of asiyyah, whereas the Lurianic Kabbalah tended to differentiate between them. According to Luria, only the fall of Adam brought about the confusion between the spiritual world of asiyyah and the material world of the kelippot which, in the messianic period, will again be completely separated from each other. The basic structures of the five Parẓufim, the configurations of the ten Sefirot described under anthropomorphic symbols, are repeated all over the four worlds. Luria's descriptions of the world of beri'ah is much more complicated than in former sources. The seven palaces in this structure are seen as exterior projections of its basic substance, and there is considerable vacillation regarding the place of Metatron and Sandalfon who appear in the worlds of both beri'ah and yeẓirah, apparently representing different stages of their manifestation. Metatron, the highest of all angelic structures, is even said to have his head in the world of beri'ah, his ethereal body in yeẓirah, and his feet in asiyyah. The teachings regarding the latter three worlds in Luria's Kabbalah are almost completely new and were meant to add to the many stages which the mystical *meditation must traverse in order to fix itself on the realm of divinity.


M. Cordovero, Pardes Rimmonim, ch. 16; H. Vital, Ez Hayyim, chs. 42–50; [I. Sarug], Limmudei Aẓilut (1897), 23d–34a; N. Bacharach, Emek haMelekh (1648), 167d–178d; J. Ashlag, Talmud Eser Sefirot, 6 (1966?), 1887–2033; G. Scholem, in: Tarbiz, 2 (1931), 415–42; 3 (1932), 33–66; E. Gottlieb, in: Divrei ha-Congress ha-Olami ha-Revi'i le-Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, 2 (1968), 329f.

[Gershom Scholem]