The Tree of Life, or Etz haChayim (עץ החיים) in Hebrew, is a classic descriptive term for the central mystical symbol used in the
Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism, also known as the 10 Sephirot. The symbolic configuration of 10 spiritual principles (11 can be shown, of
which - Keter and Da'at are interchangable), arranged in 3 columns/pillars, describes the manner in
which God creates existence ex nihilo, the nature of revealed divinity, the human soul, and the spiritual path
of ascent by man. In this way, Kabbalists developed the symbol into a full model of reality, using the
tree to depict a map of Creation.
Jewish Kabbalah usually refers to the symbol as the 10 Sephirot, while non-Jewish Christian Cabala and Hermetic Qabalah generally terms it
universally as the Cabalistic/Qabalistic Tree of Life. This metaphor derives from Judaic
Kabbalah, though is understood less universally. In the Jewish Kabbalist view, both of the two trees in
the Biblical Garden of Eden, the Tree of knowledge of good and evil and the Tree of Life were alternative perspectives of the Sephirot: the full array of 10 as
seen respectively from the last Sephirah Malkuth, and the middle Sephirah Tiferet.
From the Renaissance onwards, the Jewish mystical concept was adopted by some esoterically
inclined Christians as well as some Hermeticists. Among the Christian Cabalists,
the sephirot were also called Dignities, referred to by Latin, instead of Hebrew, names.
Christian Cabala also places emphasis on Christ as Sustainer and Preserver of the Universe, and the Malkuth of Jewish Kabbalah is absent, as it is considered of a different
Hermetic Qabalah's use of the Tree continues as a contemporary Western esotericism tradition, with alternative Esoteric Christian and Occultist emphases.
Jewish Kabbalah interpretations
Christian Cabala and Hermetic Qabalah interpretations
Kabbalists believe the Tree of Life to be a diagrammatic representation of the process by which the
Universe came into being. On the Tree of Life, the beginning of the Universe is placed at a space above the
first sephira, named Keter ("crown" in English). It is not always pictured in reproductions of the Tree
of Life, but is referred to universally as Ain Soph Aur (Ain - Without, Soph - End, Aur -
Light). To
kabbalists, it symbolizes that point beyond which our comprehension of the origins of Being cannot go;
it is considered to be an infinite nothingness out of which the first 'thing' (thought of in science and
the Kabbalah to be energy) exploded to create a Universe of multiple things.
Kabbalists also do not envision time and space as pre-existing, and place them at the next three stages
on the Tree of Life. First is Keter, which is thought of as the product of the contraction of Ain Soph Aur
into a singularity of infinite energy or limitless light. In the Kabbalah, it is the primordial energy out
of which all things are created. The next stage is Chokmah, or Wisdom, which is considered to be a stage at which the infinitely hot
and contracted singularity expanded forth into space and time. It is often thought of as pure dynamic
energy of an infinite intensity forever propelled forth at a speed faster than light. Next comes
Binah, or Understanding, which is thought of as the primordial feminine energy, the
Supernal Mother of the Universe which receives the energy of Chokmah, cooling and nourishing it into the
multitudinous forms present throughout the whole cosmos.
It is also seen as the beginning of Time itself.
Numbers are very important to kabbalists, and the Hebrew letters of the alphabet also have a numerical
value for the kabbalists. Each stage of the emanation of the Universe on the Tree of Life is numbered meaningfully from one
(Keter) to ten (Malkuth). Each number is thought to express the nature of its
The first three sephirot, called the Supernal Sephirot, are considered to be the primordial
energies of the Universe. The next stages of evolution on the Tree of Life are considered to exist beyond a
space on the tree, called the Abyss, between the Supernals and the other Sephiroth, because their levels of
being are so distinct from each other that they appear to exist in two totally different realities. The
Supernal Sephiroth exist on a plane of divine energy. This is why another correspondence for Binah is the
idea of suffering, because the Supernal Maternal energy gives birth to a world that is inherently excluded
from that Divine Union. After Binah, the Universe gets down to the business of building the materials it
will need to fulfill its evolution, and creating new combinations of those materials until it is so dense
that, by the stage of Malkuth, the initial pure limitless energy has 'solidified' into the physical
Universe. Since its energies are the basis of all Creation, the Tree of Life can potentially be applied to
any area of life, especially the inner world of Man, from the subconscious all the way to what Kabbalists
call the higher self.
But the Tree of Life does not only speak of the origins of the physical Universe out of the
unimaginable, but also of Man's place in the Universe. Since Man is invested with Mind, consciousness in
the Kabbalah is thought of as the fruit of the physical world, through whom the original infinite energy
can experience and express itself as a finite entity. After the energy of Creation has condensed into
matter, it is thought to reverse its course back up the Tree until it is once again united with its true
nature. Thus, the kabbalist seeks to know himself and the Universe as an expression of God, and to make the
journey of Return by stages charted by the Sephiroth, until he has come to the realisation he sought.
Similarities to other traditions
The Tree of Life bears many similarities to the Christian Gnostic conception of the Pleroma, emanations from the ineffable and self-originating Divine Parent that offer
the best possible means of describing God. Each emanation in the pleroma is born from a more complex emanation
before it. Most notably between these two allegories is the final sephira on the Tree, Malkuth, and the
last emanation in the Pleroma, Sophia, whose fall resulted in the physical world.
In the Bhagavad Gita
there is a mention of Asvattha, tree of Life and Being, whose destruction alone leads to immortality, is
said in the Bhagavad Gita to grow with its roots above and its branches below. The roots represent the
Supreme Being, or First Cause, the LOGOS; but one has to go beyond those roots to unite oneself with
Krishna. The Vedas are its leaves. He only who goes beyond the roots shall never return, i.e., shall
reincarnate no more during this "age" of Brahma.
The Tree of Life - Kuntres Etz HaChayim, A classic
chassidic treatise on the mystic core of spiritual vitality by Rabbi Shalom DovBer
Schneersohn of Lubavitch, translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Kehot publications. Extensive
comparison of the 10 Sephirot views of the two trees
Fortune, Dion. The Mystical Qabalah. York Beach, ME:
Samuel Weiser, Inc. (2000) p. 30-33 ISBN
Malachi, Tau. Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ. A Gnostic
Christian Kabbalah. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications. (2005) pp. 19-20. ISBN
Regardie, Israel. The Tree of Life: An Illustrated Study in
Magic. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications. (2000) pp. 49-54. ISBN
Encausse, Gerard (Papus). The Qabalah: Secret Tradition of
the West. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc. (2000) pp. 83-4. ISBN