It is a curious, perhaps historic oddity to note the contemporary cultural and textual prominence of the sefirot — alternately defined as divine essences, attributes, or emanations — within the ritual engagement of sefirat ha’omer. Indeed, if the ubiquitous Artscroll siddur (Ashkenaz, Hebrew/English) is a standard bearer for the norms of traditional practice, then this curiosity is well founded: while the Artscroll siddur contains very little esoteric kabalistic content (sure, Lecha Dodi was written by a Safed kabalist, and the ritual of kabalat shabbat is itself a Safed innovation), it includes — with no explanation or translation — the internally recursive count through the lower seven sefirot (chesed, gevura, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod, malchut), totaling seven counts of seven, alongside the 49-day count of sefirat ha’omer.
Any student of R. Chaim Vital’s Pri Etz Chaim is well aware as to how various iterations and combinations of the ten sefirot are easily mapped onto a number of Jewish texts, rituals, and commandments. Yet, while talk and use of sefirot in the contemporary milieu is marginalized to either Chasidic or new-age circles, sefirat ha’omer seems to generate not only an open acknowledgement but an open integration and exploration of the sefirot within the tradition and ritual.
Besides for Artscroll’s inclusion of the recursive count, there has been a recent explosion of self-help books and online collectives devoted to sharing wisdom and applications of each day’s unique iteration. Most recently, I was so moved by the celebrated place of the sefirot during sefirat ha’omer that I tweeted a corresponding poem each day, which I later self-published as a collection. I have since found multiple works of aphorisms, psychology, and yes, even poetry, each of which offers a response to this 49-day sefirotic count.
In what follows, I will attempt to answer this curious historical question by way of both a theological and psychological argument: namely, that the sefirot offer a personally signifying function not only for a repetitive, sequential ritual exercise, but for sequencing an experience of creation, redemption, and revelation in language between the holidays of redemption and revelation, Pesach and Shavuot.
If slavery entails the loss of language, if it demands the forced assumption of a language other than one’s own, then redemption is also the release of one’s tongue from bondage--through the discovery of a language that is, finally, one’s own. This is the midrashic and Zoharic reading of the Seder’s enactment of liberation, according to R. Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, in his work Sefat Emet:
The four “languages” of redemption marked by four celebratory cups of wine at the Seder are not only various descriptors of stages of redemption — they are, as well, performances of liberated language through a proliferation of liberated speech acts and rituals. Thus, the well known midrashic pun on the spoken word of “Pesach” as “Peh-Sach” — the mouth that speaks — thematizes the holiday of Passover through the spoken and heard articulation of its title.
The use of sefirot, in relation to the liberation of speech, lies in recovering their proper translation as “iterations” or “articulations.” Though the term sefirot has been alternately translated as divine spheres or emanations, perhaps the most accurate translation is sourced in a line from one of the earliest sources to discuss its nomenclature and system — Sefer HaBahir:
And why are they called “sefirot?” Because it is written “the heavens tell of God’s honor.” (Psalms 19:2)
Here, the noun form of sefirot is related etymologically to the verb form of telling, articulating — in other words, according to the Bahir, the sefirot themselves are articulations that speak of God’s honor.
The etymological association among sefirot as articulations, the mitzvah on Passover of recounting the Exodus (sipur yetziat mitzrayim), and the daily mitzvah from Pesach to Shavuot of counting the Omer (sefirat ha’omer) seems relevant here: articulations are layered on top of a counting that begins with a recounting, a retelling. The counting of the Omer, then, might very well be a form of articulation, a method of becoming in and liberation of and through language, sourced first in the commandment of telling one’s children — and one’s self — of the Exodus miracles.
Counting freely, in other words, is a form of recounting — of what was, and what’s to come. In this vein, Sefat Emet quotes his grandfather, the first Gerrer Rebbe (known eponymously as the Chidushei HaRim) who reads the sequences of totaled tens across Jewish history as the controlling paradigm for creation, hiddenness, becoming, and revelation — and all in language:
Here, in a pithy formulation that recurs throughout Chasidic thought, the ten plagues undo the hiddenness of God’s creation of the world — formed through the ten utterances referenced in Mishna Avot 5:1 — in order to make possible the articulation of the ten commandments. While the world was created through ten utterances, then, they were hidden and embedded in exile, only to be revealed in the ten commandments, with the appearance and then telling of the ten plagues serving as a catalyst.
If creation, redemption, and revelation are all a dance of articulation — of language hidden, liberated, and revealed — then the initial recounting of the Seder night — through a newly born, liberated speech, builds progressively into a linguistic system of liberation by way of the sefirot, the articulations themselves. In R. Chaim Vital’s words:
Thus, the sequence of movements through the Sefirot, according to Pri Etz Chaim, is a systematic 49-day progression through and complete articulation of what was initially perceived in an instant during Seder night.
In the sefirotic system, each articulation moves progressively through stages of becoming, with the final stage of malchut one of fully realized manifestation and presence. While the ten sefirot are generally mapped onto the ten articulations of creation, the lower seven and top three are typically divided, with the lower seven acting as more dynamic and relevant elements to the operations of the world, the text of the Torah, and the human psyche, and the top three related to God’s transcendent, hidden, and sometimes cognitive functions. Thus, as both the seven days of creation and the 49 days of Sefirat Ha’omer step through stages of human experience, they operate as cycles of seven sefirot.
A second principle of the sefirotic system is that each sefira contains all others. Kabalistic traditions are divided on the nature of the sefirot themselves — are they atzmut or keilim, are they sites of essential, divine immanence, or are they instruments for cultivating divine human characteristics. However, most traditions converge regarding the containment of all sefirot within each sefira, ad infinitum. Fractal-like, each sefira does not only operate dialectically with its opposite; even more — each sefira is equipped to receive the light of all others, as each already contains all others, including its opposites. In R. Shlomo Alkebetz’s words,
“You must know, when the Kabbalists said that each of the Sefirot is composed of ten, do not suppose that every aspect found in one attribute, yet originating in another, belongs only to the attribute where it is found, separate and cut off from all the other Sefirot, heaven forbid. Rather, each and every aspect is embodied in all of them.” (Brit HaLevi 41a)
Thus, the movement through the lower seven sefirot of chesed (love, kindness), gevurah (restraint, strength), tiferet (splendor, harmony), netzach (eterntiy, victory), hod (humility, gratitude), yesod (foundation, potentiality), and malchut (presence, manifestation) is one of becoming in relation to all others both internally and externally — all are wholly realized in and of themselves, and each builds on the next over the course of the 49-day count.
Practically speaking, how might one journey through the recursive sefirotic count of seven sevens — from chesed of chesed to malchut of malchut? Typical challenges that I’ve encountered include perceived redundancy (e.g. chesed of chesed), paradox (e.g. chesed of gevura), or obscurity (e.g. tiferet of netzach). Perhaps a few questions might prompt some reflection:
- How might the day’s sefirotic relation be rendered as embodied by a complex Biblical character, exemplified through rabbinic wisdom, or addressed in a midrashic homily?
- How does the day’s sefirotic relation capture a paradox that maintains a productive tension — one that generates spiritual life as a dialectic, and even if unresolved?
- How does the day’s sefirotic relation offer a complete and independent way of being — spiritually, devotionally, and personally?
As I wrote above, my own prompting around the sefirot moved me to compose a short, tweet-length poem each day: long enough to capture a fleeting sentiment, and short enough to demand precision. As I set out to write this poem (and all of the others, later revised into a bigger project), I thought about all of the associations I had with the gift of love — how was love itself a gift, how was such a gift exemplified through the kindness underlying the creation of the world, and how certain Biblical characters perform that gift as paradigms of compassion. In writing each reflection as a poem, my own compositional challenge was interweaving and layering all of those elements so that they complemented one another, too. Here’s my revised poem for chesed of chesed:
better a world
a waiter, Abraham,
with love’s gift.
And here’s my final poem in the 49 day count, corresponding to malchut of malchut
מלכותך מלכות כל עולמים
in the field
אָנ ֹכִ י
I’m sure that there are so many other ways out there to personalize this sequential journey from redemption to revelation — and so I leave you with the challenge to find your own way.
Best wishes for a nesiah tova.