Hebrew Tradition




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12th - 17th century


During this time a Jewish mysticism and theosophy seems to have suddenly appeared from origins which remain a mystery, and are the subject of some research. The secret teaching with the appealing name "kabbalah" originates in the Mediaeval Judaism of the Provence and is, to the outsider, unusually fascinating. The 32 ways of the "kokma", the wisdom of God, point not only to the 22 consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, but also to the sum of the ten so-called original numbers, the ten "sephiroth". In the kabbalistic diagram shown, both sets of numbers have a chromatic role to play. Ten circles are connected by 22 lines to create seven planes which can be visualised, combined and passed through in various ways.


Z. S. Halevi, Kabbalah tradition of hidden knowledge, London 1979; G. Scholem, Ursprung und Anfänge der Kabbala, Berlin 1962; Carla Randel, Farbe, Tarot und Kabbala, Heinrich Hugendubel Verlag, Munich 1994.


The term cabbala (Quabbalah) first appeared at the end of the 12th century within the German Chassidic movement. Derived from the verb "quibbel", meaning "to obtain" or "to get", the word cabbala thus implies the act of receiving the oral or written tradition passed from one generation to another, but does not reveal anything mystic or esoteric. Nevertheless, the cabbala is a secret teaching involving a Jewish mysticism and theosophy whose origin continues to puzzle, and so the following temporal and geographical details possess a considerable margin. Two main streams are involved in the development of the cabbala: a provincial origin in the Middle Ages, and a Palestine source, extending out into the Mediterranean region in the 16th and 18th centuries. In his work "Origin and Sources of the cabbala", Gershom Scholem states that the cabbalistic sources are multiple and diverse. A stream of theosophical-speculative character, manifest in the Sefer ha Zohar, approximates the ecstatic-prophetic stream, but there also Neo-Platonic and Gnostic influences in many of the cabbala's motifs. The cabbala is notorious for the so-called practical cabbala, encompassing techniques of black magic and providing the apparatus for profane, lowly and self-interested application of the cabbala's principles, in other words. For which reason it is rejected and condemned by the many of its masters.

The cabbala aims at attaining an awareness of the real nature of the world as a manifestation of the divine which strives for a return to its origins. This return can be realised in the form of ecstatic encounter, or through the cognitive entry into the heavenly spheres. In reality, of all the cabbala's diverse disciplines, it was the theosophical or zoharic stream, with its cognitive basis — both linguistic and literary — that was to experience the greatest impetus. Interwoven with other traditions, this version of the cabbala was to exert the greatest influence on Western culture and cast the most surreptitious influence on European philosophical thought. In this cabbala, the mystical ascent becomes transformed into a way of recognition, with the divine revealing itself within a complex figurative topography.

Earlier texts give a sparse portrayal of the Creation and the cosmos, and speculate repeatedly over the wisdom of God, (hokmah in Hebrew). For example, they talk of God as having engraved and created his world ... in 32 wonderful ways of wisdom. These 32 ways point to the sum of the ten so-called original numbers, the ten Sepiroths, and the 22 paths which link the Sepiroths and reflect the 22 consonants of the Hebrew alphabet.

The large illustration shows the ten Sepiroths in the form of a tree. Ten circles are connected by 22 lines, indeed in such a way that at the same time seven planes arise which — in different ways — are made visible, combined and traversed. Four great principles become apparent: the principle of emanation (emanzione), the principle of creation (creazione), the principle of formation (formazione) and the principle of action (azione). The three diagrams to the right show a representative sequence of the Sepiroths, and how they can be divided (illustration 1 - illustration 2 and 3).

The premise of the cabbala is that God cannot be recognised as a substance — a premise beyond the system itself. God is the En-Sof, limitless but nonexistent; oblivion — the hidden God therefore. He is conceived as a point which carries within it all potential forms of existence. The En-Sof creates in silence from out of silence — the open mouth from which no sound ensues. En-Sof is the light which withdraws or hides itself — a dark flame, neither white nor black, neither red or green or any other colour. It is the flame which brings forth colour only when it assumes dimension and expansion. En-Sof remains outside the representation of the tree of the Sepiroth — beyond all metaphors and symbols.

The traditional division of the diagram of the Sepiroth into ten grades or forms is derived from a fundamental exegesis. Kether, the crown, is at its tip. From there, the way leads to Hokmah, the place of wisdom, and to Binah, to find discernment and reason. These three Sepiroths are the first group of three to become visible in the overlapping surfaces of the four principles, and are equal in meaning to the first steps taken by the En-Sof — the creative breath — beyond its self. This triad is a part of the principle of emanation, the outflow from the unchangeable, complete and divine unity preceding Creation. The three basic elements of water, air and fire correspond to this triad. In the second, central triad, in the overlapping surfaces representing the principle of Creation (creazione) and the principle of formation (formazione), the way running from Binah passes an unmarked position, described as consciousness or daat. Following on from there are Hesed, the granter of grace (compassion), gevurah (or din), the agency of judgement, punishment and law, and Tifereth, representing fame and beauty to introduce a balance between the two former principles. The third triad in the overlapping surfaces of the principle of formation and the principle of action leads on to Nesah, and thus to victory, Hod, bringing majesty, and Jesod, the foundation which brings forth the world. Both these groups of three together make up the house of the world, the seven days of the Creation and the six directions in three-dimensional space, and symbolise the living God.

Malkuth, the kingdom of divine rule, and the place of harmony of the productive spheres, completes the journey. All powers are included here; it is the presence, the immanence of God (Schechina), the dark mirror in which the prophets revere God. The tenth Sepiroth represents the almighty God and the reunifying synthesis.

It is completely unrealistic to try and give even an idea of the cabbala's complexity, and it is also impossible to find clear colour-orders within it — the colours of the separate Sepiroths are, because of the many interconnections running between and within each separate Sepiroth, just too mysterious and diverse. The arrangement shown has thus been chosen for its colourfulness, to emphasise those colours which are most often encountered in the tradition. For example, Keter, the crown, is of colourless light — it can however also be black when it relates back to the source, and in its low manifestations can be white, and coloured when related to itself. Hokmah in turn incorporates all colours — these are the seven colours intrinsic in the eye (according to the physiology of the Middle Ages). Blue has been selected as being representative of the demarcation with black and for its symbolic content as the quintessence. For Binah, the tradition will often specify green — "a green band which surrounds the world", as Scholem writes. As far as colours are concerned, precision is not so vital — they do not, afterall, assume a central significance. Rather, they form the background to the constructions which promote an understanding of the world as the expression of divine wisdom. In the group of three Nest, Hod, Jested, each of the three Sepiroths incorporate all the colours, in addition to their own predominances. The sum of all colours can thus be synthesised in the colours of the rainbow (the basic colours of which are white, green and red). The figure of the rainbow — "the most noticeable natural symbol of colours" according to Scholem — is devoted great attention by the cabbalists. It is the symbol of the pact between God and Creation; the Hebrew word for "Bow" — Kescheth — also means "penis" in the Rabbinical literature. The image of the rainbow becomes complete if the tenth Sepiroth — from out of whose realm the rainbow rises upward and arches back again, and which at the same time represents the feminine element of divine manifestation, and can also be seen as the colourful combination of all Sepiroth powers — is associated with it. All the same, the interpretation of the rainbow remains iridescent: "the harmony of the rainbow colours is partly related to the concentration and unification of the active, creative forces of the Sepiroth" writes Scholem.

In addition to the tree of Sepiroth, the wheel-shaped portrayal is much favoured. It has been passed down in a manuscript dating from the year 763 (small illustration above right). Naturally, within set limits, colour games are possible. The cabbalists the gave them meanings, such as "the flame brought forth out of the ether". In addition, whilst emphasising the Sepiroth number ten, Gershom Scholem writes: "In the change of this highest principle of form which breaks forth out of the darkness and out of the ether, ten forms and colour patterns will arise which are reflected within each other, and multiply from ten to a hundred and, in the course of their increasing potency, will finally return to their original unity". With that, he implies the reunifying synthesis as portrayed on the lowest plane.

Apart from these attempts at portraying a system based on the ten Sepiroth, the small illustration to the left shows a further interpretation of a Hebrew colour-system relating to the four colours of the Tabernacle — blue, purple, red, white — to which black and green are also added. The first four colours correspond sequentially to the colours of the rainbow and can also be allegorically related to the four elements air, water, fire and earth. The dotted lines denote colours which do not relate directly to one of the elements, but express negations: the total negation (black) and non-perfection (green).

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