Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

From Beetroot to Buddhism
GA 353

XI. The Sephiroth Tree

10 May 1924, Dornach

Mr Dollinger: What does the Sephiroth Tree mean to the Jewish people?

Rudolf Steiner: The Jews of ancient times really put all their most sublime wisdom into this Sephiroth Tree.66The origins and arrangement of the Sephiroth Tree are presented somewhat differently in Cabbalistic literature than here by Rudolf Steiner. It would be fair to say that they have put into it their knowledge of man's relationship to the world. We have often said quite clearly that man is not only the part we see with our eyes but also has other, supersensible aspects. We have called these the ether body, the astral body, the I or the I-organization. People knew this instinctively in earlier times, not the way we know it today. This ancient knowledge has been lost, and today people think that something like the Jewish Tree of Life, the Sephiroth Tree, is simply fantasy. But it is not.

Today we'll consider what the ancient Jews really meant with their Sephiroth Tree. You see, they saw it like this. The human being is here in this world, and the forces of the world influence him from all directions. If we look at the human being as he is here in this world [Fig. 4], we may imagine it to be like this, shown in schematic form. Let us consider the material human being in this world like this. The ancient Jews saw the forces of the world influencing him from all around. I put an arrow here that enters into the heart—the forces of the world acting on the human being; down here is the force of the earth [Fig. 5].

The ancient Jews said: In the first place, three forces act on the human head—I have shown this by the three arrows 1,2 and 3 in the drawing—three forces on the human middle, on the chest, mainly on man's breathing and the circulation of the blood [arrows 4, 5 and 6]. Three more forces act on the human limbs [7, 8 and 9], and a tenth acts from the earth [10, from below]. Ten forces, the ancient Hebrews thought, influence the human being from outside.

world forces working on the human being
Fig. 4

Let us first of all consider the three forces that may be said to come from the most faraway parts, the most distant parts of the universe and act on the human head, really making the human head round, an image of the whole spherical universe. These three forces, 1, 2 and 3, are the most noble; using a later term, a Greek term, for example, they come from the highest heavens. They shape the human head, making it a spherical image of the whole spherical universe.

relation of man to the Sephiroth Tree
Fig. 5
Now we must right away develop an idea that might upset you if I were simply to tell you what it is. For, you see, the first of these ten concepts, the one the Jews made the first and foremost in their wisdom, was later most dreadfully misused. At a later time people who managed to gain power by force drew the signs of this power and the words for this power down into the external realm of power. And individuals who gained power over nations and passed this on to their descendants laid claim to what we call a crown. In earlier times 'crown' was the word for the highest spirituality that can be given to man. And only someone who had become an initiate in the way I have told you, and had therefore gained the most sublime wisdom, was entitled to wear the crown. It was a sign of sublime wisdom. I have explained to you that medals and orders originally all had special meaning and were later worn for vanity and no longer had meaning. Above all, however, we must pay regard to this when we use the word 'crown'. To the ancients, 'crown' was the quintessence of everything that is greater than human and must come down into human beings from the world of the spirit. No wonder then that kings had themselves crowned. As you know, they were not always wise and did not always combine in them the most sublime gifts of heaven, but they wore the sign on their heads. And when such terms are used according to ancient custom we must not confuse this with the misuse that has developed. The most sublime, the greatest gifts of the universe and of the spirit that can come down to man, which he is able to unite with his head if he has great knowledge, were called kether, the crown, by the ancient Hebrews.

And this human head also needed two other powers. These two other powers came to him from the right and from the left. The ancients thought that the highest came from above, with the other two forces, two cosmic forces that are present throughout the universe, coming from the right and the left. The one that came in through the right ear, as it were, was called chokmah, wisdom. If we wanted to translate the word today we would say 'wisdom'. And on the other side binah came in from the universe. We would call this intelligence today (2 and 3 in Fig. 5). The ancient Jews distinguished between wisdom and intelligence. Today any intelligent person is also thought to be wise. But that is not the case. You can be intelligent and think the most foolish things. The most foolish things are thought out in the most intelligent ways today. Thus if we look at many things in modern science we have to say that it is really intelligent in every respect, but it is definitely not wise. The ancient Jews distinguished between chokmah and binah, the wisdom and intelligence of old.

The human head, and really everything that belongs to the system of the senses in us, including the nerves that spread in the sphere of the senses, was referred to by the three terms kether, chokmah and binah—crown, wisdom, intelligence.

This is how the ancient Jews saw the human head being developed out of the universe. They thus were very much aware—otherwise they would not have taught this—that man is part of the whole universe. We might consider the human body, for instance, and ask what the situation is with the liver. Well, the liver has its blood vessels from the blood circulation; it has its energies from the human environment. In the same way the ancient Jews would say: Man receives the powers from the surrounding universe which then—initially in the womb and also later—bring about the development of his head.

Three other powers [4, 5 and 6 in Fig. 5] act more on the middle human being, on the human being where the heart and the lungs are. They act on the middle human being, coming less from above but living more in the environment. They live in the sunlight that moves around on earth, they live in wind and weather. These three powers were called chesed, geburah and tiphereth by the ancient Jews. In present-day terms we would speak of freedom, energy and beauty. Let us above all consider the middle power, geburah. I told you I would draw the arrow so that it entered the heart. The power human beings have, the heart quality that is both power of soul and physical strength, is indicated by the human heart. The Jews saw it like this. When the breath enters into the human being, when the breath goes into the heart, it is not only physical forces coming into him from outside but also the spiritual power of geburah which is connected with the breath. So to put it more accurately we would speak of the power of life, the power which also enables him to do things = geburah. But to one side of geburah we have the power they called chesed, human freedom. And on the other side tiphereth, beauty. The human form is indeed the most beautiful thing on earth! The ancient Jews would say: Hearing the heartbeat I perceive the power of life as it enters into the human being. Putting out my right hand I perceive that I am an independent human being; as the muscles extend, the power of freedom enters. The left hand, moving more gently, able to take hold more gently, brings the element which man creates in beauty.

These three powers—chesed = freedom, geburah = power of life, tiphereth = beauty—thus relate to everything connected with the breath and the blood circulation in man, everything that is in motion and always repeats itself. This also includes the movement of sleep, alternating between day and night. This, too, is an element of movement; man also relates to this.

Man is however also a creature able to change his position in space, able to walk about, who does not have to stay in one place like a plant. Animals are of course also able to walk about. This is something humans have in common with animals. Animals do not have chokmah, nor tiphereth, nor as yet chesed, but they do have geburah—power of life. And human beings only have the three I have just shown in common with the animals because they have those others.

The ancient Hebrews called this aspect—that we are able to walk about, that we are not tied to a place—netsah, indicating that the fixed state of the earth is overcome and we move [arrow No. 7 in Fig. 5]. Netsah is 'overcoming'. And the principle that acts more on the middle of the human being, where his centre of gravity is—it is really interesting, you know—that is a point which is about here; it is a little higher up when we are awake and moves down during sleep, which also confirms that something is outside us when we sleep—the principle that is active in the middle of the body, that is also responsible for human reproduction and therefore connected with sexuality—this the ancient Jews called hod. Today we would use a term such as 'sympathy' for this. You see, the terms are getting more human. Netsah thus means movement in the outside world—we go out into space—and hod means inner feeling, inner movement, inner sympathy with the outside world. All this is hod [arrow No. 8]. Then, under 9: jesod. This is the foundation, the basis on which the human being actually stands. There man feels himself connected with the earth. The fact that he is able to stand on the earth is the basis, is jesod. Man has such a foundation also because those powers come to him from outside.

And then the forces of the earth itself act on him [arrow No. 10]. Not only forces from the outer environment act on him, but also the forces of the earth. This was called malkuth. Today we would call it the field in which the human being is active, the earthly environment. Malkuth—the field. It is difficult to find a suitable term for this malkuth. We may say realm, field. But all things have really been misused and present-day terms no longer express what the ancient Hebrew would feel: that this was where the earth actually influenced him.

We only have to visualize that this would be the middle of the human being. There is a thigh bone, on both sides of the human being, and this goes down to the knee, so this would be the kneecaps [drawing]. All these forces also act on this bone; but that it is hollowed out like this, a hollow long bone, is due to the fact that the earth forces enter into it. And everything where the earth forces enter would be called malkuth, the field, by the ancient Jews.

So you see we have to consider the human being if we want to speak of this Sephiroth Tree. All ten together—kether, chokmah, binah, chesed, geburah, tiphereth, netsah, hod, jesod, malkuth—were called the ten sephiroth by the ancient Hebrews. These ten forces are the actual connection between man and the higher, spiritual world, though the tenth force, malkuth, is placed within the earth. Basically, therefore, we have here the physical human being (pointing to the drawing) and around him is the spiritual human being, down below first of all as the earth forces, and then as forces that come closer to the earth but act out of the environment—netsah, hod, jesod. Spiritually the way these forces influence him is part of the human being. Then the forces that act on his blood circulation and breathing—chesed, geburah, tiphereth. And then the noblest powers to influence the human being, acting on his head system—kether, chokmah, binah. So that the Jews really saw the human being connected with the world in every direction, as I have shown here in colour [Fig. 4]. Man really is made in such a way that he also has supersensible aspects. And they saw these supersensible aspects in this way.

We may now ask: What else did the Hebrews want to achieve with their ten sephiroth, apart from insight into man's relationship to the world. Every student of Judaism had to learn the ten sephiroth, not just to list them. You would be quite wrong to think that the instructions given in the ancient Jewish establishments were such that the essential aspect was the diagram I have drawn for you. Simply to answer the question as to what the Sephiroth Tree was would have taken no time at all; you could have learned that in an instant. Today people are satisfied if you ask: What is the Sephiroth Tree? 'There is this and that written in it, as I have just shown you.' But that does not relate to the human being! One simply gives ten words and all kinds of fantastic explanations of them. But in relationship to the human being it is correct the way I have told you. That was not the end of it in those schools, however, for the Jewish student who was to gain knowledge, as it was then seen, had to learn a great deal more about it.

Imagine, gentlemen, you had merely been taught what the alphabet is, and if someone asked you what \(A\), \(B\), \(C\), \(D\) and so on was, you would know the letters \(A\), \(B\), \(C\), \(D\) and so on. You would have learned to give the 22 or 23 letters one after the other. One could not do much with this! If someone was only able to recite the 23 letters, he would not be able to do much with them, would he? And that is how an ancient Hebrew would have been regarded who would only have been able to say: kether, chokmah, binah, chesed, geburah, tiphereth, netsah, hod, jesod, malkuth, that is, been able to recite the ten sephiroth. Someone giving that as an answer would have seemed to the ancient Hebrews like someone able to say \(A\), \(B\), \(C\), \(D\), \(E\), \(F\), \(G\), \(H\) and so on. You have to learn more than just the alphabet, don't you? You have to learn to use the alphabet to be able to read, using the letters to read. Now just think, gentlemen, how few letters there are and how much you have read in your lives! Just think on this. Take any book, let us say Karl Marx's Capital, for instance, and look at it. There is nothing in those pages but the 22 letters; nothing else. Only the letters are written in the book. But it says a great deal in there, and this is all brought about by jumbling up the 22 letters. \(A\) sometimes comes before \(B\), then before \(M\), then \(M\) before \(A\), \(L\) before \(I\), and so on, and this creates the whole complicated content of the book. Someone who only knows the alphabet will pick up the book and perhaps say: 'It is perfectly clear to me what this book contains. It says \(A\), \(B\), \(C\), only in different order; I know everything it says in the book.' But he is unable to read the real inner content and get the meaning of the book; he does not know this. You see, you have to learn to read, using the letters such as they are. You must really be able to jumble up the letters in your head and mind in such a way that they gain meaning. And the ancient Hebrews had to learn the ten sephiroth in this way. They were their letters. You'll say: Ah, but they are words. But in earlier times letters were referred to by using words. Humanity only lost this when the letters came to Europe; it was lost in Greece.

You see, something highly significant happened when Greek gave way to Roman civilization. The Greeks did not call their \(A\) 'A', but 'alpha'. Alpha really means the spiritual human being. And they did not call their \(B\) 'B' but 'beta', which is something like 'house'. Every letter thus had a name. And a Greek could not have imagined a letter to be anything else but something to which you give a name. When the transition was made from Greek to Roman civilization people no longer said alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and so on, with each name indicating what the letter meant, but they said \(A\), \(B\), \(C\), \(D\) and so on, and the whole thing became abstract. At the time when Greek civilization went into decline, becoming Roman civilization, a great cultural diarrhoea developed in Europe. The spirit was lost in a massive diarrhoea on the road from Greek to Roman civilization.

And you see this is where Judaism showed particular greatness. When they wrote down their aleph, their first letter, they meant the human being. That is aleph. They knew that wherever they put this letter to be perceived in the world of the senses, whatever they brought to expression in this letter must be in accord with the nature of man. And so every letter used to give expression of the world of the senses had a name. And these names here—kether, chokmah, binah, chesed, geburah, tiphereth, netsah, hod, jesod, malkut—were the names for the letters of the spirit, for things that needed to be learned to be able to read in the world of the spirit. And so the Jews had an alphabet—aleph, beth, gimel and so on—for the outer, physical world, and they also had the other alphabet, with just ten letters, ten sephiroth, for the world of the spirit.

You see, gentlemen, if I give you the names like this: kether, chokmah, binah, chesed and so on, that is like \(A\), \(B\), \(C\), \(D\) and so on. But just as we jumble up our letters, so an ancient Hebrew would have known to say: kether, chesed, binah. And if he had said kether, chesed, binah, jumbling up the sephiroth in this way, he would have said: In the world of the spirit the most sublime spiritual power uses freedom to bring about intelligence. He would have been referring to the higher spirits that do not have a physical body and among whom the most sublime power of heaven uses freedom to bring about intelligence.

Or he would have said: choktnah, geburah, malkuth. That would have meant: Out of wisdom the gods create the power of life through which they have an influence on earth. He knew how to jumble up all these things just as we do letters. The students of ancient Judaism understood the science of the spirit in their own way with these ten letters of the spirit. This Sephiroth Tree was to them what the Alphabet Tree is to us with its 23 letters. Developments took a strange turn in this area, you see. In the first two centuries after the coming of Christianity people knew of all this. But when the Jews scattered over the whole world, this way of knowing things with the ten sephiroth was lost. Individual students of Judaism—you may know they were called chachamim when they became pupils of a rabbi—still learned these things; but even then people really no longer knew exactly how to read by means of these ten sephiroth. In the twelfth century, for example, a major dispute arose over two sentences. The first was 'hod, chesed, binah'. It was posited by Maimonides.67Maimonides, Moses (1135–1204), originally Moses Ben Maimon, Jewish philosopher bom in Spain. His opponent would maintain: chesed, kether, binah. So they did have disputes over those sentences. You have to know that they come from the Sephiroth Tree; one person would read it one way, someone else another way. But towards the Middle Ages this reading skill had really been lost. And the interesting thing is that later on, in the middle of the Middle Ages, a man appeared—Raymond Lully, a most interesting person, this Raymond Lully!68Lully (or Lull), Raymond (1235?–1316), Catalan philosopher.

You see, gentlemen, to get to know such a person is really extraordinarily interesting. Let us imagine there is someone among you who is extremely curious. This individual would say to himself: 'I have heard Raymond Lully mentioned. I'll go and look him up!' So you first of all take an encyclopaedia, and then some books where it says something about Lully. Well, if you read what it says about Raymond Lully in books today you can split your sides laughing, for that would have been the most ridiculous person you can think of! People say: Raymond Lully wrote ten words on bits of paper and then he took the kind of thing you have for playing hazard, a kind of roulette, which you turn, jumbling things up, and he would write down what came out of this, and that was his universal wisdom. Well, if you read something like this, that words were simply written on ten bits of paper and jumbled up, and that the man wanted to discover something special in this way, you'll split your sides laughing, for that would indeed be a ridiculous person.

But of course that was not the way it was with Raymond Lully. What he really said was this. You may search and study far and wide with the knowledge given by your earthly alphabet, but you'll not find the truth. And he then said: Your ordinary heads are not able to find the truth. This ordinary head is like a game of roulette where you turn and there is nothing inside, and so nothing can be selected from it that will make you win. Lully told people in his day that they had really all got hollow heads, with nothing inside them any more. And he said they would need to put ideas like the ten sephiroth into their heads; then they must learn to turn their heads from one sephira to the next until you learn to use the letters. This is what Raymond Lully told them. It is also written in his books. He merely used a picture, and the philosophers took the picture literally and thought he really meant a kind of roulette, which you turn to jumble things up, yet his roulette was meant to be supersensible perception in the head.

This Tree of Life, the Sephiroth Tree, is therefore the spiritual alphabet. People who were more to the west, in Greece, had a spiritual alphabet in ancient times. And when Alexander the Great69Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). lived, and Aristotle,70Aristotle (384–322 bc). ten concepts would be given in the Greek way. You still find them in all schools of logic today: existence, quality, relationship, and so on—again ten terms, except that they were different, being more suited to the West. But in the West people understood those ten Greek letters of the spiritual alphabet just as little as those we have been speaking of.

But you see, it is really an interesting development in human history. Over there in Asia, people who still had some knowledge learned to read in the world of the spirit using the Sephiroth Tree. And in the early Christian centuries people who still knew something of the world of the spirit learned to read using the Aristotelian tree of life—over in Greece, in Rome, and so on. Bit by bit, however, all of them—those of the Sephiroth Tree and those of the Aristotle tree—forgot what these things really were for, and were only able to list the ten terms. And we now simply have to use these things to learn to read in the world of the spirit, otherwise we shall gradually cease to know anything whatsoever about the human being. You see, a most interesting statement is the following. If such a Jewish sage wrote or said: geburah, netsah, hod, we would today have to translate it into the words: 'The power of life hatches out the dreams in the kidneys'. But if we were to say 'The power of life hatches out the dreams in the kidneys' today we would speak of physical forces, physical effects. Yet the Hebrew of old, saying geburah, netsah, hod, would have meant: 'The principle which is the spiritual human being in the human being is bringing about something that appears in dreams.' It always was a spiritual statement given expression by jumbling those letters.

It really is true that today we can only gain insight into these things through the science of the spirit. For no one will tell you today that those ten sephiroth were such letters for the world of the spirit. You'll not hear this said anywhere else, and no one really knows this today. So that we may say that the situation is such that modern science no longer knows most of the things that people did know in the past. They have to be regained.

Take just this letter here [drawing]: aleph x. What does this aleph mean in the world of the senses? Well, there stands man. Thus he stands, sending out his power. That is this line. He raises his right hand—this line—and he extends the other hand downwards—this line. So that this first letter aleph represents the human being. And every letter represented something, in Greek, too, just as this first letter represents 'man'.

You see, gentlemen, people simply have no feeling any longer for the way these things hang together. The ancient Hebrews called the first letter, representing man, aleph, the Greeks called it alpha, and they meant it for the spirit that moves in man, the spiritual principle behind the human being. Now we have an old German word that is used primarily when people have particular dreams. When a spiritual human being oppresses them, this is called the Alp. People say something comes and possesses a person. Later Alp became Elp, and then elf—those spirits the elves. Man is merely a condensed elf. This word elf, deriving from Alp, may still remind you of the Greek alpha. You only need to leave off the a at the end and you have Alph, ph is the same as our f, something spiritual. Because the f has been put, one says: the aleph in man, the Alp in man. If you leave off the vowels, as is customary in Hebrew, you actually get alph—elf—for the first letter. Human beings say elf to speak of this spiritual entity. We talk about elves. Of course, people will now say that these were invented by the ancients, a product of their imagination, and that we no longer believe in them today. But the ancients would say: 'You only have to look at the human being and you have the alph, only that the alph is inside the body and is not a subtle etheric entity in man but a dense, physical one.' But people have long since forgotten how to consider the human being.

You come across the funniest things, gentlemen. Just think, the following became fashionable in the second half of the nineteenth century—I am not going to say anything against it, such things may happen. There would be a table, with people sitting around it, let us say eight people. They put their hands on the table in such a way that they would touch on their outer edges, and then the table would begin to dance. They would count the number of dance steps the table took, and make words out of them, words out of letters. Those were spiritualist seances. What were these people thinking? They thought: 'Well, if we sit and think, no real insight will come; true insight must somehow come to us.' Now the truth is that people who say this might well say this of themselves, for they are usually rather thoughtless. They do not want to sit and think; they would prefer the truth to come to them from somewhere without any effort on their part. So eight of them would sit around a table, and they would let the table rap—one rap A, two raps B, then C, and so on, and make words out of this, and those would be spiritual revelations. So you see, wisdom came to them of its own accord; they did not struggle to gain it.

But you see, what should one really say to such people? They wanted to gain insight into the world of the spirit; it was their honest intention to gain insight into the world of the spirit. The spirits cannot be looked at; we do not see or hear them, for they do not have bodies. Those people therefore thought they might use the table as a body, and this would make it possible to communicate in some way. By the way, the results tended to be rather general; they could be interpreted in one way or another. But we would certainly have to say to these people: 'There you sit, eight people, around the table; you want a spirit to come and make itself heard. But surely you are spirits yourselves, you who sit there! Look at yourselves and look for the spirit that is in you. Then you will be able to find a spirit that is much greater. You would not suppose that you can only be seen if you make a table rap, but by using your limbs, your voices and above all your powers of thought in a proper human way!' And it is indeed the case, we need not doubt it, that if eight people sit down around a table, the table will begin to dance, for unconscious powers act on the table. It is indeed the case, but it does not lead to anything that would not emerge in a much higher sense if people were to make an effort with their own alpha or aleph that is in them.

But when Greek civilization gave way to Roman civilization humanity forgot its aleph. The first letter is A today. Well, to think that the first letter is merely A is to stand and gape. Just like that, you'll get nowhere. A wife once got tired of her husband always giving lectures based on science. He had learned a great deal and was always holding forth. This went very much against the grain with her. And one day she said to him: 'You always want to hold forth. If you want to hold something, just hold your tongue!' Yes, the content has really been lost completely. The Greeks did not think A, or alpha, without thinking of the human being. They would immediately be reminded of the human being. And they did not have a beta without thinking of a house in which the human being lives. Alpha is always the human being. They thought of something like the human being. And with beta they thought of something around the human being. So the Jewish beth and the Greek beta became the form enveloping the alpha, which is still inside as a spiritual entity. And so the body, too, would be beth, beta, and alpha would be the spirit in it. And today we speak of the 'alphabet', which to the Greeks meant 'man in his house', or also 'man in his body', in something that envelops him.

Well, gentlemen, it is really very amusing. If you take an encyclopaedia today, you read the whole wisdom of humanity in the alphabet. If someone were to start with A and end with Z—you won't do that—he would have the whole wisdom. But how should this wisdom be arranged in the human being? According to the alphabet, according to what can be known about man. It is most interesting. Human beings have managed to spread all wisdom because they no longer knew that it really points to what comes from the alphabet. If we translate 'alphabet', we get, putting it a bit differently: 'human wisdom, human knowledge'. Using a Greek word this would be 'anthroposophy, wisdom of man'. And this is what every encyclopaedia says. Anthroposophy should be written in every lexicon, for it is only arranged according to the alphabet, according to human wisdom, 'man in his body'. It is very amusing. Every encyclopaedia is really a bony skeleton, where the ancient wisdom has vanished in the alphabetically arranged knowledge. All flesh and blood has gone, all muscles and nerves have dropped away. Today you consult an encyclopaedia, and in it you find only the dead skeleton of the ancient knowledge.

We need a new science now that is not just a skeleton, like the encyclopaedia, but really has everything in it again of the human being—flesh and blood and so on. And that is anthroposophy! So one would really like to say all those encyclopaedias can go to the devil—although we do need them today—because they are the dead skeleton of an ancient knowledge. New science must be created.

You see, gentlemen, that is something we can learn, especially also from the Sephiroth Tree if we understand it rightly. It has been very useful that Mr Dollinger asked this question, for it has taken us a bit deeper again into anthroposophy.

The next time, then, at 9 o'clock on Wednesday.