The Kabbalistic Tree

The Kabbalistic Tree

J.H. Chajes
University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 2022. xiv + 440 pp., hardcover, $99.95.

Most students of esotericism are familiar with the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. This esoteric diagram dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when Jewish mystics began to create many versions of it in various shapes and media. Most of these have been almost completely unknown.

J.H. Chajes surveys the array of these diagrams—which he calls ilanot (singular ilan) or “trees”—in this lavishly illustrated and beautifully executed work. Chajes’ account goes back to the thirteenth century AD, when classic Kabbalistic works such as the Zohar and Joseph Gikatilla’s Gates of Light were written, inspiring the creation of the ilanot.

In their simplest form, the ilanot comprise ten spheres or sefirot—arranged in a treelike formation. But Kabbalists created many far more elaborate versions. These attempt to integrate two basic concepts: the ten sefirot (which can be translated roughly as “principles”) and the Four Worlds: Atzilut (the divine), Briah (the spirit), Yetzirah (the psyche), and Assiyah (the physical). The interrelation of these two concepts—never definitively explicated in the Kabbalistic texts—inspired the variety of ilanot, which range from simple circles and lines in a notebook to elaborate productions such as The Magnificent Parchment, produced in Italy around 1600. This elaborate chart, which Chajes reproduces in a full-color foldout, “is filled with hundreds of discrete visual elements, diagrammatic schemata, symbolic forms, and decorative embellishments” surrounded by an astounding 33,000 words of Hebrew text.

Visually, The Kabbalistic Tree is a superb accomplishment: even amassing this array of obscure, half-lost images is impressive, and the visual reproductions are of the highest quality. Chajes’ accompanying text is less satisfying. He provides the history and background of the images, along with profiles of the distinctive (and often peculiar) men behind them. But his discussion focuses on technical details in the ilanot: one has the impression that the author is more fascinated by them as artifacts than as illustrations of a theosophical system per se. His text as a result sometimes reads as if he is writing for Art News.

Even so, The Kabbalistic Tree suggests an entirely new perspective on these images. In the first place, they are idiosyncratic in the extreme: one ilan, for example, portrays Adam Kadmon, the primordial human, as the seventeenth-century Holy Roman emperor Leopold I. No two ilanot portray exactly the same system. Indeed no two Kabbalists appear to have had exactly the same system—ever.

In the second place, practically none of these glyphs were intended to have a wide circulation—or perhaps any. As intricate as some of them are, no doubt exacting hundreds or thousands of hours of work, they were not for publication; many of them may never have been seen by anyone else in their creators’ lifetimes.

Consequently, we have to ask what these images were for. Not for publication, not for reproduction, not even, one suspects, for the education of some small set of disciples. One conclusion is left: the creation of the ilanot was itself a spiritual practice—possibly the central practice of these Kabbalists. Drawing and illustrating these images was their means of imprinting the principles behind them upon the practitioner’s mind and soul.

The diversity of these ilanot also suggests that the basic system of the ten sefirot and the Four Worlds is a framework only. It is not complete in itself, and it is up to the Kabbalist to internalize these principles (for example by drawing them for himself) and elaborate on them according to his own understanding. The point is not to get the right answer, but to integrate these images into one’s own being to the extent that one can operate with them creatively.

Such a perspective casts a light on the secrecy with which these documents were created and preserved. No doubt it was partly to avoid the unwholesome interest of both the meddlesome church and those of low understanding. But it may also have arisen from understanding that one’s own elaboration upon the Kabbalistic system is at its core an individual one. The ultimate product is not only a diagram drawn on parchment but internalizing these sacred principles in the soul.

Chajes’ account takes the ilanot into the twentieth century, where it peters out, although incorporating a few perfunctory examples. Perhaps this reflects a longstanding academic prejudice that the Kabbalah must always be somehow other—somewhere in the past, in thirteenth-century Spain or sixteenth-century Palestine, never in the here and now.

One exception is the work of the contemporary Israeli artist David Friedman, whose magnificent Sefer Yetzirah Motherboard (referring to the primordial Kabbalistic text) is reproduced in Chajes’ book. (Two other examples of Friedman’s work appear on the front and back covers of this issue.)

In any event, this beautiful and impressive book not only provides a great deal of material for contemplation and enjoyment but illustrates a principle sometimes enjoined by Kabbalistic teachers: to understand the ideas in these diagrams, you have to draw them out yourself.

Richard Smoley

[For contents page]

The Kabbalistic Tree

by J.H. Chajes, reviewed by Richard Smoley