Friday, August 7, 2015

3. The names of the sefirot

The names of the sefirot, at least most of them, are imbedded in the words of certain verses of the Hebrew Bible. One of them is I Chronicles 29:11, cited by Joseph Gikatilla in his late 13th century Gates of Light. It is one of the Kabbalist texts translated by Mithridates for Giovanni Pico in 1486. A condensed Latin version, perhaps the same or perhaps not, was published under the name of Paulus Riccius in 1516, another convert to Christianity who worked for Pico. A literal word-for-word translation of the verse is at, which I give below together with the transliterated Hebrew. Since Christian readers at the time would have also known this verse in the Vulgate's Latin, I give after the Hebrew the relevant words from it as well (
I Chron. 29.11, Interlinear: To the Lord (is) the greatness [Heb. gə·ḏūl·lāh, Vulg. magnificientia], and the power [gə·ḇū·rāh, potentia], and the glory [tip̄·’e·reṯ, gloria], and the victory [nê·ṣaḥ, victoria] and the majesty [hō·wḏ, laus = praise]: for all [ḵōl, enim] in the heaven and in the earth is to the Lord; your the Kingdom [ham·mam·lā·ḵāh, regnum], O Lord, and you exalt over all as head.
I Chron. 29:11, Vulgate: Thine, O Lord, is magnificence, and power, and glory, and victory: and to thee is praise: for all that is in heaven, and in earth, is thine: thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art above all princes.
The word "Tiferet" in this passage is translated as "glory" in most of its English translations; but the word also means "beauty" in other verses, according to the online concordance ( "Nesah" or "netzach" is "victory" here, but also "majesty", "splendor", "eternity", "endurance", "magnificent", and "glory" in other translations of the same verse . In the concordance for "nesah" and cognates, in fact, it is "victory" in only that one verse; the word mostly occurs as "lanesah", meaning "forever". In the translations done for Pico, Mithridates renders it "aeternitas". Finally, Hod, besides "majesty" is also "splendor" and "honor" ( In the translations for Pico, it is usually "orna" and "ornata", meaning "splendour" or "ornament", or "decor" and "decorem", meaning "beauty" or "honor"".

The 9th sefirot, Yesod=Foundation, is not there explicitly, but Aryeh Kaplan (The Book Bihar, p. 101) says that it is in the word "all", in Hebrew kol. It seems to me that the phrase following might be important, too, "in the heaven and in the earth", in that Yesod is the connection between the two realms. Gates of Light explains the word "all" in relation to Yesod by saying (p. 101, Weinstein translation):
Gikatilla:...this attribute draws all that can be drawn from the upper Spheres and brings them to the attribute Adonay; because all relies on this attribute, it is called Kol (all).
Here "Adonay" is a name of the 10th sefira.

The name "Yesod" seems to be from another quotation, cited in Gates of Light as well as other works: "The righteous is the foundation of the world" (Weinstein translation p. 59). This sentence does not exist in the Hebrew Bible. The closest is Proverbs 10:25, which says, first word-for-word and then in the Vulgate (,
Prov. 10:25: passes As the whirlwind and no [is] so the wicked [more] But the righteous foundation [yə-sō-wḏ, fundamentum] [is] an everlasting.

quasi tempestas transiens non erit impius iustus autem quasi fundamentum sempiternum

Prov. 10:25, Douay-Rheims: As a tempest that passeth, so the wicked shall be no more: but the just is as an everlasting foundation [[yə-sō-wḏ, fundamentum].
In the concordance, this "yə-sō-wḏ" almost invariably is translated as "foundation".

The name for "kingdom" in this verse is not "malkhut" but "ham·mam·lā·ḵāh". "Malkhut" is another word for "kingdom", which first occurs in 1 Chronicles 12:23-24 and in many contexts thereafter ( Gates of Light cites only two verses containing the word: Daniel 10:13 (Weinstein trans. p. 258), referring to the kingdom of Persia, and Esther 2:17 (Weinstein p. 363). Neither is in the section on Malkhut, but here they are:
Esther 2:17, Douay-Rheims: ...he set the royal [ mal·ḵūṯ, regni] crown [ke·ṯer-, corona] on her head, and made her queen instead of Vasthi. :
 Daniel 10:13, Douay-Rheims: But the prince of the kingdom [mal·ḵūṯ] of the Persians resisted me one and twenty days... 
As for the first three sefirot, Gates of Light, p. 330, quotes Isaiah 11:1-2. These verses would have been well known to Christians, as containing one of the alleged predictions of Christ's birth. I give first the literal translation, with the Hebrew words in brackets ( and the next), and then the Vulgate together with the Douay-Rheims translation (
And there shall come forth from the stem of Jesse and a Branch from his roots shall grow shall rest on the spirit of the Lord him the spirit of wisdom [hakmah, sapientiae] and understanding [binah, intellectus] the spirit of counsel [sah, consilii] and might [geburah, fortitudinis  = fortitude] the spirit of knowledge [da'at, scientiae] and of the fear of the Lord [yir'at, pietatis]
et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet et requiescet super eum spiritus Domini spiritus sapientiae et intellectus spiritus consilii et fortitudinis spiritus scientiae et pietatis
Isaiah 11:1-2: And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom [ḥāḵ·māh, sapientiae], and of understanding [ū·ḇî·nāh, intellectus], the spirit of counsel [‘ê·ṣāh, consilii], and of fortitude [ū·ḡə·ḇū·rāh, i.e. might; fortitudinis], the spirit of knowledge [da·‘aṯ, scientiae], and of godliness [wə·yir·’aṯ Yah·weh, i.e. fear of the Lord; pietatis].
The conventional names of the first three sefirot are here. There are also words that mean something similar to the next lower sefirot, at least in the Hebrew ("fortitude" is not the best translation of "geburah", nor "pietatis" for "yir'at", meaning "fear").

Another source is Exodus 31:3 (,
Exodus 31: 3: And I have filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom[bə-ḥā-ḵə-māh, sapientia] and in understanding [ū·ḇiṯ·ḇū·nāh, intellegentia] and in knowledge [ū·ḇə·ḏa·‘aṯ, scientia] and in all manner of craftsmanship [mə·lā·ḵāh, opere =  works].
Exodus 31:3 (Vulg.) et implevi eum spiritu Dei sapientia intellegentia et scientia in omni opere.
Exodus 31:3 (Douay-Rheims): And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom  [bə-ḥā-ḵə-māh, sapientia] and understanding [ū·ḇiṯ·ḇū·nāh, intellegentia], and knowledge [ū·ḇə·ḏa·‘aṯ, scientia] in all manner of work.
This verse is not cited in Gates of Light, but the same three names are there. Both passages, besides the three sefirot, also mention knowledge, da'at, a term that occurs frequently in the Kabbalist discussions of the tree. In Gates of Light it is a name for the middle line or pillar.

Although Mithridates' translation of Gates of Light has not been published, three others, plus English translations, have been. So I look there for more information about how the names of the sefirot were understood at that time.

The first of these, and the only Kabbalist work that Pico actually mentions by name, is the Bahir, in Mithridates' Latin translation and numerous Hebrew manuscripts in Italy of the time (Torino 2005). It derives from 12th century Provence. In this work, the ten sefirot are designated by the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet, from Aleph to Thet. They are said somehow to form a tree, which is watered from the top down. There are some indications of what these sefirot are called. "Aleph is the supreme crown" (Sect. 141, p. 326). "Beth is wisdom" (sect. 142, p. 326). "Gimel is the engraving of the law", i.e. the written law. Daleth is "the justices of the Lord, his graces and mercies" (sect. 144, p. 427). He is "his great overwhelming fire", at God's left (sect. 145, p. 427). Zain is in the middle, between water on its right and fire on its left  (sect. 153, p. 332). It brings peace and truth. The seventh (sect. 155, p. 333) I could not find named; it has to do with producing souls and seems to be female. Heth is the righteous one, the sadich, who "sustains the world and he is its foundation" (sect. 357, p. 334). Theth and Yod "are together, like nine and ten", one in the north and one in the west (sect. 169, p. 346). They are both "eternities" (sect. 170, p. 347). The 7th must be Malkhut, as Kaplan asserts (p. 176). (The matter is somewhat obscured by the fact that in Hebrew letters are also numbers. Thus for example Kaplan translates "alef" as "first" in sect. 141; Mithridates leaves it as "alef"; and the same for "bet" in sect. 142. But see Kaplan's discussion of sect. 16, where he explains that "bet" represents Wisdom, and "alef" Crown already there.)

From that perspective, we can see the word "wisdom", sapientia, as the 2nd sefira. For what comes next, the text quotes Proverbs 4:7: "Acquire wisdom, and with your possessions acquire understanding". So perhaps "understanding" is the 3rd, then "mercy" the fourth, and "power" the 5th, After that, the 6th is "peace" and "truth". Other names known later are mentioned,obscurely. For example, Abraham is associated with mercy, Isaac with fear, and Jacob with truth (sect. 137, p. 323). Since kindness is the 4th and truth the 6th, fear must be the 5th. The 8th is "foundation", and "eternity" the 9th and 10th (or perhaps "of eternities" for the 10th). The Bahir does not follow the usual order. The idea seems to be to associate the 8th, normally 9th, with circumcision, which was performed on the 8th day after birth, and the 7th, normally 10th, with the Sabbath.

The chronologically next manuscript is the Great Parchment, early 14th century.  Here, however, the sefirot are actually listed by name and in order. I will be quoting from the edition of Giulio Buso, Simonetta M. Bondoni and Saverio Campanini, Torino, 2004.

This is the first text with recognizable names. Its first sentence (p. 53) begins: "Prima est corona", i.e. "The first is the crown" (p. 195; however "prima" is not in any Hebrew manuscript, the editor tells us; it might be Mithridates' addition for clarity). It imagines a pool that becomes a river that divides into the four rivers of Paradise, now given the names of the four next sefirot. I put these words in bold.
Prima est corona que dicitur piscina superior in campo agri vel via cambifullonis et hoc exit ex heden ad irrigandum agrum paradisi unus fluvius et exinde separatur et fit in quatuor capita que sunt secunda tertia quarta et quinta numerationes que dicuntur sapientia intelligentia magnitudo et potentia nomen autem primi capitis fluvii pison.

The first [numeration] is the crown, called upper pool in the field of the garden or highway of the fuller's field. As a single river, it goes out from Eden to water the garden of paradise. From thence it is parted, and becomes into four heads, which correspond to the second, third, fourth, and fifth numerations, called wisdom, intelligence, greatness, and power. The name of the first riverhead is Pison.
These correspond precisely to five of the conventional names for the first five sefirot: Keter means "crown", Hochmah means "wisdom", Binah means "intelligence" or "understanding", Gedullah means "greatness", and Gevurah means "power".  There are, to be sure, other names for the fourth and fifth sefirot, but these are clear enough.

The rest of the sefirot are named in a later section of The Great Parchment, which describes in Kabbalistic terms Noah's sending of the dove to look for dry land (p. 59, p. 205):
...expectavit septem dies regnum fundamentum decorem eternitatem gloriam potentiam magnitudinem...
He waited yet other seven days: kingdom, fundament, ornament, eternity, glory, power, greatness.
These of course are listed from the bottom up. Some of these last seven sefirot are not quite what they are called in the Kabbalah translations we are familiar with today.

There are discrepancies here between the names in Mithridates' translation of the Great Parchment and the names given in the 1 Chronicles quote. Namely, Mithridates' calls the 7th sefira "eternity", while it is "victory" in most translations of the 1 Chronicles, and he calls the 8th "ornament", which is "majesty", or the Vulgate's "praise", in 1 Chronicles. (Translations of 1 Chronicles 29:11 can be compared at

Mithridates did not have, at least in the three texts at our disposal, a citation of the two bible verses from Gates of Light. That text was translated by Ricci. Mithridates was going by how the words were understood in the Bible verses quoted in the works he translated. These are not in The Great Parchment, and not in any systematic way in the Bihar, but are in the third work of Mithridates so far published, a late 14th century work called The Gate of Heaven (Torino 2012).

For the 8th sefira, Gate of Heaven (p. 514) quotes Deut. 33:17. Mithridates renders it "The firstborn of a bull is the ornament [decor]", explaining that this is adar, firstborn of power, i.e. Gevurah. On the left pillar of the "tree", Hod is directly below Gevurah. From and I get:
As the firstborn of his bull his glory [hadar] is to
quasi primogeniti tauri pulchritudo eius
His beauty as of the firstling of a bullock...
Here the Vulgate  translates "hadar" as "pulchritude", i.e. beauty. That is similar to the Latin term "ornament" of Mithridates. To be sure, this is "hadar" and not "hod". But Gate of Heaven insists (p. 514):
in fact hod is not different from hadar, just as it is well known in the secret of the verse saying "Hod vehadar paholeo, i.e. the ornament  [decor] is his work (Ps. 111.3).
Here is that verse (,
honorable [hod] and majestic [hadar] is his work
he gloria et decor opus eius
His work is praise and magnificence:
We can see here Hod as "to be praised" or "honorable" and Hadar as "magnificence" and the first translation's "majestic", 

A verse cited in Gates of Light (p. 124 of Weinstein translation) quotes Psalm 104:1 (,
Great [gadalta] you are very with honor [Hod] and majesty [hadar] you are clothed
magnificatus es nimis gloria et decore indutus es
...thou art exceedingly great. Thou hast put on praise and beauty
Here Douay-Rheims oddly renders "gloria" as "praise" rather than "glory"; the other is "decore", now called "beauty". That last would seem inappropriate to the context, as opposed to "majesty".

Also in Gates of Light, there is Psalm 107:8 (, 106:8 in the Vulgate,
O that would praise [yodu] the Lord his covenant loyalty and his wonderful works to men.
confiteantur Domino misericordiam eius et mirabilia eius in filios hominum
Let the mercies of the Lord give glory to him: and his wonderful works to the children of men.
According to Weinstein, "yodu" is a form of "Hod". The Vulgate's "confiteantur" means "give thanks" or "give praise".

I think this is the explanation for why Hod is translated "decorum", i.e. "beauty" or "elegance", which the 2004 translation renders as "ornament". It has to do with the second name, "hadar".  We can also see here why "praise", "glory", and "majesty" are also appropriate.

"Beauty" and "elegance" still seem to me strange. Reading Kristeller on Ficino, I found the Latin words "decor" and "decorum" in a Renaissance context. Speaking of God's acts in this world, to cause what we see around us, Ficino says (quoted in P. A. Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, p. 69, with the Latin in a footnote)
God does nor exist and act by chance (ut contingit), otherwise there would be no order anywhere or at any time, but as it is convenient or, better, as it is meet (decet). It is meet because it is decorous [decorum]. Decorum itself [Ipse vero decor] is God Himself, from whom and through whom all decorous things [omnia decentia] come to being.
Here "decorous" means "appropriate", specifically, appropriate to God, reflecting God's hand, who gives existence to everything that is. I think the same is meant by "decor" in Mithridates' context. It is like the first-born of the bull, if the bull is God. In this case, the bull is the 5th sefira, God's power, Gate of Heaven tells us, and also that which, as we learn there and elsewhere, stands in judgment, and is the one we should fear. The 8th sefira, then, is what acts appropriately to these judgments.

For Netzach, Gate of Heaven cites Psalm 16:11 (,
will show me the path of life fullness of joy. Your presence [there are] pleasures [nə-‘i-mō-wṯ] in your right forevermore  [ne-ṣaḥ] 
mihi semitam vitae plenitudinem laetitiarum ante vultum tuum decores in dextera tua aeternos
Thou hast made known to me the ways of life, thou shalt fill me with joy with thy countenance: at thy right hand are delights even to the end.
In other words, Netzach=eternity, the same as in Mithridates' translation of the Bihar, section 169.

If so, how did Netzach become victory? Kaplan cites a reference to Isaiah 34:10 in the Bihar, which he says has Netzach and Hod as "victory of victories". But no one else reads it that way (see The word-by-word literal version has ( and
 From generation to generation it shall lie waste it forever [lenasah] ever [nasahim] None shall pass through it.  
...a generatione in generationem desolabitur in saeculum saeculorum non erit transiens per eam
..from generation to generation it shall lie waste, none shall pass through it for ever and ever.
Here "Netzach" corresponds to "lenasah" and "nasahim", meaning "forever". This would seem to be further confirmation of Mithridates' translation of "Netzach" as "eternity".  Kaplan (p. 200, note 190) argues that the root of "nesah" is "strength", which implies endurance, hence victory. In the above verse, "enduringly" might work. But "victory"  or "victoriously" is very much a stretch.

Looking in an online Bible concordance, I find no occurrence of "nesach" as "victory", and only one as "strength". This one is interesting, because the Vulgate actually translates it as "Triumphator". The verse is 1 Samuel 3:29. I give the literal word-by-word followed by the Vulgate (,
And also the strength [nê-ṣaḥ] of Israel not do lie or repent for not [is] a man that he should repent.

porro Triumphator in Israhel non parcet et paenitudine non flectetur neque enim homo est ut agat paenitentiam

But the triumpher in Israel will not spare, and will not be moved to repentance: for he is not a man that he should repent. 
This is an odd translation. The Vulgate adds "non parcet", do not spare, and the Douay-Rheims leaves out "non flectetur", do not lie! The King James version, more accurately, has "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent". Other versions have Glory instead of Strength.

Gates of Light, p. 142, uses this verse to explain a feature of Netzach, that it hands down positive decrees which will not be rescinded. If the corresponding Vulgate translation has "Triumphator", there is a natural connection to the Chariot card, which was sometimes called "Carre Trionfale", triumphal chariot.

There is another difference between The Gate of Heaven  and The Great Parchment: two of the sefirot have an additional name. The fourth sefira now has the main Latin name of "pietas", sometimes "charitas" or "misericordia", translated as mercy, charity, and clemency. These corresponds to the Hebrew word "Hesed", sometimes spelled "Chesed" (p. 372). For the Hebrew "Gedullah" the words "magnitudo" and "magnificientia" also appear (p. 373f).

The fifth sefira, besides "potentia", also has the name "timor", meaning fear (p. 425), which corresponds to the Hebrew "Pachad". That is a term we know from Gates of Light's quotation of Isaiah 11:2.

In books today "Tiferet" is most often translated as "beauty". I could find no biblical citations for Tiferet in Gate of Heaven where it appears to have this meaning. The verse I quoted earlier from 1 Chronicles, cited in Gates of Light, has the most often translates it as "glory" (p. 225), although one, professing to be a "literal" translation, had "beauty", which to me seems less appropriate in the context. Here are two other citations in that work, Proverbs 19:11 (, and 20:29 (,
His glory [tipartow] to pass over transgressions.
gloria eius est iniqua praetergredi
 his glory is to pass over wrongs.
the glory [tip̄-’e-reṯ] of young their strength and the beauty [hă-ḏar] of old men the gray head. exultatio iuvenum fortitudo eorum et dignitas senum caniti
The joy of young men is their strength: and the dignity of old men, their grey hairs.
Again, tiferet=glory. Beauty would work, but "glory" is better. These are fine distinctions. Checking the concordance, it seems that "beauty" is a correct translation in some Bible verses, and "glory" in others. But the verses where "beauty" is appropriate are not ones cited by the Kabbalists, at least the Bihar and Gates of Light. (The other two works lack an editor's list of bible verses, so all I can see is that so far I do not se any where "beauty" fits.)

From all this, I get the following:
(1) Keter=crown, spirit of God
(2) Hochmah=wisdom
(3) Binah=intelligence or understanding
(4) Gedullah=greatness, magnificence; and Chesed=mercy, charity, pity, loving-kindness
(5) Gevurah=power, might; and Pachad=Fear.
(6) Tiferet=glory, less frequently beauty
(7)  Netzach=eternity, endurance, once victory, once triumphator
(8) Hod=honor, to be praised, majesty; and Hadar=decorous in sense of "fitting", less often beautiful
(9) Yesod=foundation; also Kol, "all" (in heaven and on earth)
(10) Malkhut=kingdom.
This is not all. The Kabbalists reveled in assigning assigning names to sefirot. But these are the basis.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting blog, I would suggest that you use the 1582/1609/1610 Douay-Rheims translation instead of the Challoner revision you seem to be using (OT facsimile pdfs are available on and an indexed pdf of the 1635 combined version - only slight differences - is also on The key difference is that the "modern" Challoner-revised 18th Century Douay-Rheims relies a bit too much on the 1611 King James Bible and retranslated a lot of content based on the Clementine Vulgate, whereas the original Douay relied on copies of the Jerome Vulgate. For example the Isaiah 34:10 in the original Douay-Rhimes is: "Night and day it shal not be quenched, the smoke therof shall goe up for everfrom generation unto generation it shal be defolate, there shal none passe by it world without end." Since it was translated pre-Clementine, Original Douay-Rheims is pretty useful for detecting changes between the Jerome Vulgate (of the 15th-16th Centuries) and corrected Sixtus/Clementine Vulgate. It was a literal (to the best they could) word-for-word translation so in your 1 Sam. 15:29 example where "will not lie" is missing from the original (which it is) shows that changes were made in the Vulgate on that line. The fact that the Challoner Douay-Rheims version has/does not have something is inconclusive as to the pre-Clementine Vulgate given his extensive revisions. Note that the pre-Douay-Rheims Wycliff Bible can be used as an second check on changes in the Vulgate, however because it wasn't a word-for-word translation like the Douay-Rheims, at can't be used in the first instance. The Wycliff Bible translates the Samuel line as "overcomer." Lastly if you consult the Brenton 1851 Septuagint translation (available online), you'll see that it has a different meaning entirely "..And God will not turn nor repent, for he is not a man to repent." Cheers