Notes on Kabbalah 

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Release 2.0      
Copy date: 15th. January 1992

Copyright Colin Low 1992 (cal@hplb.hpl.hp.com)


Chapter 4: The Sephiroth (continued)
     This  chapter  provides a detailed look at each of  the  ten 
sephiroth  and  draws together material scattered  over  previous 

Daath and the Abyss 

     "When  you look into the abyss,  the abyss also  looks  into 

     "Nothingness  lies  coiled in the heart of being  -  like  a 

     In  modern Kabbalah there is a well developed notion  of  an 
Abyss between the three supernal sephiroth of  Kether,  Chokhmah, 
and Binah,  and the seven lower sephiroth.  When one looks at the 
progress  of the Lightning Flash down the Tree of Life, then  one 
finds  that  it follows the path structure  connecting  sephiroth 
*except*  when  it  makes the jump from  Binah  to  Chesed,  thus 
reinforcing  this  idea  of a "gap" or "gulf"  which  has  to  be 
crossed.  This notion of an Abyss is extremely old and has  found 
its  way  into Kabbalah in several different forms,  and  in  the 
course of time they have all been mixed together into the  notion 
of "the Great Abyss";  the Great Abyss is one of those things  so 
necessary  that like God,  if it didn't already exist,  it  would 
have  to be invented.       
     One  of  the earliest sources for the Abyss comes  from  the 

     "And the earth was without form,  and void; and darkness was 
     upon the face of the deep."

Kabbalists  adopted  this view that there was a time  before  the 
creation  characterised  by  Tohu  and  Bohu,  namely  Chaos  and 
Emptiness [1].  Another idea mentioned several times in the Zohar 
[2]  is  that  there were several  failed  attempts  at  creation 
*before* the present one; these attempts failed because mercy and 
judgement  (e.g.  force  and form) were  not  balanced,  and  the 
resulting detritus of these failed attempts, the broken shells of               
previous sephiroth,  accumulated in the Abyss. Because the shells 
(Qlippoth) were the result of unbalanced rigour or judgement they 
were considered evil,  and the Abyss became a repository of  evil 
spirits  not  dissimilar  from the pit of  Hell  into  which  the 
rebellious  angels were cast,  or the rebellious Titans in  Greek 
mythology who were buried  as far beneath the Earth as the  Earth 
is beneath the sky.    
     Another  theme which contributed to the notion of the  Abyss 
was  the  legend  of  the  Fall.  According  to  the  Kabbalistic 
interpretation of the Biblical myth, at the conclusion of the act 
of Creation there was a pure state,  denoted by Eden,  where  the 
primordial  Adam-and-Eve-conjoined existed in a state  of  divine 
perfection.  There  are various esoteric interpretations of  what 
the  Fall  represents,  but all agree that after  the  Fall  Eden 
became  inaccessible and Adam and Eve were separated and took  on 
bodies  of  flesh  here in the  material  world.  This  theme  of 
separation  from  God  and exile in a world  of  matter  (and  by 
extension,  limitation,  finiteness,  pain,  suffering,  death  - 
manifestations  of the rigours or evil inherent in God)  precedes 
Kabbalah and can be found in the Gnostic legend of Sophia  exiled 
in matter. This idea of separation or exile from divinity mirrors 
very  closely the use of the Abyss on the modern Tree  to  divide 
the  sephiroth  representing  a human being  from  the  sephiroth 
representing God.
     Isaac  Luria (1534 -1572) introduced a new element into  the 
notion  of the Abyss with his idea of "tzimtzum" or  contraction. 
Luria  wondered how it was possible for the hidden God (En  Soph) 
to create something out of nothing if there wasn't any nothing to 
begin with.  If the En Soph (no-end,  the infinite) is everywhere 
then how can we be distinct from the En-Soph?  Luria argued  that 
creation  was possible because a contraction in the En  Soph  had 
created an emptiness where God was not,  that En Soph had  chosen 
to  limit  itself  by a withdrawal,  and  this  showed  that  the 
principle  of  self-limitation  was  a  necessary  precursor   to 
creation;  not only did this explain why the Creation is separate 
from  the  hidden  God,  but it emphasised  that  limitation  was 
inherent  in  creation  from  the  very  beginning.   Limitation, 
finiteness,  the separation of one thing from another, what early 
Kabbalists  referred to as the severity or "strict judgement"  of 
God  (what modern Kabbalists call "form") was a puzzling  quality 
to  introduce  into the Creation given that it is the  source  of 
suffering  and evil in the impersonal sense,  what  Dion  Fortune 
calls "negative evil" [3].  Luria's notion of tsimtsum  suggested 
that  there  was  no possibility  of  creation  without  it,  and 
provided  a  rather  abstract  explanation to  one  of  the  most 
persistent questions of all time,  namely: "if God made the world 
and God is good, how come he made mosquitoes?".
     Pull  together the various ideas of the Great Abyss and  one 
ends up with a sort of vast,  initially empty arena like a  Roman 
amphitheatre  where the drama of the Creation  was  enacted.  The 
mysterious  En  Soph  played a brief role as  director  from  the 
imperial box,  only to retire behind a veil at the conclusion  of 
the performance leaving behind a huge power cord snaking in  from 
the unknown region beyond the arena,  and plugged-in to a  socket 
at  the rear of the sephira Kether.  The lights of the  sephiroth 
blaze out and illuminate the centre of this vast arena;  this  is 
Olam Ha-Nekudoth,  "The World of Point Lights".  At the periphery 
of the arena far from the lights of manifestation there is a deep 
darkness  where  all  the  cast-off detritus  and  spoil  of  the 
creation was deposited by weary angels and left to rot. A strange 
life lives there.
     The  situation was more-or-less as described above  when  in 
1909  Aleister Crowley decided to "cross the Abyss" and added  to 
the mythology of the Abyss with the following description [4]:

     "The name of the Dweller in the Abyss is Choronzon,  but  he 
     is not really an individual. The Abyss is empty of being; it 
     is filled with all possible forms,  each equally inane, each 
     therefore evil in the only true sense of the word - that is, 
     meaningless but malignant,  in so far as it craves to become 
     real.  These  forms swirl senselessly into  haphazard  heaps 
     like dust devils, and each chance aggregation asserts itself 
     to  be an individual and shrieks `I am I!' though aware  all 
     the  time that its elements have no true bond;  so that  the 
     slightest  disturbance  dissipates the delusion  just  as  a 
     horseman, meeting a dust devil, brings it in showers of sand 
     to the earth."

I  was  struck  when  reading  this  by  the  similarity  between 
Crowley's  description above and the section on Hod  and  Netzach 
in which I described the chaos of a personality under the control 
of the "hosts" or "armies" of those two sephira,  where a host of 
forms  of behaviour compete for the right to be  "me".  Crowley's 
experience has far more in common with the rending of the Veil of 
Paroketh separating Yesod and Tiphereth,  and further comments by 
Crowley add weight to this:

     "As soon as I had destroyed my personality, as soon as I had 
     expelled  my  ego,  the universe to which it  was  indeed  a 
     frightful and fatal force,  fraught with every form of fear, 
     was only so in relation to the idea `I'; so long as `I am I' 
     all else must seem hostile. Now that there was no longer any 
     `I' to suffer, all these ideas which had inflicted suffering 
     became  innocent.  I  could praise the perfection  of  every 
     part; I could wonder and worship the whole."

This  is a very recognisable description of someone who has  been 
released  from  the demon of the false self and  the  imprisoning 
triad of Hod,  Netzach and Yesod,  and moved through the Paroketh 
towards  Tiphereth.  Crowley's experience is valid as it  stands, 
but what it might mean to "cross the Abyss", and the absurdity of 
Crowley's belief that he had achieved this,  will be examined  in 
the following section on Binah and Chokhmah.
     A  twentieth-century  Kabbalist who did  succeed  in  adding 
something  useful to the ever-expanding notion of the  Abyss  was 
Dion Fortune, in her theosophical work "The Cosmic Doctrine" [3]. 
The  form  of  this  work  appears  to  have  been  inspired   by 
Blavatsky's  "The  Secret Doctrine",  and certainly lives  up  to 
Fortune's claim that it was "designed to train the mind,  not  to 
inform it."      
     Fortune  describes  three  processes  arising  out  of   the 
Unmanifest  (i.e.  En Soph).  Ring Cosmos is an anabolic  process 
underlying   the  creation  of  forms  of  greater  and   greater 
complexity.  Ring  Chaos  is a catabolic process  underlying  the 
destruction and recycling of form. Ring-Pass-Not is a limit where 
catabolism  turns  back into anabolism.  She visualised  this  as 
three great rings of movement in the Unmanifest,  with the motion 
associated  with Ring Cosmos spiralling towards the  centre,  the 
movement  of Ring Chaos unwinding towards the periphery, and  the 
dead-zone of Ring-Pass-Not defining the outer limit of Ring Chaos 
as  an  abyss of unbeing,  a cosmic compost heap  where  form  is 
digested under the dominion of the Angel of Death and turned into 
something fertile where new growth can take place.
     The  similarity between Fortune's description of Ring  Chaos 
and  what in programming is called a "reference-counting  garbage 
collector" is remarkable, given that she was writing in the 30's. 
Many programming languages allow new programming structures to be 
created dynamically,  thus allowing the creation of more and more 
complex  structures.  At  the same time there is a  mechanism  to 
reclaim  unused resources so that the system does not run out  of 
memory  or  disc  space,  and  the normal scheme  is  that  if  a 
structure is not referenced by any other structure,  recycle  it. 
In  Fortune's language,  if you want to  destroy  something,  you 
"make a vacuum round it (i.e. remove all references). You prevent 
opposition from touching it. Then, being unopposed, it is free to 
follow the laws of its own nature, which is to join the motion of 
Ring Chaos."      
     "Cosmic  Doctrine"  is a valiant attempt  to  say  something 
quite  profound;  at an intellectual level it fails  "abysmally", 
and I cannot read it without squirming, but it still has more raw 
Kabbalistic  and magical insight at an intuitive level than  just 
about anything else I have read.  The idea of a cosmic reference-
counting garbage collection process and an abyss of unbeing which 
is  not so much a state as a process of unbecoming  is  something 
not easily forgotten once touched.
    A  final example of an abyss is one which  differs  from  the 
previous examples in that it brings to the fore the  relationship 
between us,  the created, and the Unmanifest, the En Soph itself. 
Kabbalistic writers agree that the Unmanifest is not nothing;  on 
the contrary,  it is the hidden wellspring of being, but as it is 
"not manifest being" it combines the words "not" and "being" in a 
conjuction which can be apprehended as a kind of  abyss.  Scholem 
[6] discusses this "nothingness" as follows:

     "The primary start or wrench in which the introspective  God 
     is  externalised  and the light that  shines  inwardly  made 
     visible, this revolution of perspective, transforms En Soph, 
     the inexpressible fullness,  into nothingness. It is in this 
     mystical  "nothingness" from which all the other  stages  of 
     God's gradual enfolding in the Sefiroth emanate,  and  which 
     the  kabbalists  call the highest Sefira,  or  the  "supreme 
     crown" of Divinity. To use another metaphor, it is the abyss 
     which  becomes  visible  in  the  gaps  of  existence.  Some 
     Kabbalists who have developed this idea,  for instance Rabbi 
     Joseph  ben  Shalom of Barcelona (1300),  maintain  that  in 
     every transformation of reality, in every change of form, or 
     every  time the status of a thing is altered,  the abyss  of 
     nothingness  is crossed and for a fleeting  mystical  moment 
     becomes visible."

     It  should be clear by now that the Abyss is a metaphor  for 
a  number of intuitions or experiences.  I do not know  how  many 
different  kinds  of  abyss  there  are,   but  there  are   some 
distinctions which can be made: 

     - the Abyss of nothingness

     - the Abyss of separation

     - the Abyss of knowledge

     - the Abyss of un-being (or un-becoming)

The  perception  that being and nothingness  go  hand-in-hand  is 
something  Sartre  studied in great depth [7],  and many  of  his 
observations   on   the   nature   of   consciousness   and   its 
relatationship  to  negation or nothingness are  among  the  most 
perceptive I have found.  His arguments are lengthy and  complex, 
and  I do not wish to summarise them here other than to say  that 
he  viewed nothingness as the necessary consequence of a  special 
kind of being he calls "being-for-itself",  the kind of being  we 
experience as self-conscious human beings.
     The  Abyss of separation can be experienced as a  separation 
from the divine,  but it can also be experienced quite acutely in 
one's  relationships  with  others and with  the  physical  world 
itself. Much of what we perceive about the world and other people 
is an illusion created by the machinery of perception; strip away 
the  trick,  Yesod becomes Daath,  and a yawning abyss  opens  up 
where  one is conscious less of what one knows than of  what  one 
does  not;  it  is  possible to look at a close  friend  and  see 
something  more  alien,  remote and unknown than the  surface  of 
Pluto.  This  experience  is  closely related  to  the  Abyss  of 
knowledge, which is discussed in more detail in the discussion on 
Daath below.       
     The  Abyss of un-being is the direct perception that at  any 
instant it is possible to not-be. This perception goes beyond the 
contemplation  or awareness of physical death;  it is the  direct 
apprehension  of what Dion Fortune calls "Ring Chaos",  that  un-
being is less a state than a process, that at every instant there 
is  an  impulse,   a  magnetic  attraction  towards  total  self-
annihilation  on  every  level possible.  The  closer  one  moves 
towards  the  roots of being,  the closer one moves  towards  the 
roots of un-being.

     Daath  means  "Knowledge".  In early Kabbalah  Daath  was  a 
symbol  of  the  union of  Wisdom  (Chokhmah)  and  Understanding 
(Binah).  The  book  of  Proverbs is rich  mine  of  material  on 
the  nature of these three qualities,  material which  forms  the 
basis  of  many ideas in the Zohar and other  Kabbalistic  texts; 
e.g. Proverbs 3.13:

     "Happy  is  the man that findeth wisdom,  and the  man  that 
     getteth understanding....She is a tree of life to them  that 
     lay  hold upon her:  and happy is every one  that  retaineth 
     her.   The  Lord  by  wisdom  hath  founded  the  earth;  by 
     understanding hath he founded the heavens.  By his knowledge 
     the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew"

And Proverbs 24.3:

     "Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding is 
     it  established:  And  by knowledge shall  the  chambers  be 
     filled with all pleasant and precious riches."

In  the  "Bahir" [8] and "Zohar" [e.g.  2] Daath  represents  the 
symbolic  union  of  wisdom  and  understanding,   and  is  their 
offspring  or child.  As the Microprosopus,  often symbolised  by 
Tiphereth,  is  also  the symbolic child of Chokhmah  and  Binah, 
there is some room for confusion. According to the Zohar however, 
Daath has a specific location in the Microprosopus, namely in one 
of  the  three  chambers of the brain,  from  where  it  mediates 
between  the higher (Chokhmah and Binah) and the lower  (the  six 
sephiroth or "chambers" of the Microprosopus - see the  reference 
to Proverbs 24.3 above).
     I  have  often puzzled as to why knowledge  is  the  natural 
outcome of wisdom and understanding.  It was only recently when I 
read  Proverbs that I realised that wisdom was being used in  the 
sense of something *external*,  something which is received  from 
someone  else.  As children we were told "do this" or  "don't  do 
that",  and  often  couldn't question the wisdom  of  the  advice 
because  we lacked the understanding.  I once had a  furious  row 
with my father about building a liquid fuel rocket engine in  the 
house  using petrol and hydrogen peroxide.  He flatly refused  to 
let me do it.  I couldn't understand the problem - I was going to 
be careful. I now *know*, because I *understand* the stupidity of 
what I was trying to do,  the *wisdom* of his  refusal.  Received 
wisdom  cannot  be integrated into oneself unless  there  is  the 
capacity to understand it, and having understood, it becomes real 
knowledge which can be passed on again as wisdom to someone else. 
For early Kabbalists the ultimate wisdom was the wisdom of God as 
expressed  in  the Torah,  and by attempting to  understand  this 
wisdom  (and that is what Kabbalah was) they could arrive at  the 
only  knowledge  truely worth having.  Knowledge of God  was  the 
union between the higher and lower, and perhaps this is why Daath 
was  never  a sephiroth,  something which  manifests  positively; 
since  the  Fall  that  knowledge  has  been  lost.  One  of  the 
unattributable pieces of Kabbalah I was taught was that Daath  is 
the hole left behind when Malkuth fell out of the Garden of Eden. 
If  you examine my derivation of the Tree of Life in  Chapter  1. 
closely  you will see that I have based some of it on  this  very 
astute observation.
     The  notion of Daath as a "hole" appears to have  originated 
this century. Gareth Knight, for example [9], provides a complete 
set  of  correspondences for Daath,  many of which happen  to  be 
negative  Tiphereth correspondences or misplaced  correspondences 
borrowed from other sephiroth,  but one at least is  appropriate: 
he  gives the magical image of Daath as Janus,  god of  doorways. 
Kenneth Grant [10], with his usual florid imagination, sees Daath 
as a gateway through to "outer spaces beyond, or behind, the Tree 
itself" dominated by Qlippothic forces.      
     There  is  a deep correspondence between  sephiroth  in  the 
lower face of the Tree and sephiroth in the upper face:  look  at 
the  symmetry  of  the  Tree and  you  should  see  why  Malkuth, 
Tiphereth  and Kether are linked,  why Hod and Binah are  linked, 
why Chokhmah and Netzach are linked, and most importantly for the 
purposes  of  this discussion,  that there  is  a  correspondence 
between  Yesod  and Daath.  These are not just  simple  geometric 
symmetries;  they express some important relationships which  are 
experientially verifiable,  and in terms of what makes most sense 
in Kabbalah and what does not, these relationships are important.
Daath and Yesod,  at different levels,  are like two sides of the 
same  coin.  Jam the machinery of perception I  said  above,  and 
Yesod can become Daath.  The following quotation is taken from an 
bona-fide anthropological article [11] attempting to explain some 
of the characteristic features of cave art:

     "Moving  into  a  yet  deeper  stage  of  trance  is   often 
     accompanied,   according  to  laboratory  reports,   by   an 
     experience  of  a vortex or rotating tunnel  that  seems  to 
     surround  the subject.  The external world is  progressively 
     excluded  and  the inner world  grows  more  florid.  Iconic 
     images may appear on the walls of the vortex,  often imposed 
     on a lattice of squares, like television screens. Frequently 
     there   is  a  mixture  of  iconic  and   geometric   forms. 
     Experienced  shamans  are able to plunge rapidly  into  deep 
     trance,  where they manipulate the imagery according to  the 
     needs of the situation.  Their experience of it, however, is 
     of a world they have come briefly to inhabit; not a world of 
     their own making,  but a spirit world they are privileged to 

This  will  come as no surprise to anyone who  has  read  Michael 
Harner's "The Way of the Shaman" [5]. There on page 103 (plate 8) 
is  a  beautiful  picture of the  tunnel  vortex,  complete  with 
prisms.  When  I  first  saw this picture I  was  astonished  and 
recognised it instantly,  prisms and all;  when I showed it to my 
wife her reaction was the same.  The tunnel vortex appears to  be 
one  of  the constants of  magical/mystical  experience,  and  it 
appears  in  a very precise context.  In  Kabbalah  the  shamanic 
tunnel would be attributed to the 32nd.  path connecting  Malkuth 
to Yesod;  this path connects the real world to the underworld of 
the imagination and the unconscious,  and is commonly  symbolised 
by a tunnel [eg.9]. However, using the symmetry of the Tree, this 
path  also  corresponds to the path at another  level  connecting 
Tiphereth  across  the  Abyss,  through  Daath,  to  Kether.  The 
tunnel/vortex at this level is no longer subjective, because this 
level   of   the  Tree  corresponds  to  the   noumenal   reality 
underpinning  the phenomenal world,  and links  individual  self-
consciousness to something greater.  Just as Yesod represents the 
machinery of sense perception,  so Daath can flip over to  become 
the Yesod of another level of perception,  not sense  perception, 
but  something completely different that seems to operate out  of 
the "back door" of the mind;  this is objective  knowledge,  what 
used to be called gnosis.
     To conclude this section on Daath and the Abyss, it is worth 
asking  what  the relationship between the two  ideas  is.  As  I 
programmer  I am continually aware of the gulf  between  abstract 
ideas, such as the number two and its physical representations in 
the world:  2, II, .., two etc. The number two can be represented 
in an infinite number of ways, and it is only when you share some 
understanding of my language that you can *begin* to guess that a 
particular  mark  in the world represents  the  number  two.  The 
situation  is even worse than it might seem;  a basic theorem  of 
information theory states that the optimum way of expressing  any 
piece  of information is one where the symbols  occur  completely 
randomly. I could take this paragraph, pass it through an optimal 
text   compressor   and  the  same  piece  of   text   would   be 
indistinguishable  from  random  garbage.  Only  I,  knowing  the 
compression  procedure,  could extract the original message  from 
the  result.  Whatever  we  call  information  appears  to  exist 
independently of the physical world,  and uses the world of chalk 
marks,  ink marks, magnetic domains or whatever like a rider uses 
a horse.  To me, the gulf is irreconcilable; between the physical 
world  and  the  world of the mind is an  abyss,  and  I  am  not 
indulging in "new physics" or anything vaguely suspect - this  is 
meat and drink to the average progammer,  who spends most of  his 
or  her  time transforming abstractions from one  symbol  set  to 
     To   take  a  slightly  different  approach,   there  is   a 
mathematical proof that there is no largest prime number.  I know 
that proof.  No dissection of my brain will ever reveal the proof 
to  someone who does not know it.  I am prepared to bet  a  large 
quantity  of  alcohol  that it  is  theoretically  impossible  to 
discover;  the  proof that there is no largest prime number  will 
never  be extracted even if you assume a neurologist  capable  of 
mapping  every  atom  in  my  brain.   Evolution  tends   towards 
optimality,  and  I think the proof will be encoded optimally  to 
look  like  random garbage.  There is an  abyss  here;  there  is 
knowledge  which  can  never  be  attained.   In  Kabbalah   this 
particular abyss is called the abyss of Assiah;  it is the  first 
in a series of abysses.  The next abyss is the abyss of Yetzirah, 
and  it  is this abyss I have been discussing for  most  of  this 
section.  There are further abysses,  and this should be  clearer 
when I discuss the Four Worlds and the Extended Tree.  The  Abyss 
and Daath go together because the Abyss sets a limit on what  can 
be  *known*  from  below the Abyss;  the abyss  is  an  abyss  of 
knowledge,  and Daath is the hole we fall into when we try  probe 
beyond.  Can the nature of God be expressed in terms of  anything 
human?  No. God is as human as a cockroach, as human as a lump of 
stone,  as human as a star,  as human as empty space.  So how can 
you  *know*  anything about God?  Only when Daath flips  over  to 
become  the Yesod of another world can you *know*  anything,  but 
unfortunately  the  fiery speech of angels  is  like  leprecaun's 
gold:  by the time you've taken it home to show to your  friends, 
you've nothing but a purse of dried leaves.

[1]  Robert Graves & Raphael Patai,  "Hebrew Myths:  The Book  of 
                                      Genesis", Arena 1989

[2]  Mathers, S.L., "The Kabbalah Unveiled", RKP 1981

[3]  Fortune, Dion, "The Cosmic Doctrine", Aquarian 1976

[4]  Crowley,  Aleister,  "The Confessions of Aleister  Crowley", 
                           Bantam 1970

[5]  Harner, Michael, "The Way of the Shaman", Bantam 1982

[6]  Scholem,  Gershom  G.,  "Major Trends in Jewish  Mysticism", 
                              Schocken 1974

[7]  Sarte, Jean-Paul,   "Being and Nothingness", Routledge 1989

[8]  Kaplan, Aryeh, "The Bahir Illumination", Weiser 1989

[9]  Knight, Gareth, "A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism", 
                      Vols 1 & 2, Helios 1972

[10] Grant, Kenneth, "Cults of the Shadow", Muller 1975

[11] Lewin,  Roger,  "Stone Age Psychedelia",  New Scientist 8th. 
                      June 1991

Copyright Colin Low 1991

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