The Tree of Life:
Chayim Vital’s Introduction to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria

translated and with an introduction by
Donald Wilder Menzi
Zwe Padeh
Arizal Publications, NY, NY
© 2008

This book was originally translated and published in 1999 by Jason Aronson, Inc. When that publisher went out of business and the book was out of print, Dr. Menzi acquired the rights and worked on a revised translation, published by Arizal Publications.

Rabbi Chayim Vital was a student/disciple of the Ari — Rabbi Isaac Luria, the pre-eminent teacher of kabbalah in Safed, the center of kabbalistic activity in the 16th century (see, for example, Rabbi Solomon Schechter’s famous essay, “Safed in the 16th Century”).

The kabbalists of Safed inherited earlier kabbalistic texts, such as “Sha’arei Orah,” “Sefer Yetzirah,” and especially, “The Zohar,” to mention just a few.

By the 16th century, the immense, diverse body of teachings had to be arranged in a systematic format, just as Rabbi Joseph Karo, in the same location and time period, did in his “Shulchan Aruch” with halachah/Jewish law.  Rabbi Mosheh Cordovero was the first to attempt such systematization of kabbalah. His work was later superseded by the Ari’s. Rabbi Vital’s work, similarly, arranges kabbalah systematically according to the Ari’s teachings.

So, we must first understand Rabbi Vital’s “The Tree of Life” as a systematic presentation of ideas, some of which long-predated that period. There’s no surprise, then, in finding “The Sefer Yetzirah” and “The Zohar” quoted numerous times.

Kabbalah is conventionally thought of as describing some “spiritual” reality in descriptive Eitz Chaim 6terms that can’t be measured empirically. The centerpiece of kabbalah is the emanation of the “material” from the “spiritual” via 10 steps — i.e. the 10 sephirot.

Physics describes the operation of the material world in terms of measurable forces and laws. Newton, Einstein and others believed that the consistency of these laws demonstrated (or at least strongly suggested) the existence of a Creative Intelligence that had designed them. Kabbalah, too, describes “forces and laws,” but of a milieu in which the entire physical universe is only a minuscule sub-category.

“Tree of Life,” although borrowing a phrase from TaNaCh [1], actually refers to one Eitz Chaim 6heirarchical arrangement of the 10 sephirot [2].

Rabbi Chayim Vital’s book, “The Tree of Life,” corrects our empirical misunderstanding. Drawing on earlier texts that were considered authoritative, Rabbi Vital describes in detail how the Infinite “emanates,” degree within degree, to become the creation that is manifest to us. The details almost remind me of a Physics textbook, with its complex description of the interaction of forces and principles that ends up producing visible phenomena. But for Kabbalah, the visible world is only the tiniest expression of a process that fills and surrounds it in ways that only our imagination can even begin to appreciate.

“This Adam [Kadmon] comprises ten sefirot, each of which could be considered to be infinite in comparison to the World of Emanation, which is below them. Adam Kadmon is divided into thousands and myriads of worlds, the first of which are the four worlds that correspond to the senses of vision, hearing, smell and speech, as described in the Tikkunim, Tikkun 70, p. 121 [Zohar]. From them are derived worlds without end…This Adam is also hinted at by the tip of the yod, the first letter in the Divine Name, which is like the Keter, the first sefirah of all the worlds.” [3]

One can easily become overwhelmed with the details and terminology presented. Yet, it must never be forgotten that, as the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady) later wrote in the Sha’ar ha-Yichud v’ha’Emunah, multiplicity is only from the human viewpoint. From God’s viewpoint, there is, was and always will be only God.

Although Kabbalah uses extensive terminology, as seen in Vital’s “Tree…,” it is ultimately meant to implant within us a mental picture (or “paradigm” as Thomas Kuhn meant in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) of reality far wider than the senses and intellect alone can comprehend. Therein lies a bit of the danger in studying this book without a knowledgable teacher whose intellectual understanding is enhanced and supported by his/her personal experience in meditation or contemplative prayer. I’ve seen teachers — in live classes and online discussions — become lost in the details. When they do, they make the subject matter — already dense — more difficult for their students to comprehend. One should instead come away from each study session with a greater sense of God’s immediate presence. Put in a different way, one must be immensely careful not to allow a “left-brain” understanding to obscure the “right-brain” appreciation of what is being described. In the end, of course, both sides of the brain need to be involved.

On the other hand, Kabbalistic teaching has assumed a place in Jewish observance. This influence was disregarded, even rejected, by the purely rationalistic “Enlightenment/Haskalah” movement of the 19th century, while the observances themselves, or at least some of them, were retained. Phillip Birnbaum’s edition of the siddur (prayer book), for example, includes some of the Lurianic “kavvanot” that precede certain blessings. But without understanding their basis in Kabbalah, these practices can only seem “mysterious” or “arcane” at best.

The infusion of Kabbalah into observance — tying the r’tzuah (leather strap) around the left arm 7 times when laying tefillin, for example — was meant to add a contemplative element to practices that were already being done. Another example is found in the Kriyat ha-Torah (public recitation of Torah) in synagogue. When the curtain of the ark is opened, we recite “B’rich Sh’mei,” which means “Bless the name…” It would seem as if we’re thanking God for Torah, by blessing God’s Name. However, kabbalah teaches that Torah itself is God’s Name. So, the Ari, Rabbi Vital’s teacher, inserted “B’rich Sh’mei” to affirm that it’s actually God Who is being revealed when Torah is removed and read. Similarly, when Torah is being replaced in the ark, we sing/recite “Eitz Chayim he…” — “It’s a Tree of Life…” [1] It would seem as if we’re praising the wisdom of Torah. However, if we recognize that “Tree of Life” is here being applied in its kabbalistic context, we see that again, kabbalah has reinterpreted the revelation that took place at Mt. Sinai to mean the constant, eternal emanation of all creation from God’s own essence — a creation in which God remains eternally present as well.

Without knowing the meaning, the practices simply become external, physical actions alone, without a contemplative component — rather like sitting down at a table for a meal with all the place-settings, using a fork and knife but without any food!

(This analogy is in some ways unfair, of course. Many people pray or do other mitzvot with deep devotional intention. The difference is that contemplation of the kabbalistic ideas allows us to progress in the depth of our contemplation. Without them, we are more likely to remain at the same level.)

For example, I remember the first Shabbat I spent in Crown Heights with Habad, in 1975 or 6. At that time, I had been doing TM for about 5 years. They were very kind and gracious in so many ways, including permitting me to meditate, which they found a bit odd. One hasid asked me what meditation was. When I explained it to him as best I could, he replied  “Doing mitzvahs is meditation.” In a kabbalistic sense, he was right. But without the contemplative element, mitzvahs are only actions. Personal awareness doesn’t go beyond the physical. Habad has its own contemplative system, called “Hitbonenut,” which at that time most of its hasidim seemed not to be doing! I believe this is less true now.

So, there could be genuine value in studying The Tree of Life and other texts to at least inform rabbis, and through them their congregations and students, about the intended inner purposes of what is being done.

The current edition has numerous illustrations to help explain the text. Some of these are from much older editions; some done especially for this one.

As I wrote in my review of (2) translations of the Sefer Raziel, I strongly believe that editions like the present one should be bilingual, whenever possible. This allows us to check on a translation, and can often help our understanding. This current edition of Vital’s work has a photo-reproduction of some of the Hebrew text. But it is in “Rashi script” — a form of cursive Hebrew printing read only by a small minority of Hebrew-literate Jews. [4] For reference purposes, I would have preferred a standard Hebrew font. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of the Sefer Yetzirah is a good example of that kind of edition. So, the Hebrew reproduced in the current translation of Vital’s work has historical interest, but for most of us, is not of use for study.

The translation is of fine quality. Great care seems to have been given to accuracy and consistency. It should be pointed out that the current volume is only the first of seven that comprise Rabbi Vital’s original work.

Rabbi Chayim Vital’s “The Tree of Life” could serve as a valuable textbook for a guided introduction to the essence of kabbalah — both for the rabbi seeking to enhance his/her congregation’s experience of worship and for anyone aspiring to personal spiritual progress.

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[1] e.g. Mishlei/Proverbs 3:18
(“Tree of Life” also appears in Bereishith/Gen. 2:9 and elsewhere. But there, in means the 2nd tree from which Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat. Hardly the Jewish view of Torah!)

[2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life_(Kabbalah)

[3] p. 90

[4] see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashi_script