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Three Boundaries in Learning Kabbalah

First Boundary—What We Perceive

In his Preface to The Book of Zohar, Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag writes that there are “four categories of perception—Matter, Form in Matter, Abstract Form, and Essence.” When we examine the spiritual Nature, it is our job to decide which of these categories provide us with solid, reliable information, and which do not.

The Zohar chose to explain only the first two. In other words, every single word in it is written either from the perspective of Matter or Form in Matter, with not a single word from the perspectives of Abstract Form or Essence.

Second Boundary—Where We Perceive

As we’ve said before, the substance of the spiritual worlds is called “the soul of Adam ha Rishon.” This is how the spiritual worlds were created. However, we have already passed the creation of these worlds, and are on our way up to higher levels, though it doesn’t always feel like it.

In our state, Adam’s soul has already broken in pieces. The Zohar teaches that the vast majority of the pieces, 99 percent to be exact, were scattered to the worlds Beria, Yetzira, and Assiya(BYA), and the remaining one percent rose to Atzilut.

Since Adam’s soul makes up the content of the worlds BYA and has been scattered throughout these worlds, and since we are all pieces of that soul, clearly everything we perceive can only be parts of these worlds. Everything we sense as coming from higher worlds than BYA, such as Atzilut and Adam Kadmon, is therefore inaccurate, whether or not it appears that way to us. All we can perceive of the worlds Atzilut and Adam Kadmon are their reflections, as seen through the filters of the worlds BYA.

Our world is at the lowest degree of the worlds BYA. In fact, this degree is completely opposite in its Nature from the rest of the spiritual worlds, which is why we don’t feel them. It is as if two people are standing back to back and going in opposite directions. What are their chances of ever meeting each other?

But when we correct ourselves, we discover that we are already living inside the worlds BYA. Eventually, we will even rise along with them to Atzilut and to Adam Kadmon.

Third Boundary—Who Perceives

Even though The Zohar goes into great detail about the content of each world and what happens there, as if there is a physical place where these things occur, it is actually referring only to the experiences of souls. In other worlds, it relates to how Kabbalists perceive things, and tells us so that we, too, can experience them. Therefore, when we are reading in The Zohar about events in the worlds BYA, we are actually learning about how Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai (author of The Book of Zohar) perceived spiritual states, as told by his son, Rabbi Abba.

Also, when Kabbalists write about the worlds above BYA, they are not actually writing about those worlds specifically, but about how the writers perceived those worlds while being in the worlds BYA. And because Kabbalists write about their personal experiences, there are similarities and differences in Kabbalistic writings. Some of what they write relates to the general structure of the worlds, such as the names of the Sefirot and the worlds. Other things relate to personal experiences that they experience in these worlds.

For example, if I tell a friend about my trip to New York, I might talk about Times Square or the great bridges that connect Manhattan to the mainland. But I might also talk about how overwhelmed I felt driving through the massive Brooklyn Bridge, and what it feels like to stand in the middle of Times Square, engulfed in the dazzling display of light, color, and sound, and the sense of total anonymity. The difference between the first two examples and the latter two is that in the latter pair I am reporting personal experiences, and in the first two, I am speaking of impressions that everyone will experience while in Manhattan, though everyone will experience them differently.


It is imperative to remember that The Zohar shouldn’t be treated like a report of mystical events or a collection of tales. The Zohar, like all other Kabbalah books, should be used as a learning tool. This means that the book will help you only if you, too, want to experience what it describes. Otherwise, the book will be of little help to you, and you will not understand it.

Remember this: Understanding Kabbalistic texts correctly depends on your intention while reading them, on the reason why you opened them, not on the power of your intellect. Only if you want to be transformed into the altruistic qualities that the text describes will the text affect you.


When we talked about the First Boundary, we said that The Zohar speaks only from the perspectives of Matter and Form in Matter. We said that Matter is the will to receive, and Form in Matter is the intention for which the will to receive actually receives—for me or for others. In simpler terms: Matter = will to receive; Form = intention.

The Form of bestowal in and of itself is called “the world Atzilut.” Bestowal in its Abstract Form is the attribute of the Creator; it is totally unrelated to the creatures, who are receivers by their nature. However, the creatures (people) can wrap their will to receive with the Form of bestowal, so it resembles bestowal. In other words, we can receive, and in so doing actually become givers.

There are two reasons why we cannot simply give:

  1. To give, there must be someone who wants to receive. However, besides us (the souls), there is only the Creator, who has no need to receive anything, since His nature is to give. Therefore, giving is not a viable option for us.

  2. We have no desire for it. We cannot give because we are made of a will to receive; reception is our substance, our Matter.

Now, this latter reason is more complex than it may seem at first. When Kabbalists write that all we want is to receive, they don’t mean that all we do is receive, but that this is the underlying motivation behind everything we do. They phrase it very plainly: If it doesn’t give us pleasure, we can’t do it. It’s not only that we don’t want to; we literally can’t. This is because the Creator (Nature) created us with only a will to receive, because all He wants is to give. Therefore, we need not change our actions, but only the underlying motivation behind them.

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