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It's possible the question has already been asked here, but wasn't able to find. So please excuse me for posting this again.

The early Jewish philosophers/thinkers (Saadia, Ramabam, Bachya Ibn Pakuda in Shaar hayichud) stressed the absolute unity of God, i.e., that Hashem is absolutely one, a unified entity with no distinct parts or attributes. As we say in the Ani Maamin הוּא יָחִיד וְאֵין יְחִידוּת כָּמוֹהוּ בְּשׁוּם פָּנִים

The sefirot, the divine emanations, which are also in some way identified with the Godhead (Shechina for example is distinct from the ein sof, but paradoxically also identified with it), stand in direct contrast to the absolute unity of God. Some (see teshuvas Rivush 156) even went so far to compare this to the Christian concept of trinity.

My question is how did the early kabbalists (like the Ramban and Rashba, who were also philosophers and great thinkers) reconcile this belief with the belief in the absolute unity of God? Did they disagree with the concept that God must be an absolute single entity, or did they reconcile this in some other way?

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The simplest way to conceive of this is to take note of how one responds when hearing the repetition of each blessing in the Amidah prayer.

After hearing, Blessed are You, HaShem (G-d's name)..., those listening respond, "Blessed is He and blessed is His name."

That G-d, at His essence, His being (מהות), transcends all letters and names (or descriptions). But for finite, created beings to have any relationship with the Infinite (something which is impossible for the finite), G-d provides us with His names, that G-d's names are also associated to the Sefirot.

This is the essence of the Aleinu prayer that we received from Yehoshua ben Nun, that we bend the knee, bow to and acknowledge, the Holy One, blessed is He. And in that prayer it then associates He with the various names of G-d. It emphasizes that all the various names of G-d are referring to He, who transcends names altogether. That there is no aspect of other. That He, who transcends names altogether and His name(s) are one.

This is one of the intentions one is to have when reciting the opening lines of the Shema (which we received directly from Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher of Yehoshuah ben Nun):

Hear (Understand) Israel, the L-rd (G-d's name) is our G-d (meaning He), the L-rd (G-d's name) is one.

So no, the early kabbalists did not disagree with the concept that G-d must be an absolute single entity (, that G-d is one). They were continuing a tradition that they had received directly, teacher to student, from generation to generation directly back to Moshe Rabbeinu and his primary student, Yehoshua ben Nun.

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    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Apr 11 at 20:32
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Hashem is Beyond Definition

אין סוף הוא שלימות בלי חסרון וא"ת שיש לו כח בלי גבול ואין לו כח בגבול אתה מחסר שלימותו

-ביאור עשר ספירות, רבי עזריאל מגרונה ז"ל
c.1175  – c.1235 CE

As you've put in a recent comment, the full answer is going to be a long study's worth, all we can do is provide a few tidbits for you to pursue. Here's one.

The quoted idea is a key point that was brought in this short work, by a student of R' Yitzchak of Akko T'zl. This work was written to answer your question!

It translates as "The Eternal One is perfect, without flaw. And if you say that He has Infinite power, but He doesn't have power in the limited/finite, you are detracting from His perfection".

This is a key point, and is brought forward into modern Kabbalistic thought, brought in Avodat Hakodesh 1:8, and into Chassidut (Sefer Hamamaarim 5657 p. 48). Therefore it is fair in my opinion to state that this has been the opinion of most if not all the early Kabbalists including the Ramban and Rashba you mention.

The later Kabbalists did not differ in this regard, quoting and elucidating this idea (as follows).


Introductory Explanation

The point is that we do not view Hashem as Infinite (or finite). We view Him as Undefined. Not just because we can't define Him, but because there are absolutely no limits on Him whatsoever. All we can say is that He is complete, simple, and everything comes from Him. See Gevurot Hashem by the Maharal T'zl, Hakdama 2:

אבל הוא יתברך שקראו רז"ל בשם "הקדוש ברוך הוא", ולא נקרא "השכל ברוך הוא", כי אמיתת עצמו לא נודע, רק שהוא נבדל מכל גשם וגוף ומכל הנמצאים, ועל זה נאמר "קדוש ברוך הוא", שענין "קדוש" נאמר על מי שהוא נבדל, כי הוא יתברך פשוט בתכלית הפשיטות. ומזה בעצמו שהוא בתכלית הפשיטות, אין דבר נבדל ממנו, כי הדבר שיש לו גדר ומיוחד בדבר מה, בשביל אותו גדר נבדל ממנו דבר שאינו בגדרו. אבל מפני כי הוא יתברך פשוט ואין לו גדר כלל, אין דבר נבדל ממנו. ואם כן, הוא יודע הכל, והוא יכול הכל, וכל זה מפני שאין לו גדר יוגדר בדבר מיוחד, ובשביל זה הכל נמצא מאתו גם כן

Our sages, of blessed memory, refer to Hashem as "the Holy One, Blessed be He" and not "the Intelligent One", because the truth of His being is unknown, except that He is separated from all forms of substance and body that can be found. This is why they call Him "Holy One Blessed Be He". The term "holy" denotes an entity that is apart and removed, and Hashem is simple in the most ultimate sense of simplicity. But precisely because Hashem is the ultimate simplicity (abstraction), there is nothing that is excluded from Him.

When something has a definition, and is distinguished by certain characteristics, that same definition will exclude form it things that are outside of that definition. But because Hashem has no definition at all, nothing is excluded from Him. Therefore, He knows everything and can do anything. All this is because God is not defined by any specific definitions, therefore, everything comes from Him. [parentheses and bold/italics mine]

By saying Hashem is not composed of anything at all, because He is utterly without limit or definition, and is the ultimate simplicity, we are saying that this is how nothing can be excluded from Him, and everything comes from Him.

As can be seen, this (later) Kabbalistic work is invoking the "early" (eternal, true) idea, and is explaining it, so what is understood here is what would have been understood by the early Kabbalists as well. The Zohar captures this in the point that Hashem is One, but not in the numerical sense (Ptach Eliyahu).


Further Reading

We can also use Chassidut Chabad to understand this as well, so if you fancy doing a deep dive, there is a wealth of material on this point, starting in Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmuna (which is also a work treating this exact question), as well as the rest of the sefer.

To go into the nitty gritty of all the different Kabbalistic opinions about the Sefirot and their relationship with Hashem Himself, there is a work dedicated to that: Drash Shalosh Shitot, found in Or Hatorah Inyanim by the Tzemach Tzedek T'zl, and a more contemporary work in Sefer Erechim Vol III, p. 192 onward. This was also done by the Ramak, the teacher of the Arizal, in Pardes Rimonim Sha'ar 4: "Essence or Vessel".

I can't stress enough how much effort has been put in by the Rebbeim to explain this very point, and how key an inyan it is.


Finally, I recommend 2 short, but exquisite pieces. The first is by the Rebbe Rashab called Maamar Veyadata [english], and the second is Maamar Kol HaMaarich B'Echad [english].

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  • Rabbi Kaii, I appreciate your time, but can you please explain how this addresses my question how the kabbalists reconcile the sefirot with the oneness of God? You mention things about the unknowability of God and his power, but I didn't see anything in this post that would resolve the problem. Just saying that He is undefined doesn't give us a right to say that he is many, yet one, at the same time (if that's the route youre taking).
    – Bach
    Commented Apr 10 at 23:27
  • Please note the first paragraph, this is just a pointer in the right directions. I've given you a principle the Kabbalists you are asking about use to deal with this point, giving an introductory explanation, and then many important further sources that deal with the issue at length - a length I believe is only fair and required for such a deep, esoteric and philosophical concept. Hatzlacha in your search for answers and Emet!
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Apr 10 at 23:33
  • I would very much welcome feedback on this downvote. This answer is extremely well sourced. If it is because it doesn't answer the question in full on the page, then please give advice about how that could be done, for a question that would require a thesis, and what I could further do to make this a valuable answer?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Apr 11 at 15:40
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The short answer is - they didn't.

The unity of God as we understand it today is a concept that originates with the Rambam. The Maimonidean conception is that God is completely singular, formless, and impossible to describe with any sort of accuracy due to the limited nature of the human mind. This idea was so well regarded in later generations, that every Jew nowadays defaults to the Maimonidean position as accepted Orthodoxy.

However, believe it or not, this position was actually very controversial when first proposed by the Rambam, as many of his suppositions were based in Aristotelian Philosophy. Many of the Anti-Maimonideans in Provence and the students of the Baalei Tosafot in Ashkenaz took issue with Rambam's allegorization of certain Biblical passages that stated that God had "hands" or "eyes" or felt emotions, and the like. In fact, Rabbi Moshe Taku (one of the late Baalei Tosafot) goes so far as to say that God indeed DOES have some sort of body, and it is heretical to say that God is infinite, for you would be placing God in dirty places such as the restroom and the like (similar to the accusation of heresy that would be leveled against the Hasidim much later).

Going back to the subject of the early Kabbalists, there was a Machloket between themselves if the Sefirot were literal divisions within God or they were manifestations of the divine through different channels (as would be advocated for by the Cordoveran and Lurianic traditions). The Kabbalists who held that the Sefirot were literal divisions within God weren't bothered by this as they did not hold of the Maimonidean divine in any serious sense. Now, this being the case, how could they possibly take issue with Christianity if they held divisions within the divine themselves?

As Prof. Marc B. Shapiro points out, many medieval Jews had much less of an issue with the conception of the Trinity in Christian Theology, than with the notion that God would willingly incarnate himself as a man, and then die for the sins of mankind. That was egregious to Jews, but the Trinity was only really taken issue with by the Maimonideans and other hardcore "unitarians" (for lack of a better word).

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  • It is notable that Migdal Oz, Rambam's defender and source reconstructionist, on MT Yesodei HaTorah 1:1, where Rambam codifies this orthodoxy, states that Rambam received it b'msora. Your answer is interesting, but would benefit from sources. Did Prof. Shapiro claim all of the above? Where? Who is he?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Apr 9 at 21:55
  • You can see his sources on the Seforim Blog, where he writes about this. Commented Apr 10 at 12:41
  • Please take my comments as positive feedback on improving your answer, rather than personal requests from me, especially because this is a rather out-of-the-box answer, seemingly contradicting common wisdom and common sources (e.g. ביאור עשר ספירות, an early Kabbalistic work on the sefirot which states clearly אין סוף הוא שלימות בלי חסרון). Therefore it would be pertinent to make your case strongly here.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Apr 10 at 12:51
  • "Common knowledge" is often the info that the Haredi community chose not to censor. We have the works of the early Kabbalists and how to understand the Sefirot is a major machlokes amongst them. Even the greats like the Rashba and Rivash got involved. Commented Apr 10 at 12:53
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    The invention of the Rambam was that nothing positive can be said of the divine, only the negative i.e., what God is not, a view which christian philosophers later adopted. But the belief in the absolute unity of God dates back to the period of the Geonim. And the Ramban a dedicated kabbalist (along with many others), seemingly subscribed to this view and didn't see it as a contradiction to his kabbalistic conception of the divine. So I have good reason to think that the answer to my question is a bit more complicated and not as simple as you put it
    – Bach
    Commented Apr 10 at 20:07
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If you're asking about the sefiros broadly, and not specifically the early Kabbalists - the answer is, they reconciled that idea using the inyanim of tzimtzum the Ohr Ein Sof. That is what the entirety of kabbalah is about. You can learn more in the first perek of Otzros Chaim, Shaar Ha'igulim. The sefer Bayam Darkecha had almost a hundred pages of R' Itche Meir Morgenstern's commentary on this perek, broken down in very clear language - I strongly recommend it.

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  • What makes you think he might not be asking about the early kabbalists specifically? It seems quite clear to me that he specifically was
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 24 at 0:51
  • @DoubleAA additionally, I don't see how tzimtzum remotely resolves the problem. Seems to me like a deflection of the issue.
    – Bach
    Commented Jan 24 at 1:05
  • @DoubleAA Because OP mentioned in the comments about the interest in how the sefiros can be reconciled with אחדות השם, which is a question grappled with by the later Kabbalists.
    – Yehuda
    Commented Jan 24 at 2:16

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