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A friend told me something about there being "four worlds" in Judaism. I think he was referencing something about Kabbalah (though I'm far from an expert at that). I was wondering:

  1. What are these "four worlds"? Are they physical places? Are they ordered in any way (temporally, spatially, etc.)? Which world are we in now?
  2. Does this concept have any connection to the concept of Olam Haba (the world to come)? Is that one of the four worlds?
  3. Where can I learn more about this?
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Kabbala and Hassidut speak of four spiritual worlds

See here and here for more on these very lofty concepts (be careful that much of the Internet literature on Kabbala is not necessarily authentic Judaism, so stick to well-known sites).

These worlds are different from Olam HaBa (the world to come) which is less of a kabbalistic concept and refers to the world where souls go once they leave the body, or alternatively the world post-Messiah.

Now studying Kabbala rarely makes sense until one is already quite deep in traditional Judaism - too easy to lose oneself. Someone wanting to learn more will find the writings of R Aryeh Kaplan to be a good starting point, e.g., here and here.

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    Good point about much of the Internet literature on Kabbala not being authentic Judaism. – Daniel Feb 23 '16 at 19:59
  • In the Sefer Yetsira there are 3 worlds. If I remember right, the first Hagaha in the Sefer Nefesh Hachayim treat this. Despite the great similitude of many concepts of Judaism with greek physic, metaphysic and medicine. The essential point is the texts of Rabbis are transmitted by maatikey hashmuah in a general point of view. If I learn platonism and aristotelism, and the great and valuable corpus of the greek tradition, it will least help me to serve G_d that if I know the Zohar or the Ets Chayim and Nefesh Hachyim and Tanya. – kouty Feb 24 '16 at 7:09
  • Generally the concept of 'world' in his kabalistic use is not common in our "world", i.e. in our everyday vocabulary. but sometimes called the conceptual universe. The world of science, the world of horse riding. We need to think a lot. – kouty Feb 24 '16 at 7:31
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The Kabbalah has an elaborate metaphysics that is based quite strongly in the neoplatonic, tradition. Middle Platonism posited four worlds of reality which are reflected in kabbalah's four worlds. The One, Mind, World Soul, Material World, which correspond to Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah respectively. Platonism is discussed fully, openly, and academically. Kabbalah is less so, so it's easier to explain the Platonism, and then return to Kabbalah.

The One is a transcendent unity that is the source, and cause, of the world's oneness and is the primal cause that causes all other things. Most would call this G-d. In Platonism, absolutely nothing can be said about this because it is "above" the intelligible world. The intelligible world starts with the Mind, which creates all the forms, i.e., things that can be known. So the idea of rabbit is not known to the One, but it is known to the Mind. This is important, The One is entirely unaware of any level below it. It is not intelligible, and it does not know anything intelligible. If it did, according to the Platonists, it would be a multiplicity. The Mind "emanates" the World Soul. The World Soul takes the individual ideas in the Mind and combines them to form the Material World, which it causes to exist. So, the World Soul is the "form" of the Material World, and the Mind is the form of the World Soul, and the One is the form of the Mind. So everything is an aspect of the One without actually being the One. Developments in Neoplatonism complicated this slightly by putting in middle terms between each of these four worlds, which roughly correspond to the Tree of Life.

So, starting from the top. Ein Soph is the One. You do not direct your prayers to Ein Soph. Ein Soph is exalted beyond this World and is unconcerned with it. The Mind is the ChaBaD sephiros, that which is technically intelligible. Keter forms the middle term. The idea of a numerical one is intelligible, and it is one, but the One isn't numerically One. It is one only insofar as it is not a multiplicity. ChaBa is Wisdom and Understanding, the Mind, and Daas is the middle between the Mind and the World Soul. Daas is knowledge of what exists, more concrete mental activity as opposed to the more abstract notions of Wisdom and Understanding. The World Soul is represented by the "Tipheres Circle." Tipheres represents the balance between Love and Power (or expansion and repression) and the forces of nature (Netzah and Hod, the "hands" of G-d). This is the form of the World. Blessing "flows" downwards from the One in the form of continued existence. This "circle" emanates the Material World (Malchus) in its image (Yesod which is the link between the two), and changes in the Material World affect changes in the World Soul since they are intimately linked. Theurgy, or the manipulation of the Material World in the hopes of affecting higher worlds, finds its manifestation in Kabbalah as a reinterpretation of kavanah, which is defined in Kabbalah as the meditation of the intended spiritual consequences of performance of mitzvos.

  • Interesting take upon the concept. Not sure about the legitimacy of equating The One with Ein Soph. It seems fairly certain that according to Kabbalah the Ein Soph does in fact "understand" the "worlds" beneath it, or else you are implying that the aspects of Hashem containing "knowledge" are constrained to Bri'ah and below? That seems like an untenable position... – Isaac Kotlicky Feb 23 '16 at 20:33
  • @IsaacKotlicky I'm unaware of a source that puts any understanding in Ein Soph. Kabbalists historically considered the G-d of the bible to be the partzuf Zeir Anpin, which corresponds to what I've been calling the tipheres circle. I didn't include that as it's no longer taught that "he is they, and they are he." I'll agree it's untenable though. – ShamanSTK Feb 23 '16 at 20:58
  • If by understanding you mean specifically the sephiros of Keter, then you may be correct, but that's vastly different than saying that those middos do NOT EXIST within the unified Ein Soph. From everything I've read, no one suggests that. Part of the problem involves the use of non-Jewish philosophical tropes to discuss Jewish metaphysics. – Isaac Kotlicky Feb 23 '16 at 21:03
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    @IsaacKotlicky The idea is that, in this metaphysic, a mind is too complicated to be one. Otherwise, you'd just have creator and created and wouldn't need a descending hierarchy of complexity to bridge G-d to the world. The rambam rejected the metaphysic by noting a mind can be one of the thinker, thought, and object of thought are the same thing. Kabbalah however went the other way finding that a form of adam kadmon, or purpose, needed to bridge the gap between highest being and mind (abba and emma), with hashem being below mind and intimately involved in this world. – ShamanSTK Feb 23 '16 at 21:15
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    @IsaacKotlicky I agree with you 100%. Yes, things are understood by breaking things down into parts. Something simple can be ineffable, but not unintelligible. Like the experience red. You and I understand what we mean when we say red, but that can't be explained to someone with color blindness. G-d can understand G-d even if we can't. But the Kabbalist would say that understanding implies a consciousness of something. The mind is the thinker, but there must also be a thought and object of thought, which is a duality. Therefore, ES cannot be conscious. The rambam has another answer. – ShamanSTK Feb 23 '16 at 21:54

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