An Introduction to the Shekinah in the Kabbalah
By Sorita d’Este & David Rankine
Whilst the exact origins of the Kabbalah are unknown, it is clear that cultural influences from ancient Greece,Egypt and Sumer/Babylonia played a key part in the development of its philosophies. According to legend, the Kabbalah was taught to Adam in the Garden of Eden by the archangel Raziel, who is predominantly associated with wisdom.
The term Kabbalah was first recorded in the teachings of the Jewish Rabbi Isaac the Blind (1160-1236 CE), in Provence, France, who was known as the ‘Father of Kabbalah’. The main Kabbalistic texts and teachings stem from the tenth-twelfth century CE onwards, however one of the most important source texts used by Kabbalists, the Sepher Yetzirah (‘Book of Formation’), dates back to the second century CE thereby suggesting earlier origins. Moreover many of the other philosophies and cosmologies which influenced the Kabbalah and its development, such as Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, also date back to this earlier period.
The Kabbalah is essentially a philosophy and cosmology which explains human life and the universe through the ordering of chaos expressed as manifestations of the creative divine impulse at different levels. The process of manifestation subsequently produces matter and the creation of life. The central glyph of the Kabbalah is the Tree of Life, an ordered collection of ten circles (called Sephiroth, meaning ‘emanations’) connected by twenty-two paths, which symbolise man, the universe, and the process of creation.
The Shekinah can be found throughout Kabbalistic philosophies and the glyph of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Not only is the Shekinah specifically represented by two of the ten Sephiroth and connected with the process of creation through the Four Worlds which comprise the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, but she is also viewed as being the Neshamah or higher soul, which is a significant part of Kabbalistic philosophy. Additionally, the Shekinah is the feminine divine who is in a dynamic polarity with the masculine divine, resulting in creation and change. As such, she is both the Greater Shekinah who unites with God, and the Lesser or Exiled Shekinah who is the soul of the earth itself.
This relationship between the Shekinah and the Earth as anima mundi (world soul) has found a modern scientific outlet in the Gaia Hypothesis of the scientist James Lovelock, which argues that the Earth is a single self-regulating system which responds to changing circumstances. From here it is one small step towards the perception that the anima mundi should exist, and should be feminine as she engenders creation. This is a perception presaged in the medieval Kabbalistic work, the Bahir, “it is impossible for the lower world to endure without the female.”
In Jewish tales the Shekinah ascends to heaven and descends to earth on different occasions. Originally there was no clear distinction between the Heavenly Shekinah and Earthly Shekinah, until Adam and Eve left Eden. Here then we may see the Heavenly Shekinah as representing the purity and innocence ofEden, the idealised Golden Age. She remained behind on earth but ascended through the seven heavens as a result of man’s sins until she was reunited with God. The holiness of various prophets brought her back to dwell in theTempleofSolomon. The destruction of theTempleagain saw her leave the Earth to ascend the heavens. The Temple of Solomon has come to represent an ideal, a place of wisdom, knowledge, skill and fellowship.
It was in the Kabbalistic doctrines of the tenth century CE onwards that the Shekinah began to be more openly revealed as the divine feminine power opposite the masculine Yahweh. German Kabbalists in the tenth century expressed the doctrine that the Greater Shekinah encircled God as a circle of flame, and their union created not only the universe and the divine throne (as described in the Book of Ezekiel), but also the angels and human souls.
The Heavenly Shekinah was seen as the divine bride, united with the masculine God in an equal relationship. This pattern was also repeated with the Earthly Shekinah being seen as the bride of the Sun/Son. The Heavenly Shekinah was viewed as the Mother and Yahweh as the Father, with the Lesser Shekinah being the Earth and divine Daughter, and the Sun (the Sephira of Tiphereth on the Qabalistic Tree of Life) being the divine Son. This mother-father relationship repeated the pattern of ‘Yahweh and His Asherah’ found in the Hebrew tribes prior to the reforms of the seventh-sixth century BCE described in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy.
The famous Kabbalist Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176-1238 CE), who was one of the first great propagators of the Kabbalah, said of the Earthly Shekinah that:
“The Shekinah is called the daughter of the creator … and she is also called the tenth Sephira and royalty (Malkuth), because the crown of the kingdom is on his head.”
In the Zohar, symbolic reference is made to the whole Tree of Life as the Shekinah, with the words:
“There are ten curtains, which are ten expanses. And who are they? The curtains of the Dwelling, which are ten and are susceptible to knowing by the wise of heart.”
This passage is describing the ten Sephiroth (as curtains or expanses), which comprise the Shekinah as the Tree of Life (Dwelling). The wise of heart hints at both the Shekinah (wisdom) and also the Tree of Life itself, as the numbers attributed to the letters of heart (Lev) adds up to thirty-two, the number of paths and Sephiroth of the Tree of Life.
 Bahir, 173, C12th CE.
 Kabbalah,Ponce, 1974:64-67.
 Sepher ha-Hokhmah, C13th CE.