The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah

Topics In Jewish Mystical Thought: The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah – Part 6 – The Book of Esther and the Narrative

The Kabbalistic tradition also makes use of the narrative form as an adjunct to abstract discourse aimed at communicating profound truths. The oldest Kabbalah text, Sefer Yetzirah, stresses this point in its opening sentence:

With thirty-two wondrous pathways of wisdom, engraved God…and He created His world with three books: "scribe," "book," and "story."

Each of the three "books" with which God created His world–"scribe" (sofer), "book" (sefer), and "story" (sipur)–is from the Hebrew root of s-p-r (shinpeireish).

The term sefirah itself, perhaps the most basic term within the lexicon of the Kabbalistic tradition, finds repeated expression in the Book of Esther. Of the names for the sefirot–the emanations of Divine light and energy which are the basic forces of creation–all but one explicitly appear in the Book of Esther. No other Biblical text exhibits such a density of Kabbalistic terminology.

The root s-f-r bears three distinct connotations, all of which are reflected in the meaning of the word sefirah:

  • As an "emanation" of Divine light, sefirah is derived from the Biblical sapir, "sapphire," whose brilliance is associated with the heavenly throne envisioned by the prophets.

  • The term sefirah also denotes a specific attribute or trait by which God expresses Himself in the world. We see this in the words that share the root s-f-r: sippur, "story," and sefer, "book." 

  • Finally, the term sefirah–insofar as it alludes to the abstract mathematical structure of creation–can be seen as expressing the idea of mispar, "number," also associated with the root s-f-r.

The association that interests us most in reference to the Book of Esther because of its repeated appearance is the second–linking sefirah to "book" and "story" (sefer and sippur).

This reference is further reinforced by the use of the term megillah, "scroll," based upon the root that also means, "to reveal." The physical form of the scroll itself contributes to the sense of an unfolding revelation.

This effect is heightened even further by the use of the sippur, "story," as the literary format for communicating the message of the scroll. In the sippur, there is a constant tension, with the varying balance between the hidden and revealed helping shape the perspective intended by the storyteller. The progressive clarification of all the hidden aspects within the story brings with it a satisfying resolution of that tension and a much deeper appreciation of the literary themes evoked in the process. No other account in the entire Bible takes such full advantage of the narrative medium as the story of Esther.


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