(also transliterated Kether)

The Mystic Quest” by David S. Ariel

Keter (crown), is the first Sefirah emanated from Eyn Sof. It is the highest and most glorious of the Sefirot and crowns them all. It stands as the barrier between Eyn Sof and the other Sefirot and, so, encircles and crowns Eyn Sof. Because each Sefirah is emanated from another, the highest one, Keter, stands hierarchically above them all.

Sometimes Keter is identified with Eyn Sof. Most often, however, Keter is the first Sefirah radiated, or emanated, by Eyn Sof which stands above it. Those who identify Keter with Eyn Sof lean toward the ‘essentialist’ point of view and believe that the Sefirot are only different stages in the unfolding of God’s infinite essence. Those who believe that Keter is the first Sefirah and is not identical with Eyn Sof, generally follow the view that Eyn Sof acts through vessels, the Sefirot, and that God and His vessels are not similar. Therefore, the essentialists favor the ‘personalist’ notion of God and theorize that Keter is the same as Eyn Sof. The instrumentalists believe that God is impersonal, and Eyn Sof is above Keter.

There are many other names for Keter in the Kabbalah. It is often called Ayin (nothingness) because it is beyond all existence and is nonetheless the cause of all existing things. In the Prayer of Nehunyah ben ha-Kanah, written in the thirteenth century, a hymn to Keter appears:

‘Everything is in it,

for the internal powers of the Sefirot are in it.

The vitality and existence of everything stem from it.

It is analogous to the soul

which gives life to the body

and constitutes it.

The constitution of everything is in Keter.

There is no front or back,

right or left, in this Sefirah.

It is called ‘Indifferent Unity.’

It is also called Chochmah Penimit (internal wisdom) because it is the hidden potentiality of divine wisdom before it is revealed or Machshavah Elohit (divine thought) because it is produced by Eyn Sof, the pure Mind. Keter is similar to Eyn Sof in many of these respects but different in others. It differs in that it is the highest aspect of God which moves into activity out of the repose of Eyn Sof. Both Eyn Sof and Keter are unknowable and imperceptible. Keter is the more active representation of God’s will which cannot be known except during the rare moment when God chose to reveal Himself as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (I am What I Am). The Kabbalists display a certain ambivalence about whether Keter can be known.

In the following passage Eyn Sof and Keter are described paradoxically as the hidden and revealed will of God, respectively. Keter, however, cannot be known except through the unique intuition that comes about through mystical revelation.

‘Rabbi Shimon said:

I raise my hands upward in prayer.

When the divine will up above (i.e., Eyn Sof)

shines upon the will

which is eternally unknown and imperceptible,

the first hidden upper will (i.e. Keter)

produces its unknowable creation

and radiates what it does secretly.

Then, the will of divine thought

pursues the first will

in order to be illuminated by it.

A curtain is then opened

and, from inside, with the divine will

pursuing (the upper will),

it reaches and yet does not reach [up]

and the curtain begins to radiate.

Then illumination coming from

the hidden upper unknown will strikes the

light of the curtain

which is lit up by the will

which is unknown, unknowable and concealed.

The light of the concealed thought

strikes the light of the curtain

and they both radiate,

creating nine palaces.’ [Sefer ha-Zohar]

This passage illustrates how in moments of deep revelation Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the voice of the Zohar, reveals his mystical knowledge. Eyn Sof emanates its essence upon Keter and activates it. Keter, in turn, turns back to Eyn Sof to draw down further essence linking them together. As Keter turns back to reflect its light toward Eyn Sof, its source, it strikes a barrier that stands between it and Eyn Sof. The barrier reflects the light of Keter back to it and creates the third Sefirah. This process of emanation and reflection creates the ten Sefirot.

The Kabbalists placed great importance on the inner workings of God especially on the relationship of Eyn Sof to Keter. They attempted to explain how the infinite God can bridge the abyss between Himself and the world. In the passage above there is very little difference between Eyn Sof and Keter except the slight gradations of difference between the divine will and the upper will. Still, there is a curtain that separates them. When they sweep aside that separation, they radiate against each other and create the other Sefirot.

Some Kabbalists were disturbed by the idea that there is little difference between Eyn Sof and Keter. They believed that there were a series of three imperceptible luminous beings that interposed between Eyn Sof and Keter. They radiate out from Eyn Sof and become embedded in Keter. Keter then becomes God’s pure Thought. This is described in the following passage quoted from the Responsum of Hai Gaon:

‘The three supernal lights have no beginning for they are the name and essence and root of all roots. Thought cannot apprehend them because apprehension is impossible and the knowledge of all creatures is too weak to comprehend the Holy Name. We have learned their names: ‘primordial internal light’ which radiates in the hidden root and shines from its radiant power the likeness of the two great luminaries. The ‘polished light’ and the ‘clear light,’ all of which are one light, one essence, and one root hidden infinitely.’

Keter cannot be known because it is either identical with, or only slightly different from, Eyn Sof. Like a king who is hidden from most of his subjects, he can be known by his venerable crown which is filled with precious gems and diamonds. Keter is, however, identified as divine thought and the source of all the other Sefirot. The thirteenth-century Tradition of Wisdom from the Sages of Mata Mahasya describes Keter:

‘Supernal Keter is a world hidden unto itself. All the Sefirot receive from its emanation even though it is separate, recondite and bound up with the root of all roots which cannot be apprehended by thought. Keter receives from the root without any interruption in a subtle whisper. It emanates and pours forth from its reservoir upon the other crowns which are always close to its emanation.’

The unknowability of Keter is due to its identity with, or proximity to, Eyn Sof. Yet it is also the root of all the other phenomena of the world especially the other Sefirot. It is the cause of the Sefirot and produces them through Atzilut (emanation). Emanation, according to most Kabbalists, is a process of hypertrophy, or overflow, from Eyn Sof. Eyn Sof is, by nature, effulgent and tends to spread its essence outward. The Sefirot are there to receive this essence.

Emanation, according to other Kabbalists, most notably Nachmanides, is a process in which Eyn Sof limits its own infinity through contracting or constricting itself. God cannot create anything directly from His own boundless and infinite essence unless He voluntarily limits Himself. The Kabbalists use the analogy of the sun to explain this process. The radiant light of the sun shines endlessly due to its great power and brilliance. Nothing could be seen, however, unless the unbridles light of the sun is restricted, allowing for the emergence of shapes, contours, and details. In the same manner the radiance of Eyn Sof must be contracted and limited through the emanation of Keter , a channeling of the infinite mind and will into the more defined thought and will. Keter is the means by which the infinite God makes all other creations possible. It is the transition between God’s infinity and the finite world.

It is ironic that the Kabbalists should have so much to say about an unknowable God. They speculated endlessly on the nature of God and on His Sefirot. Although much consideration was given to Eyn Sof and Keter, the Kabbalists recognized that human knowledge could never adequately penetrate the secrets of the infinite God.”

he term, while Asher ben David employed it in a distinctly personal and theistic way.

Ein-Sof is the absolute perfection in which there are no distinctions and no differentiations, and according to some even no volition. It does not reveal itself in a way that makes knowledge of its nature possible, and it is not accessible even to the innermost thought (hirhur ha-lev) of the contemplative. Only through the finite nature of every existing thing, through the actual existence of creation itself, is it possible to deduce the eixtence of Ein-Sof as the first infinite cause. The author of Ma’arechet ha-Elohut put forward the extreme thesis (not without arousing the opposition of more cautious kabbalists) that the whole biblical revelation, and the Oral Law as well, contained no reference to Ein-Sof, and that only the mystics had received some hint of it. Hence the author of this treatise, followed by several other writers, was led to the daring conclusion that only the revealed God can in reality be called ‘God,’ and not the hidden ‘deus absconditus,’ who cannot be an object of religious thought. When ideas of this kind returned in a later period in Shabbatean and quasi-Shabbatean Kabbalah, between 1670 and 1740, they were considered heretical.

Other terms or images signifying the domain of the hidden God that lies beyond any impulse toward creation occur in the writings of the Gerona kabbalists and in the literature of the speculative school. Examples of these terms are mah she-ein ha-machshavah masseget (‘that which thought cannot attain’ – sometimes used also to describe the first emanation), ha-or ha-mit’allem (‘the concealed light’), sefer ha-ta’alumah (‘the concealment of secrecy’), yitron (‘superfluity’ – apparently as a translation of the neoplatonic term hyperousia), ha-achdut ha-shavah (‘indistinguishable unity,’ in the sense of a unity in which all opposites are equal and in which there is no differentiation), or even simply ha-mahut (‘the essence’). The factor common to all these terms is that Ein Sof and its synonyms are above or beyond thought.A certain wavering between the personal and the neutral approach to the concept of Ein Sof can also be seen in the main part of the Zohar, while in the later stratum, in the Ra’aya Meheimna and the Tikkunim, a personal concept is paramount. Ein-Sof is often (not always) identified with the Aristotelian ’cause of all causes,’ and, through the kabbalistic use of neoplatonic idiom, with the ‘root of all roots.’ While all the definitions above have a common negative element, occasionally in the Zohar there is a remarkable positive designation which gives the name Ein-Sof to the nine lights of thought that shine from the Divine Thought, thus bringing Ein-Sof out of its concealment and down to a more humble level of emanation (the contrast between the two concepts emerges through comparison between various passages, e.g., e:21a and 2:239a with 2:226a). In later cevelopment of Lurianic Kabbalah, however, in distinct opposition to the view of the earlier kabbalists, several differentiations were made even within Ein-Sof. In Kabbalah, therefore, Ein-Sof is absolute reality, and there was no question as to its spiritual and transcendent nature. This was so even though the lack of clarity in some of the expressions used by the kabbalists in speaking of the relationship of the revealed God to His creation gives the impression tht the very substance of God Himself is also immanent within creation. In all kabbalistic systems, light-symbolism is very commonly used with regard to Ein-Sof, although it is emphasized that this use is merely hyperbolical, and in later Kabbalah a clear distinction was sometimes made between Ein-Sof and ‘the light of Ein Sof.’ In the popular Kabbalah which finds expression in ethical writings and chasidic literature, Ein Sof is merely a synonym for the traditional God of religion, a linguistic usage far removed from that of the classical Kabbalah, where there is evidence of the sharp distinction between Ein-Sof and the revealed Divine Creator. This can be seen not only in the formulations of the early kabbalists (e.g., Isaac of Acre in his commentary to the Sefer Yetzirah) but also among the later ones; Baruch Kosover (c. 1770) writes: ‘Ein-Sof is not His proper name, but a word which signifies his complete concealment, and our sacred tongue has now word like these two to signify his concealment. And it is not right to say “Ein-Sof, blessed be He” or “may He be blessed” because He cannot be blessed by our lips’ (Ammud ha-Avodah).

The whole problem of creation, even in its most recondite aspects, is bound up with the revelaiton of the hidden God and His outward movement – even thought ‘there is nothing outside Him’ (Azriel), for in the last resort ‘all comes from the One, and all returns to the One,’ according to the neoplatonic formula adopted by the early kabbalists. In kabbalistic teaching the transition of Ein Sof to ‘manifestation,’ or to what might be called ‘God the Creator,’ is connected with the question of the first emanation and its definition. Although there were widely differing views on the nature of the first step from concealment to manifestation, all stressed that no account of this process could be an objective description of a process in Ein-Sof; it was no more than could be conjectured from the perspective of created beings and was expressed through their ideas, which in reality cannot be applied to God at all. Therefore, descriptions of these processes have only a symbolic or, at best, an approximate value. Nevertheless side by side with this thesis, there is detailed speculation which frequently claims objective reality for the process it describes. This is one of the paradoxes inherent in Kabbalah, as in other attempts to explain the world in a mystical fashion.

The decision to emerge from concealment into manifestation and creation is not in any sense a process which is a necessary consequence of the essence of Ein-Sof, it is a free decision which remains a constant and impenetrable mystery (Cordover, at the beginning of Elimah). Therefore, in the view of most kabbalists, the question of the ultimate motivation of creation is not a legitimate one, and the assertion found in many books that God wished to reveal the measure of His goodness is there simply as an expedient that is never systematically developed. These first outward steps, as a result of which Divinity becomes accessible to the contemplative probings of the kabbalist, take place within God Himself and do not ‘leave the category of the Divine’ (Cordovero). Here the Kabbalah departs from all rationalistic presentations of creation and assumes the character of a theosophic doctrine, that is, one concerned with the inner life and processes of God Himself. A distinction in the stages of such processes in the unity of the Godhead can be made only by human abstraction, but in reality they are bound together and unified in a manner beyond all human understanding. The basic differences in the various kabbalistic systems are already apparent with regard to the first step, and since such ideas were presented in obscure and figurative fashion in the classical literature, such as the Bahir and the Zohar, exponents of widely differeing opinions were all able to look to them for authority.”

The Universal Meaning of the Kabbalah” by Leo Schaya

Kether, the ‘crown’ – also called kether elyon, the ‘supreme crown’ amongst all the divine ‘crowns,’ Sefiroth, or universal principles – is the uncreated and infinite all-reality of God. Nothing is outside of him; nothingness does not exist, for if it did it would no longer be nothingness but reality.

Kether, the only reality, on the one hand remains hidden in itself, in its absolute transcendence, and on the other manifests itself as uncreated immanence in the midst of its own transitory reflection: the creation.

Kether in itself is pure selfness, superintelligible essence, unity without trace of duality. It is reality without condition, without definition, in which God is what he is, beyond being; for Being is not reality as such, but its first affirmation.

Kether rests in its essence, its super-being – more than conscious of itself, without wishing anything whatsoever, without activity of any kind. For its essence is all; and, in it, all is it – all is all, without the slightest restriction, distinction, opposition or relation. In essence there is neither subject nor object, neither cause nor effect; there is only the One without a second, selfness without otherness, indivisible totality.

Kether, in its pure and absolute essence, has no aspects; it is the eternally mysterious reality: ‘There is not other to be compared with it or associated with it’ (en sheni lehamshil lo lehahbirah). It would be impossible to speak of it except by denying what it is not, or by placing it above all that is intelligible; that is, describing it in terms which are negative or superlative, or again, interrogatory.

Thus, the Kabbalah calls kether in itself: ain, ‘nothingness,’ the absence of any definite or conditioned reality: non-being or super-being, non-cause, the absolute: en sof, ‘no end,’ infinite; raza derazin, ‘mystery of mysteries,’ the superintelligible or superconscious; mi, ‘who?,’ the ‘eternal object of search’; attika de-attikin, the ‘ancient of ancients,’ or principle of all universal principles; attika kadisha, the ‘holy Ancient One,’ or supreme principle.

The absolute infinity of the supreme essence, the pure selfness of Kether, excludes all otherness and consequently all knowledge of it: ‘en sof cannot be known, nor how it makes beginning or end…..’ What is the beginning? This is the supernal point, the beginning of all, hidden in ‘thought’ (a synonym of hochmah, the supreme ‘wisdom’ which emanates from Kether), and it makes the end (of all emanation) which is called ‘the end of the matter’

(Ecclesiastes 12:13). But beyond (in kether, pure infinity) there is ‘no end,’ neither intention nor light nor lamp; all the lights are dependent on it (kether), but it cannot be reached. This is a supreme will, mysterious above all mysteries. It is ‘nothingness’ (ain, which is the absolute) (Zohar, Pekude 239a)

However, kether is not only the reality which excludes all that is not itself, but also the reality which is all-inclusive, since there is nothing outside of it. Kether is exclusive in so far as it is ain, the ‘nothingness’ of all that is not it; but as en sof, the infinite, it includes all that is possible in its boundless unity. Thus, although dwelling beyond being and knowledge in its non-causal essence, the only reality, thanks to its own unlimitedness, becomes conscious of its universal possibilities. Through its causal, intelligent and intelligible being, it knows itself and affirms itself as the unique, necessary ontological principle: ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh) (Exodus 3:14) ‘I am the first and I am the last and beside me there is no God. And who, as I, can proclaim – let him declare it, and set it in order for me….. Is there a God beside me? Yea, there is no rock (necessary being beside me)’ (Isaiah 44:6-8). ‘Before me there was no God formed (manifested), neither shall any be after me…..I am God’ (ibid. 43:10, 13).

In the absolute unity of its super-being (ain), kether bears no trace of multiplicity and transcends the causal unity of its being (ehyeh) which contains, in the entity of its intelligible aspects, or Sefiroth, the archetypes of the cosmic multitude: duality in principle. But at the same time the unity of being surpasses all dualism thanks to its infinity, which integrates itself – eternally and without any movement – in the pure and non-dual essence: super-being. In the One, therefore, there is no scission, no separation between being and super-being or non-being, nor is there any hierarchical confusion amongst them. Just as non-being includes, without distinction, being – of which it is the pure and indeterminate essence – but nevertheless is not being, having no need ‘to be’ in order to be real; so is it that being, while ‘being’ non-being, through essential identity with it, is nevertheless not non-being, in its first and ontological determination.

Kether is thus the principle which is identical at once with ain and with ehyeh, without nullifying the hierarchy of universal degrees; in other words, kether is en sof which, in its all-possibility, includes both being and non-being, while allowing each possibility to retain its own character. This is why one speaks of kether or en sof when considering this infinite, all-inclusive unity, but either of ain or of ehyeh when wishing to describe one or another of its two supreme aspects.

The identity of Kether and ain is mysteriously revealed in the introduction to the Decalogue (Exodus 20:2) ‘I (am) YHVH, thy God.’ If the A N Y are taken from the word ANoKhY, ‘I,’ these letters – according to one application of the Kabbalistic permutation of letters – form by themselves the word A Y N (nothingness); what remains is Kh (kaf), the initial of the word kether, which, according to the esoteric tradition, indicates that the Sefirah kether is the supreme universal degree, ain. Seen ad intra, kether therefore in no way differs from ain; it is only from the ‘extrinsic’ point of view of the emanated or manifested that it becomes ehyeh, the non-acting cause, situated between ain, the non-cause, and hochmah, the divine ‘wisdom,’ which is the first emanation and active cause.

In its aspect as ehyeh, or ’cause of causes,’ kether rests eternally and indistinctly in its absolute and unchangeable essence, ain; it does not act, but leaves it to the nine other Sefiroth, its emanations and ontological intellections, its ‘lights’ or ‘lamps,’ to operate in its name. He who is anokhi, the divine ‘I’ or supreme ‘self’ of all things, remains unaffected by radiations and their cosmic effects. He contains all that is, as the unity within his unity; and each thing contains him in the deepest part of itself, as the One, the unchangeable. He is the essential identity of all things with the absolute. He is the absolute itself: the ‘One without a second’.”