“The shattering of the vessels” (in Hebrew, “Shevirat haKeilim“) of the world of Tohu is the key concept in explaining the basic problem of diverseness and multiplicity in Creation as well as the origin of evil1 and is a central component in the Arizal‘s system of Kabbala, where it receives a full exposition2
The concept of Shevirat haKeilim is linked together with the mystical account of the eight kings who “reigned in the land of Edom before any king ruled over the Israelites” (Gen. 36:31) and the Midrashic account of the building and destruction of the primordial worlds (Bereishit Rabba 3:7, 9:1), as will be explained below. Although the idea of Shevirat haKeilim is also found in several sections of Zohar (in Sifra d’Tzni’uta3, Idra Rabba4 and Idra Zuta5), the concept and its ramifications are very difficult to understand there without the elucidation of the entire subject in the writings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. (For this reason, even here, many readers will find the roll-over glossary feature essential for comprehending this important piece.)
The Arizal explains that when it arose in the Divine Will to create the finite world, the first step was to “withdraw” or conceal the infinite Or Ein Sof in the process known as “the first constriction” or “tzimtzum harishon“. The first “world” (plane of existence) that came into being after the tzimtzum is called Adam Kadmon. But even though Adam Kadmon is a post-tzimtzum world, it is still a “meta-world”, so-to-speak – undefined, unified, and transcending time, comprising a single transcendent primordial thought.
The existence of the finite world as we know it, and as G‑d intended it, is still not possible in Adam Kadmon due to its extremely lofty state. In order for a finite world to exist, the light in Adam Kadmon had to go through several more stages of quantitative contraction and descent. In one of these stages of descent, one of the several types of light emitted from Adam Kadmon is manifested as ten individual qualities or attributes that act as separate, independent points of light, or quanta of energy. Technically, this is called “light emitted from the eyes” of Adam Kadmon or “or ha-einayim“. This metaphorical term signifies a descent from an internal, essential level to an external “sensory” level where the beam of light is refracted into discrete quanta. Each of these points is an extremely powerful concentration of light (the level of keter of each of the ensuing sefirot) as it descends from Adam Kadmon. These sefirot compose the world of Tohu(chaos or disorder).
The first “world” outside of Adam Kadmon is called Akudim. In it is the first development of a vessel, such that ten degrees of light are bound together (in Hebrew, “akudim“) in a single vessel (Writings of the Ari, Shaar HaHakdamot, Derush 1 b’Olam HaNikudim).
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