Counter-Sefirot and the Seven Chambers of Hell

This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, records some of Moses’ final instructions to the people before his passing, and what the nation should do upon entering the Holy Land. Among these things is to have the Twelve Tribes divided upon two mountains, and pronounce a set of curses and blessings. The Torah records a total of 11 distinct curses. Although the word “cursed” appears twelve times, the last instance is only a general statement that “Cursed be the one who does not uphold the words of this Torah, to fulfill them…”

In his mystical commentary on this week’s parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim), the Arizal explains that the 11 curses are neutralized by the 11 ingredients of the special Ketoret incense. Similarly, they are blocked by the 11 curtains of the Mishkan. Why specifically 11? The Arizal explains that just as there are Ten Sefirot in the realm of holiness, there are ten opposing “counter-Sefirot” forces in the realm of kelipah, the unholy “husks”. These ten counter-Sefirot have an additional 11th source which gives them energy, since they are otherwise empty on their own. This is unlike the holy Sefirot, each of which is imbued with, and shines forth, its own unique energy and light. Having said that, among the Sefirot there is indeed an eleventh aspect, too, which is the unifying Da’at (itself portrayed as only the inverse of Keter).

Although Rabbi Chaim Vital records little else in Sha’ar HaPesukim that the Arizal said on Ki Tavo, we do know that the Arizal’s source for the counter-Sefirot was actually the Zohar—not on this week’s parasha, but on parashat Pekudei. In one of the longest, most complex, and most esoteric passages of the Zohar (starting at II, 242b), we learn about the energies that oppose (and, in some ways, balance out) the Sefirot in the realm of the Sitra Achra, the “Other Side”. Making sense of the Zohar’s cryptic language is a huge challenge, and I hope to do it some justice in the overview that follows.

(Note: It may help to first review the Ten Sefirot here.)

The Counter-Mochin

Recall that the Mochin refers to the “higher” and “mental” (or “intellectual”) Sefirot of Keter, Chokhmah, and Binah. The Zohar refers to the opposite of the Mochin as “Darkness” (חֲשׁוֹכָא). Just like the Mochin, it has three aspects: “Smoke” (תְּנָנָא), “Fire” (אֶשָּׁא), and “Blackness” (אוּכָם). The Blackness is the opposite of Keter, which shines with a bright white light (as explained previously in the ‘Colours of the Sefirot’). The Zohar says that Blackness “descends” into the lower realm to cause all kinds of bodily harm, including imprisonment and even death. (Beneath Keter lies Tiferet, which is always referred to as the “body” of the Sefirot, hence the bodily harm when Blackness descends.)

Smoke is opposite Chokhmah, and instigates anger and rage in the world below. Just as smoke naturally does, this rage spreads everywhere, and fills other vessels, too. There are four types of rage and anger that it causes. The Smoke of the Sitra Achra “clouds” Chokhmah, just as anger “clouds” a person’s mind and makes them act illogically. On the other side of the smoke is “Fire”. We typically associate fire with Gevurah, along with all things red, including blood. Indeed, the Zohar says that the “Fire” counterpart to Binah (which sits above Gevurah) descends below to cause war and bloodshed.

The Counter-Middot

We then go into the counter-Middot below. Recall that the first Middot, called Chessed and Gevurah, are associated with the right and left arms. The Zohar says that just as each arm has three segments (the hand, forearm, and upper arm), the counter-Sefirot of Chessed and Gevurah also have three aspects. The three parts opposing Chessed are called “Wrath, Fury, and Trouble” (עֶבְרָה וְזַעַם וְצָרָה), while the three opposing Gevurah are collectively known as a “Delegation of Evil Messengers” (מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים). From the latter emerge all evil spirits, says the Zohar. Corresponding to the middle Sefirah of Tiferet, the “body”, is a force known simply as the “Centre” (אֶמְצָעִיתָא), and much harm emerges from there.

The “legs” of Netzach and Hod each have three segments as well. The Zohar points out how while the arms bend forward, the legs bend backward. The opposing forces to Netzach and Hod work together, and are together referred to as the “Pursuers” (רוֹדְפִים, alluded to in Lamentations 4:19). They are the cause of disease and illness. They can harm the righteous, too, but for the righteous it is only in the form of “afflictions of love” (יִסּוּרִין דְּאַהֲבָה). As discussed elsewhere (such as Berakhot 5a), these are sent by God upon righteous people for good purpose, such as to cleanse the righteous of what little sin they have.

As is well-known, the Sefirah of Yesod is mainly associated with sexual purity. Fittingly, the opposing force to it is known as “Foreskin” (עָרְלָה). The Zohar implies that this is the main source of temptation. The force corresponding to Malkhut doesn’t have a specific name, but is described as the place of “evil judgements” (דִּינִין בִּישִׁין). It receives negative energy directly from the “Centre” force above it (that is corresponding to Tiferet), and ends up appearing “red like a rose” (סוּמָקָא כְּוַורְדָּא).

The Zohar goes on to state that corresponding to (or emerging from) the seven counter-Middot in the Sitra Achra are the seven levels of the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination”. These seven levels are called “Satan”, “Impurity”, “Hater”, “Stumbling Block”, “Uncircumcised”, “Evil”, and “Northern” (שָׂטָן. טָמֵא. שׂוֹנֵא. אֶבֶן מִכְשׁוֹל. עָרֵל. רָע. צְפוֹנִי). And corresponding to these are the seven levels of Gehinnom or Hell: “Pit”, “Grave”, “Silence”, “Filthy Mud”, “She’ol”, “Shadow of Death”, “Underworld” (בּוֹר. שָׁחַת. דּוּמָה. טִיט הַיָּוֵן. שְׁאוֹל. צַלְמָוֶת. אֶרֶץ תַּחְתִּית). The Zohar goes on to describe these seven “chambers” of Hell.

The first chamber causes a soul to sense constant falling, like a bottomless pit. It also causes a sense of being bitten by snakes and scorpions. The main sin that causes a person to end up there is idolatry. The second chamber is a place for those men who wasted seed, particularly “by hand”, as well as sorcerers, witches, and practitioners of black magic. The third chamber, Dumah, literally “Silence”, is where gossipers and slanderers go. Of course, silence is a fitting punishment for lashon hara, “evil speech”. One way to avoid this place is to maximize good and positive words, particularly through Torah learning and teaching.

The fourth chamber is also called Chova, “Debt” or “Obligation”. Among those that may go through this place are people who engaged in sexual sins. Depending on the severity of the sin, such people may also end up in She’ol, the fifth chamber, which the Zohar says corresponds to the level of “Uncircumcised” (עָרֵל). Here are also found fathers who failed to circumcise their sons, those who failed to keep the agricultural mitzvah of orlah, and more broadly those who transgress the Torah to cause strife between people. The Zohar here offers a segulah of sorts: one way to avoid these chambers is to be meticulous with netilat yadayim and mayim achronim. In fact, when we say “mayim achronim chova” before birkat hamazon, it is secretly alluding to that fourth chamber of Hell, called Chova! (For lots more on mayim achronim, see Mayim Achronim Chova – Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The seventh and bottom-most chamber is reserved for those with the most “unholy lusts”, including the most grotesque sexual sins, especially those that produce a mamzer child. Here are also the various world leaders in history who oppressed and persecuted the Jewish people. This chamber has another name: the “chamber of the dregs of wine” (alluded to in Genesis 9:21). The Zohar says that anyone who drinks of this unholy wine is guaranteed a spiritual death. The spirit overseeing this bottom chamber is called Tzefoni, “Northern” (צְפוֹנִי). This is the meaning of Joel 2:20, where God says He will eventually “banish the Tzefoni far away from you.”

The Zohar concludes the lengthy passage by stating that one way to subdue the entire realm of the Sitra Achra in ancient times was to offer a goat sacrifice on rosh chodesh. This is why the Torah specifically commands to sacrifice a se’ir at the new month, a type of “hairy” goat associated with demons. The Zohar then says that in lieu of sacrifices, a truly righteous person can subdue the Sitra Achra, too.  “Therefore, a righteous person atones for the world, like an actual sacrifice. Happy are the righteous in this world and in the World to Come.” The Zohar states that a day will come when God will completely erase the Sitra Achra from existence, as it states in Isaiah 25:8 that “He will destroy death forever, the Lord God will wipe the tears away from all faces…” and in Zechariah 3:12 that God will make “the unclean spirit vanish from the land.”

May we merit to see that day soon.

The Zohar above names and describes many angels that operate within the chambers of Hell. It speaks of these same angels as operating in our world, too, suggesting an entirely different view of Hell and the afterlife, as explored in ‘An Honest Look at Death and the Afterlife‘. 

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