The Meaning of Tiferet

In the parasha of Ki Tavo, we read:

And God has affirmed today that you are His treasured people, as He promised, who shall observe His commandments, and He shall place you above the nations that He has made, for fame, renown, and glory, and you shall be a holy nation unto Hashem, your God, as He promised.

The unique word for “glory” here, tiferet (תפארת), appears just three times in the whole Torah, and another 26 times or so in the rest of the Tanakh (not including the related tiferah). That it appears specifically three times in the Torah is no coincidence, for Tiferet is the third of the lower Sefirot, and is always associated with the number 3. It sits at the centre of the mystical Tree of Life, and is the only Sefirah interlinked with all the others. In Kabbalistic texts, Tiferet holds tremendous significance, and is discussed perhaps more than any other Sefirah. It is the Sefirah of the Torah, and of Israel, and the one associated with the very Name of God, the Tetragrammaton (יהוה). What is so special about Tiferet and why is it so important?

Balance

The Sefirot of mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”. Tiferet sits in the middle.

When it comes to the Sefirot, the first three are “mental” in nature (mochin) and more ethereal, while the latter seven express themselves manifestly in the physical world. They are associated with the six directions of space, and the dimension of time. The six directions of space emerge out of the three axes of our three-dimensional reality (length, width, height). And so, there is an intrinsic connection between the numbers 3 and 6. (Mathematically, both adding or multiplying the first three numbers 1, 2, and 3, results in 6!) Fittingly, the third Sefirah, Tiferet, is also the sixth Sefirah when counting from the very top and including the mochin. It is said to be represented by the letter vav (ו),* the numerical value of which is six. The word vav literally means “hook” or “connection”, and it is Tiferet that connects to all the Sefirot and ties them together, so to speak.

The ancient Sefer HaBahir, one of the earliest Kabbalistic texts, describes Tiferet as the spinal cord (#146-155). The spinal cord is what connects the brain to the rest of the body, just as Tiferet connects the mochin to the bodily Sefirot below. The shape of the letter vav is actually meant to illustrate a spinal cord. At the same time, the vav is supposed to resemble the male reproductive organ, which is that “hook” that binds husband and wife. As such, Tiferet is always described in masculine terms. Tiferet is at the centre of the six masculine Sefirot of space, called Zeir Anpin, and also referred to as the vav ktzavot, six directions or six edges. The dimension of time, meanwhile, is associated with femininity and the seventh Sefirah of Malkhut. (On a deeper level, this is why women are generally exempt from time-bound mitzvot. Women personify time; men personify space.)

Out of three dimensions emerge six directions, which then produce a space of twelve boundaries (visualize a three-dimensional cube and count its edges—there will be 12!) This, too, is encoded within the vav, spelled וו in full, with a value of 12. These 12 correspond to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, as well as the 12 months of the calendar, the 12 permutations of God’s Name, the 12 constellations of the zodiac, and the 12 major aspects of life, as discussed in Sefer Yetzirah. (For much more on this, see the ‘Astrology and Astronomy in Judaism’ series.) We can now see why it is that the nation of Israel, with its twelve tribes, is rooted in Tiferet, and why the Tetragrammaton is there, too. We can also begin to understand why the three-part Tanakh emerges from Tiferet. It helps to make sense of the famous statement in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a):

Blessed is the All-Merciful One, Who gave the three-fold Torah [ie. the Tanakh, composed of Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim] to the three-fold nation [Kohen, Levi, Israel] by means of a third-born [Moses] on the third day, in the third month [Sivan].

All of this is encoded within the ultimate Jewish symbol: the Star of David. Fusing together two triangles produces a six-pointed star with twelve vertices. It carries that same numerical progression of 3, 6, and 12 emerging out of Tiferet. It represents complete cosmic balance. From balance comes “beauty” and “glory”, which are the most direct translations for tiferet.

Out of three dimensions (axes) emerge six directions and six faces, generating a cube of twelve edges. This is also reflected in the triangles, six points, and twelve edges within the Star of David.

Mercy

Tiferet sits between two poles: Chessed on the right, and Gevurah on the left. The former is kindness, the latter is severity and judgement (Din). The former is about unlimited giving; the latter about strict restraint. Tiferet is the balance between Chessed and Gevurah, and is often called rachamim, “mercy”. Mercy is when one has complete power over another, to judge and to punish (Gevurah), but instead leans towards the opposite pole (Chessed) and lets them go, or even helps that person. (On a related note, the womb is called a rechem, a place of mercy, for a similar reason: the growing fetus is at the mercy of the mother, who may choose to terminate the child at any moment, God forbid. Instead, the mother protects and nourishes the growing baby. Note also how the value of רחם is 248, for this is where the 248 parts of the body are formed.)

The Talmud reminds us that every Jewish soul is imbued with rachamim, and the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) went so far as to say that one is allowed to suspect a Jew who does not display rachamim of not really being Jewish! (Sefer Kedushah, Issurei Biah 19:17) The mystical reason for this is that every Jewish soul is rooted in the Sefirah of Tiferet, which is rachamim. Hence, a person claiming to be Jewish who is not merciful probably does not have a Jewish soul, even if they appear to have a Jewish body. (This is certainly the case with the Erev Rav, those spiritual imposters masquerading in the world as Jews, often in prominent leadership roles, causing nothing but trouble for our nation.)

Once again, mercy is that point of balance between two extremes. Among our three patriarchs, Abraham was rooted in Chessed, pure giving and kindness. Isaac was the opposite, rooted in Gevurah, in self-restraint and self-judgement. Whereas Abraham had many disciples and “made many souls” (Genesis 12:5), Isaac had none except for his own children, preferring seclusion and self-reflection. This is why it was necessary to have a Jacob, the balance between Abraham and Isaac. Jacob was Tiferet, and so it was he who fathered the Twelve Tribes. We see yet again how the twelve emerge from the third, like that 12-edged cube emerging from 3 dimensions.

Truth

In addition to all of the above, Tiferet is frequently referred to as Emet, “truth”. This was first alluded to by the prophet Micah, who said: “You give truth [Emet] to Jacob, kindness [Chessed] to Abraham…” (Micah 7:20) There are several reasons for this. First, truth emerges from balance. A person out of balance, whether internally or externally with the world around them, can never attain truth. Taking an extreme position in any direction will always fail, whether being too physical or too spiritual, too gluttonous or too ascetic, too far to the left or too far to the right, too engrossed in work and finances or too engrossed in Torah study and ritual. The key to true living is balance.

This concept was best captured by the first two verses in the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, which begins with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi teaching: “What is the straight path that a person should go by? One which is tiferet for he who fulfils it, and brings tiferet for him from others.” A balanced life is a life of truth. A life of truth, in turn, can only be a life of Torah. So, the Mishnah above continues with Rabbi Yehuda’s son, Rabban Gamliel, saying: “Beautiful is the study of Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for toil in them both keeps sin out of one’s mind. And all Torah which is not combined with a worldly occupation, in the end will be nullified and lead to sin.” Again, balance is key, and Torah study needs balance, too.

The Torah itself is rooted in Tiferet (see, for instance, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 17). It is the book of truth, so naturally it emanates from the Sefirah of truth. Every Jewish soul is rooted in Tiferet, which is why the Jew is naturally a truth-seeker. Throughout history, Jews have been at the forefront of new philosophical ideas and massive societal changes, starting with Abraham who took on the falsehood of idolatry in his day. Unfortunately, in their search for truth, some Jews have erred tremendously, for they detached themselves from the truth of Torah. This is as much a problem today as it was twenty-two centuries ago with the “learned” Hellenist Jews of the time.

Having said that, to find Tiferet and uncover the true meaning of the Torah, it is vital to understand the world that God created. After all, God’s glory is most evident within His natural wonders, as the Rambam taught at the start of his Mishneh Torah:

How is the way to love God? When one contemplates His deeds and His great and wondrous creatures, and one sees from these the wisdom of God—that it is immeasurable and unbounded—immediately he loves and praises and glorifies and has a desire to know God. (Yesodei HaTorah 1:2)

More recently, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov (d. 1827) quoted his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, as saying: “To the extent that one lacks knowledge of the natural forces, he will lack one hundred-fold in the wisdom of Torah.” (See the introduction to his Pe’at HaShulchan.)

As such, the glory of Tiferet is deeply intertwined with the glory of nature.** We have already seen how the natural world around us is built on three physical dimensions. More significantly, every piece of matter, at its core, is made up of atoms that have three major subatomic particles: the positive proton, the negative electron, and the uncharged neutron. The intricate balance between these three types of particles within each atom gives rise to the material world around us. Here on Earth, the balance between the three states of matter of water allows life to exist. Water is the only material on the planet that co-exists in its three states of solid, liquid, and gas simultaneously. If the narrow range of temperatures and pressures on Earth was disturbed, life would not be able to flourish.

More specifically, the Zohar tells us that חסד איהו מים גבורה אש תפארת אויר, “Chessed is water, Gevurah is fire, Tiferet is air” (III, 255a, Raya Mehemna). Air is the balancing force between water and fire. Water will put fire out; fire will vaporize water—but both need air. Fire cannot burn without oxygen, and neither can water exist without an oxygen atom bound to two hydrogen atoms. Oxygen is what keeps us alive, and gives rise to both fire and water at the same time. Meanwhile, we use these elements in various ways to generate our electricity. This last point is of greatest importance, for Tiferet gives rise to chashmal, the wondrous electrical force that permeates our universe (see Etz Chaim, Gate 50, Ch. 6), and the latent power of which will bring about the Final Redemption.

Redemption

As explained in detailed before, chashmal is one and the same as the Or HaGanuz, the primordial light of Creation. The mysteries of this power are concealed within God’s Throne, to be revealed in the World to Come. On the Tree of Life, the first and top Sefirah is Keter, literally the “Crown” of God. Tiferet is directly beneath it, and is His Throne of Glory (see, for instance, Bahir #146). Further still is Yesod, “Foundation”, which is the “footstool” of God. Finally, there’s Malkhut, the “Kingdom” which He rules over. It is within the Throne of God that the Or HaGanuz is concealed (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 499). The same Midrash says that the light of Mashiach is here, too, concealed in God’s Throne, in Tiferet, the place from which Redemption will come.

In Ma’amar HaGeulah, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains the process of Redemption in great detail. Based on earlier sources, he outlines how the Redemption comes in two phases: first Pekidah, and then Zekhirah (see chapters 20-24). The first corresponds to Yesod, the second and more significant to Tiferet. This is because the two big corrections necessary in the world are regarding sexuality, and truth/balance. We see both issues clearly in the world around us, where all logic, restraint, and morality has disappeared regarding sexual matters, and where truth is nearly impossible to uncover.

The world is saturated with misinformation and lies, fake news, Pallywood, bad science and pseudoscience, indoctrination instead of education, widespread corruption, government and media in the pockets of corporations, extensive censorship and social media policing (usually in the wrong places), manipulation of public opinion, and all kinds of other mistruths. Society is more polarized than it has ever been, with unbalanced extremists on all sides, each pushing a particular biased view, always with a hidden agenda.

The greatest truth that the world seeks to extinguish is that of God and His absolute dominion and unity. As dark as it may seem now, we must take comfort knowing that, at the end, “God will be One and His Name will be one.” (Zechariah 14:9) This, the Ramchal explains (ch. 29), is referring to the unification of Tiferet and Malkhut, the infusion of divine Truth into this lower world; the return of Heaven down to Earth. All the realms will then be unified, and God’s glory will be openly revealed to all the righteous—who stood up for truth, life, and mercy, for Tiferet, against all odds. They will merit to bask in His eternal light.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!


*Tiferet is also represented by the letter shin (ש), which is a fusion of three vavs, representing the balance between Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet. See Sha’ar HaPesukim on Shemot.

**As we learn from Genesis 1:2, nature is imbued with Ruach Elohim, the “Spirit of God.” The gematria of this term (רוח אלהים) is 300, equal to the letter shin. As stated in the footnote above, shin is another letter rooted in Tiferet, with its three branches representing cosmic balance.

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