The word Qabalah means “to receive,” as in to receive lore or wisdom. Traditional Qabalah is the mystical tradition within Judaism. The modern Qabalah is essentially the same as tarot cards, for the tarot cards closely resemble the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and this fact has been closely studied by scholars. The Qabalah is embodied in the Tree of Life diagram, which has also become the basis of the mystical orders and much of Western Mysticism. To understand the Tree of Life we must explore the Shekinah, or the mysterious feminine deity in the Qabalah. The Shekinah is the embodiment of unique Qabalistic wisdom, including doctrines of Love, Faith, Righteousness, the Mystery of the Sexes, and Light.
As the Tree of Life describes the Qabalah, the Shekinah describes the actions of the Tree. The Tree is based upon the idea of higher and lower, and the Shekinah is the Divine Presence, as it descends from Heaven (out of love) to accompany the Faithful and Righteous in their ascent. She is hidden all around us in matter.
The Tree of Life embodies a theory that is common in mysticism, a theory of Emanation. This is a theory of animism, that everything emanates or radiates or is animated with energy, only divided up into a series of hierarchically descending radiations from Godhead down into matter. This scheme also represents the soul’s rise into heaven along certain paths. The Shekinah links the above with the below, as she descends from heaven to accompany man in his ascent. She is the spirit which accompanies a just man. Specifically, she is the heart of love within the Word, which allows for a just reading of the Torah or Law, but also the spirit or angel which responds to a just reading. It is said the light of the Shekinah is lit within Nature and within our hearts (from the beginning). Her presence imparts the divine meaning, and she is also the synthesis of every sacred word and Divine Name. From time immemorial, this wisdom has been associated with the feminine, the oracle which imparts the divine meaning.
The Shekinah is not only the divine word, and the righteous word of mouth, but also the visible presence of a divine spirit. She appears clothed in a veil of light, yet behind this is another veil of light, and so she is revealed as light yet concealed at the same time. To penetrate one part of the truth is to be confronted with another mystery, until finally one reaches the highest point on the Tree, the Emanation called the Crown, where the masculine and feminine are one. This is the union of the Shekinah and God in Heaven or the Heavenly Paradise equated with Indivisible Selfhood or the unity of the sexes. From this highest point, in descending order, comes the second emanation, called Chochmah or Wisdom, and the third emanation, Binah or Understanding, both of which are considered to be Shekinah or feminine. Together these three emanations, Crown, Wisdom, and Understanding, form the supernal or Heavenly realms, and indicate the Shekinah above, or the Supernal Mother. But there is also a Shekinah below, called the Bride, who is hidden in the lowest or material world at the bottom of the Tree, which is called Malkuth, or the Kingdom.
So the Shekinah is both Mother and Bride, or above and below, a Heavenly Shekinah and an Earthly Shekinah. And she is that Presence which transits between the two along the Middle Pillar of the Tree. In the Heavenly realms she is the prototypes upon which the world is based. In the earthly realms she is the Indwelling Glory which is hidden within matter and accompanies man up to Heaven. Shekinah means to “dwell” within, and she dwells hidden in matter as well as sometimes in women. Although a distinction can be made between the Heavenly Paradise and the Earthly Paradise, ultimately there is no difference, for the Shekinah is One. To understand this doctrine one must have risen with the Shekinah out of the material universe of the lower Tree, transcended the dual nature of the material world, and ascended into Selfhood. This can be accomplished through wisdom, of a just reading of the Law. The Shekinah descended from Paradise to accompany the soul in its ascent. She is therefore a sign to the Faithful that they will ascend into Heaven. In other words, a sign of the Covenant.
The idea of an influence descending from above or Heaven is fundamental somehow to Western thinking, and that influence rising with our soul back to Heaven. The distinction in the Qabalah is that this energy is considered feminine, as opposed to a messiah or God-man or avatar or hero who descends from heaven. The masculine does appear in the Qabalah, for instance the Word as a defining principle. Yet the heart of love or essence within a word is considered feminine, and without which the Word or defining principle is empty. So the Shekinah is essence, and the essence of love, wisdom, and understanding required to read the Word or Law, and ascend the Tree into enlightenment. As one acquires wisdom one experiences a series of initiations, which lead upwards to Heaven, or selfhood. Here we must stress that certain initiatory experiences and wisdom are subjective, personal experiences, and are entirely unique to the individual.
In the tarot keys the Shekinah is called the High Priestess, and other keys like the Empress, Justice, and the Star, and also appears as the Angel of Paradise in the Lovers as well. In the High Priestess she is between two pillars, one black and one white, and in the Lovers she is between Adam and Eve. These motifs are ways of indicating that the Shekinah is the balance between the masculine and feminine, the active and passive, antipathy and sympathy, severity and mercy, and all pairs of opposites necessary to sustain Creation. She is therefore the equilibrated or balanced light, the balance and relationship between all opposites which sustains the universe. On the Tree of Life, then, she is also the Middle Pillar, the balance between the left and right pillars. Only through balance can one ascend the Tree, and only through balance does the Shekinah dwell in the lower Emanations. This doctrine of resolving opposites or duality may only be hinted at here, yet suffice it to say herein is contained the entire Mystery.
As we have seen, the Shekinah is the Angel of Paradise, and the Angel of the Presence. She is also an Angel of Light, and so, we can assume, she is the Angel of the Aethyr, or the astral (or starry) light. She has been called Ruach Elohim, or Pnuema in Greek, which means “the breath of the spirit.” “The breath of the spirit” is a concept almost universal in mysticism, with many names, which refers to the great sea of magnetized, luminiferous energy which pervades the universe, and indeed is the primordial effulgence, the Prima Materia from which all other forms of matter arose. An essential quality which equates the Shekinah with the Aethyr is that of a linking element between the above and below, the world of spirit with the world of matter.
This great magical agent has further qualities which, for an adequate discussion of our subject, we must now embark upon. The Aethyr may be approached on a purely scientific basis or mystically. It seems to this author that science has posed certain problems which only mysticism can solve. He who would penetrate the secrets of Nature must first master his self, and so the Sanctuary of the Gnosis will always remain concealed from the profane. The light requires the balance between opposites, or unification of duality, mentioned previously. The active and passive aspects of this light may only be known and recognized by those on whom the knowledge of the sacred art has been bestowed. That which is not balanced does not remain in the light, but disperses, even as the Shekinah does not rest upon the sinful, but turns away from them. Then she may have an aspect of wrath, and appears as the pillar of fire, or a violent and chaotic swirling of an Aethyric darkness, reflecting the mythological journey through the Underworld and through the Dark Night of the Soul, or through the unconscious, for which there may be no transforming substance or redemption. To discover the Shekinah one must penetrate the secret recesses of Nature, and discover and rectify the light of the soul.
In respects all other lights of Creation, the Shekinah may be considered as soul is to body. Yet in relation to God she is as body to soul, notwithstanding that she and God are one. Here we must confront the separation between perceiver and perceived. This duality too must be resolved: that the Aethyr is dual or the Reflected Light, and yet One, that there is no difference between this and that, only the light of the soul which is One, or, the light of the eye. At the Crown of the Tree of Life, to make a distinction is to separate from Union with Heaven, and thus descend the Tree, so that the original unity may be manifest and known, and strive for itself again. The next Emanations or Lights are Wisdom and Understanding, and as we have seen are great feminine ideals, or the Shekinah. Now, the balance of Wisdom and Understanding creates Mercy and Severity, and from these opposites proceed Victory and Splendour, and finally Foundation and Kingdom. The central Light is the central Self, called Beauty, where all the Emanations combine. This scheme describes types of Aethyric light, as represented by essential prototypical ideas, as the Light and consciousness are One. From above, the Lights are an extension of the original unity. From below, however, they are veils of light, which conceals from all who have not attained the true vision associated with that light, or the realization of that archetypal idea. Among these visions are the Vision of Sorrow, the Vision of Love, the Vision of Power, and so on, until finally Union with Heaven is attained, the indivisible selfhood of the Crown, or becoming most oneself. The Shekinah is then the translucid perception of the Aethyr which accompanies Truth, or the laws of the soul, and leads back to Oneness.
She is the Indwelling Glory or Secret Fire hidden within matter. She dwells within matter, yet she may also dwell within or rest in the Word, as we have seen, and in certain women (although not necessarily in men, although she does accompany them). She also rested in the Temple of Solomon (or Isis before), and upon the Ark of the Covenant. There is some suggestion that she aided in the building of the Temple, or that she actually was the Temple, even as she may be seen as the Great Mother of the world and dwelling within it.
In Malkuth or Kingdom, the material world, the world of the five senses, the Shekinah is the Bride, or the Old King’s Daughter, who is virginal and concealed yet prepared for a marriage to take place. The High Priestess in the tarot is a visual representation of the Shekinah as Bride, seated at the gateway to the Temple of Solomon. One might say she is a priestess and oracle, who may impart the divine meaning. She is prepared to interpret the Torah, after the Bridegroom has read from it. Yet she is also a depiction of the Bride who has “descended,” quote-unquote, from the Temple for her marriage. Behind the Veil of Pomegranates behind her would literally be a large ceremonial bath for ritual cleansing after the manner off the Egyptians. The Veil being drawn suggests she has just bathed, in preparation for her marriage. But the Veil is also the Veil on the Tree of Life, which conceals the knowledge necessary to cross the Abyss and attain Paradise.
She is seated between the two pillars Jachin and Bo’az, which embodies our theme of duality and its resolution, which, as we have seen, is one of the great themes of the Shekinah. They are Mercy and Severity, and to be seated between Mercy and Severity indicates their balance, or the qualities of Mildness and Justice. So the Shekinah represents these qualities. On the Tree of Life, the Left Pillar (looking at the Tree) is the Pillar of Severity and the Right pillar that of Mercy, whereas the Middle Pillar is Mildness and Justice. The qualities of Mildness and Justice are necessary to sustaining the universe, as well as the attainment of Paradise.
Now, there are two pillars, and this number is unity in the higher world and division in the lower, with the possibility of unity. And we may say now that the Divine Marriage of the Bride may literally be bound up with the Mystery of the Sexes, and finally Love.
That the Shekinah is Love is somehow implicit in the Qabalah, as she descended from Heaven to accompany the soul’s ascent for that reason. Also, the Infinite was tempted into manifestation by a desire to love. However, to seek the remedy for sorrow in love is to have sorrow laid upon thee, and this is a great Mystery of the Universal Heart. The Shekinah is the Lady of Sorrow.
We will now consider two specific cards, the High Priestess and the Empress. The High Priestess is perhaps the most difficult key to understand, as in some sense she is the oracle itself, and the feminine deity. The first clue is the central allegorical figure herself: she is seated, modest and covered, a virginal figure. Although the origins are obscure, she resembles various earlier motifs. These include the Muse of memory, Mnemosyne, and some representations of the church as a woman, as well as the Gnostic Queen of the Moon. In particular she is similar to certain depictions of a Persian Sibyl, or prophetess, who sits with the scroll of wisdom partially revealed, to indicate she may or may not reveal her wisdom. She is Isis the Eternal Virgin and Eve before Adam, the Bride and the Shekinah.
She is the female initiate, which implies many personal qualities. But she is also the experience of initiation itself, all the crucial events that constitute self-realization and knowledge. The High Priestess represents truth manifesting through law, and the divine pattern itself. This would be the pure experience of the subconscious, the unity, as opposed to its fluctuation or outer forms. Her number is two, and the number two implies both fluctuation and change, and the possibility of unity. Two is the number of poise, and Metaphysical Equilibrium, which we see in the motif. It is also the number of comparison, and therefore science. Two is the number of memory. She is that which reflects, but also unites, as in the Macrocosm with the Microcosm, the Above and Below, the universal with the personal. She is equated with the universal menstruum, or impressionable magical medium, the Prima Materia or Pnuema, or the Shekinah. She is the primordial effulgence behind active manifestation; however, she is not technically manifestation itself. This idea is more inherent in her later incarnation the Empress. The Priestess represents in some sense the knowledge behind active manifestation, and the Empress represents Nature in her varied forms.
The High Priestess is the Reflected Light, linked in astrology to memory and the Moon, which is exalted in Cancer (speech and writing). Memory is realized in speech, and speech triumphs over the world. As architect of the world she brings the Word into manifestation. She is the oracle, divinely receptive and receptive to herself. But also the flow of oracular language and its laws. She is Sophia or Chochmah, Wisdom. As the oracle and oracular language, she represents that which brings discreet form, the knowledge of signs which produces language and oracular language, and the Scriptures that may only be understood with Qabalah. In some sense she is the summation of the canon or Law or Torah.
The elements of the motif are as follows. She is seated in a temple, or rather at the gateway to the temple, the Temple of Isis or the Temple of the Gnosis, or the Temple of Solomon. On either side are the Pillars of the Temple mentioned in the Biblical accounts of the construction of Solomon’s Temple, called Jachin and Bo’az, meaning loosely “God establishes” and “He comes in power.” These are the twin pillars of Mercy and Severity, or the two columns of Justice. The capitals were of a floral design, perhaps lotuses or lilies, although the Bible indicates a necklace strung with pomegranates. Or potentially the pillars were based on the palm tree, a variation on the Tree of Life motif. The pillars would not support the roof of the temple, but rather they were symbolic. The black and white pillars represent thesis and antithesis, active and passive, masculine and feminine, or the pairs of opposites necessary to sustain the universe. They also indicate memory, as we remember things similar, things that contrast, and things close together in time and space.
Behind her hangs a veil with pomegranates and palm trees, to indicate the phallic mythos and its mystical secrets. The solar cross indicates her power over the man on this level. Behind the veil lies “the sea behind the veil,” originally a large bath for ritual cleansing. When the pillars are balanced, or the veil drawn, the Shekinah or Bride would descend. On her knee rests the partially revealed Torah, showing that she may reveal or conceal. When the just man reads the law, she gives the divine meaning.
The Empress is Love, and Mother Nature. She is also literal nature in all its forms, Ceres or Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. She is the High Priestess unveiled, manifesting all the necessary forms to express the higher Emanations. As such she is Venus-Aphrodite, and other like deities such as Ishtar, Hathor, and Freya. As the number three she is harmonious unfoldment. She represents the creative rebirth necessary to transform matter, or in other words, the Imagination. As such, she is depicted as pregnant. The symbol also construes, besides creativity and fecundity, the qualities of adaptability and versatility. The Empress represents the life-giving powers which give meaning to form. She is therefore Beauty, and Art.
Whereas the Priestess is seated in a temple, the Empress is seated in a garden, the Garden of Venus, the Garden of Eden. This follows tacitly at this point. However, the Empress is nevertheless the Inferior Garden of Eden, or the Earthly Paradise. This points to specific matters of Doctrine relating to its attainment. The Earthly Paradise is described in Revelations: “Now a sign appeared in Heaven: a woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head as a crown.” This is perhaps based upon Ceres and Ishtar, and possibly Virgo, the Great Mother who gave birth to the world yet still remained a virgin.