You mean it’s all a metaphor? Duh!

Ramchal famously — and quite controversially — argued that Ari was speaking figuratively when he spoke of the Sephirot assuming round or linear shapes, of matters such as Tzimtzum, Kav “straight line”), Reshimu (“a residue”), Sh’virat HaKellim (“the breaking of the vessels”), Olam Tikkun (“the world of rectification”), of terms for the Partzufim like Abba and Imma (“mother” and “father”), and much more [1].

And part of his understanding we’d assume is based on the out-and-out anthropomorphic nature of the language and imagery Ari used to depict these phenomena (as we indicated above).

As most know, anthropomorphism is an old bone of contention. The term kaviyachol (“as if it could be said as such”) was very often inserted in traditional sources in order to soften the effect of anthropomorphic depictions[2], Onkelos translated anthropomorphic terminology symbolically, and many of the medieval sages also went out of their way to explain anthropomorphisms [3]. The problem was compounded, though, when it came to Kabbalistic terminology.

In fact, an entire work was dedicated to debunking Kabbalistic imagery which was entitled Ari Noham (“A Lion Roars”) by the 17th Century scholar R’ Yehudah Ari of Modenah. Ramchal was thought to have written Ma’amar HaVichuach as an argument against R’ Yehudah Ari’s work, but that doesn’t seem to be the case [4]. An early 20th Century also spoke disparagingly of Kabbalistic anthropomorphisms and other issues raised by Kabbalah that’s entitled Milchamot Hashem (“The Wars of the Lord”) by R’ Yichaya Kapach which was responded to, nearly point by point, in Emunat Hashem (“Faith in God”) [5].

Our contention here though is that it can be said that Ramchal set out to explicate Kabbalistic imagery somewhat along the same lines that the earlier sages tried to explicate Biblical, Talmudic, and Midrashic imagery. For just as they underscored that the anthropomorphisms there aren’t to be taken literally, Ramchal set out to underscore the same about Kabbalistic anthropomorphisms. And he used his understanding here of the fact that the Sephirot could be “envisioned” to begin to explicate that, as we’ll see.


[1]       See the Gaon of Vilna’ comments to Iddrah Rabbah (beginning) about the metaphoric nature of Kabbalistic terminology and imagery. And see the letter of R’ Avraham Simcha in the name of R’ Chaim of Voloshin (as found in the Mavo to Sefer Haklallim p.236 R’ Friedlander’s edition) asserting that the Gaon believed that Ramchal knew the referent.

[2]       See Mechilta, Yitro 4 for example.

[3]       See Emunot V’De’ot starting at 1:10, Chovot HaLevovot 1:10, much of the first section of Moreh Nevuchim, etc.

[4]       See the work of R’ Dovid Cohen (who was known as The Nazir) entitled Kol HaNevuah pp. 278-279 note 407 for a full discussion of this.

[5]       Ibid. note 205.

(c) 2011 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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