Kabbalah and Hasidut (Hasidic thought) are mystical approaches to Jewish theology. To Jews who love Kabbalah these teachings are the most essential beliefs about the nature of God, the universe, man, and our relation to each other. (Although, of course, non-mystical pathways in Judaism are equally valid.) Here we look at the kabbalistic teaching of Hishtalshelut הִשְׁתַּלְשְׁלוּת – the chain of events in which God’s simplicity develops into the universe that we find ourselves in.
The Hebrew word “hishtalshelut” הִשְׁתַּלְשְׁלוּת comes from the double root ŠLŠL, שׁ – ל – שׁ – ל “to chain.”
What are the meanings of this word?
◦ hanging (e. g. on a chain); lowering by a rope or chain
◦ descending; downward tumbling
◦ progression, development (of a situation), a chain of events
◦ line of descent, lineage, family tree (i.e. shalshelet, שַלְשֶלֶת)
Translatable but Debatable – השתלשלות hishtalshelut, Mark L. Levinson, 2/8/2018
Some people use hishtalshelut as a synonym for evolution (as in biology,) but this is not common usage. The preferred Hebrew words for evolution in biology are אבולוציה, התפתחות.
What is Hishtalshelut?
Julian Ungar-Sargon writes
The concept of hishtalshelut, as used in Chassidic thought, refers to the metaphysical process whereby the complex and finite reality of the universe unfolds out of God’s absolute oneness. The underlying dynamic of hishtalshelut is that of ila v’alul, temporal “cause and effect.” According to Kabbalah, the universe evolves, like the trunk of a tree, as rings within rings with God at its center. The root of the Hebrew word taba’at (“ring”) is teva, which itself means “nature.” Nature and the evolutionary process are one and the same. Both suggest an underlying unity which serves as the source of energy for a vast creative enterprise.
Daf Ditty Eruvin 83: רדס, Prepared by Julian Ungar-Sargon
William Schecter explains a way this is understood by Chabad Lubavitch –
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi describes Hishtalshelut as “the process of gradual flowing down of the Divine Energy from the Eternal Light through the infinite number of worlds until, through the process of צימצום (tsimtsum—contraction) the energy is reduced, as in a step-down transformer, so that when it reaches our world we are not consumed by its infinite power”
Parashat Lech Lecha, William Schecter, Sefaria
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, better known as Ramban (1194-1270) talks about this idea in his kabbalistic commentaries.
וְחָצַב בָּהֶם בְּהִשְׁתַּלְשְׁלוּת עַד מַעֲשֵׂה בְּרֵאשִׁית
“’And hewed them…’ (Sefer Yetsirah 1:11, §13) – [from the top of] the chain of being until the Workings of Creation [i.e., the bottom, as it were]…”
Peirush le-Sefer Yetsirah, Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah attributed to Ramban
We see more development of the idea from the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero (1522–1570)
With regard to the reality of the sequence of levels (השתלשלות המדרגות) from above to below, they are without end, and they are stations (מחנות), constellations opposite constellations (מערכות מול מערכות), and the constellations emerge in sequence one from another, and each and every constellation will now be called “tree” (אילן).
And I have already explained that the constellation of ’Aṣilut (Emanation—the highest of the four “worlds”) is the ’ilan of ’Aṣilut, and no (demonic) shell will rule it whatsoever. After it, the constellation of the ’ilan of Briyah (Creation—the second of the four worlds), this constellation being a shell and garment to ’Aṣilut.
Or Yaqar, Vol. 3: Tiqqunei ha-Zohar; Jerusalem, 1964, 88b.
Translation from “Spheres, Sefirot, and the Imaginal Astronomical Discourse of Classical Kabbalah” J. H. Chajes,
Professor Moshe Idel, one of the eminent 20th century scholars of Kabbalah, has written an entire book exploring this and related ideas, “Enchanted Chains: Techniques and Rituals in Jewish Mysticism.” An excerpt –
Finally, the well-known theories of the ten sefirot as formulated by the theosophical-theurgical kabbalists are thought to be interlocking links or cords connecting the supernal infinite and the lower worlds. In this system the human, originally divine soul, can have an impact on the supernal structure from which it descended and can also return to it.)
Thus the flexibility inherent to the image of chain or cord becomes central in what may be called an enchanted vision of the Great Chain of Being. The theosophical kabbalists, especially the Castilians from the end of the thirteenth century onward, were eager to use the term shalshelet, the chain, or in some cases the holy chain, shalshelet ha-qedushah, to designate either the sefirotic realm in which each sefirah was thought to be a link in a descending chain, or even a metaphor for reality as a whole.
This was especially true of R. Moses de Leon as we shall see immediately below, R. Todros ha-Levi Abulafia, and R. Joseph of Hamadan. Moreover, the verb that is derived from the root that yields shalshelet, lehishtalshel, became a recurrent term for the process of emanation, and the noun hishtalshelut became a technical term for the act of divine emanation or for its outcome.
The semantic specificity of this term can best be appreciated when it is compared to other words used in the same context. Kabbalists used several terms to convey the concept of emanation. The most widespread term, ‘asilut, generally refers to both a continuous descent from the divine and the emergence of the intra-divine structure of the sefirot. Both the process and the outcome are designated by this term. This is also the case for the term hitpashetut, which emphasizes a continuous expansion, shefa ‘ or hashpa‘ah denotes the concept of emanation as an influx, without the connotation of a descending chain.
Hishtalshelut points, however, to an emanation which consists of links in a chain, as mentioned above, or the emanative descent from one degree to another, mi-madregah le-madregah, or the descent from one cause to another, me-illah le-illah.
In this context shalshelet also means genealogical line in Hebrew, an intertwining move from one person to another where once again the concept of interlocking links is paramount. Although this feature is not always crucial to the understanding of the noun or verb, and may stand for the process of emanation in a more general way, in many cases the concept of enchained links is still apparent. In a representative example of this vision of the chain highlighted by G. Scholem, R. Moses de Leon wrote that:
“Everything is linked with everything else down to the lowest link in the chain, and the true essence of God is above as well as below, in the heavens and on the earth, and nothing exists outside Him. And this is what the sages mean when they say: ‘When God gave the Torah to Israel, He opened the seven heavens to them and they saw that nothing was there in reality but His Glory; God opened the seven worlds to them and they saw that nothing was there but His Glory; He opened the seven abysses before their eyes, and they saw that nothing was there but His Glory’. Meditate on these things and you will understand that God’s essence is linked and connected with all worlds, and that all forms of existence are linked and connected to each other, but are derived from His existence and essence.”
Near the end of the fifteenth century R. Yehudah Hayyat, an important kabbalist expelled from Spain, put forward one of the strongest formulations of the theory of the enchanted chain….
An influential sixteenth-century kabbalist, R. Meir ibn Gabbai, used the phrase shalshelet ha-yihud, the chain of divine unity, as identical to the ‘secret of the emanation’ in the context of a discussion of the commandments which ‘open the well and draw down the influx’….
After Cordovero the term hishtalshelut – though not shalshelet – seldom occurs in Lurianic writings, for instance in ‘Es Hayyim. However, given the combined impact of the Cordoverian and Lurianic sources, the term hishtalshelut was found in Hasidic literature from its inception.
Enchanted Chains: Techniques and Rituals in Jewish Mysticism, Moshe Idel, 2005, Cherub Press
Shaar HaYichud, The Gate of Unity, by Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, translated and Annotated by Shimon Markel.
Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” and the Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, Jewish History, Vol. 18, No. 2/3, p. 197-226
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