Sefirot (סְפִירוֹת), singular sefirah (סְפִירָה), literally means “counting”/”enumeration”, but early Kabbalists presented a number of other etymological possibilities from the same Hebrew root including: sefer (“text” – ספר), sippur(“recounting a story” – סיפור), sappir (“sapphire” – ספיר, “brilliance”, “luminary”), sfar (“boundary” – ספר), and sofer, or safra (“scribe” – ספרא, סופר). The term sefirah thus has complex connotations within Kabbalah.
The original reference to the sefirot is found in the ancient Kabbalistic text of Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, attributed to the first Jewish Patriarch, Abraham. Further references to the sefirot are apparent in the medieval Kabbalistic text of the Zohar, which is one of the core texts of Kabbalah.
The sefirot are ten emanations, or illuminations of God’s Infinite Light as it manifests in Creation. As revelations of the Creator’s Will (“ratzon” – רצון), the sefirot should not be understood as ten different “gods” but as ten different channels through which the one God YHVH reveals his will.
In later Jewish literature, the ten sefirot refer either to the ten manifestations of God ELHYM; the ten powers or faculties of the soul; or the ten structural forces of nature.
In Cordoveran Kabbalah, the forces of creation are considered as autonomous forces that evolve linearly from one another. By contrast, in Lurean Kabbalah (the Kabbalah of the Arizal), the sefirot are perceived as a constellation of forces in active dialogue with one another at every stage of that evolution. The Arizal described the sefirot as complex and dynamically interacting entities known as partzufim, each with its own symbolically human-like persona.
Keter (the Superconscious Crown) is the first sefirah. It is the superconscious intermediary between God and the other, conscious sefirot. Three different levels, or “heads” are identified within Keter. In some contexts, the highest level of Keter is called “The unknowable head”, The second level is “the head of nothingness” (reisha d’ayin) and the third level is “the long head” (reisha d’arich). These three heads correspond to the superconscious levels of faith, pleasure and will in the soul.
In its early 12th-century dissemination, Kabbalah received criticism from some rabbis, who adhered to chakirah, for its alleged introduction of multiplicity into Jewish monotheism. The seeming plurality of the One God is a result of the spiritual evolution of God’s light, which introduced a multiplicity of emanations from the one infinite Divine essence. This was necessary due to the inability of mankind to exist in God’s infinite presence. God does not change; rather, it is our ability to perceive His emanations that is modified. This is stressed in Kabbalah in order to avoid heretical notions of any plurality in the Godhead. One parable to explain this is the difference between the “Ma’Ohr” (“Luminary”-Divine essence) and the “Ohr” (“Light”) He emanates, like the difference between the single body of the sun and the multiple rays of sunlight that illuminate a room.