Colour in Medieval Jewish Kabbalah

Cover of Portae Lucis, Latin translation of Shaarei Ora – Gates of Light by Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla'(1248- after 1305).
image © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Another fascinating area this site does not look at deeply, but that must be mentioned with a profound bow of respect, is the presentation of colours in Kabbalah still firmly rooted in Jewish mystical traditions. This page is only a very brief look at colour in an ancient and complex system of mysticism initially passed down ‘mouth to ear’ since the time of Moses, some say. However, it’s useful for all to realise ‘The Tree’ has very deep roots and to remember that colour is seen and utilised differently by different traditions. As noted on the excellent Sefaria Community library site, “The Zohar (Splendor or Radiance) is the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah. Composed in Middle-Age Spain, c.1100 – c.1400 CE, the Zohar is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and scriptural interpretations as well as material on mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology.”

Colours are mentioned in the Zohar from the start. The very first section following the introduction (Bereshit) begins like this:

With the beginning of the manifestation of the King’s will, that is, when the King desired to emanate and create the world, a hard spark made an engraving upon the supernal light. This hard spark, which emanated from the most concealed of all concealed things from the secret of the Endlessness Light took a shapeless form. The spark was then inserted into the center of a circle that was neither white nor black nor red nor green, nor any color at all. When it began its measurements, it created colors that shone into the empty space and the engraving. From within the spark – This hard spark – a fountain spouted, from which the shades down below received their colors….”  (Zohar 1:15a)

The Introduction to the Book of Zohar vol 2 by Rav Yehuda Ashlag with commentary by Rev Michael Liatman elaborates on those four colours and adds the analogy of lenses, along with a helpful diagram:  

“…in the Book of Zohar these Ten Sefirot … are called by the names of four colors: white, red, green and black. White corresponds to the Sefira of Hochma; Red correspondes to the Sefira of Bina; Green corresponds to the Sefira of Tifferet, and Black corresponds to the Sefira of Malchut. In our world these Sefirot create the four basic colors. .. This is similar to an optical instrument that has four lenses with colors corresponding to the ones mentioned above. In spite of the fact that the light is unified, while passing through a lens, it acquires a color and becomes one of the four lights: white, red, green, or black.

If nothing else, I’m fascinated by Tifferet being green! There are other interesting, poetic and evocative statements about colour in The Zohar. The following are from the Sefaria community translation of the Zohar and the first relates polarity to colour:

“…Just as there is a secret pertaining to the shape of the parts of the body of man and its composition, so too there is a secret pertaining to the shape of the parts of the body of the Female Principle and its composition. And the only difference between them is their color: (Green for the male and red for the female). And as there is that above which joins her and rises to receive her with love, so below, beneath the moon, lies the secret of another, lower man.…” (Zohar 1:64a:6)

There is also this: “…This secret is the eye. Come and see, there are three colors in the eye, (white, red and green) that are visible and were imprinted on it. None of them shines because they are placed in the light that does not shine. And these are like those which are hidden and are situated over them. And they are the ones that appeared to the patriarchs in order to know and perceive these hidden that appeared from within those that did not illuminate. And those that are bright yet hidden, were revealed to Moses in his firmament. And these are situated over these colors that are visible in the eye, meaning those that appeared to the Patriarchs. And it is a secret; Close your eyes, and turn the eye balls. In this way, the colors will appear that illuminate and shine, since permission is given to see only with closed eyes these hidden superior colors that are situated over these three colors that are visible that do not shine. (Zohar 2:23b:1)

The element of polarity and then seeing and knowing the colours with inner vision have certainly carried forward to students in the Western Mystery Tradition.

The linked Wikipedia article on the Sephirot(h) provides the briefest of introductions to evolving Kabbalistic concepts and teachers like Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (the Ramak, 1522–1570) and Isaac Luria (Arizal, 1534 –1572) who so profoundly shaped the contemporary study and practice of both Jewish Kabbalah and Hermetic Qabalah. 

“…Come and see, There are four lights. Three of them are concealed, (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet) and one (Malchut) is revealed. They are: (A) The shining light (Chesed); (B) the bright light, Gevurah. And it shines like the brightness of the heaven for its clarity; (C) purple light, (Tiferet) that receives all the lights; and (D) the light that does not illuminate (Malchut) that looks to these and receives them. These lights are visible in it like a reflector, which is placed against the sun, and the sun is seen in it. So the three lights of Zeir Anpin that is called sun are visible in Malchut, and in this respect Malchut is called a reflector that receives from the sun and the sun is seen in it. (Zohar 2:23a Sefaria Community Translation)

Moses Cordovero’s Or Ne’erav (‘The Pleasant Light’) was published in Vienna in 1587 and is available online. Part VI 4: 29-32 has a slightly different perspective on colour, with a good bit more detail about most the Sephiroth that goes beyond the white, red, green and black. It reads as follows:

“29. [The beginner] must also know that the color of Ḥokhmah is the chief of all the colors, just as [Ḥokhmah] is the beginning of all action. The development of the colors [commences] from Ḥokhmah, and thus its color is blue, which is the beginning of the development of color from blackness. Black develops into dark blue. Some have interpreted that its color is that of the sapphire, which is the beginning of all colors and is near to the color blue.

The color of Binah is green like the grass. The reason [for this] is that this color contains the colors of red and white, which are perceived together, that is, Gedulah, Gevurah, and Tiferet. It also contains the color blue, which is from Ḥokhmah. Thus we have a coming together of all these qualities in Binah.

30. The color of Ḥesed is white. Not the whitest white like Keter, but rather a white which is nearly blue. It is the color of silver. Gevurah possesses three colors. The first color is black, which derives from its aspect of Gehinnom,4I.e., hell.which blackens the faces of the creatures. Second is the color red, which [signifies] good Judgment which pleases God and man in order to arouse the [sefirotic] union. Third is the color blue, which is related to the Judgment which proceeds by way of holiness to Malkhut. There is yet a fourth color, the color of gold, which is common to Binah and Gevurah in the mystery of the joysome wine which proceeds to Gevurah from Binah.

“The color of Tiferet [was described] above. They ascribed to it [the color] sapphire in the extension of Da’at. In its revealed aspect of determination, it includes white and red—that is, the green of an egg yolk, in truth. Now Tiferet includes the color[s] of Ḥesed and Gevurah in one of two [manners]. It is either above them in the mystery of Da’at, which includes them in their roots or in its lower aspect, that is, the mixture of red and white. It also possesses the color purple, which includes five colors. They are the mystery [of the angels] Uriel, Refael, Gavriel, Mikhael, and Nuriel.5

“31. Neẓaḥ [possesses the color] red shading to white, for it is mostly mercy because of its orientation to the side of Ḥesed. Hod is white shading to red because it is mostly Judgment due to its orientation to the side of Gevurah.

Yesod has as its color a mixture of white shading to red and red shading to white. There are those who interpreted that its color was sapphire-like, since it receives all the colors of the sefirot. For this reason, there are those who interpreted that [its] color contained all the colors.

Malkhut contains all the colors. Sometimes it possesses the color black, sometimes the color blue. Black [stems] from the side of the “outside” ones. Blue [serves Malkhut] to protect her from them. Its color, as well, is that of fine linen and purple (Prv. 31:22). These are the colors of its aspects. However, its essential color [stems from] the light of Tiferet. It possesses the color of white light, like that of the moon, which reflects the sun’s [light]. It also possesses the color green, which is an aspect between white from the side of Tiferet and blue from the side of Gevurah. This refers to the rising of the dawn, [when] she is situated between Gevurah and Tiferet.

“32. [The beginner] must also know that the essence of these colors is [related] to the [sefirotic] qualities in Malkhut, just as the essence of their actions is in her. Thus the name YHWH has no color at all, and the essence of the colors is in the name Adonai. Indeed, the light from above, which exhibits an obscure color which is Malkhut below, is the mystery of the light of YHWH and the obscurity in which the colors—Adonai—are contained.” (Part VI.4.9)

And here it’s Binah that’s ‘green like grass’……

A work on the origin and evolution of the Kabbalah (The Kabbalah by Adolphe Franck, 1926) makes another point restating the perspective about ‘lenses’ noted above, and ‘the mystery of the light of YHWH’. It says: “the ten Sefiroth may be compared to ten vessels of different forms, or to glasses of different colors. Whatever vessel we wish to measure with the absolute essence of things it remains always the same; and the divine light, like the light of the sun, does not change its nature with the medium through which it passes. Let us add that these vessels and these mediums have in themselves no positive reality; they have no existence of their own; they simply represent the limits within which the supreme essence of things has confined itself, the different degrees of obscurity with which the divine light desired to veil its infinite brightness, so it may be viewed.”

Although it’s much easier to find historical Kabbalistic material on colour in English now than when this page was first assembled 10 years ago, further research would certainly be greatly assisted by being able to read the original Hebrew and/or Aramaic.  As mentioned above, the online Library is a very impressive repository of Jewish texts of all kinds, including a section of works related to the Kabbalah, most of them available in dual Hebrew/English editions. The SOL site  also provides full (English) text versions of the Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Sefer Zohar and several commentaries. 

Suggestions of additional resources and teachings in this area are very welcome. 

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