Ein Sof comes from the Hebrew term אין סוף ( infiniteness, or limitlessness) can be conceived as the opposite from what is conceived as “to be”, the transcendental par excellence, beyond the finite and the infinite, beyond the limit and the boundless, indeed beyond all anthropomorphic representations of GOD. In the Kabbalah, it is understood as GOD before all its self-manifestation, and can be translated as “without end”, “(what has no end)”, or infinite. It is found for the first time in the text of Azriel (c. 1160 – c. 1238) who, sharing the neoplatonic belief that GOD cannot have any desire, thought, word or action, emphasized the negation of any attribute. About Ein Sof, nothing (“Ein”) can be caught (“Sof” -limitation). It is the origin of the Ohr Ein Sof, the “Infinite Light” of the paradoxical divine self-knowledge, annulled within Ein Sof before creation.
The Zohar explains the term Ein Sof as follows:
“Before He gave any shape to the world, before He produced any form, He was alone, without form and without resemblance to anything else. Who then can comprehend how He was before the Creation? Hence it is forbidden to lend Him any form or similitude, or even to call Him by His sacred name, or to indicate Him by a single letter or a single point… But after He created the form of the Heavenly Man, He used him as a chariot wherein to descend, and He wishes to be called after His form, which is the sacred name YHWH.”
In another passage of the Zohar, the term is reduced to Ein (non-existent), because GOD transcends so much from human understanding that it is “practically” non-existent for man’s physical perceptions.
Besides the Zohar and the Sefer Yetzirah, other well-known explanations have been formulated by medieval Jewish mystical thinkers (including Isaac the Blind and Azriel), especially on the relationship between Ein Sof and other realities and levels of reality.
According to Gershom Scholem, Ein Sof is the emanator of the ten Sephirot, i.e. emanations of energy found in the Tree of Life. Ein Sof, the Ancient of all Ancients (Atik Yomin), emanates Sephirots in the cosmic womb of Ayin in a way that causes the created universe. The three letters that make up the word “Ayin” (אי״ן) indicate the first three purely spiritual Sephirots, which precede emotions or actions. The order of devolution can be described in the following way:
- Ayin (Nothing; אין)
- Ein Sof (Unlimited; אין סוף)
- Ohr Ein Sof (Infinite Light; אור אין סוף)
– Tzimtzum (Contraction; צמצום)
Keter (Crown; כתר)
Chokhmah (Wisdom; חכמה)
Binah (Understanding; בינה)
Chessed or Gedulah (Grace or Mercy; חסד)
Ghevurah or Din (Power or Justice; גבורה)
Tiferet (Beauty or Compassion; תפארת)
Netzach (Triumph or Resistance; נצח)
Hod (Majesty or Splendor; הוד)
Yessod (Founding; יסוד)
Malkhuth (Reame; מלכות)