On the Other Side of the Sky
A novel combining history, adventure, and more than a little touch of the arcane
This page is concerned with Kabbala and some fairly esoteric Judaic mysticism as used in the book. Just as a disclaimer: I am not Jewish, and am shamefully ignorant of many of the Jewish traditions. My interpretation of the little I have learned is almost certainly uncanonical, and I am also basically ignorant of Hebrew. Some of the spellings of Hebrew words that I use may not be the spellings with which you may be familiar, or which are used elsewhere. It does seem that there are competing systems whereby Hebrew can be transliterated into English.
It struck me that beings from the other side of the sky would pre-date Christianity, and that the Jewish tradition would probably have more to say about them than any other religion practised today, and which would be accessible to the characters in the 18th century. Stories about the golem of Prague and so on have always fascinated me, and there are also tales in the Rosicrucian literature about the creation of a homunculus. I therefore decided to introduce a rabbi into the story (more here about Baruch ben Chaim).
Prague seemed too obvious an origin for ben Chaim, so I decided to make Brno his hometown. And, not knowing much about Kabbala, I decided to make some Kabbalistic ideas into a plot hook. I read through quite a few of the Jewish legends in the Ginzberg books. Wonderful stuff, and new insights into all sorts of things, including the other side of the sky – one can interpret some of these legends in that light. I am also much taken with the idea of Tzimtzum, that is, that God contracted His universal and infinite essence in order to make space for the creation of a finite independent universe.
But this is not really Kabbala (though this last idea is actually a part of Kabbala). So I asked someone who has much more theology and interfaith knowledge than me if he could lend me a few books on the subject. I ended up with a collection of tales told by an 18th century rabbi, which are fascinating in the sense that they give an idea of the sort of mystic metaphors used at that time, but didn’t really help to find the hook on which to hang my story.
The other book I borrowed was a very much more scholarly work – Schlolem on the history of Kabbala. This was not a book for beginners, but I certainly learned a lot from it. More than anything else, I came to appreciate the significance of the Sephirod. These are the emanations or attributions of God, and there are ten or eleven of these, depending on how you count them.
The Sephirod as the Tree of Life
Here are the ten Sephirod. There is an eleventh, Da’ath, which is sometimes seen as an invisible aspect of Keter, and lives in the center below Keter, in the intersection of the second through fifth Sephirod.
The last Serifah is here named as Shekhinah – which is the imminent presence of God. In most of the other representations of the Tree of Life, I have seen it named as Malkhuth, though it does seem to be linked closely to the Shekhinah by Kabbalists.
One moves from Keter to Malkuth, passing through Yesod, which is the only possible path in this particular arrangement of the Sephirod.
What is important, though, and not emphasised in this particular diagram, are the paths between the different Sephirod.
The “Unholy” Sephirod
This is described by one rabbinical source that I discovered as “unholy” as it is possible to reach Malkuth (note that here it is named differently – even if like me you can’t read Hebrew) without going through Yesod. With Malkuth seen as being feminine (and the Shekhinah is also sometimes ascribed feminine characteristics), these paths avoid the masculine exclusive partner Yesod, and hence are an “origin of whoredom” and form a “source of impurity, and thus imbalance, and destruction” (I’m quoting the rabbi here).
Da’ath does not appear in this diagram. Note the lack of connections between Binah and Hesed, and Chokmah and Gevurah, at the intersection of which Da’ath would be situated.
But what is also interesting is the use of letters of the the Hebrew alphabet to label the paths between the Sephirod. These are not the same letters that may be used in the “holy” Tree of Life above.
Sometimes these paths are associated with the 22 cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot pack, and the Seriphod themselves linked to the values of the cards in the Minor Arcana. However, these links are unconnected with Kabbala, and though Tarot cards come into the story of On the Other Side of the Sky, they do not play a role in the plot.
However, this “unholy” Tree of Life does play a vital part in the story, as does the idea of the Breaking of the Vessels, a primordial catastrophe whereby these emanations come to be everywhere in the universe as shards of light.
Once again, I’d like to emphasise that my interpretation and use of these ideas is non-canonical. If you read the book I think you will agree that they make for a very interesting plot. And who knows, you might be tempted to explore this fascinating world of Jewish mysticism for yourself.