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Woman Wisdom

by H. Peter Aleff

One of the embodiments for the cross-connections between numbers and symbolic meanings on several levels is the Shekhina, the protector of the Jewish people.

This companion of God appears in the Bible as the beautiful Woman Wisdom who helped God with the creation (Proverbs 8:22-31) and then settled in Jerusalem to take root there (Ecclesiasticus 24:8-12). In the ancient Jewish teachings, she represented the feminine aspect of God and his presence.

In one of the oldest texts of that tradition, she is "the Essence of God that pervades all creation [and] that is the true beauty of all things." [1] Her role in the spiritual domain was thus comparable with that of phi the constant of beauty that pervades the physical and numerical worlds.

The Shekhina's name derived from a word that means "resting" or "dwelling" and shares its root with the designation of the original portable Tabernacle sanctuary which was called the Mishkan or "dwelling place." [2]

The Shekhina's connection with the moon is clear in the legends from the Babylonian Talmud and other sources of similar age. She appears there either as the beautiful and white-shining bride of the Messiah, or else as a black-clad and veiled woman who mourns the loss of the Temple and her exile from Jerusalem. These are undisguised allusions to the two most different phases of the moon.

The Kabbalists compared the Shekhina also directly with that celestial body :

"Just as the moon receives the sun's reflected light, so She receives the divine light (...) and radiates it upon the earth" [3]

As Wisdom, the Shekhina was also identified with water. Already one of the oldest Kabbalist texts calls her "the Water of the Blessed Holy One" that enables the tree to bring forth fruit from water. [4]

She was the "Sea of Wisdom" [5], a term that designated interchangeably also the Torah, the law and core of the Jewish religion. The Torah, in turn, was "the source of Life that had come from Heaven" as well as "the living water" and the "Fountain of Wisdom" and so further confirms this symbolic node.

The author of Ecclesiasticus 24 had Woman Wisdom describe herself in a single passage simultaneously as the Word of God, as mist and clouds, as a heavenly body that made a circuit of the sky, as drinking water, as the Torah, and again as water, water, and more water:

"Hear the praise of Wisdom from her own mouth (...): (24:1)
I am the word which was spoken by the Most High;
it was I who covered the earth like a mist.
My dwelling- place was in high heaven;
my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I made a circuit of the sky
and traversed the depth of the abyss. (24:3-5)
(...) and whoever drinks from me will thirst for more. (24:21)
(...) All this is the covenant- book of God Most High,
the law which Moses enacted to be
the heritage of the assemblies of Jacob. (24:23-24)

He sends out wisdom in full flood like the river Pishon,
or like the Tigris at the time of firstfruits;
he overflows with understanding like the Euphrates
or like Jordan at the time of harvest.
He pours forth instruction like the Nile,
like the Gihon at the time of vintage.

No man has ever fully known wisdom;
from first to last no one has fathomed her,
for her thoughts are vaster than the ocean
and her purpose deeper than the great abyss." (24:25-29)

It would be difficult to express the symbolic identity of Wisdom with water more vividly.

Water, of course, was the mediator between heaven and earth and so fits again the role of Wisdom. It also fits that of the Ten Sefirot, or first ten numbers, because the functions of these as intermediaries overlapped in many areas with those of both water and Wisdom.

All three existed before creation and were involved in it. Waters covered everything before God separated those above from those below to make dry land appear; Wisdom was with God before he created anything, and so were the ten numbers which he used as his fingers and as his tools for making the world.

The association of Wisdom with Ten survives today in the Jewish rule that a prayer community must have at least ten qualified members to perform certain recitations and other ceremonies. This group is then called a "minyan" or "number", and the Talmud declares that God is present when ten pray together. [6] Since the presence of God is personified in the Shekhina, she is said to join that group as soon as it reaches said minimum number. In other words, it takes ten to attract the Ten.


Copyright © 2003 bv H. Peter Aleff


1 Aryeh Kaplan, translator and editor: "The Bahir Illumination: One of the oldest, most important, and most carefully preserved of all ancient Kabbalah texts", Samuel Weiser Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1979, see Kaplan’s comments on Sayings 173 and 175, pages 180 and 181.

2 Frankel & Teutsch: "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols", Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, New Jersey, 1995, entry on "Shekhina", pages 154 and 155.

3 Frankel & Teutsch: "The Enc. of Jewish Symbols", cited above, entry on "Shekhina", page 155 left.

4 Aryeh Kaplan, translator and editor: "The Bahir Illumination", Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1979, Saying 119, page 45.

5 Aryeh Kaplan: "The Bahir Illumination", cited above., Saying 96, page 35.

6 Frankel & Teutsch: "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols", cited above, entry on "minyan", page 111.