Earth Wisdom
Plants, Stones, and Seasons

Water Wisdom
Moons and Tides

Air Wisdom
Animals and Spirit Beings

Fire Wisdom
Sabbath and Sacred Space

four worlds

One of the building blocks of Jewish time, space, and soul is "fourness." There are four letters of God's name, four matriarchs, four promises of liberation, four cups at the Passover seder, four prayer times that span the Sabbath, four mystical worlds of being, four guardian angels, and, according to some, four layers of the spirit. On a more physical level, there are four elements, four winds, four seasons, four phases of the moon, and four directions. There are four corners on the ritual garment called the tallit, four species of plants gathered together for the ritual bundle called the lulav, and four poles to hold up the Jewish wedding canopy known as the chuppah. There are four ways of interpreting Torah: pshat, drash, remez, and sod (the plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the interpretive meaning, and the mystical meaning). There are four rivers in the garden of Eden. Fourness reflects the ages of human experience: youth, maturity and generativity, reaching one's full power in mid-life, and the challenges and joys of old age. The Jewish world-tree, the etz chayim or tree of life, passes through four levels of existence on its way between heaven and earth.

Each of these fours divides the world into multiple aspects. The elements are earth, water, air, and fire. The worlds are assiyah, yetzirah, beriyah, and atzilut (doing, feeling, thinking, and existing). The layers of the soul are nefesh, ruach, neshamah, and chayah (life-force, emotional being, unique soul, and God-spark). The angels are Raphael, Michael, Gabriel, and Uriel. Over time, the various fours come together, so that there is a complex cluster: in each corner of the world we find a direction, an element, an angel, a letter of God's name, a matriarch, and a layer of soul. Another corner holds a different cluster. By facing in one of these directions, we call to ourselves a particular "flavor" of spiritual truth.

By meditating on these fours, we come to understand both the multiplicity and the oneness of creation. Balancing our energies among the four "corners," earth, water, air and fire, the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual, we come to give proper attention to the multiple aspects of our lives. Fourness can break us out of the dichotomies that twoness sometimes present us. Twoness can be a stark binary opposition: darkness/light, male/female, good/evil. Fourness is always more complicated. Fourness is like a table: for the table to stand, each of its four corners must be equally strong.

According to Howard Schwartz, three is the number of movement and dynamism, but four is the number of completeness. In his book, The Four Who Entered Paradise, Schwartz retells the Talmudic story in which four great sages journey to the garden of Eden, which is also the garden of Torah interpretation. Like the four winds, each sage meets with a different fate. Only one emerges whole. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, quotes the same story to show the power of mythic imagination to present us with quests of the spirit. When we imagine ¸fourness,” there is often one of the four that presents itself to us as the right choice for that moment. Exploring fourness can also be a quest to learn how to find our proper corner, our appropriate energy, in the moment.

The image of four separate entities gathered together, the way we gather the four fringes of the tallit during certain prayers, compels us for reasons too deeply embedded for us to understand on a rational level, and allows us a moment of peace and unity. Like other cultures from the Celts to the Navajo, Judaism honors the four elements and directions as sources of power and healing. Jewish shamans like Gershon Winkler use the four winds and directions in their healing work, and the Jewish renewal movement keeps an awareness of the four worlds in its prayer and meditation work. Others, like Rabbi Goldie Milgrom, use the four worlds as a way to conceptualize and plan ritual events. And some Jews use the four worlds to stand for various spiritual energies during their rituals, just as other earth-based ritual-makers do. The articles in this section relate in some way to the fourfold structures of the world.

Jill Hammer

Earth Assiyah/doing Nefesh/life-force Raphael Rachel David
Water Yetzirah/feeling Ruach/emotional being Michael Sarah Abraham
Air Briah/thinking Neshama/mind-soul Uriel Leah Jacob
Fire Atzilut/existing Chayah/Divine spark Gabriel Rebekah Isaac


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