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
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.