The Four Worlds
During the course of the history of Kabbalah, other “worlds” have been referred to, in addition to the world of the Sefirot, that came into being as a result of atzilut. The most prevalent of these descriptions speaks of four levels of worlds. The highest is the world of emanation (atzilut), the next is the world of Creation (beriah), followed by the world of formation (yetzirah), and culminating in the world of “action” (asiyah).
There is not a uniform way in which these worlds are spoken of in Kabbalistic works through the centuries. Various Kabbalists presented them differently, but they tended to crystallize in certain formulations.
Rabbi Azriel of Gerona spoke of the levels of beriah, yetzirah, and asiyah. In his description, they exist within the realm of atzilut. By the time of the Zohar and particularly Tikkunei Zohar, they are described as separate worlds. Rabbi Isaac of Acco in the early fourteenth century elaborates upon the details of the four worlds to a much greater extent than previous Kabbalists.
Isaiah is the foundational proof text for the existence of the four worlds. It reads as follows: “All that is called by My Name, for my Kavod [Glory] I created it, I formed it, yea I have made it” (43:7). The word asiyah means both “making” and “acting.”
Sefirot upon Sefirot
Each of the four worlds is also composed of ten Sefirot. There are descriptions of Adam Kadmon existing in all four worlds also. Moshe Cordovero and Lurianic Kabbalah go into even greater detail concerning the four worlds. Cordovero devotes a substantial section of Pardes Rimonim to a discussion of the four worlds. He begins by saying that he will explain the fact that in the words of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai, traditionally believed to be the author of the Zohar and Tikkunei Zohar), we read numerous times about the Ten Sefirot of atzilut, beriah, yetzirah, and asiyah. Cordovero adds that this seems to contradict the earlier section in Pardes Rimonim, on the fact that there are “ten [Sefirot] and not nine, ten and not eleven.”
Formation, Action, and Human Experience
The world of yetzirah (formation) is the world of the Merkavah (the divine chariot) and of the higher angels, the most important of which is Metatron. Asiyah (the world of action) is the realm of the lower angels. The world of asiyah sometimes includes the earthly realm in which we live, but in some formulations it does not.
Some Kabbalists divide the four worlds into aspects of human experience in ascending order: action (asiyah), emotion (yetzirah), intellect (beriah), and spirit/soul (atzilut). Each letter of YHVH also has been described as related to a different world with the letter yud as atzilut, and so on.
The doctrine of the four worlds essentially describes the process of Creation in an increasingly intricate way. It also conveys a more pronounced sense of distance between humans and God.