According to Kabbalah, the Universe is consisted of a combination of four basic elements: fire, air, water and earth.
Every material and spiritual being consists of a unique combination of these four elements. Each of the four basic elements of the material world has fundamental characteristics, which are expressed, for instance, in its gravitational pull, temperature, state of mass, molecular density, dissemination and motion in space and so forth. Thus these basic elements are clearly much more fundamental than the elements on Mendeleev's Periodic Table, which is used in chemistry.
The behavior of the basic elements in the physical dimension also teaches us about their characteristics in the spiritual dimension, as well as their appearance and activity in the human mental forces.
The four basic elements of fire, air, water and earth are mentioned in the early Kabbalah literature. The ancient sources in which the elements are mentioned include:The Book of Zohar
(Part 2, page 23, 2; page 254, 2; Part 3, page 225, 1 and elsewhere). In the Book of the Zohar, the four basic elements are mentioned in the context of the creation of Adam - the first human, referring to the parallels between these elements and the four corners of the earth, the four ministering angels (Raphael, Uriel, Michael and Gabriel) and more. A fascinating association noted in the Book of the Zohar is that between the four basic elements and the four Kabbalists who entered the orchard – the Pardes
(as told in the Hagigah
Tractate of the Talmud) – the Zohar explains that each of the Kabbalah sages was drawn to his origins in one of the four basic elements. According to the Talmud, only Rabbi Akiva, whose origins lay in the element of water, managed to leave the mystical orchard (Pardes
) safely.In the ancient text of the Midrash
(Bamidbar Rabbah, chapter 14) the four elements are mentioned in the description of the order of their place in creation, above one another. This appears in the chapter on the gifts presented by the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel at the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert.
Maimonides provides an extensive discussion of the four basic elements and their interrelationships on the physical plane, interfacing with the spiritual plane, in the Book of Science
(Laws of the foundations of Torah
, end of chapter 3 and beginning of chapter 4).The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzira),
the earliest of the Kabbalah texts, lists only three basic elements – fire, air and water – as the essential elements. The element of earth is only mentioned in the later literature mentioned above. In his book, The Orchard of Pomegranates
(Portal 11, chapter 3), the 16th Century Tzfat Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero presents an example that may explain why the element of earth is mentioned and "revealed" only later: water in a pot near fire, with the air in between. After the water is heated, bits of earth (scale) develop, which emerge as the element of earth.The Hassidic teachings
(the Book of Ma'amarim
5743 – 1983) tell us that the three elements – fire, air and water – are parallel to the Sefirot of kindness, Severity and Beauty. These include the Sefira of kingship, which is hidden in them and discovered only later.
A parallel is also drawn with the Divine Chariot
– the 'Merkavah
' (as described by the Prophet Ezekiel), which is essentially composed of the three Fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who constitute the three 'legs' of the Chariot
, and represent the Sefirot of kindness, Severity and Beauty. A fourth leg was added to the Chariot
only later, in the form of King David, who represents the Sefira of kingship.In the book of Tanya
(chapter 1), the four basic elements are mentioned as the origin of the unfavorable characteristics of the natural-animal soul of the human: fire is the source of anger and pride; water is the source of persecution after physical pleasures; air is the source of foolishness, idol talk, and boasting and earth is the source of depression, laziness and heaviness.
In contrast, the Tanya
also describes the presence of the four basic elements in the higher, divine soul and in the intellectual soul (chapter 3, Igeret HaKodessh chapter 15 and elsewhere).
In the spiritual work of the divine soul, the element of fire is the source of spiritual enthusiasm, love and passion for G-dliness. Water is the source of mental and spiritual devotion in divine study, and the source of higher love: the joyful love of G-d. The element of air is the source of speech in the inner dimensions of the Torah – in the higher worlds, and of the spiritual meditation, contemplation and intention in praying. Earth is the source of the feeling of self nullification before the divine presence, and it symbolizes the stability of spiritual growth.