What is “Ayn Sof”? Ayn Sof (variously spelled Ain Sof; Ein Sof; Ein Soph, etc.) is a Hebrew term meaning “Without End” or “Infinite”. When we speak of “Ayn Sof” we are speaking of “The Infinite One”. The term “Ayn Sof” itself never appears in the Scriptures, but other terms and phrases are used to tell us that YHWH is in fact “Ayn Sof”. Perhaps the best example is found in the Wisdom of Yeshua ben Sira who writes a lengthy description of all of the beauty of the creation (Sira 42:15-43:33) and concludes with this:
25 Therein are wonderful things, the marvels of his work.
Variety of all living; and the mighty ones of Rahab.
26 For his own sake, he makes his messenger to prosper--
And by his Word is his work fashioned.
27 There are many more things like these,
and we cannot exhaust them;
And the end of the matter is: He is the All.
Let us still magnify Him, for He is unserachable,
And He is greater than all His works.
29 He is Exceedingly wonderful.
And marvelous are His works.
30 You that magnify YHWH, raise your voice.
As much as you are able, for there is still more;
You that exalt him, renew strength.
And faint not, for you have not searched him out.
32 There is a multitude of hidden things beyond these,
[But] a few of his works I have truly seen;
33 All things has YHWH done,
And to his Set-Apart-Ones has He given knowledge.
(Ben Sira 43:26-33 HRV)
Notice verse 27 says “He is the All” in Hebrew he is “HaKal” the “everything”.
Now at first it may seem a simple matter to accept that YHWH is Ayn Sof (infinite), but this almost immediately leads to a philosophical dilemma.
If Elohim is infinite then he is “All,” He is “Everything.” If Elohim has no borders, then there is no border between what is Elohim and what is not Elohim, and that results in a sort of pantheism (the famous Jewish Philosopher Baruch Spinoza drew this conclusion).
Judaism resolves this dilemma with the act of tzimtzum. This was an initial act by which Ayn Sof contracted back onto Ayn Sof from all directions, creating a spherical area of emptiness in which to create the universe. Elohim then emanated from within Ayn Sof an emanation into the emptiness.
Ayn Sof, being beyond definition (definition being another word for border) is beyond human comprehension. Ayn Sof is therefore unknowable. In Judaism the unknowable Ayn Sof is contrasted with the Image of Elohim, which emanates from Ayn Sof and through which we can relate.
Aryeh Kaplan writes concerning this distinction:
"In general none of the names of God refer to … Ayn Sof, which means the Infinite Being, or simply, the Infinite. The names used in scripture and elsewhere merely refer to the various ways through which God manifests Himself in creation. The name Elohim, which is used throughout the first chapter of Genesis, refers to the manifestation of delineation and definition…. This is the significance to the Torah’s statement that God formed man “In the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Note that the word “God” here is Elohim. This is because man parallels the delineating forces that define creation.
(Sefer Yetzirah; p. 7-8)
The Zohar describes the difference between Ayn Sof and the Image of Elohim this way:
Before He gave any shape to the world, before He produced any form, He was alone, without form and without resemblance to anything else. Who then can comprehend how He was before the Creation? Hence it is forbidden to lend Him any form or similitude, or even to call Him by His sacred name, or to indicate Him by a single letter or a single point... But after He created the form of the Heavenly Man, He used him as a chariot wherein to descend, and He wishes to be called after His form, which is the sacred name "YHWH".
The First Century Jewish writer Philo also wrote of this distinction. On the one hand, he saw Elohim as beyond man and far removed from the finiteness of this universe. He refers to this concept in Greek as TO ON (that which exists) and TO ONTOS ON “that which alone truly exists”. This concept of Elohim is conceived as virtually outside this universe with no real contact with it. This unknowable Elohim appeared from Ex. 20:21.
At times this can create some miscommunication, because terms like YHWH and Elohim can be used to refer either to Ayn Sof, or to the Image of Elohim.
Likewise we use the same type of language in our own lives. Two men may be standing in a room. One may point at a picture on the wall of George Washington and say “That is George Washington.” And he would be completely correct. On the other hand the man next to him may say “No, that is not George Washington, that is only the image of George Washington.”
The Zohar (Zohar 1:22a) understands “US” and “OUR” to be reflected in the “male and female” image of Elohim mentioned in Gen. 1:27 and these are here referred to as “the Father” and “the Mother” just as YHWH is expressed as a Father (Mal. 1:6; Is. 63:16; 64:7) and as a Mother (Is. 66:13) in the Tanak. (YHWH as a “Mother” is the “Comforter in Is. 66:13 which is the Holy Spirit in Jn. 14:16-17, 27; 15:26; 16:7).
Whenever the Scriptures define Elohim with terms like “Father” (a Father is not infinite because a father is not a mother) or “Mother” (likewise a Mother is not infinite because a mother is not a father), it does not actually refer to Ayn Sof but to the Image of Ayn Sof.
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