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Tree of Life

Trees as Messianic Symbols


The Trees of Eden in Jewish Mysticim

by  Gershom Scholem

Spacer What do the two trees in Paradise represent in the Kabbalah? Already in biblical metaphor wisdom, identified by Jewish tradition with the Torah, is designated as the Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18); thus opening the whole realm of typology. The trees in Paradise are not merely physical trees; beyond this they point to a state of things which they represent symbolically.

Spacer In the opinion of the Jewish mystics, both trees are in essence one. They grow out into two directions from a common trunk. Genesis tells us that the Tree of Life stood in the center of Paradise, but it does not indicate the exact position of the Tree of Knowledge. The Kabbalists took this to mean that it had no special place of its own but sprouted together with the Tree of Life out of the common matrix of the divine world. The two trees are different aspects of the Torah, which have their common origin in revelation.

Spacer The Tree of Life represents that aspect which has hitherto been unrealizable because, due to the sin of Adam, it remained virtually hidden and inaccessible, and we do not know the taste of its fruits. The law which is concealed in the life of this tree is that of a creative force manifesting itself in infinite harmonies, a force which knows no limitations or boundaries. The paradisaic life under this law never came into being. The sin of Adam was that he isolated the Tree of Life from the Tree of Knowledge, to which he directed his desire.

Spacer Once the unity of the two trees in men's lives were destroyed, there began the dominion of the Tree of Knowledge. No longer did unitary gushing, unrestrained life prevail, but the duality of good and evil in which the Torah appears in this aspect of revelation. Since the expulsion from Paradise, in the exile in which we all now find ourselves, we can no longer perceive the world as a unified whole. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil under whose law the world now stands corresponds to a condition of this world in which distinctions must be made before the unity of life can be regained: the distinctions between good and evil, commandment and prohibition, holy and profane, pure and impure.

Spacer For the author of those sections of the Zohar the two trees were not only, as they were for other Kabbalists, symbols of the sefirot ( manifestations of God in Creation), the Tree of Knowledge representing the tenth and last sefirah. Beyond this they were models for two possible forms of life in the light of revelation. Of course, at the present only the one is tangible and capable of fulfillment. Precisely out of those very distinctions and limitations, man is to restore the lost form and the violated image of the divine in himself and thus bring the Tree of Knowledge, with which he is mystically associated, to its full development.

Spacer This Torah of the Tree of Knowledge is, however, nothing other than the world since the expulsion from Paradise. Only the redemption, breaking the dominion of exile, puts an end to the order of the Tree of Knowledge and restores the utopian order of the Tree of Life, in which the heart of life beats unconcealed and the isolation in which everything now finds itself is overcome. Thus the inner logic of this conception of the dominion of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the legitimate form of revelation in an unredeemed world had to regard the redemption itself as a return home to Paradise, where all things will again be in their true place.

Spacer Although it is not a matter of a physical return to a geographical Paradise, it is in any case life in a state of the world which corresponds to that of Paradise or in which Paradise, for its part, expands into the world. The Torah of the Messianic age will then be that of the Tree of Life, which no longer knows any of all those separations and limitations. This Torah is still revelation and, in Kabbalistic terms, an evolution of the divine name; but it has nothing further to do with the form under which we have known it until now. It is a utopian Torah for a utopian state of the world.

Spacer Gershom Scholem

Spacer Excerpt from 'The Messianic Idea in Judaism' 1971

Jewish Heritage Online Magazine/ Columns/ Judaica Art Gallery

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