How can God be defined? It cannot. To define
ultimate reality would be to deny and desecrate
its infinity. Though language brazenly insists
on extending the semantic realm, God escapes its noisy
clutches again and again.
The mystics, who celebrate divine ineffability, are
quite comfortable with a God who refuses to be trapped
by language. Yet even they need to refer to this nameless
one-at least to communicate their awareness to others.
to express a bit of what they have uncovered. One of
their favorite strategies is to call God "Nothing." We
hear this paradoxical divine epithet in the East and the
West: Meister Eckhart's Nichts, St. John of the Cross'
nada, the Taoist wu, and the Buddhist sunyata and mu.
I will focus here on the Jewish mystical concept of ayzn,
"nothingness." Ayzn is first found in medieval Kabbalah
as a theological concept. Later, in Hasidism, its psycho-
logical significance is emphasized and ayin becomes a
medium for self-transformation.
The word nothingness connotes negativity and non-
being, but what the mystic means by divine nothingness
is that God is greater than any thing one can imagine:
it is like no thing. Since God's being is incomprehensible
and ineffable, the least offensive and most accurate
description one can offer is, paradoxically, nothing
David ben Abraham ha-Lavan, a fourteenth-century
kabbalist, insists that "nothingness [ayzn] is more existent
than all the being [yesh] of the world." David's mystical
Christian contemporaries concur. The Byzantine theo-
logian Gregory Palamas writes, "He is not being, if that
which is not God is being." Meister Eckhart says,
"God's Nichts fills the entire world; His something,
though, is nowhere."
The kabbalists did not invent this negative style of
theology. Philo taught that God is unknowable and
indefinable. The Gnostics address the hidden God as
Daniel Matt is associate professor at the Center for Jewish
Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California and
the author of Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, Paulist
Press, 1984. This article is condensed from a forthcoming book
"ineffable, inexpressible, nameable by silence." Trying
to outdo his predecessors, the Alexandrian Gnostic
Basilides states that even the word "ineffable" says too
much. God "is not even ineffable," but rather totally
"nameless and nonexistent." Another Gnostic explains
this final negation: "Nor is he something that exists,
that one could know. But he is something else . . . that
is better, whom one cannot know.. . . He has nonbeing
existence." The mystical philosopher Plotinus attacked
the Gnostics, but he too maintains that the One surpasses
our most basic and cherished categories: "Even being
cannot be there."
John Scotus Erigena, a ninth-century Christian mys-
tic influenced by Plotinus, was perhaps the first to
apply the term "nothing" to God. Writing in Latin, he
calls God nihil, by which he means not the lack but the
transcendence of being. Because of "the ineffable, in-
comprehensible and inaccessible brilliance of the divine
goodness . . . it is not improperly called 'nothing.'" For
John, creation out of nothing, ex nihzlo, means the pro-
cession of differentiated being out of divine nothingness.
In its essence, the divine is said not to be, but as it
proceeds through the primordial causes, it becomes all
that is. "Every visible creature can be called a theophany,
that is, a divine appearance." Medieval Christian mystics
who speak of divine nothingness, such as Meister Eckhart
and Jacob Boehme, are indebted to John Scotus.
The kabbalists may also have been influenced by
John Scotus, but their immediate teacher in the field of
negative theology was Moses Maimonides. Building on
the Islamic philosophers Alfarabi and Avicenna,
Maimonides taught that God has nothing in common
with any other being. God "exists but not through
existence," he wrote in Guide for the Perplexed. In fact,
Maimonides developed an entire system of negative
attributes and encouraged his readers to discover what
God is not: Know that the description of God . . . by means of
negations is the correct description.. . . You come
nearer to the apprehension of Him with every
increase in the negations regarding Him.
The Jewish mystics adopted Maimonides' theory of
negative attributes, at least as it pertains to the infinite
nature of God. The thirteenth-century kabbalist Azriel
of Gerona notes the similarity between the mystical
and philosophical approaches: "The scholars of inquiry
[philosophers] agree with the statement that our com-
prehension is solely by means of 'no.'"
The very strategy of negation provides a means of
indicating the ineffable. Negative attributes carve away
all that is false and leave us with a positive sense of
nothingness. Here the mystics claim to surpass the
philosophers. Joseph Gikatilla exclaims: "How hard
they toiled and exerted themselves-those who in-
tended to speak of negation; yet they did not know the
site of negation!" Ayin is revealed as the only name
appropriate to the divine essence.
What the mystic means by divine
nothingness is that God is greater
than any thing one can imagine.
This reevaluation of nothingness is bolstered by the
intentional misreading of various biblical verses in
which the word ayin appears. In biblical Hebrew ayin
can mean "where," as in Job's rhetorical question
(28:12): "Where [me-ayin] is wisdom to be found?"
The first kabbalists of the thirteenth century transform
this question into a mystical formula: "Wisdom emerges
out of nothingness." Asher ben David writes, "The
inner power is called ayin because neither thought nor
reflection grasps it. Concerning this, Job said, 'Wisdom
emerges out of ayin."' As Bahya ben Asher puts it, the
verse should be understood "not as a question but as
an announcement." Refracted through a mystical lens,
Job's question yields its own startling answer. In the
words of Joseph Gikatilla,
The depth of primordial being . . . is called ayin.. . .
If one asks, "What is it?" the answer is, "Ayin," that
is, no one can understand anything about it.. . . It is
negated of every conception.
The kabbalists identified ayin with keter 'elyon ("su-
pernal crown"), the first of the ten sefirot, the stages of
divine being. Moses de Leon explains this identification
and then draws an analogy between divine and human
Keter 'elyon is . . . the totality of all existence, and
all have wearied in their search for it.. . . The belt of
every wise person is burst by it, for it . . . brings all
into being.. . . Anything sealed and concealed, to-
tally unknown to anyone, is called ayin, meaning
that no one knows anything about it. Similarly, no
one knows anything at all about the human soul;
she stands in the status of nothingness, as it is said
[Ecclesiastes 3: 191: "The advantage of the human
over the beast is ayin"! By means of this soul, the
human being obtains an advantage over all other
creatures and the glory of that which is called ayin.
God and the human soul share an infinite, inherent
indeterminacy. If the human soul could be defined, it
would lose its divine likeness. By our nature, we partic-
ipate in ayin, or the kabbalist, one of the deepest mysteries is
the transition from ayin to yesh, from "nothing"
to "something." Following in the footsteps of
John Scotus and others, they have reinterpreted cre-
ation ex nihilo as emanation from the hidden essence of
God. There is a "something" that emerges from "noth-
ing," but the nothing is brimming with overwhelming
divine reality. The something is not a physical object
but rather the first ray of divine wisdom, which, as Job
indicates, comes into being out of ayin. It is the primor-
dial point that initiates the unfolding of God. In the
words of the Zohar (1:15a):
The flow broke through and did not break through
It was not known at all
until, under the impact of breaking through,
one high and hidden point shone.
Beyond that point, nothing is known.
So it is called Beginning.
The opening words of Genesis, "In the beginning,"
allude to this first point, which is the second sefirah,
divine wisdom. Though second, it "appears to be the
first" and is called "beginning" because the first sefirah,
ayin, is unknowable and uncountable. In the words of
Moses de Leon, the point is "the beginning of existence."
When that which is hidden and concealed arouses
itself to existence, it produces at first something the
size of the point of a needle; afterwards, it produces
everything from th'ire.. . . This is the primordial
wisdom emerging from ayin.
The transition from ayin to ye& is the decisive act of
creation, the real context of Genesis. As time proceeds,
nothingness serves as the medium of each transforma-
tion, of every birth and death. Ayin represents the
entirety of potential forms that can inhere in matter,
each one "invisible until its moment of innovation,"
when it issues as a pool spreading out from a spring.
As matter adopts new forms, it passes through ayin;
thus the world is constantly renewed. In the words of
one kabbalist, "Form is stripped away by the power of
ayin." In every change, in each gap of existence, the
abyss of nothingness is crossed and becomes visible for
a fleeting moment.
The mystic yearns for this depth of being, this form-
less source of all form. Though humans "walk in the
multiplicityn of the material world, "one who ascends
from the forms to the root must gather the multiplicity
. . . for the root extends through every form that arises
from it at any time. When the forms are destroyed, the
root is not destroyed."
Can one know this reality beyond forms? Only by
unknowing or, in the words of David ben Judah he-
Hasid, "forgetting" :
The Cause of Causes . . . is a place to which forget-
ting and oblivion pertain.. . . Why? Because con-
cerning all the levels and sources [the sefiot], one
can search out their reality from the depth of super-
nal wisdom. From there it is possible to understand
one thing from another. However, concerning the
Cause of Causes, there is no aspect anywhere to
search or probe; nothing can be known of It, for It
is hidden'and concealed in the mystery of absolute
nothingness. Therefore forgetting pertains to the
comprehension of this place. So open your eyes and
see this great, awesome secret. Happy is one whose
eyes shine from this secret, in this world and the
world that is coming!
The sefirot are stages of contemplative ascent; each
one serves as a focus of mystical search. In tracing the
reality of each sefirah, the mystic uncovers layers of
being within himself and throughout the cosmos. How-
ever, there is a higher level, a deeper realm, beyond this
step-by-step approach. At the ultimate stage the kab-
balist no longer differentiates one thing from another.
Conceptual thought, with all its distinctions and con-
nections, dissolves. Ezra and Azriel of Gerona call the
highest sefirah "the annihilation of thought" (afisat ha-
mahshavah): "Thought . . . rises to contemplate its own
innerness until its power of comprehension is annihi-
lated." Here the mystic cannot grasp for knowledge;
rather, he imbibes from the source to which he is
joined. In the words of Isaac the Blind, "The inner,
subtle essences can be contemplated only by sucking
. . . not by knowing."
Ayin cannot be known. If one searches too eagerly
and pursues it, one will be overtaken by it, sucked in
by the vortex. Ezra of Gerona warns:
Thought cannot ascend higher than its source [the
sefiah of wisdom]. Whoever dares to contemplate
that to which thought cannot extend or ascend will
suffer one of two consequences: either he will con-
fuse his mind and destroy his body or, because of
his mental obsession to grasp what he cannot, his
soul will ascend and be severed [from the body]
and return to her root.
Isaac of Akko balances the positive and negative
aspects of the experience of return. He describes de-
vequt ("cleaving" to God) as "pouring a jug of water
into a flowing spring, so that all becomes one," yet he
warns his reader not to sink in the ocean of the highest
sefirah: "The endeavor should be to contemplate but to
escape drowning.. . . Your soul shall indeed see the
divine light and cleave to it while dwelling in her
The mystic is vulnerable. Moreover, she is responsi-
ble for the divine emanation. She must ensure that the
sefirot themselves do not collapse back into nothing-
ness. Through righteous action the human being stimu-
lates and maintains the flow of emanation; wrongdoing,
on the other hand, can have disastrous effects: "One
who sins returns the attributes to ayin, to the primor-
dial world, to their original state of being, and they no
longer emanate goodness down to the lower world."
The depths of nothingness are both a lurking danger
and a reservoir of power. "Out of the depths I call you,
YHVH." Mystically understood, this verse from Psalms
(130: 1) describes a human cry not from one's own state
of despair but to the divine depths in which God lies
hiding, from which God can be called forth. This is not
to deny the reality of human suffering. On the contrary,
adversity leads one to appreciate the resources of ayin.
"Human beings must quickly grasp this sefirah to secure
healing for every trouble and malady, as it is written
[Psalm 121:l.l: 'I lift up my eyes to the mountains; my
help comes from ayin.'"
I n eighteenth-century Hasidism, the kabbalistic
material is recast and psychologized; now the
experiential aspect of ayin becomes prominent.
The emphasis is no longer on the sefirot, the inner
workings of divinity, but on how to perceive the world
mystically and how to transform the ego. Dov Baer, the
Maggid ("preacher") of Mezritch, encourages his fol-
lowers to change aniy ("I") into ayin, to dissolve the
separate ego in nothingness. As we shall see, this is not
a destructive but rather a dialectical and ultimately
creative process. According to Dov Baer:
One must think of oneself as ayin and forget oneself
totally.. . . Then one can transcend time, rising to
the world of thought, where all is equal: life and death, ocean and dry land.. . . Such is not the case
when one is attached to the material nature of this
world.. . . If one thinks of oneself as something . . ,
God cannot clothe Himself in him, for He is in-
finite, and no vessel can contain Him, unless one
thinks of oneself as ayin.
We must shed the illusion that we are separate from
God. To defend an independent sense of self is a sign
of false pride. True humility involves the consciousness
of ayin. In the words of Issachar Ber of Zlotshov:
The essence of the worship of God and of all the
mitzvot is to attain the state of humility, namely . , .
to understand that all one's physical and mental
powers and one's essential being are dependent on
the divine elements within. One is simply a channel
for the divine attributes. One attains such humility
through the awe of God's vastness, through realizing
that there is no place empty of Him. Then one
comes to the state of ayin, which is the state of
humility.. . . One has no independent self and is
contained, as it were, in the Creator.. . . This is the
meaning of the verse [Exodus 3:6]: "Moses hid his
face, for he was in awe.. . ." Through his experience
of awe, Moses attained the hiding of his face, that
is, he perceived no independent self. Everything
was part of divinity!
The experience of nothingness does not induce a
blank stare; it engenders new mental life through a
rhythm of annihilation and thinking.
turn away from that [prior] object [of thought] totally
As long as the human ego refuses to
acknowledge its divine source, it is
mistaking its part for the all and
laying false claim to that which
cannot be grasped.
to the place called 'nothingness,' and then a new topic
comes to mind. Thus transformation comes about only
by passing through nothingness." In the words of one
of the Maggid's disciples, "When one attains the level
of . . . gazing at ayzn, one's intellect is annihilated.. . .
Afterwards, when one returns to the intellect, it is filled
with emanation." The creative' pool of nothingness is
described as the "preconscious" (qadmut ha-sekhet),
that which precedes, surpasses, and inspires both lan-
guage and thought. According to Dov Baer:
Thought requires the preconscious, which rouses
thought to think. This preconscious cannot be
grasped.. . . Thought is contained in letters, which
are vessels, while the preconscious is beyond the
letters, beyond the capacity of the vessels. This is
the meaning of: "Wisdom emerges out of nothing-
The mystic is expected to trace each thought, each
word, each material object back to its source in ayin.
The world no longer appears as essentially distinct from
God. In the Habad school of Hasidism acosmism has
become a fundamental teaching: "This is the foundation
of the entire Torah: that yesh [the apparent "something-
ness" of the world1 be annihilated into avin." "The
purpose of the creation of the worlds from ayin to ye&
was that they be transformed from yesh to ayinqhis
transformation is realized through contemplative action:
"In everything they do, even physical acts such as eating,
the righteous raise the holy sparks, from the food or
any other object. They thus transform yesh to ayzn."
his mystical perspective is neither nihilistic nor
anarchic. Matter is not destroyed or negated,
but rather enlivened and revitalized. The aware-
ness that divine energy underlies material existence
increases the flow from the source (ayin) to its manifes-
tation (yesh). Dov Baer explains:
When one gazes at an object, he brings blessing to
it. For when one contemplates that object, he knows
that it is . . . really absolutely nothing without divin-
ity permeating it.. . . By means of this contempla-
tion, one draws greater vitality to that object from
divinity, from the source of life, since he binds that
thing to absolute ayin, from which all beings have
been hewn.. . . On the other hand . . . if one looks at
that object . . . and makes it into a separate thing . . .
by his look, that thing is cut off from its divine root
World, mind, and self dissolve momentarily in ayin
and then reemerge. Ayin is not the goal in itself; it is
the moment of transformation from being through
nonbeing to new being. The Maggid conveys this
thought with the image of the seed that disintegrates
When one sows a single seed, it cannot sprout and
produce many seeds until its existence is nullified.
Then it is raised to its root and can receive more
than a single dimension of its existence. There in its
root the seed itself becomes the source of many
Ayin is the root of all things, and "when one brings
anything to its root, one can transform it." "First [each
thing] must arrive at the level of ayin; only then can it
become something else." Nothingness embraces all po-
tentiality. Every birth and rebirth must navigate the
depths of ayin, as when a chick emerges from an egg:
for a moment "it is neither chick nor egg." As long as
the human ego refuses to acknowledge its divine source,
it is mistaking its part for the all and laying false claim
to that which cannot be grasped. In the words of
Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, "The I is a thief in hiding."
When this apparently separate self is ayinized, the
effect is not total extinction, but the emergence of a
new form, a more perfectly human image of the divine.
Only when "one's existence is nullified . . . is one called
Ayin is a window on the oneness that underlies and
undermines the manifold appearance of the world. The
ten thousand things we encounter are not as indepen-
dent or fragmented as they seem. There is an invisible
matrix, a swirl that generates and recycles being. One
who ventures into this depth must be prepared to
surrender what he knows and is, what he knew and
was. The ego cannot abide ayin; you cannot wallow in
nothingness. In ayin, for an eternal moment, bound-
aries disappear. Ayin's "no" clears everything away,
making room for a new "yes," a new yesh.
Our familiar and confining images of God vanish in
ayin. This ''Nichts of the Jews," writes the poet Henry
Vaughan, exposes "the naked divinity without a cover."
Ayin implies the God beyond God, the power that is
closer and further than what we call "God." It sym-
bolizes the fullness of being that transcends being
itself, "the mysterious palace of ayin, in which every-
thing dwells." The reality that animates and surpasses
all things cannot be captured or named, but by invok-
ing ayin the mystic is able to allude to the infinite, to
ale/ the ineffable.