The Differences Between Lurianic Kabbalah and Hermetic Kabbalah, Part 1

This is an informal post, not an academic treatise, so forgive any informal language or references to things that seem to lack reverence for the subject matter. I’m trying to explain this stuff as I would to a friend. I may also be wrong about any of it- this is just my take on the subject matter, and I am not a Hermetic.

It's also not a good introduction to Kabbalistic concepts for someone who has never encountered them or other mystical thought. To serve in that capacity is way beyond the scope of this article. If you're smart, attentive, and open-minded, however, you might get a decent overview. This article is mainly for people with at least passing familiarity with at least Hermetic Kabbalah. I'm sorry that I'm not a good enough writer to make it easier for everyone else.


My game, Tribute, is based on my understanding of Lurianic Kabbalah, rather than Gnostic, Christian, Hollywood, or Hermetic Kabbalah. I’ve studied it for almost 14 years, in order to write this game, which is still awaiting a final document. As of now, I have two different versions of the game that are playable, and am making my final decisions about which version to put out into the world.

These two different versions involve making the choice between an intricate and nuanced take on the subject matter that some, but not all, would consider unplayable and a more straightforward take that anyone can understand, but which might gloss some important Kabbalistic ideas. Despite a previous post that indicated I planned to go forward with the former, I am currently reconsidering the latter. A playable game that gets people curious might be more effective than a less easily understood one that turned part of the audience away. I had worried that the latter version wasn’t interesting enough, but it’s on me to make it interesting.

Today, I wanted to begin to talk about the kind of Kabbalah that Tribute’s based on, and to compare it with another, more well known version; the Hermetic Kabbalah used in the Western magical tradition; proponents of which include such groups and individuals as The Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. 

Lurianic Kabbalah is one school of traditional Jewish Mysticism, which cannot be separated from Torah; religious tradition and study.

I’m not going to speak about which one is true, or accurate, as I believe that they have different purposes. Lurianic Kabbalah is largely descriptive of a model of reality that practitioners are meant to work with and within, and my understanding of Hermetic Kabbalah is that it’s proscriptive-designed to be used to create results in the real world.  It’s almost like Lurianic Kabbalah is a reference, and Hermetic Kabbalah is a tool. They’re going to have to be configured differently.

That’s not to say that Lurianic Kabbalah has no practical use; there is a Lurianic oral tradition of “Practical Kabbalah”, that I admit I know little about.

But on to the differences. I admit I’m not fully versed in Hermetic Kabbalah, so there will be gaps.

A Tale of Two Trees

The first and most notable difference between the two traditions is that they each have their own version of the Tree of Life, a central glyph that describes the nature of creation and the forces at play in the universe. In the Lurianic view, it describes the process of creation that the Creator used, and uses every moment to sustain the world. It's a model of everything, and how the universe works. It's a pattern present in everything that exists- people, objects, ideas, emotions, processes,  and reality itself. Its the base code of the Matrix, except the characters are in Hebrew. When it's said that God made humanity in "his" image, this is the image.  By working on it and using it, in the Hermetic view, you can change reality. 

Here is the Hermetic Tree:

qbl_traditional_tree (1).gif


 Oddly, it is an earlier version of the Jewish Tree, minus the current path attributions (I don't think anyone agreed as to which letter should go where early on) but modern Lurianic Kabbalists prefer this one:



Both have 3 horizontal Paths, 12 diagonal, and 7 vertical paths, but the most obvious difference is that there is only one path to Malkuth in the Lurianic Tree. This is in keeping with Lurianic Kabbalah’s take on the second sephirah (circle) from the bottom’s role in creation. That sephirah, Yesod, is believed to serve as a translator for the forces of the higher sephirot, which are said to exist in the upper worlds, and Malkuth- the “Kingdom”, or world as we know it. To the Lurianic Tradition, the idea that Hod and Netzach could directly link to our world would make Yesod redundant, or at least cause problems. Yesod is the Foundation of our reality; the background pattern that supports our world. Connecting Hod and Netzach to the real world (Malkuth) permanently would be like creating a short circuit and would overwhelm our world with the raw and primal forces of the upper worlds. However, doing so intentionally, and in the framework of magical working, might be useful, and so it makes sense that the Hermetics prefer the former tree. This is just my guess on why they use it. 

It’s not just the placements of the paths that are different, though we’ll return to those in the next post. The Sephirot (spheres) actually take on different meanings in the two different systems. The further you go from Malkuth towards Kether, the larger the differences in interpretation.

I'll be discussing the sephirot from the bottom of the tree, Malkuth, up. Though in Kabbalistic thought, the energies of creation descend from Kether to Malkuth and back again. In Lurianic Kabbalah, our job here at the bottom is to send or reflect them back up the Tree. As a result, you may begin to perceive more of the Tree without ever leaving Malkuth in the phyiscal or even spiritual sense- you just become aware of the parts of your soul that are already on the higher levels. In Hermetic thought, it seems that the idea is to do much the same thing, but in a more directly involved way, and to "climb" the tree. 


This is our world, including what we can’t fully perceive about it, most of the time.

Malkuth is similar in Lurianic and Hermetic Traditions. It’s our world, plus a bit more. There’s magic, or divine presence here, but it’s hard to tap into. The Lurianic tradition calls this presence the Shekinah- the divine feminine principle, first manifested in Binah, and actualized in Malkuth. A hermetic might see it as linked to magic, and coincidence, and the flow of events that can be tapped into. I’d let one of them describe it a bit better. Either way, Malkuth holds all the forces of the upper sephirot, and balances them into what you see around you. You can get anywhere from here, eventually.

The Lurianic Tactical Sephirot

These three sephirot are concerned with tactics- doing something to achieve something else, in Lurianic Kabbalah.

Yesod is similar in both Lurianic and Hermetic Traditions, but this is where they start to significantly diverge. Yesod means foundation. In Lurianic Kabbalah, that means relationships- not just interpersonal, but between objects and forces. It represents things like the divine covenant between the Creator and the created. I and thou. In Hermetic Kabbalah as I understand it, Yesod is related to the Astral plane- a realm of ideas and concepts- patterns and thought. If it were a place, proximity or distance here would be determined by the relative similarity and interconnectedness between ideas. You can see, though that they are saying similar things, in different clothing. Pattern and relationship.  In Lurianic Kabbalah, this is the realm of Yetzirah, Formation- the place where ideas come together, before entering Malkuth, the World of Assiah, or action- reality.  

Hod, which means "splendor", "awe", or "acknowledgement", is where it gets tricky. In Lurianic Kabbalah, it is the realm of empathy, and making room for others; selflessness. A person who was very Hod focused would be humble, but perhaps a bit calculating. It’s said that it represents the times when the wicked prosper, only to face final judgment later. In teaching, it would be a teacher’s tendency to simplify and to compartmentalize the ideas so the student could understand them.  In the Hermetic Kabbalah, it is much more concerned with the compartmentalization aspect of this principle; things like systemizing animals, language, symbols, and any other way of getting a handle on a concept. It’s also considered a mental sephirot, and the “place” where most magic is done, according to my sources. Back in Lurianic Kabbalah, it is not considered mental- those sephirot are further up- but tactical. It represents giving ground to succeed, at least in my interpretation. Either way, Tribute itself is an exercise in Hod.

Netzach, in Lurianic Kabbalah, is “Victory” or “Endurance”; the ability to put yourself out there. Taking ground, or holding your ground to succeed. A Netzach oriented person would be noticed entering a room, and might dominate conversations. In Hermetic Kabbalah, (I believe) it’s more concerned with emotion and passions in general, and things that move you, like music, drives, or even atmosphere and drama in a ritual. I could be wrong.

The Emotional Sephirot in Lurianic Kabbalah

These are concerned with what humans would call the emotional aspects of the decision-making process in creation. 

Next, is Tiphareth, Beauty. In Lurianic Kabbalah, it is an integration of the two forces above it on the tree (Gevurah and Chesed), and all other forces it connects to. It's the great mediator. A Lurianic take on beauty is one that allows everything to exist, and doesn’t erase anything ,but integrates it into a whole. It’s considered focused compassion or peace. Helping someone who doesn’t strictly deserve it because you love them. In a work of art using black and white paints, it would be a painting with both black and white, but no grey- there’s no blending away of what something is in Tiphareth, instead you find its place and allow it to exist. Another example would be the Federation from Star Trek- every culture is honored, but they work together. It has connotations of balance and rectification/healing. I hope that all makes sense. I am honestly pretty weak on what Tiphareth is to the Hermetic tradition, but I know it has connotations of the higher self, and perhaps ultimate good that we strive for in our actions. Some have called it Christ consciousness, but that’s a bit of a different tradition. A Tiphareth person might be a peacemaker.

Gevurah (along with Chesed, the next sephirah) is one major point of agreement between the two traditions. I think that for gamers these two might be the easiest to understand. Gevurah is severity and might- the destructive, limiting force. The ability to say no, in a number of ways. It’s punishment, defense, and destruction. There is nuance between the two traditions, but if you want to attack, defend, or even limit something, we’re talking about Gevurah. A Gevurah person would be harsh and judgmental, but hold themselves to the same unforgiving standard.

Chesed (lovingkindness), or sometimes “Gedulah”, which means "greatness" or "Largesse", is the opposite of Gevurah. It’s limitless giving, even to the undeserving. If Gevurah is a dictatorial despot, Chesed is the permissive king that gives away so much that the people have no reason to work for themselves. Want money? Have it. Want weapons to kill each other? Have them. Chesed is the power to say “Yes” to anything and everything. If Gevurah is defense and attacks, Chesed is where “Buffs” come from- those in game effects that boost your abilities way beyond what they should be. A Chesed person is giving, forgiving, and probably beloved. But if they go too far, they may overstep your boundaries, and assume too much good will. They grant themselves the same freedom they want for others, and this can be a problem.


This is not (usually) considered a sephirah, unless Kether is excluded as one, but is instead an emergent property of the tree, when all other sephirot have manifested.

Da’at means "knowledge", in the typical, and biblical senses, as in "Adam knew Eve". In that regard, it's like the "I see you" line from Avatar.  In Lurianic Tradition, it represents direct experience, or the reality/existence of something. It is considered a lower manifestation of Kether, above. It's what you're left with after a transcendent experience of Kether, and you return to the rest of your life. 

Da’at would be knowing that you can’t touch a hot burner because you viscerally remember doing it as a kid. It gets much more esoteric than that, especially when dealing with non-human frames, but that might be good enough for this post. In Hermetic Kabbalah, it seems to refer to a more specific experience one attains through the practice of magic. Direct Knowledge of the Godhead. It’s the “gold” in alchemy, as I understand it. The Lurianic take includes this, but I find it more generally applicable.

The Lurianic Supernal Sephirot

These are concerned with the mental realm of planning in Lurianic Tradition.

Binah (Understanding) is the first feminine principle in Lurianic Kabbalah. It’s on the same column as Gevurah, so it has a similar negative (not bad- negative, or "yin") role as that sephirot. It is called the mother of form, and covers inductive and deductive reasoning- inferring one thing from another. It is considered a womb where ideas gestate. It limits the final result by deciding exactly what it will become. It sort of says “Yes, but” to any good ideas that come from Chochmah, the next sephirot we’ll talk about. It’s not destructive, but it can seem so, much like a woman’s body rejecting a stillborn child can seem cruel. It works towards an ultimate good, finalizing a plan. In the Hermetic tradition, as I understand it, it seems to be much more concerned with time, and death, and is called the Dark Mother. From what I understand, finally understanding and accepting what Binah’s forces are really about, and why they’re necessary and ultimately good, is a big part of crossing “the Abyss”, the dark night of the soul. A binah person might be a stern but helpful administrator who finalizes a plan.

Chochmah (Wisdom) is divine inspiration, the eureka moment that comes out of nowhere, in Lurianic Tradition. It's the inspiring and great idea that you haven't gotten around to implementing. In less personified terms, it’s the potential of anything to be or become what it will be. It’s raw power and energy. This is one of the hardest sephirot to truly understand beyond this, as it’s very close to the ineffable Kether. Essentially, though, it’s the first possibility of manifestation. I don’t really know how Hermetics see it, other than akin to the Prime Sphere from Mage- ultimate power.

Kether (Crown) is the infinite point where the creator first makes contact with our reality and the point through which he limits himself/herself/itself to manifest our world and us. Though said to represent the will to create, and the divine pleasure of the creator, It’s considered ineffable, so the less you try to eff it, the better. An experience of Kether, though is one of oneness- dare I say identity- with the creator. Tribute uses it for the eponymous Tribute Key, that lets you transcend your limits and have a triumphant moment where the universe bows down to you. I’m in the weeds here regarding Hermetic tradition, but I venture that it’s similar there. Maybe it’s the final, not truly attainable stage of the Great Work. Once you get “here”, you keep going forever. It might look like you’ve attained perfection to others, but there’s always more.  Let me know if I’m off the mark.    

So that’s the difference between the two Trees of life as I understand them. In a future post I’ll talk about how the paths between these sephirot differ, and the importance of the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet in Lurianic Kabbalah.

A final Note

Any gendered terminology is used because it is part of the tradition I'm talking about. A true Kabbalist believes that the creator is beyond gender, and capable of manifesting either force.  There is no bearded man in the sky, but our feeble minds use simplistic ideas like that to explain things. 

Furthemore, the Sephirot are not seen as separate beings/gods in Lurianic Kabbalah- they are tools the creator chose to use. The system is only this way because he/she wants it to be, the rules are the rules of solitaire he or she decided upon, not the only way they could be.  Here on Earth, we have to live by them, in Kabbalistic thought, but they're not limitations to the Creator. Lurianic Kabbalah is monotheistic, and so sees sees intermediaries like pagan gods or even angels as to be avoided. This is another difference between Hermetic and Lurianic approaches. 

Thanks for reading.


The Playtest is dead, long live the Playtest.

So the playtest hasn't worked out the way I had hoped, and it's largely my own fault. If anyone actually playtested the documents I put out, I haven't gotten any reports. 

There are a couple of reasons for this that come down to my own mistakes. 

  1. The first document was a bit hard for people to understand. I perhaps didn't write it effectively. This is the version of the game I ran for my players in the crash test, and it was closer to modelling the Kabbalistic concepts than the next one was. It at least intrigued people, and there was a lot of discussion about this version. 
  2. In an effort to make the game more accessible, I dumbed it down. This took a lot of time (too long), as it was like taking a car apart and building a motorcycle from the parts. I didn't communicate well during this time, as I kept thinking it was "just a few more days" until it would be ready. 

In version 2, I changed things that I wasn't really happy changing in the interest of making the game more easily communicated, like changing the mechanical resolution-based Powers like "Counter" (each of which could serve as a core mechanic for a game), into what amounted to combat stances, like "Challenge". The perceived benefit of this on my part was that these stances became ways to model Burdens or liabilities; for example, when you have a Challenge as a factor, you have a handicap, as opposed to the Challenge Move, which amounts to an attack.

Version 2 was easily understood but didn't result in any real discussion. On another site, however, someone in the playtest thanked me for distilling the game, so it was read. This was heartening, but lack of further feedback or playtest reports soured me even more on this version. This is my own fault, of course- I'm not blaming anyone. It's my job to fire the readers and players up, and I didn't do that. 

Having my document be read and understood are good things, but without people playing or even caring about the game, it will never gain an audience. This is actually fine with me, but only if I myself am happy with the game.  In the months since version 2, there has been no activity on the Slack group, to the point that I'd have to start a new playtest if I wanted to have one. The response has been a big "Meh", including from myself. 

So, I'm developing the next version based on the original playtest version. Some Keys have changed as my understanding of the system and Kabbalah has advanced, but the core principles will be similar- the intro to the game will have multiple resolution systems in it, for use in various types of situations. Any of these will be useful as a core resolution system in a Tribute Spin that you make, and all of them might have uses in a raw version of the game, depending on the circumstances in play. In practice, it's not as overwhelming as it sounds. Things like armor or other ablative meters are generalized to the point that they can serve as a way to resolve a conflict, just as they are in other games; the difference in Tribute is that you can make this kind of thing into a core resolution mechanic, rather than a situational one, if you like.  

I'll try to do better to make the next version comprehensible, taking lessons I've learned from version 2. I'm exploring ways to simplify the toolkit aspects of the system as well, and avoiding overemphasis on the game's Kabbalistic roots that may lead to information overload. I'll put almost all of that stuff in an appendix, or separate document for the interested. If it makes sense when I have the revised rules written, I might make the whole game one document divided into sections for Aleph, Mem, and Tav. Whatever makes sense, and no promises as to the system's final form. 

I'm doing a private playtest, and plan to do a soft launch, or "open playtest" with my latest version. You'll be seeing that soon, on a geological scale, at least- it will most certainly be the next thing I do to update this site. I will likely adjust the Tribute Pitch page accordingly beforehand to be ready for putting the PDFs up for download.

I can give no firm deadline on this, but will go wide with promotion when I'm happy with it. I'm hoping for some time early in the New Year.  Historically, deadlines and Tribute development haven't been friends. Nearly 14 years fo work attests to that. 

Please remember, though, that Yetzriah Games is not a company, so expectations of promptness and "customer service" don't really apply. It's my personal site with potential for more at a later date. Thanks for understanding, and hopefully, good things will come out of this arrangement between those of you reading, and me. This comes with a caveat, however; the more feedback from people wanting the game I see, the more likely I am to put a fire under myself, while the converse is also true. Otherwise, it will happen on my own time. 

If you're still interested in Tribute, check in once in a while. I will be doing private playtesting, as mentioned, and if you want to see the current documents when they're ready, use the site's contact form and I'll get in touch. Thanks for reading. 

-R. Scott Kennan


The Tribute Playtest has begun

I've begun the playtest of Tribute Aleph, the first part of Tribute Source. Tribute Source is an Effects-based RPG design toolkit and series of related games. 

If you're interested, you can read more about it, and sign up for the playtest on this page.

If you've never been part of a playtest, be warned. The rules are not in their final form, and as of now, only the toolkit aspects of Tribute Aleph are ready for use. Like other toolkit engines like Fudge, you'll need to make some decisions to make it work. 

Thanks for reading. 


Tribute survives its Crash Test.

I ran the first full game of Tribute (Powers) ever, tonight. Tribute Powers is a specific Tribute Spin (version) of Tribute, one that only uses 10 Powers and the Experience Key rather than the full set of 33 Keys (modular rules bundles).  If you're interested, follow the link I posted for more information on Tribute. 

The players were Gregory and Sarah Connolly, and my son, Ethan Kennan. I've been working on the game for much of his life, so it was especially nice to run it for him. 

They were playing forces of nature/reality near the beginning of the universe. Greg was playing Faith, who is literally the concept of Faith, statted up, Sarah was Blaze, a hot-headed brava with a patience problem, and Ethan was playing Bandit; the iconic Trickster. 

Ethan's character Bandit was the first character ever to use the Tribute Mechanics for Limitless; an Effect that gives a state of being where all of the game's limits are removed, and you can essentially go nova; a spotlight moment. He used his to convince a tribe of people who were worshipping an evil goddess that the monsters that were attacking them worked for her. He did so by tearing a tattoo of her spider web sigil off of a monster, then enlarging it so the whole village could see it. This after creating a bit of a Rube Goldberg device to wake the village up and grab their attention. 

The idea for the adventure was that there were three factions:

  • The Weave, which was arguing about how to create the universe (even while much of it was already being created), 
  • The Void, which saw no point in creation, and tried to sabotage the whole thing. 
  • ...and The Cleave, who decided between them. It was because of their decision to side with the Void on an issue that Death came to exist. 

Blaze and Bandit were Weave faction, and Faith was Cleave Faction. The bad guys were all Void. 

The setup was this: they had formed a party, sent by the Weave and the Cleave to investigate a raging Void monster called "The Hunger", that was about to destroy a solar system that had a great destiny. Think Silver Surfer for the scale of this encounter. Cosmic Fantasy. 

stellar Nursery


A few issues; I used what I intended to be my boss fight as my first encounter, because of technical issues that delayed the game. We were playing over Skype and Fantasy Grounds

*I* also failed to use my own rules well, and the boss was one-shotted. It can happen. Blaze pumped a lot of Fuel into her attack, and I didn't have the monster Counter her attack, the way it should. Normally, you have a chance to reduce the impact of any incoming effects, and there are a few ways to do it. Since you only have a maximum of 10 health boxes, it's the smart way to fight. I didn't fight smart, and the monster was killed right away. I think I tried to use the wrong Power to avoid the damage. 

I did give Blaze some Tribute (for her Bank- to use later) for the one shot. 

I improvised a second adventure, with some cooperation from the players. This time they had to help a fledgling society that needed a code of Ethics. I figured I'd try some social mechanics, etc. I inserted an evil being calling herself a goddess to fill the role that the first "boss" monster was supposed to fill (An annexation problem), and the characters spied a bit, and found out her plan. She wanted them to give their souls to her, so she could use them for Fuel. That's a game term, but the idea should be straightforward.  They made their own Plan, and began to implement it. They tricked some of her minions into attacking a village, but swooped in before they could kill anyone. 

Bandit whipped up his Rube Goldberg device to wake the village, and get their attention Focused on him (an in-game Effect). 

Faith, invisibly, tripped up the bad guys, and kept them from attacking villagers (but not the PCs or property)- it was one Effect. 

Blaze blasted the big one with Fire, but it Countered, and was reduced to just under 1/2 health. 

The Monsters first attacked Blaze, and then Bandit. Blaze created a fire shield, and Bandit dodged. Neither was hurt. 

Bandit then pulled his tattoo-ripping stunt. The villagers truly understood that the monsters worked for their "goddess". 

The Monsters were taken out during this round.

We ended the session. The session was three hours, but the actual play time was about two hours, and a lot of it was explanations, and the characters making their Plan; said plan involves the Trickster writing the code of Ethics that these people will follow (since he's the best at making things). I can't wait to hear what it's like. 

We play next week to try to finish the adventure. We should get more done.  

I also found that I need some clarification on two things;

  1. What the mechanical differences between Annexing (taking) things , and Forging (incorporating and using them to justify your actions- i.e. MacGyvering) things are. They are different, but my explanation in the rules needs work. 
  2. What to do if you still have the Limitless Effect on you, but the Scene ends. I'm going to let you take Experience points equal to the number of Turns you would have been Limitless

I know some of this will mean virtually nothing to some of you, with the game terms for a game you haven't seen yet, but the point is, I ran a crash test, and the game didn't crash. It's ready for me to finish writing up the final playtest rules, which are about 90% done.  That means that sometime this week, I should open the playtest to a wider audience. We will be using Slack for that, and I'll post a link on the Tribute page when it's time. 

Thanks for reading.