As the representative of Solomon, King of Israel, the Presiding officer of a Council of Select Masters has the duty of reciting the secret tradition. There is nothing in the ritual of Cryptic Masonry that explicitly tells us what this secret tradition is, but there is much in the symbolism of the degrees and certain phrases and Scriptural readings in our ceremonies which hint at what it might be. Appropriately, these suggestions point at the secret tradition of Israel, of which King Solomon was undeniably a true Master. This tradition is known as the Kabbalah, and many Masonic scholars throughout the centuries have found it to be a likely source for many of the signs, emblems and symbols of the allegories and rituals of Freemasonry. It is in the Cryptic Degrees that I believe we can find relatively clear indications that point to the Kabbalah as the secret tradition from which our symbolism is drawn.
The Jewish mystical and contemplative tradition, as compiled in written works from the Late Middles Ages to the present, is generally known under the label “Kabbalah”, a Hebrew word literally meaning “Reception”, and connoting an unwritten tradition of wisdom that was – according to the legendary history – received at Mount Sinai by Moses to accompany the Written Law. This was particularly necessary after Moses broke the tablets of the original Law due to the incident of the Golden Calf, and returned with a second law, traditionally said to be in two parts: the Written Law, being the Ten Commandments and other rules and edicts of the Written Torah, and an Oral Law to be communicated to the worthy by a method known in Freemasonry as “mouth-to-ear”. This Oral Law is the key to the Written Law, and itself was comprised of several parts, including the keys to interpreting and applying the statutes of the Divine Law in everyday life (later formulated into the Talmud), and the secret tradition, which was the mystical secrets of God’s relationship to Man, the secrets of Creation, and included contemplative traditions such as the methods by which the worthy could achieve prophecy.
The so-called “Secret Tradition” of Judaism has undergone several manifestations over the millennia of the history of the Children of Israel. As has been noted, it has – like Freemasonry – a legendary history, and these legends have clearly informed Masonic tradition in a number of cases over the centuries. According to Jewish legend, the first transmissions of a secret tradition were given to Adam after his removal from the Garden of Eden, and took the form of instruction imparted to him by angels. Adam, in turn, passed this wisdom along to his descendents. This wisdom imparted to Adam & his descendents the gift of prophecy, and it was this Divine endowment that was passed along to, and preserved by, Noah and his sons through the Deluge. Through these, the tradition continued and was transmitted to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and – through Jacob’s Blessing – on to the Tribes of Israel.
Most notable of these was the tribe of Levi, which kept the study alive in the Captivity in Egypt, and from which tribe was born Moses and Aaron. From thence begins the Biblical narrative and the written accounts of the Prophets, Priests, Kings, and Scribes – and, ultimately, the Rabbis – of Israel. Many of these legendary elements of the transmission of the Jewish secret tradition (as well as of the knowledge of such arts and sciences as geometry, metalworking, music, and weaving) have many interesting parallels in early accounts of Masonic history and tradition, such as the Cooke manuscript and the Gothic Constitutions. Most interesting from a Masonic perspective, are the roles played by Enoch and Melchizedek in many accounts of both traditions.
While the legendary elements are worthy of some study in their own right, the purpose of this essay is to point out the practical parallels between Cryptic Masonry and the actual Secret Tradition of Israel. The Kabbalah is noted for two particular emblematic models which provide the structure for categorizing a broad spectrum of religious, mystical, and cosmological information. They are the Tetragrammaton and the Tree of Life (“Etz Chaim”, in Hebrew). The Tetragrammaton should be well known, at least in it’s form, to both York and Scottish Rite Masons, while the Tree of Life is overtly mentioned – as a informational model – only in some jurisdictions of the Scottish Rite. It is, however, the belief of many Masonic theorists that references to Tree of Life symbolism abound in the symbolism of many Masonic degrees, particularly in those of the York Rite bodies of the Craft Lodge, the Chapter, and the Council. This work will point out what I believe to be clear manifestations of this symbolism in the Cryptic Degrees of Royal Master and Select Master, with a foundation in the Chapter, or Capitular, degrees.
A brief introduction to the Tree of Life is in order here. In the Kabbalistic literature, this phrase is the title of a particular diagram of ten particular phases or steps, the Hebrew word for which can be alternately – or, more significantly, simultaneously – translated as “numbers”, “writings” or “utterances”. These ten realms of influence are the “Landmarks” as it were, of the various stages by which the Creator, by His own Will, gradually concealed and restricted His Infinite Perfection, thereby allowing the finite and imperfect (or, rather, not yet perfect) realm of human existence to come into being. The names of the ten levels are, in sequence, Kether (“Crown”), Chokhmah (“Wisdom”), Binah (“Understanding”), Chesed (“Kindness” or “Mercy”), Geburah or Din (“Strength” or “Justice”), Tiphareth (“Beauty” or “Harmony”), Netzach (“Victory”), Hod (“Glory”), Yesod (“Foundation”), and Malkuth (“Kingdom”). Earlier
Tree of Life diagram
descriptions of these stages describe them as flowingconsecutively, like links in a chain, or the connected chambers of a long palace. The Tree of Life diagram, however, shows them arrayed in thee columns, with three levels of spheres arranged on these three pillars, originating from a single unified Beginning and culminating in a manifest physical End. The three columns represent two extremes emerging from, and reconciling in, balance and harmony. The Right Pillar is the extreme of expansive, beneficent influences, while the Left Pillar is the extreme of restrictive, disciplining influences. The Middle Pillar is both the source from which these extreme emanate, and by which they achieve equilibrium. The three levels are those of Soul, representing the Divine spark (Crown) extending into a ray of light or abstract information (Wisdom) which is then subjected by the beholder to analysis (Understanding); Mind, wherein the analytical process is applied internally or mentally, producing thesis (Mercy) antithesis (Strength) and synthesis (Beauty); and Body where the analytical process is applied externally or physically, producing an action (Victory) a reaction (Glory) and a preliminary, working result (Foundation); with the tenth level of Kingdom representing the unified functional whole in final application. In a Masonic context, it is significant to note two points. The first is that the three Pillars of the Tree of Life are labeled according to the central triad, and are denoted the Pillar of Mercy on the right, the Pillar of Strength or Justice on the left, and the Pillar of Beauty in the center – attributions that should be reminiscent of the initial lesson of the Select Master ceremony in which a single act enforces Justice on one Companion and extends Mercy to another, and which with one simple modification (naming the right pillar after its topmost stage), become the three Masonic Columns of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty. The second point is that the three Pillars multiplied by three levels is a particularly interesting manifestation of the phrase “Three Times Three”, with the Tree of Life diagram and its lower, middle, and upper triangles corresponding very closely to the tree triangles formed when Raising the Royal Arch (and the tenth & final level would be the Grand Omnific Word spoken under this arch). As these realms are considered to manifest on multiple levels, including within every human being, the three Grand Masters forming the Royal Arch – who would certainly embody the perfection of these states or stages – would be a further multiplication by three, producing the number twenty-seven.
The Tree of Life and all its significance within and without Masonry is a fruitful and recommended course of study for a Speculative Mason, and there are many sources available to pursue this study further. For the present, I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated that there certainly are very real and interesting parallels between Kabbalistic and Masonic symbolism, and these serve as a sound basis for a possible explanation of certain forms and ceremonies of the Cryptic Council. I will now return to my speculations.