The Great Myths #7: The Tree of Souls (Jewish)
God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise. The angel who sits beneath it is the Guardian of Paradise, and the tree is surrounded by the four winds of the world. From this tree blossom forth all souls, as it is said, “I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth from Me.” (Hos. 14:9). And from the roots of this tree sprout the souls of all the righteous ones whose names are inscribed there. When the souls grow ripe, they descend into the Treasury of Souls, where they are stored until they are called upon to be born. From this we learn that all souls are the fruit of the Holy One, blessed be He.
This Tree of Souls produces all the souls that have ever existed, or will ever exist. And when the last souls descends, the world as we know it will come to an end.
[Commentary:] Rabbinic and Kabbalistic texts speculate that the origin of souls is somewhere in heaven. This myth provides the heavenly origin of souls, and in itself fuses many traditions. First, it develops themes based on the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. It also builds on the tradition that just as there is an earthly Garden of Eden, so is there a heavenly one, as expressed in the principle, “as above, so below.” Just as there is a Tree of Life in the earthly garden, so there is a Tree of Life in the heavenly one.
Had Adam and Eve tasted the fruit of the earthly Tree of Life, they would have been immortal. But once they had tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, immortality was closed to them. Therefore He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24).
As for the Tree of Life in Paradise, its blossoms are souls. It produces new souls, which ripen, and then fall from the tree into the Guf, the Treasury of Souls in Paradise. There the soul is stored until the angel Gabriel reaches into the treasury and takes out the first soul that comes into his hand. After that, Lailah, the Angel of Conception, guards over the embryo until it is born. Thus the Tree of Life in Paradise is a Tree of Souls….
Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari, believed that trees were resting places for souls, and performed a tree ritual in the month of Nisan, when trees are budding. He felt that this was the right time to participate in the rescue of wandering spirits, incarnated into lower life forms. The Ari often took his students out into nature to teach them there. On one such occasion, upon raising his eyes, he saw all the trees people with countless spirits, and he asked them, “Why have you gathered here?” They replied, “We did not repent during our lifetime. We have heard about you, that you can heal and mend us.” And the Ari promised to help them. The disciples saw him in conversation, but they were not aware of with whom he conversed. Later they asked him about it, and he replied, “If you had been able to see them, you would have been shocked to see the crowds of spirits in the trees.”
The core text of this myth comes from Ha-Nefesh ha-Hakhamah by Moses de Leon (Spain, 13th century) who is generally recognized as the primary authors of the Zohar. It is possible that de Leon symbolically identified the Tree of Souls with the kabbalistic “tree” of the ten sefirot. Tikkunei Zohar speaks of the ten sefirot blossoming and flying forth souls….
Not only is there the notion of a Tree of Souls in Judaism, and the notion that souls take shelter in trees, but there is also the belief that trees have souls. This is indicated in a story about Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav found in Sihot Moharan 535 in Hayei Moharan: Rabbi Nachman was once traveling with his Hasidim by carriage, and as it grew dark they came to an inn, where they spent the night. During the night Rabbi Nachman began to cry out loudly in his sleep, waking up everyone in the inn, all of whom came running to see what had happened. When he awoke, the first thing Rabbi Nachman did was to take out a book he had brought with him. Then he closed his eyes and opened the book and pointed to a passage. And there it was written “Cutting down a tree before its time is the same as killing a soul.” Then Rabbi Nachman asked the innkeeper if the walls of that inn had been built out of saplings cut down before their times. The innkeeper admitted that this was true, but how did the rabbi know? And Rabbi Nachman said: “All night I dreamed I was surrounded by the bodies of those who had been murdered. I was very frightened. Now I know that it was the souls of the trees that cried out to me.”
– from Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism,
by Howard Schwartz, 164-165