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Kabbalah of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” – Part One

Viewers may not know it, but the ideas presented in the most popular TED video ever are straight out of the Jewish mystical tradition
File: A view of the walls of the Old City and the Mamilla shopping mall (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
File: A view of the walls of the Old City and the Mamilla shopping mall (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

It was a simple concept that inspired millions. He called it the Golden Circle, and encouraged each of us to start asking “why.” As he said throughout his TED speech, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” But why did Simon Sinek’s idea become so popular, and how can we do the same?

Simon SinekWikipedia Commons

With over 17 million views it is presently the 3rd most watched TED video. But whereas the concepts seemed to come out of “thin air,” Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” is written about extensively in the vast treasure troves of Kabbalah.

We hope to discuss the neurology of his theory, thoughts he presented near the end of his talk, in Part Two. But for the present article we thought to focus on the three questions that we ask about revolutions, companies, and so on: What is it?, How is it?, and Why is it?

Statistically there’s a good chance that you’ve already viewed the video. But in case you haven’t, here it is again (the rest of the article isn’t going to make sense unless you have seen the video):


Kabbalah of What, How, Why

According to Kabbalah, what corresponds to the sefirah of chochmah (wisdom), how to binah (understanding), and why to da’at (knowledge).

For instance, since Simon’s book is called “Start with Why” we would assume that the reviews and feedback mostly express da’at sentiments of engagement, making connections between inner thought and the outside world, and other similar sentiments. If you search the internet, you’ll find all of these comments expressed.

Back to the threesome. Science is good at what. Not so good at how. But why is totally beyond it. For instance, questions like, “Why are we here?” are beyond a scientist, whereas “What is here?” and “How did matter get here?” are more within their realm of experience.


When we said that science is good at answering the question what, we meant the material what. It has no clue as to the inner spiritual what.

The two levels of what, material and spiritual, correspond to two levels of wisdom, “Israel the elder” and “the higher father” in Kabbalah.

Whereas “the higher father” is associated with the power to spontaneously extract flashes of insight from the super-conscious realm of keter (crown), “Israel the elder” is associated with the power to subsequently direct these insights into conscious experience.

Thus scientists, professors, and so forth, may know how to make use of insights that come to them, they have no idea where they come from. Likewise, while the basis of Simon’s speech clearly corresponds to Kabbalah throughout, there is no need to assume that he has ever picked up a book on Kabbalah … or if he did, had used it as the basis of this TED talk.

While the material what was present in his talk – the elaboration of an idea originating from the super-conscious – there is no need to assume that he is still connected at the super-conscious level of “the higher father.”

Who and How

Sometimes the sefirah of binah (understanding) is identified with the question who? After seeing what’s there, then a person asks who put it there, and why? Indeed, in Kabbalah understanding has two levels or “persona.” The higher asks, “Who did it?” and the lower asks, “How did he do it?”

The question how relates to process, to change, to evolution. Understanding is the mother in whose womb the embryo grows.

Simon in his talk and chart speak about the “how.” As he explains, “how” is the process of how this computer or display is made, or how this company or revolution runs. The how is always evolving since there’s always new products, new events, and activities to keep busy with.

But the question of who asks, “Who set this evolutionary process in motion to begin with?” In a company or social revolution, presumably this was the founder or leader. Even at this level though it’s important to recognize that, in truth, God is the one that set everything in motion and continuously recreates reality at every moment. Thus whereas the how may keep us stuck in the evolutionary process (which as we know is potentially harmful to one’s pure belief in the Creator), who already leads us to ask questions like, “Who created the universe?”

Why ask why?

Now we come to the core of Simon’s theory, and the third level of our Kabbalistic paradigm, the sefirah of da’at (knowledge). Simon says time and again in his talk “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Is this true?

Our first comment is that it’s true to an extent. Meaning that yes, it is generally a good idea to ask why instead of what. But the what that limits our perceptivity is the material what, not the spiritual what. As explained above, the level of what can also connect a person to the source of super-conscious flashes of insight.

In any event, since the what that was discussed in the talk is the material what … indeed, we also agree that it’s good to see – to ask “why” – beyond the material stuff around us.


In a rectified faith system the question why assumes that everything that God does is for the good of all, for He is absolute good. So the question why, like “Why is there suffering in the world?” asks what is the ultimate good purpose behind it that makes it worthwhile.

The dependence of knowledge on faith (as in asking why) is a great pillar of the Torah. On the Tree of Life, knowledge is under faith.

Faith, 102, and knowledge, 474 = 576 = 24^2. 24 = 4! (the number of permutations of a 4 letter word). 4 = 2^2. A beautiful inter-inclusion.

Faith is the highest power of the soul and reflects itself in kingdom. The lowest level of knowledge reflects in foundation, just above kingdom (see chart here).

We saw that faith, 102, and knowledge, 474 = 576 = 24^2. So do foundation, 80, and kingdom, 496!

The inner experience of foundation is “truth” in the sense of self-fulfillment. It comes with the answer to the question why? The inner experience of kingdom is “lowliness” in the sense of no matter how far away I am from God He is always close to me. This is faith.

Why was it popular?

We can now ask a “why” question of our own: Why was Simon’s video so popular?

Remember that the title of the video was “How great leaders inspire action” not “Start with Why” as was the title of his book. This reflects what we said above that while knowledge corresponds to the question of why, knowledge also depends on faith. Thus more important than the question of knowledge, of asking why, is whether you believe what this person is saying to begin with. And since knowledge reflects in foundation, the topic of the lecture also reminded viewers about the concepts of truth and self-fulfillment as well.

Interestingly, Simon’s new TED talk is on trusting leaders, and has the title, “Why good leaders make you feel safe.” Faith and trust (emunah and bitachon) are two interrelated concepts in Jewish thought. Now that he has explained faith somewhat, he has now gone on to truth. A very natural progression indeed!

But to end Part One: The inner reason why over 17 million people were drawn to this video is for primarily two reasons.

  • The first is the clear correspondence of his “What, How, Why” model with Kabbalah.
  • The second is the implicit relationship with all he said to faith, truth, and self-fulfillment.

People who believe what you have said are more likely to share it with friends, talk about it, and so forth. What we are now saying, however, is that people believed the speech, not because of what was said there, but what was first explained by Kabbalah. The point of attraction comes derived from the super-conscious, not the conscious development of an inspired idea.

God willing we’ll go into some of the neurology in Part Two. Based on the article “What, How and Why.”

If you enjoyed this article, please donate $18, 36, or more towards the full-length book version. More details can be discovered here.


About the Author
Yonatan Gordon is a student of Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and co-founder of
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