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Sefer Yetsirah


SEFER YETSIRAH (Book of creation) is an ancient Jewish cosmogonical and cosmological treatise that forms part of the literature of Qabbalah; falsely attributed to Abraham the patriarch and to ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef, a second-century tanna. Composed of six short chapters, it describes God's creation of the world by means of the ten cosmic numbers (sefirot ) and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The date of composition of Sefer yetsirah is the subject of controversy among scholars. Gershom Scholem assigns it to the tannaitic period (second to third centuries ce), whereas N. Aloni argued that it is a work of the eighth or ninth century, written under the influence of Arabic linguistics. The treatise is extant in two main versions, one short and one long, without major divergences in ideas between them. It has been translated into several European languages.

A major contribution of Sefer yetsirah is its discussion of the magical properties inherent in combinations of letters and the use of these combinations in the creation of the universe. The book's explanation of the proper pronunciation of the letters was the earliest phonetic theory introduced in Judaism. Sefer yetsirah also develops a system of correspondence between the Hebrew letters and the limbs of the human body.

The influence of the treatise was felt strongly in several trends in Jewish thought. It affected the development of early Jewish philosophy as in the case of Saʿadyah Gaon (882942) and his contemporary Dunash ibn Tamim. Avraham ibn ʿEzraʾ wrote a commentary on it, although it has since been lost. Ashkenazic Hasidism, or German Pietists, of the early thirteenth century produced several commentaries, of which three are still extant: the first by Elʿazar of Worms, the second falsely attributed to Saʿadyah Gaon, and the third by Elanan ben Yaqar. Almost all the early qabbalists of Provence and Spain wrote commentaries in a theosophic vein; the important ones are those of the thirteenth-century qabbalists Yitsaq Sagi Nahor (also known as Yitsaq the Blind), ʿAzriʾel of Gerona, and Moses Nahmanides. According to the German pietists and some qabbalists, the permutations of letters and holy names discussed in Sefer yetsirah may be used by initiates to create a golem, or humanoid creature. The medieval qabbalists also developed elaborate theories of the sefirot as divine manifestations.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, Sefer yetsirah became the starting point of the ecstatic Qabbalah of Avraham Abulafia, who was influenced by Barukh Togrami's highly esoteric commentary Mafteot ha-Qabbalah (Keys of the Qabbalah). The most important of Abulafia's several treatises on Sefer yetsirah is Otsar ʿeden ganuz (Bodleian Manuscript 1580). The techniques of letter combination described in Sefer yetsirah were developed by Abulafia and his school for use in ecstatic practices.

The commentary of the fourteenth-century Spanish qabbalist Yosef ben Shalom Ashkenazi, erroneously attributed in print to Avraham ben David of Posquières, is a classic work that influenced the "practical Qabbalah" of Isaac Luria. Meʾir ibn Avi Sahula compiled in 1331 a lengthy and eclectic commentary (Rome-Angelica Manuscript 45). Since the fifteenth century only a few commentaries have been composed, notably those of Mosheh Cordovero in the sixteenth century and Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (known as the Vilna Gaon) in the eighteenth century.


Aloni, N. "Ha-shiah ha-angramatit shel ha-millonut ha-ʿivrit be-sefer yetsirah," and "Sefer yetsirah nusa Rasag be-tsurat megillah mi-genizat Qahir," and "Zeman ibbur sefer yetsirah." In Temirin, 2 vols., edited by Israel Weinstock. Jerusalem, 19721980.

Epstein, Abraham. Mi-qadmoniyyot ha-Yehudim. Jerusalem, 1957. See pages 3846, 179225.

Gruenwald, Ithamar. "A Preliminary Critical Edition of Sefer Yezira." Israel Oriental Studies 1 (1971): 132177.

Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York, 1965. See pages 158204.

Scholem, Gershom. Les origines de la Kabbale. Paris, 1966. See pages 3344.

Séd, Nicolas. "Le Memar samaritain: Le Sefer Yesira et les trente-deux sentiers de la Sagesse." Revue de l'histoire des religions 170 (1960): 159184.

Vajda, Georges. "Nouveaux fragments arabes du commentaire de Dunash B. Tamin." Revue des études juives 113 (1954): 3761.

Vajda, Georges. "Deux nouveaux fragments arabes du commentaire de Dunas B. Tamim." Revue des études juives 122 (1963): 149162.

Vajda, Georges. "Saʿadya commentateur du Livre de la Création." In Mélanges Georges Vajda, edited by G. E. Weil, pp. 3769. Hildesheim, 1982.

Weinstock, Israel. "Le-verur ha-nusah shel sefer yetsirah" and "Le-havharat ofyo shel sefer yetsirah." In Temirin, 2 vols., edited by Israel Weinstock. Jerusalem, 19721980.

Moshe Idel (1987)

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