Yeṣirah, Book of
YEṢIRAH, BOOK OF
The title of a work in Hebrew (seper y e ṣîrâ, the Book of Creation), of disputed origin, constituting with the zohar the pith of the medieval Jewish cabala, thus giving a clue to Jewish gnosticism. It occupies the center of cabalistic metaphysics, for it is through the instrumentality of this writing that the cabalistic movement studied the ancient doctrine of the genesis of the world through letters and numbers.
Origin. It was later than the Talmud, which was finished c. a.d. 500, and probably dates from the 7th century. sa’adia ben joseph, Judah ben samuel ha-levi, and Shabbataï Donnolo attributed the work to the Patriarch Abraham, who was thought to have been a learned astrologer. Others placed it in an Essenian milieu or ascribed it to Akiba. The work probably came from a Gnostic group in Palestine or Syria. It is couched in a style at once clear and mysterious. The greatest Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages commented upon it: Ibn Gabirol (avicebron), Moses naḤmanides, Abraham ben Meïr ibn ezra, etc. Among contemporaries it has been examined from every possible point of view, and it has been translated and commented upon in almost all Occidental languages. Its success and influence are due to the importance of its doctrine as well as to the manner in which it is presented.
Doctrine. The author of the Yesirah asks the "how" of Creation. The origin of the creative act is for him God's free will. The first section delineates 32 ways by which the divine Will applied itself to the world's creation: the 22 letters of the sacred alphabet and the ten sephiroth (enumerations, entities designating divine attributes, and zones of their emanation). The beginning of the Yeṣirah reads, "According to 32 mysterious ways of wisdom, Yah, Lord of Hosts, the living God and King of the world, El Shaddaï, merciful and clement, superior and supreme (sacred is his Name!), has engraved and created His world through three sepharim … through sephar and through sippur and through sepher. 10 sephiroth belima and the 22 basic letters: 3 'mothers,' 7 'doubled,' and 12 'simple' ones."
The 10 sephiroth express the order in which beings are conceived: 1 is spirit or word of God; 2 is breath that comes from spirit; 3 is water that proceeds from breath or air; 4 is fire that comes from water; 5 is height; 6, depth; 7, East; 8, West; 9, South; 10, North.
The letters are divided in three classes: the 3 "mothers" (aleph, mem, shin), which represent air, fire, and water; the 7 "doubled ones," which represent antitheses such as good and evil, life and death, wisdom and folly, the two sexes. The 7 planets, the 7 days, the 7 heavens are the 7 letters b, g, d, k, p, t, r. The other letters represent the 12 frontiers of space, the 12 signs of the Zodiac, the 12 organs of the soul. The possible combinations of these letters are beyond the capacity of the imagination, but they are all absorbed in the One.
Thus the first 10 numbers and the letters (signs of thought) presided over the creation of the macrocosm (time and space) and the microcosm (man). "The union of language and philosophy constitute the system of the Sepher Yesirah, in which the study of articulated sounds forms the point of departure" (A. Epstein). This book, says Judah ha-Levi, "teaches us the existence of a single God by showing us unity and harmony amid variety and multiplicity, for such an accord could only come from a single Organizer" (Kuzari 4, 8, 25).
Relations between macrocosm and microcosm; between time, space, and man; speculations concerning letters—all these themes are echoes of late Hellenistic speculation. Attempts have been made to compare the Yeṣirah with the cosmogony of proclus, but similarity with certain strains of Christian gnosis is much more evident, e.g., with the Clementine Homilies, whose redaction is placed in the Near East c. 350. In revealing new horizons to the mystical world this book exercised an enormous influence on Jewish thought.
See Also: numerology
Bibliography: k. schubert, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 5:971. l. ginzberg, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer 12:602–606. s. cohen, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (New York 1939–44) 10:596–597. a. epstein, "Recherches sur le Sefer Yeçira," Revue des études juives 28–29 (Paris 1894).