Yeẓirah, Sefer

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YEẒIRAH, SEFER (Heb. סֵפֶר יְצִירָה; the "Book of Creation"), the earliest extant Hebrew text of systematic, speculative thought. Its brevity – no more than 1,600 words altogether even in its longer version – allied to its obscure and at the same time laconic and enigmatic style, as well as its terminology, have no parallel in other works on related subjects. The result of all these factors was that for more than 1,000 years the book was expounded in a great many different ways, and not even the scientific investigations conducted during the 19th century succeeded in arriving at unambiguous and final results.

Sefer Yeẓirah is extant in two versions: a shorter one which appears in most editions as the book itself, and a longer version which is sometimes printed as an appendix (for the important differences between the two versions, see A. *Epstein, in: mgwj, 37 (1893), 266). Both versions were already in existence in the tenth century and left their imprint on the different types of the numerous manuscripts, the earliest of which (from the 11th century?) was found in the Cairo Genizah and published by A.M. Habermann (1947). In both versions the book is divided into six chapters of mishnayot or halakhot, composed of brief statements which present the author's argument dogmatically, without any explanation or substantiation. The first chapter in particular employs a sonorous, solemn vocabulary, close to that of the *Merkabah literature. Few biblical verses are quoted. Even when their wording is identical, the different arrangement of the mishnayot in the two versions and their resultant altered relationship one with the other color the theoretical appreciation of the ideas.

Contents and Structure

The central subject of Sefer Yẹzirah is a compact discourse on cosmology and cosmogony (a kind of ma'aseh bereshit, "act of creation," in a speculative form), outstanding for its clearly mystical character. There is no foundation for the attempts by a number of scholars to present it as a kind of primer for schoolchildren (e.g., S. Karppe, étude sur la nature et les origines du Zohar (1901), 16ff.), or as the first Hebrew composition on Hebrew grammar and orthography (according to P. Mordell). The book's strong link with Jewish speculations concerning divine wisdom is evident from the beginning, with the declaration that God created the world by means of "32 secret paths of wisdom." These 32 paths, defined as "ten Sefirot beli mah" and the "22 elemental letters" of the Hebrew alphabet, are represented as the foundations of all creation. Chapter 1 deals with the Sefirot and the other five chapters with the function of the letters. Apparently the term Sefirot is used simply to mean "numbers," though in employing a new term (sefirot instead of misparim), the author seems to be alluding to metaphysical principles or to stages in the creation of the world.

The use of the term Sefirot in Sefer Yeẓirah was later explained – particularly in Kabbalah literature – as referring to a theory of emanation, although the book does not mention that the first Sefirah itself emanated from God and was not created by Him as an independent action. The author emphasizes, though ambiguously, the mystical character of the Sefirot, describing them in detail and discussing the order of their grading. At least the first four Sefirot emanate from each other. The first one is the "spirit (ru'aḥ) of the Living God" (the book continues to use the word ru'aḥ in its dual meaning of abstract spirit and air or ether). From the first Sefirah comes forth, by way of condensation, "one Spirit from another"; that is first the primal element of air, and from it, issuing one after the other as the third and fourth Sefirot, water and fire. From the primal air God created, or "engraved" upon it, the 22 letters; from the primal waters, the cosmic chaos; and from the primal fire, the Throne of Glory and the hosts of the angels. The nature of this secondary creation is not sufficiently clear because the precise terminological meaning of the verbs employed by the author – e.g., engraved, hewed, created – can be interpreted in various ways. The last six Sefirot are of a completely different nature, representing the six dimensions (in the language of the book the keẓavot, "extremities") of space, though it is not expressly said that they were created from the earlier elements. Even so it is emphasized that the ten Sefirot constitute a closed unit, for "their end is in their beginning and their beginning in their end" and they revolve in each other; i.e., these ten basic principles constitute a unity – although its nature is not sufficiently defined – which is not considered as identical with the divinity except insofar as the first stage of its creation expresses the ways of divine Wisdom.

The author, no doubt intentionally, employs expressions borrowed from the description of the ḥayyot ("living creatures") who carry the Throne of Glory in the chariot (merkavah; Ezek. 1), and seems to be establishing a certain correlation between the "living beings" and the Sefirot, describing the latter as the king's servants who obey his commands and prostrate themselves before his throne. At the same time they are also the dimensions (amakim) of all existence, of good and even of evil. The fact that the theory of the significance of the 22 letters as the foundation of all creation in chapter 2 partly conflicts with chapter 1 has caused many scholars to attribute to the author a conception of a double creation: the one ideal and pure brought about by means of the Sefirot, which are conceived in a wholly ideal and abstract manner; and the other one real, effected by the interconnection of the elements of speech, which are the letters. According to some views, the obscure word "belimah," which always accompanies the word Sefirot, is simply a composite, beli mah – without anything, without actuality, ideal. However, judging from the literal meaning, it would seem that it should be understood as signifying "closed," i.e., closed within itself. The text offers no more detailed explanation of the relationship between the Sefirot and the letters, and the Sefirot are not referred to again. Some scholars have believed that two separate cosmogonic doctrines basically differing from one another were fused in the book, and were united by a method resembling neo-Pythagorean theory current in the second and third century b.c.e.

All the real beings in the three strata of the cosmos: in the world, in time, and in man's body (in the language of the book: world, year, soul) came into existence through the interconnection of the 22 letters, and especially by way of the "231 gates"; i.e., the combinations of the letters into groups of two representing the possible roots of the Hebrew verb (it appears that the author held that the Hebrew verb is based on two consonants). The logical number of 231 combinations does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, which fixed 221 gates or combinations, and which are enumerated in a number of manuscripts. Every existing thing somehow contains these linguistic elements and exists by their power, whose foundation is one name; i.e., the *Tetragrammaton, or, perhaps, the alphabetical order which in its entirety is considered one mystical name. In chapters 3–5 the 22 basic letters are divided into three groups, according to the author's special phonetic system. The first contains the three matrices – immot or ummot (meaning elements, in the language of the Mishnah) – alef, mem, shin (אמש), which in turn represent the source of the three elements mentioned in a different context in chapter 1 – air, fire, water – and from these all the rest came into being. These three letters also have their parallel in the three seasons of the year (according to a system found among Greek and Hellenistic writers) and the three parts of the body: the head, torso, and the stomach. The second group consists of seven "double" letters, i.e., those consonants which have a hard and soft sound when written with or without a dagesh (bet, gimmel, dalet, and kaf, pe, resh, tav). The presence of the letter resh in this group gave rise to various theories (cf. S. Morag, in: Sefer Tur-Sinai (Torczyner; 1960), 207 – 42). Through the medium of the "double" letters were created the seven planets, the seven heavens, the seven days of the week, and the seven orifices of the body (eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth), and they also allude to the basic opposites (temurot) in man's life. The 12 remaining "simple" letters (ha-peshutot) correspond to what the author considers as man's chief activities; the 12 signs of the zodiac in the heavenly sphere, the 12 months, and the 12 chief limbs of the body (ha-manhigim). In addition he gives also a completely different phonetic division of the letters, in accordance with the five places in the mouth where they are articulated (gutturals, labials, velars, dentals, and sibilants). This is the first instance in which this division appears in the history of Hebrew linguistics and it may not have been included in the first version of the book. The combination of these "basic letters" contains the roots of all things and also the contrast between good and evil (עֹנֶג וְנֶגַע, oneg ve-nega).

There is an obvious connection between this linguistic-mystical cosmogony, which has close parallels in astrological speculation, and magic which is based on the creative, magical power of the letters and words. In fact it might well be said that Sefer Yeẓirah speaks of "the letters in which heaven and earth were created," as according to the Talmud, Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle, possessed the knowledge of their combinations (Ber. 55a). From this point stem the ideas connected with the creation of the *golem by an ordered recitation of all the possible creative letter-combinations. Whether Sefer Yeẓirah itself initially was aimed at magical ideas of this type is a subject on which opinions differ, but it is not impossible. According to a talmudic legend (Sanh. 65b) R. Ḥanina and R. Hoshaiah (fourth century) used to occupy themselves with Sefer Yeẓirah, or – as an ancient variant has it – with Hilkhot Yeẓirah; by means of it a "calf three years old" was created for them, which they ate. Whether these Hilkhot Yeẓirah are simply the book in question or its early version cannot be decided for the moment, but it must be stressed that accompanying the very earliest texts of Sefer Yeẓirah were introductory chapters emphasizing magical practices which are presented as some kind of festive ritual to be performed on the completion of the study of the book (Judah b. Barzillai's commentary, 103–268).

Time of Composition

*Zunz (gv 175), *Graetz in his later works, *Bacher, Bloch, and others were of the opinion that Sefer Yeẓirah was composed in the period of the geonim, around the eighth century. This dating was in line with the general tendency of those scholars to assign a late date to the composition of the mystical works on the mysteries of the creation and Merkabah, a trend which modern scholarship can no longer uphold. They also talked of hypothetical Arab influence (which was not actually proved). In his early work on Gnosticism and Judaism (1846), Graetz tended to correlate the time of its composition with that of the Mishnah or the beginning of the period of the Talmud, and this view was shared by Abraham Epstein, Louis Ginzberg, and others, who dated its composition between the third and sixth centuries. Leo *Baeck tried to prove that Sefer Yeẓirah was written under the Neoplatonic influence of Proclus, possibly in the sixth century. The Hebrew style, however, points to an earlier period. Epstein already proved its proximity to the language of the Mishnah, and additions can be made to his linguistic proofs. The book contains no linguistic form which may not be ascribed to second- or third-century Hebrew. In addition, a number of links with the doctrine of divine wisdom and with various Gnostic and syncretistic views indicate an earlier period; analogies between Sefer Yeẓirah and the views of Markos the Gnostic of the school of Valentinus had already been noticed by Graetz.

The doctrine of the Sefirot and the language system hint at neo-Pythagorean and Stoic influences. Stoic is the emphasis on the double pronunciation of "bagad kafat." Some of the terms employed in the book were apparently translated from Greek, in which the term στοιχεῖα indicates both elements and letters; this duality finds its expression in the Hebrew term otiyyot yesod ("elemental letters"), i.e., letters which are also elements. The material which F. Dornseiff (Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie, 1925) collected from the linguistic mysticism of Greek syncretism contains many parallels with Sefer Yeẓirah. Illuminating, in this connection, is Sefer Yeẓirah's view of the "sealing" of the six extremities of the world by the six different combinations of the name yhw (יהו) which (unlike in the Bible) occurs here as an independent, fundamental Name of God, playing the part of its corresponding name in Greek transcription ὶάω, which is extremely frequent in the documents of the Gnostics and in religious and magical syncretism. The idea that every act of creation was sealed with the name of God is one of the earliest tenets of Merkabah mysticism and is already found in Heikhalot Rabbati (ch. 9); in Gnostic systems and some which are close to Gnosis this name has its function in establishing the cosmos and in defining fixed boundaries for the world. Combinations of this name, which in Greek consists of vowels and not of consonants, appear frequently in Greek magical papyri. The author of Sefer Yeẓirah did not yet know the symbols for the Hebrew vowels and in place of the Greek vowels he employed the Hebrew consonants יהו, which are both vowel letters and components of the Tetragrammaton. There is common ground here between the speculations of Sefer Yeẓirah and the projections of Gnostic or semi-Gnostic speculations on the fringe of Judaism or outside it during the early centuries of the Common Era. It is difficult to decide whether the ten Sefirot or the rules of the 32 paths have to be explained or understood in the spirit of the Gnostic aeon doctrine or in that of the Pythagorean school, both views being possible. The function of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the construction of the world is mentioned in an ancient fragment from Midrash Tanḥuma dealing with the creation: "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: 'I request laborers.' The Torah told Him: 'I put at Your disposal 22 laborers, namely the 22 letters which are in the Torah, and give to each one his own'" (E. Urbach, in: Koveẓ al Yad, 6 (1966), 20). This legend is extremely close to the basic idea in Sefer Yeẓirah, chapter 2, and it is impossible to know which was the earlier.

To sum up, it may be postulated that the main part of Sefer Yeẓirah, though it contains post-talmudic additions, was written between the third and sixth centuries, apparently in Palestine by a devout Jew with leanings toward mysticism, whose aim was speculative and magical rather than ecstatic. The author, who endeavored to "Judaize" non-Jewish speculations which suited his spirit, presents a parallel path to Jewish ecstatic Gnosis of the Heikhalot type of literature, which has its roots in the same period. This "Judaizing" is also apparent at the end of the book, which presents Abraham, the first to believe in the oneness of God, as the one who first studied the ideas expressed in the book and actually practiced them – maybe an allusion to the use of magic mentioned above. From this derived the late view claiming Abraham as the author of the book, called in several manuscripts Otiyyot de-Avraham Avinu. The attribution of Sefer Yeẓirah to R. *Akiva only makes its appearance in the Kabbalah literature from the 13th century onward, no doubt in the wake of the late Midrash Otiyyot de-Rabbi Akiva.

Commentaries on Sefer Yeẓirah

The earliest reference to Sefer Yeẓirah appears in the Baraita di-Shemu'el and the poems by Eleazar ha-*Kallir (c. sixth century). Later on the book was of great importance both to the development of Jewish philosophy before *Maimonides and to the Kabbalah, and scores of commentaries were written on it. *Saadiah Gaon explained the book (at the beginning of the tenth century) as an early authoritative text. On the basis of the longer version which was at his disposal he introduced changes and new divisions. The Arabic text with a French translation by M. *Lambert was published in Paris in 1891. Saadiah's commentary was translated into Hebrew several times from the 11th century onward and had a considerable circulation (Mss. in Munich and Paris). In 955/6 the commentary on the short version by Abu Sahl *Dunash ibn Tamim was made in Kairouan. Parts of this Arabic original were discovered in the Cairo Genizah, and it was preserved in various editions originating from a later revision and an abbreviated form of the original version, mainly in different Hebrew translations. One of these was published by M. *Grossberg in 1902. The commentary was apparently based on the lectures of Isaac *Israeli, Abu Sahl's teacher. G. *Vajda made a detailed study of this commentary. A third commentary from the tenth century was written in southern Italy by Shabbetai *Donnolo and published by D. *Castelli in 1880, with a comprehensive introduction. The most important of all literal commentaries is the one composed at the beginning of the 12th century by Judah b. Barzillai of *Barcelona, published by S.Z.H. Halberstamm (Berlin, 1885). *Judah Halevi commented on many parts of the Sefer Yeẓirah in his Kuzari (4:25). Abraham *Ibn Ezra's commentary on the first chapter, which was known to Abraham *Abulafia, was lost, as were some other commentaries from the 11th and 12th centuries, including one by the rabbis of Narbonne. In the 11th century poems were even composed on the doctrines of Sefer Yeẓirah, e.g., by Ibn *Gabirol (ed. by Bialik and Rawnitzki pt. 2, no. 58) and by Ẓahallal b. Nethanel Gaon (Davidson, in: huca, 3 (1926), 225–55 and additions by E. Baneth, in: mgwj, 71 (1927), 426–43).

A great many commentaries on Sefer Yeẓirah were written within the circles of the *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, among them that of *Eleazar b. Judah of Worms which was published in its entirety in Przemysl in 1889, and one later attributed to Saadiah Gaon (from the beginning of the 13th century), of which only a part is printed in the usual editions; also noteworthy is the commentary by *Elhanan b. Yakar of London (c. 1240), edited by G. Vajda (in: Kovez al Yad, 6 (1966), 145–97). The number of commentaries written in the spirit of the Kabbalah and according to the kabbalists' conception of the doctrine of the Sefirot comes close to fifty. The earliest of these, by *Isaac the Blind, is also one of the most difficult and important documents from the beginnings of Kabbalah. It is published at the end of G. Scholem's lectures on Ha-Kabbalah bi-Provence (1963). The commentary of Isaac's pupil *Azriel b. Menahem of Gerona appears in the printed editions as the work of *Naḥmanides. The actual commentary by Naḥmanides (only on the first chapter) was published by G. Scholem (in: ks, 6 (1930), 385–410). Almost the entire commentary by Abraham *Abulafia (Munich Ms. 58) is contained in the Sefer ha-Peli'ah (Korets, 1784, fols. 50–56). This kabbalist, in one of his works, enumerates 12 commentaries which he studied in Spain (Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 3 (1855), 42). From the 14th century come the comprehensive commentary by Joseph b. Shalom *Ashkenazi, written in Spain and erroneously attributed in printed editions to R. *Abraham b. David (G. Scholem, in: ks, 4 (1928), 286ff.); the commentary by Meir b. Solomon ibn *Sahula of 1331 (Rome, Angelica library, Ms. Or. 45); as well as the Meshovev Netivot (Ms. Oxford) by Samuel *Ibn Motot. Around 1405 Moses *Botarel wrote a commentary citing a considerable number of false quotations from his predecessors. A number of commentaries were composed in Safed, among them one by Moses b. Jacob *Cordovero (Ms. Jerusalem) and by Solomon Toriel (Ms. Jerusalem). From then on commentaries in the spirit of Isaac *Luria proliferated; for example, by Samuel b. Elisha Portaleone (Ms. Jews' College, London), by David *Ḥabillo (Ms. of the late Warsaw community); from among these the commentary by *Elijah b. Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna (1874), and the book Otot u-Mo'adim by Joshua Eisenbach of Prystik (Pol. Przystyk; 1903) were printed.

Printed Editions and Translations

Sefer Yeẓirah was first printed in Mantua in 1562 with the addition of several commentaries, and has since been reprinted a great many times, with and without commentaries. In the Warsaw 1884 edition – the most popular one – the text of some commentaries is given in a considerably distorted form. Sefer Yeẓirah was translated into Latin by the Christian mystic G. *Postel and printed even before the Hebrew edition (Paris, 1552). Another Latin edition with commentaries was published by S. Rittangel in 1652. Translations appeared, mostly with commentaries, in English, by I. Kalisch (1873), A. Edersheim (1883), W. Westcott (1911), K. Stenring (1923), Akiva ben Joseph (The Book of Formation, 1970); in German by J.F. von Meyer (1830), L. Goldschmidt (1894; which, quite unfoundedly, professes to give a critical Hebrew text), E. Bischoff (1913); in French by Papus (1888), Duchess C. de Cimara (1913); in Italian by S. Savini (1923); in Hungarian by B. Tennen (1931); and in Czech by O. Griese (1921).


H. Graetz, Gnosticismus und Judenthum (1846), 102–32; A. Epstein, Mi-Kadmoniyyot ha-Yehudim (1887), 40–9; idem, in: mgwj, 38 (1893), 75–8, 117–20, 226–9; idem, in: rej, 28 (1894), 95–108; 29 (1894), 61–78; W Bacher, Die Anfaenge der hebraeischen Grammatik (1895); P. Mordell, The Origin of Letters and Numerals According to the Sefer Yetzirah (1914); D. Neumark, Toledot ha-Filosofyah be-Yisrael, 1 (1921), 100–6; G. Scholem, Bibliographia Kabbalistica (1933), s.v. Jezira; idem, in: ks, 31 (1956), 379–96; idem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965), 165–87; L. Baeck, Aus drei Jahrtausenden (1938), 382–97; G. Vajda, in: rej, 106 (1941), 64–85; 107 (1947), 99–156; 110 (1949), 67–92; 112 (1953), 5–33; 113 (1954), 37–61; 122 (1963), 149–66; idem, in: Annuaire de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes études (1959–60), 3–35; idem, in: Oẓar Yehudei Sefarad, 5 (1962), 17–20; A.M. Habermann, in: Sinai, 20 (1947), 241–65; P. Merlan, in: Journal of the History of Philosophy, 3 (1965), 167–81; N. Séd, in: rhr, 170 (1966), 159–84; E. Rosh-Pinnah (Ettisch), in: jqr, 57 (1967), 212–26.

[Gershom Scholem]