Examining the Sefer Yetzirah
Sefer Yetzirah (Hebrew, "Book of Creation", ñôø éöéøä) is the title of two books on
esoteric Jewish mysticism.
The older and more well-known work of this title is also called the "Hilkot Yetzirah"
(Hebrew, "Rules of Creation"), and is a thaumaturgical work that was popular in the
The following text came from the 1906 Public Domain Jewish Encyclopedia. This entry
thus needs updating by people familiar with the subject.
A cryptic story in the Babylonian Talmud states that "On the eve of every Shabbat, Judah
ha-Nasi's pupils, Rab Hanina and Rab Hoshaiah, who devoted themselves especially to
cosmogony, used to create a three-year-old calf by means of the Sefer Yetzirah, and ate it
on the Sabbath" (Sanhedrin 65b, 67b). All the miraculous creations attributed to other
rabbis of the Talmudic era are ascribed by rabbinic commentators to the use of the same
Such a work, entitled Êï óμï ðï éßá ("Creation of the World"), circulated in many forms
among the Gnostics of the second century B.C., and was a combination of many Jewish,
Greek, and Egyptian names and elements. It formed also part of magic papyri. Its basic
idea is that the same mystic powers that were at work in the creation of the world should
also aid the magician in performing his miraculous feats.
Both the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (man) are viewed in this system as
products of the combination and permutation of these mystic characters, and such a use
of the letters by the Jews for the formation of the Holy Name for thaumaturgical purposes
is attested by magic papyri that quote an "Angelic Book of Moses," which was full of
allusions to Biblical names.
While the mystic use of letters and numbers points to a Babylonian origin, the idea of the
creative power of the various sounds is Egyptian. The division of the letters into the three
classes of vowels, mutes, and sonants is Hellenic, although this classification necessarily
underwent changes when applied to the Hebrew letters. The historical origin of the Sefer
Yetzirah is accordingly placed by Reizenstein in the second century B.C.
A mishnah (vi. 15) declares that the Biblical patriarch Abraham was the recipient of the
divine revelation of mystic lore; so that the rabbis of the classical rabbinic era, and
philosophers as Saadia, Donnolo, and Judah ha-Levi never doubted that Abraham was the
author of the book.
It is noteworthy that in a manuscript in the British Museum the Sefer Yetzirah is called
the Hilkot Yetzirah and declared to be esoteric lore not accessible to any but the really
pious, and to be used for Kabbalistic purposes.
The later Sefer Yetzirah is devoted to speculations concerning God and the angels. The
ascription of its authorship to Rabbi Akiba, and even to Abraham, shows the high esteem
which it enjoyed for centuries. It may even be said that this work had a greater influence
on the development of the Jewish mind than almost any other book after the completion
of the Talmud.
The Sefer Yetzirah is exceedingly difficult to understand on account of its obscure,
mystical style. The difficulty is rendered still greater by the lack of a critical edition, the
present text being much interpolated and altered. Hence there is a wide divergence of
opinion regarding the age, origin, contents, and value of the book, since it is variously
regarded as pre-Christian, Essene, Mishnaic, Talmudic, or Geonic.
The phonetic system
The philological is discussed first, since it is necessary for an elucidation of the
philosophical speculations of the work. The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet
are classified both with reference to the position of the vocal organs in producing the
sounds, and with regard to sonant intensity. In contrast to the Jewish grammarians, who
assumed a special mode of articulation for each of the five groups of sounds, the Sefer
Yetzirah says that no sound can be produced without the tongue, to which the other
organs of speech merely lend assistance. Hence the formation of the letters is described
as follows: with the tip of the tongue and the throat; between the lips and the tip of the
tongue; in the middle of the tongue; by the tip of the tongue; and by the tongue, which
lies flat and stretched, and by the teeth (ii. 3).
The letters are distinguished, moreover, by the intensity of the sound necessary to
produce them, and are accordingly divided into; mutes, which are unaccompanied by
sound, such as î , which the book calls ; sibilants, such as ù , which is therefore called, the
"hissing shin"; and aspirates, such as à, which holds a position between the mutes and
sibilants, and is designated as the "airy à, which holds the balance in the middle" (iv. 1; in
some eds. ii. 1). Besides these three letters (), which are called "mothers," a distinction is
also drawn between the seven "double" letters () and the twelve "simple" letters ), the
remaining characters of the alphabet.
The linguistic theories of the author of the Sefer Yetzirah are an integral component of his
philosophy, its other parts being astrological and Gnostic cosmogony. The three letters
are not only the three "mothers" from which the other letters of the alphabet are formed,
but they are also symbolical figures for the three primordial elements, the substances
which underlie all existence.
The mute î is the symbol of the water in which the mute fish live; the hissing ù
corresponds to the hissing fire; and the airy à represents the air; while as the air occupies
a middle position between the fire which reaches upward and the water which tends
downward, so the à is placed between the mute î and the hissing ù .
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, the first emanation from the spirit of God was the (=
"spirit," "air") that produced fire, which, in its turn, formed the genesis of water. In the
beginning, however, these three substances had only a potential existence, and came into
actual being only by means of the three letters ; and as these are the principal parts of
speech, so those three substances are the elements from which the cosmos has been
The cosmos consists of three parts, the world, the year (or time), and man, which are
combined in such a way that the three primordial elements are contained in each of the
three categories. The water formed the earth; heaven was produced from the fire; and the
produced the air between heaven and earth. The three seasons of the year, winter,
summer, and the rainy season (), correspond to water, fire, and in the same way as man
consists of a head (corresponding to fire), torso (represented by ), and the other parts of
the body (equivalent to water).
The seven double letters produced the seven planets, the "seven days," and the seven
apertures in man (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth). Again, as the seven
double letters vary, being pronounced either hard or soft, so the seven planets are in
continuous movement, approaching or receding from the earth. The "seven days," in like
manner, were created by the seven double letters whereat they change in time according
to their relation to the planets. The seven apertures in man connect him with the outer
world as the seven planets join heaven and earth. Hence these organs are subject to the
influence of the planets, the right eye being under Saturn, the left eye under Jupiter, and
The twelve "simple" letters created the twelve signs of the zodiac, whose relation to the
earth is always simple or stable; and to them belong the twelve months in time, and the
twelve "leaders" in man. The latter are those organs which perform functions in the body
independent of the outside world, being the hands, feet, kidneys, gall, intestines, stomach,
liver, pancreas, and spleen; and they are, accordingly, subject to the twelve signs of the
In its relation to the construction of the cosmos, matter consists of the three primordial
elements, which, however, are not chemically connected with one another, but modify
heavenly bodies, or, in other words, from the planets and the signs of the zodiac. The
"dragon" rules over the world (matter and the heavenly bodies); the sphere rules time;
and the heart rules over the human body. The author sums up this explanation in a single
sentence: "The dragon is like to a king on his throne, the sphere like a king traveling in
his country, and the heart like a king at war."
While the astrological cosmogony of the book contains few Jewish elements, an attempt
is made, in the account of the creation, to give a Jewish coloring to the Gnostic
standpoint. To harmonize the Biblical statement of the creation "ex nihilo" with the
doctrine of the primordial elements, the Sefer Yetzirah assumes a double creation, one
ideal and the other real.
The first postulate is the spirit of God, from which the prototypes of matter emanated, the
world being produced, in its turn, by the prototypes of the three primordial substances
when they became realities. Simultaneously with the prototypes, or at least before the real
world, space was produced, and it is here conceived as the three dimensions with their
opposite directions. The spirit of God, the three primordial elements, and the six
dimensions of space form the ten Sefirot, which, like the spirit of God, exist only ideally,
being "ten Sefirot without reality" as the text designates them. Their name is possibly
derived from the fact that as numbers express only the relations of two objects to each
other, so the ten Sefirot are only abstractions and not realities. Again, as the numbers
from two to ten are derived from the number one, so the ten Sefirot are derived from one,
the spirit of God. The spirit of God, however, is not only the commencement but also the
conclusion of the Sefirot, "their end being in their beginning and their beginning in their
end, even as the flame is connected with the coal"(i. 7). Hence the Sefirot must not be
conceived as emanations in the ordinary sense of the word, but rather as modifications of
the spirit of God, which first changes to, then becomes water, and finally fire, the last
being no further removed from God than the first.
Besides these abstract ten Sefirot, which are conceived only ideally, the twenty-two
letters of the alphabet produced the material world, for they are real, and are the
formative powers of all existence and development. By means of these elements the
actual creation of the world took place, and the ten Sefirot, which before this had only an
ideal existence, became realities. This is, then, a modified form of the Talmudic doctrine
that God created heaven and earth by means of letters (Ber. 58a). The explanation on this
point is very obscure, however, since the relation of the twenty-two letters to the ten
Sefirot is not clearly defined.
The first sentence of the book reads: "Thirty-two paths, marvels of wisdom, hath God
engraved . . .," these paths being then explained as the ten Sefirot and the twenty-two
letters. While the Sefirot are expressly designated as "abstracts", it is said of the letters:
"Twenty-two letters: He drew them, hewed them, combined them, weighed them,
interchanged them, and through them produced the whole creation and everything that is
destined to come into being" (ii. 2). The basal theory of the letters apparently regards
them neither as independent substances nor yet as mere forms, so that they are, as it were,
the connecting-link between essence and form. They are designated, therefore, as the
instruments by which the real world, which consists of essence and form, was produced
from the Sefirot, which are merely formless essences.
Theories of contrast in nature
In addition to the doctrine of the Sefirot and the letters, the theory of contrasts in nature,
or of the syzygies ("pairs"), as they are called by the Gnostics, occupies a prominent
place in the Sefer Yetzirah.
This doctrine is based on the assumption that the physical as well as the moral world
consists of a series of contrasts mutually at war, yet pacified and equalized by the unity,
God. Thus in the three prototypes of creation the contrasting elements fire and water are
equalized by ; corresponding to this are the three "mothers" among the letters, the mute î
contrasting with the hissing ù , and both being equalized by à.
Seven pairs of contrasts are enumerated in the life of man: life and death, peace and
strife, wisdom and folly, wealth and poverty,beauty and ugliness, fertility and sterility,
lordship and servitude (iv. 3). From these premises the Sefer Yezirah draws the important
conclusion that "good and evil" have no real existence, for since everything in nature can
exist only by means of its contrast, a thing may be called good or evil according to its
influence over man by the natural course of the contrast.
The Jewish bent of the author's mind comes out, however, in the concession that as man
is a free moral agent, he is rewarded or punished for his actions. It must be noted, on the
other hand, that the conceptions of heaven and hell are foreign to the book, the virtuous
man being rewarded by a favorable attitude of nature, while the wicked finds it hostile to
Far more important is the similarity of the Sefer Yetzirah to various Gnostic systems, to
which Grätz has called special attention. As the Sefer Yetzirah divides the Hebrew
alphabet into three groups, so the Gnostic Marcus divided the Greek letters into three
classes, regarded by him as the symbolic emanations of the three powers which include
the whole number of the upper elements.
Both systems attach great importance to the power of the combinations and permutations
of the letters in explaining the genesis and development of multiplicity from unity. The
Clementine writings present another form of gnosis which agrees in many points with the
Sefer Yetzirah. As in the latter, God is not only the beginning but also the end of all
things, so in the former He is the ñ÷Þ and ôÝëï ò of all that exists; and the Clementine
writings furthermore teach that the spirit of God is transformed into ðí å μá (= ), and this
into water, which becomes fire and rocks, thus agreeing with the Sefer Yetzirah, where
the spirit of God, (= ðí å μá), water, and fire are the first four Sefirot.
The remaining six Sefirot, or the limitations of space by the three dimensions in a twofold
direction, are also found in the Clementina, where God is described as the boundary of
the universe and as the source of the six infinite dimensions.
The "dragon," which plays such an important part in the astrology of the book, is
probably an ancient Semitic figure; at all events its name is not Arabic, as scholars have
hitherto assumed, but either Aramaic or possibly a Babylonian loan-word.
The essential elements of the book are characteristic of the third or fourth century; for a
work of this nature, composed in the geonic period, before the Jews had become
acquainted with Arabic and Greek learning, could have been cast only in the form of
Jewish gnosis, which remained stationary after the fourth century, if indeed it had not
already become extinct.
The date and origin of the book can not be definitely determined so long as there is no
critical text of it. The editio princeps (Mantua, 1562) contains two recensions, which
were used in the main by the commentators of the book as early as the middle of the tenth
century. The shorter version (Mantua I.) was annotated by Dunash ibn Tamim or by
Jacob b. Nissim, while Saadia and Donnolo wrote commentaries on the longer recension
(Mantua II.). The shorter version was also used by most of the later commentators, such
as Judah b. Barzillai and Nahmanides, and it was, therefore, published in the ordinary
editions. The longer recension, on the other hand, was little known, the form given in the
editio princeps of the Sefer Yetzirah being probably a copy of the text found in Donnolo's
commentary. In addition to these two principal recensions of the text, both versions
contain a number of variant readings which have not yet been examined critically.
As regards the relation of the two recensions, it may be said that the longer form contains
entire paragraphs which are not found in the shorter, while the divergent arrangement of
the material often modifies the meaning essentially. Although the longer
recensiondoubtless contains additions and interpolations which did not form part of the
original text, it has many valuable readings which seem older and better than the
corresponding passages in the shorter version, so that a critical edition of the text must
consider both recensions.
The history of the study of the Sefer Yetzirah is one of the most interesting in the records
of Jewish literature. With the exception of the Bible, scarcely any other book has been the
subject of so much annotation.
An intimate relation exists between the Sefer Yetzirah and the later mystics, and that,
although there is a marked difference between the later Kabbalah and the Sefer Yetzirah,
the system laid down in the latter is the first visible link in the development of
Kabbalistic ideas. Instead of the immediate creation ex nihilo, both works postulate a
series of emanations of mediums between God and the universe; and both consider God
as the first cause only, and not as the immediate efficient cause of the world. Although
the Sefirot of the Kabbalists do not correspond to those of the Sefer Yetzirah, yet the
underlying problem is identical in both. The importance of the Sefer Yetzirah for
mysticism, finally, lies in the fact that the speculation about God and man had lost its
sectarian character. This book, which does not even mention such words as "Israel" and
"revelation," taught the Kabbalists to reflect on "God," and not merely on the "Ruler of