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Sefer Yetzirah (Hebrew, Sēpher Yəṣîrâh "Book of Formation," or "Book of Creation," ספר יצירה) is the title of the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, although some early commentators treated it as a treatise on mathematical and linguistic theory as opposed to Kabbalah. "Yetzirah" is more literally translated as "Formation"; the word "Briah" is used for "Creation".
A cryptic story in the Babylonian Talmud states that "On the eve of every Shabbat, Judah HaNasi's pupils, Rab Hanina and Rab Hoshaiah, who devoted themselves especially to cosmogony, used to create a delicious calf by means of the Sefer Yetzirah, and ate it on the Sabbath." Mystics assert that the Biblical patriarch Abraham used the same method to create the calf prepared for the three angels who foretold Sarah's pregnancy in the Biblical account at Genesis 18:7. All the miraculous creations attributed to other rabbis of the Talmudic era are ascribed by rabbinic commentators to the use of the same book.
Sefer Yetzirah's appendix (vi. 15) declares that Abraham was the recipient of the divine revelation of mystic lore; so that the rabbis of the classical rabbinic era (see Hai Gaon in the responsum cited in "Kerem Ḥemed," viii. 57), and philosophers as Saadia, Donnolo, and Judah HaLevi ("Cuzari," iv. 25) never doubted that Abraham was the author of the book. In Pardes Rimonim, Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (Ramak) mentions a minority opinion that Rabbi Akiva authored it, and takes it to mean Abraham wrote it and Akiva redacted it to its current form. Jewish Lore attributes it to Adam, and that "[f]rom Adam it passed over to Noah, and then to Abraham, the friend of God."
According to modern historians, the origin of the text is unknown, and hotly debated. Some scholars believe it might have an early Medieval origin, while others emphasize earlier traditions appearing in the book. The division of the letters into the three classes of vowels, mutes, and sonants also appears in Hellenic texts.
The historical origin of the Sefer Yetzirah was placed by Reitzenstein (Poimandres, p. 291) in the 2nd century BCE. According to Christopher P. Benton, the Hebrew grammatical form places its origin closer to the period of the Mishna, around the 2nd century CE.
In a manuscript in the British Museum (see Margoliouth, "Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts of the British Museum," part II., p. 190) , the Sefer Yetzirah is called the Hilkot Yetzirah and declared to be esoteric lore not accessible to anyone but the really pious (compare ib. p. 255, where it is mentioned as being used by Naḥmanides for Kabbalistic purposes).
The Sefer Yetzirah exists in multiple versions, including:
The differences among these versions tend to be minor.
The Sefer Yetzirah is devoted to speculations concerning God's creation of the world. The ascription of its authorship to the biblical patriarch 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 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 the Temple era.
Sefer Yetzirah describes how the universe was created by the "God of Israel" (a list of all of God's Hebrew names appears in the first sentence of the book) through "32 wondrous ways of wisdom":
These divisions correspond to Jewish concepts such as the 3 letters making up God's name (yud, he, and vav), the 7 days of the Jewish week, the 12 tribes of Israel, and the 12 months of the Hebrew calendar, as well as to early "scientific" or philosophical ideas such as the 4 elements (fire, water, air, earth), the 7 planets, 10 directions, the 12 zodiacal constellations, various human physical functions, and a list of the parts of the human body. The book describes how God used the 10 sefirot and the 22 Hebrew letters in various combinations, and finally (as described in the closing section of the book), how he revealed this secret to Abraham as a covenant with him. God's covenant with Abraham is described as being two-fold:
The last sentence describes how God "connects" the 22 letters of the Torah to Abraham's tongue, and reveals its secret to Abraham.
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:
The letters are distinguished, moreover, by the intensity of the sound necessary to produce them, and are accordingly divided into:
Besides these three letters, which are called "mothers," a distinction is also drawn between the seven "double" letters, which have two different sounds according to inflection, and the twelve "simple" letters, the remaining characters of the alphabet which represent only one sound each.
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.
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 Aleph, Mem, Shin, 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.
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, the first emanation from the spirit of God was the ruach (= "spirit," "air") that produced water, which, in its turn, formed the genesis of fire. In the beginning, however, these three substances had only a potential existence, and came into actual being only by means of the three letters Aleph, Mem, Shin; and as these are the principal parts of speech, so those three substances are the elements from which the cosmos has been formed.
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 ruach produced the air between heaven and earth. The three seasons of the year, winter, summer, and the rainy season, correspond to water, fire, and ruach in the same way as man consists of a head (corresponding to fire), torso (represented by ruach), 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 because 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 like.
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 Zodiac.
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 one another only physically. Power (δύναμις) emanates from the seven and the twelve 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."
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 is fixed in their beginning, as the flame is bound to 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 air, 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 (Berachot 58a). The explanation on this point is obscure 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: God 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 letters are neither independent substances nor yet as mere forms. They seem to be the connecting-link between essence and form. They are designated as the instruments by which the real world, which consists of essence and form, was produced from the Sefirot, which are merely formless essences.
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 air; corresponding to this are the three "mothers" among the letters, the mute Mem contrasting with the hissing Shin, and both being equalized by Aleph. 
Seven pairs of contrasts are enumerated in the life of man:
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 book teaches that man is a free moral agent, and therefore a person is rewarded or punished for his or her actions. While the ideas of heaven and hell are left unmentioned in the book, it teaches that the virtuous man is rewarded by a favorable attitude of nature, while the wicked man finds it hostile to him.
The Sefer Yetzirah is similar to various Gnostic systems. 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 ἀρχή (= ראשית) and τέλος (= תכלית) of all that exists; and the Clementine writings furthermore teach that the spirit of God is transformed into πνεῦμα (= רוח), and this into water, which becomes fire and rocks, thus agreeing with the Sefer Yetzirah, where the spirit of God, רוח (= πνεῦμα), air, 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" (תלי tli, perhaps meaning "curled one" as a coiled serpent) 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 "dragon" is often understood as the starry constellation Draco and by extension it represents the cosmic axis (equivalent to the north/south pole) because this constellation coils around the North Star and thus around the celestial axis, as it intersects the northernmost part of the celestial sphere.
The essential elements of the book are characteristic of the 3rd or 4th century; for a work of this nature, composed in the Geonic period could have been cast only in the form of Jewish gnosis, which remained stationary after the 4th 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 10th 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 recension doubtless 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 although there is a marked difference between the later Kabbalah and the Sefer Yetzirah (for instance, the Sefirot of the Kabbalists do not correspond to those of 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.
A book of the same name was circulated among the Chassidei Ashkenaz Rhineland mystics between the eleventh and 13th centuries, for whom it became a source of magical speculation. This book seems to be a mystic work on the six days of creation, and corresponded in part to the small Midrash Seder Rabbah de-Bereshit.
The Qur'an speaks of a holy book by the name of Suhuf Ibrahim which translates to the scrolls of Abraham. Although most Muslims believe this book to have long perished it is speculated that this may be a reference to Sefer Yetzirah as Jewish Tradition generally ascribes authorship of that book to Abraham.
In his short story, "The Secret Miracle", Jorge Luis Borges describes how the protagonist, Jaromir Hladik, had translated the Sefer Yetzirah.
Issue #4 of the Batwoman comic-book series closes with Katherine "Kate" Kane researching the supernatural, with a copy of Sefer Yetzirah on her table in the pile of books.
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