A look at the beginning of Sefer Yetzirah from a philosopher’s point of view.
Sefer Yetzirah, a title usually translated as “The Book of Creation,” is a short, mysterious work offering a theory of the technologies God used to give form to the world during creation. Sefer Yetzirah functions as one of the foundational texts of the Jewish mystical tradition. Because the last paragraph of the work claims that God revealed the information contained therein to Abraham, traditionalists believe that Sefer Yetzirah was written by the Biblical patriarch himself. However, scholars of intellectual and linguistic history believe the book was written between the first and third centuries C.E. by a scholar literate in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic thought. This difference of opinion concerning the origin of the book is only a taste of its mystery. Over the last thousand years, scholars and contemplatives have offered a wide variety of interpretations of the book’s theories, always directed in their interpretations by their intellectual tools and their spiritual aims.
I will introduce some of the concepts offered in Sefer Yetzirah using an interpretation based on my own intellectual tools and aims: some acquaintance with Greek philosophy and a desire to understand the work on its own terms. Therefore my attention focuses on its more philosophical concepts: elements, form, time-space, and mathematical structure. Historian of Jewish mysticism Joseph Dan, who firmly maintains that Sefer Yetzirah is intended to be a rational philosophical work rather than a mystical gateway to God, would stand behind my approach. Dan also recognizes that the earliest commentators on Sefer Yetzirah, writing during the Middle Ages, shared my philosophical bent. Later commentators on the Sefer shifted focus to the book’s more mystical concepts: the attributes of God and the creative power of the Hebrew alphabet.
Dan notes the dramatic shift in interpretation, but does not trace its evolution through a progression of commentaries. In order to get more insight into the interpretive shift, I examine two of the medieval commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah cited by Dan. Saadia Gaon (882-942) gives the book a thoroughly philosophical analysis, noting parallels between Greek thought and Hebrew thought. Judah Halevi (1080-1142) recognizes the philosophical intent of Sefer Yetzirah’s author, but begins to give the book a mystical interpretation in order to demonstrate the superiority of Hebrew spirituality over Greek philosophy. After presenting my own introduction to Sefer Yetzirah, I will present selected observations from the commentaries of Saadia and Judah Halevi, noting how a change in attitude towards Greek philosophy resulted in a change of interpretation of Sefer Yetzirah.
A Contemporary Philosophical Summary
The author of Sefer Yetzirah aims to create an elegant theory of the origin of the universe that integrates the fundamental principles of both Greek and Hebrew thought on the topic. The Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible portrays God as creating the world through speech. The text states, “God said, ‘there will be light’ and there was light.” (Gen 1: 3). Hellenistic philosophy describes the world as a composite substance made from the elements of earth, air, fire, and water – or some subset thereof. The author of Sefer Yetzirah therefore theorizes that God formed both the elements and the world’s composite substances through speech.
According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, a complete account of the way any object comes into being requires information about four causes:
the object’s material cause, or the matter of which it is made;
its formal cause, or the shape the object is formed in;
its final cause, or the purpose for which it is to be used;
and its efficient cause, or the force that initiated the creative process.
Sefer Yetzirah is silent about the final cause, or the purpose, of creation. However, it carefully accounts for the other three causes. The book clearly acknowledges God as the efficient cause of the universe, opening with the statement that God “engraved with thirty-two paths of wisdom…and created His world.” The book acknowledges God as the material cause of the universe, identifying the most primitive substance as the “spirit of the living God.” But Sefer Yetzirah is primarily occupied with explicating God’s role as the formal cause of the universe. The elements, and later the composite substances, came into being as spirit passed through chambers of various shapes. The title of the book, correctly translated, reflects this theme. Although the phrase Sefer Yetzirah is usually translated as the book of “creation,” the sense of the Hebrew word yetzirah is closer to the English word “formation.” It connotes the giving of form to pre-existing matter, rather than creating new matter out of nothing.
The forming of spirit into matter is described using the analogy of forming breath into language. Humans bring sounds into being by passing breath through chambers of various shapes. Sounds become the fundamental building blocks of language. Similarly, God brought the elements into being by forming spirit into the elemental sounds of reality. The basic elements to be accounted for are three of those listed in Greek philosophy: air, water, and fire. The elemental sounds linked with the elements are represented by three letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, mem and shin. Aleph is an aspirant, the pure movement of air through an open throat and mouth. With the letter aleph, therefore, God has formed the element of air. The Hebrew word for water is mayim, spelled with two mems and a vowel between them. With the letter mem, God formed the element of water. The Hebrew word for fire is aysh, spelled with the letters aleph-shin. The speaking of the letter shin, then, gave rise to fire, the third basic element. The author of Sefer Yetzirah offers us no further suggestions for imagining the divine analogue of human speech, no concrete images of spirit, chambers, or letters on the cosmic level. The knowledge that Hebrew is God’s language should be enough to assure us that the mere forming of elemental Hebrew letters would result in the existence of the elements themselves.
Composite entities are created as the elements are then passed through chambers of various shapes, represented by the remaining letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Some of these letters are “single” letters, letters that have only one possible pronunciation. Other letters are “double” letters, letters that have two possible pronunciations, depending upon how tightly closed the shaped human mouth is as air passes through. As elements pass through the chambers of the “double” letters, they become objects and forces that have dual aspects, such as right and left eye, or wisdom and folly.
The speaking of the single and double letters accounts for the creation of three levels of reality. The first level of reality is human existence itself, including the human body and its moral psychology. The second level establishes human existence in space, including the compass points by which we orient our physical and spiritual activities. The third level establishes human existence in time, including the celestial bodies and the mathematical representations we make of their movements. Implicit in Sefer Yetzirah’s choice of these three specific realities is the recognition that human existence requires their integration. From a philosophical perspective, one could say the book offers a metaphysics of human existence.
The author of Sefer Yetzirah also recognizes explicitly that each level can be analyzed separately. The analysis reveals that all three levels share a common linguistic and (in a move reminiscent of Pythagorean mysticism) a common mathematical structure. Each level includes one item – such as a bodily organ, a compass direction, a planet — formed by the speaking of each single letter and each double letter. Sefer Yetzirah hints obliquely at some connection between items on different levels that are formed with the same letter. Mathematically, the three levels share a common formula, a common process of formation. Each level includes twelve phenomena, which are formed from seven more basic phenomena, which are formed from the three elements, which are formed from one spirit.
The meaning of this mathematical differentiation of spirit is one of the themes that both Saadia and Judah Halevi take up. For Saadia, the differentiation implicit in God’s nature brings Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology closer together. For Judah Halevi, the divine unity despite all differentiation showcases the gulf between Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology. Both commentators also take up the process of formation through language. Saadia sees in it yet another opportunity to link Greek and Hebrew thought, while Judah Halevi sees another opportunity to distinguish them.
Promoting Unity of Hebrew and Greek Thought: Saadia Gaon (882-942)
Saadia begins his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah by praising philosophy as a mode of inquiry sanctioned by God. He then presents summaries of the various cosmologies – theories of creation – found in Greek thought from Thales (640 B.C.E.) to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E). After rejecting them all, he presents his interpreted version of the theory offered in Sefer Yetzirah. Doing philosophy, it would seem, is defined by Saadia as placing oneself within the tradition of Greek thought. In this definition of philosophy, Saadia is consistent with most intellectuals of his time and place.
Saadia notes that Sefer Yetzirah itself begins with a list of ten names of the God who gave form to the universe. Why, he asks, are there exactly ten names? Saadia’s answer links philosophy with scripture. God gives structure to the universe. Human intellect is part of the universe, as well as a way of apprehending the universe. So God also gives structure to our thought. This structure is enumerated in a list of ten logical categories offered by the philosophical tradition: substance, quantity, quality, relation, space, time, possession, position, action, and passivity. Each category corresponds to one of the names of God enumerated in SeferYetzirah. Each name of God expresses a different aspect of God’s sovereignty. Therefore, each of the ten categories is a direct reflection of one of the realms over which God is sovereign. This sovereignty is further expressed in the Ten Commandments given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Each commandment prescribes the appropriate moral conduct with respect to a particular category: how to set boundaries around time, for example, or possessions.
Thus Sefer Yetzirah, properly interpreted, proclaims God’s sovereignty over all things physical, intellectual, and moral. For Saadia, a proper interpretation of the text makes use of both philosophical and scriptural tools. Philosophy and scripture used in tandem make a far more effective tool than either one alone, for the two mutually direct each other on the path to truth. Saadia’s use of an odd scriptural verse to clarify a point in Sefer Yetzirah’s cosmology offers an excellent example of this mutual direction. The Torah says that when the Israelites stood at Mt. Sinai, “the whole nation saw the voices.” Normally we hear voices; so what does the Torah mean by saying the people saw the voices? Echoing rabbinic midrash, Saadia notes that Mt. Sinai was covered with clouds of smoke from the fiery storm at its peak. As God spoke, the spirit of God blew through the clouds, shaping the smoke into the form of the words of the Ten Commandments.
Sefer Yetzirah’s abstract description of spirit passing through chambers offers support for this interpretation, because Sefer Yetzirah reminds us that sounds have form just as physical objects do. The interpreted scriptural verse also adds to the interpretation of Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer’s abstract description of formation is now tied to a specific image. Saadia acknowledges that this visible wind is not the pure form of God’s spirit, implying that we must be cautious about taking the image too literally. However, the image helps Saadia clarify the philosophical position taken by the author of Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer does not argue that numbers and letters actually existed as tools on hand before God began creative activity. Rather, they are formed through God’s activity and, in turn, they lend their form to the creation of other entities.
While Saadia himself does not pull the pieces together this way, I could say even more strongly what his exposition implies. Philosophy and Torah, using a similar method of numerical analysis, point to the exact same truth about the deep structure of the universe. For by Saadia’s own account, the moral behaviors prescribed by the Ten Commandments make tangible the more ethereal structures of the universe: philosophy’s categories of thought and Sefer Yetzirah’s list of the names of God. As I shall show below, however, Juda Halevi recognizes no such meeting between the mind of philosophy and the spirit of Judaism. In fact, he uses Sefer Yetzirah to show that Hebrew spirituality offers a far better path to grasping the divine nature of the universe than Greek philosophy ever could.
Distancing Hebrew Thought from Greek: Judah Halevi (1080-1142)
Judah Halevi begins his discussion of Sefer Yetzirah by describing it as “a relic” of the natural science that once existed among the Jews. The Sefer, he notes, discusses biology, astronomy, and physical chemistry as it describes the mechanics of creation. It even makes a contribution to the ongoing philosophical attempt to connect God with the created world. But, for Judah Halevi, this virtuouso display of learning is completely beside the main point of Sefer Yetzirah.
The point of Sefer Yetzirah is to show that God is one. God’s world is differentiated into multiple entities and multiple levels. For example, we can interact with concrete things around us in ways that follow the laws of physics. We can speak of our interactions using language that implicitly recognizes those laws. And we can formulate abstract mathematical equations that express them. In daily life, these three activities seem quite distant from one another, as the children who play with toys cannot speak the language of theoretical physicists. But, Judah Halevi reminds us, all three levels are aspects of a single reality. They are a unity in God. Even science and philosophy, the most intellectually rarefied of human activities, can perceive God only facet by facet. A spiritual imagination or, in other words, faith is necessary to perceive the truth of God’s unity. The author of Sefer Yetzirah can only hint at this truth by offering various examples of forms, designs, and orders that point to God’s Oneness.
Too much emphasis on philosophy, argues Judah Halevi, blocks this truth. Philosophers in the Greek tradition believe that they can train the intellect to apprehend subtler and subtler objects, higher and higher levels of truth. The most highly developed intellect will achieve contemplation of God, the supreme object. But Judah Halevi protests against God being viewed as an object among objects. God is not an object but is, as Sefer Yetzirah asserts, a unity that pre-exists all differentiation of created objects. This insight into God’s mystery is the gateway to revelation that the patriarch Abraham, identified by Judah Halevi as the author of Sefer Yetzirah, passed through.
Language, too, according to Judah Halevi, can serve as a barrier to grasping the mystery of God’s unity. Through language, we experience a gulf between our intellects and our concrete interactions. Despite all our careful crafting of expressions, we may or may not succeed in expressing the essence of our interactions. In God, however, there is no such rupture between speech and essence. In Sefer Yetzirah, God’s speaking of the name of the elements is the act of their creation. The world is, in a sense, God’s script. God’s will, its expression through God’s word, and its concrete actualization in the world are all one. Philosophy emphasizes dexterity with human language as a tool for developing the intellect. But Hebrew spirituality, it seems, emphasizes listening to God’s language for the message of unity.
Judah Halevi’s mastery of the actual specifics of Greek philosophy seems rather confused. In an attempt to present a specific argument representative of Greek cosmology, he welds together a premise from Parmenides, an image from Plato, and a concept from Aristotle. The result is an argument that none of these philosophers would recognize as consistent. Not surprisingly, Judah Halevi rejects this argument as illogical. In spite of his misrepresentation of the specifics, however, his criticism of the philosophical approach in general stands.
Conclusion: From Philosophy to Mysticism
Judah Halevi’s commentary on Sefer Yetzirah recognizes the book’s philosophical aspects but shifts the reader’s focus away from them. In his commentary, I can see the seeds of later trends in Jewish mystical literature whose authors claim their foundation as Sefer Yetzirah. Here I will note only two major works.
Sefer Ha-Bahir (1176) presents a philosophy of language that goes way beyond Sefer Yetzirah’s theory that the form of sound provides the form for the created universe. The authors of the Bahir share with Judah Halevi the notion that God’s language expresses the essence of every created object or force. Thus, the authors of the Bahir implicitly ask, what messages for the wise has God hidden in Hebrew, the language of divine creation? In answer to their own question, the Bahir gives a detailed analysis of the physiological, cosmological and spiritual meanings of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The Zohar (c. 1240-1305) accepts Sefer Yetzirah’s theory of the universe emanating from the divine spirit. Sefer Yetzirah calls the most primordial emanations sefirot, a word reminiscent of the mathematically perfect but mysterious Pythagorean spheres. In Sefer Yetzirah, the sefirot seem to be the basic elements of the universe and the directions of space in which the elements could be formed into matter. The authors of the Zohar, however, seem to share with Judah Halevi the notion that scientific cosmology is not the proper occupation for Jewish seekers. They give the sefirot a moral interpretation instead of a scientific one, theorizing that at the time of creation God emanated ten moral and spiritual qualities. According to the Zohar, the person who understands the moral and spiritual structure of the universe is the one who understands its mysteries.
Jewish scholars who are not steeped in the modern methods of textual criticism that integrate philology, history, and archeology practice an odd but traditional Jewish hermeneutic. I call this hermeneutic “reading backwards.” Roughly the rule stipulates that anything a reputable commentator offers as an interpretation of an earlier text is actually in that text. The interpretation is viewed not only as consistent with the intent of the earlier author, but as a revelation of that intent. Given this method of “reading backwards,” it should not be surprising that students of Jewish mysticism find in Sefer Yetzirah the proclamations of unity identified by Judah Halevi; the mystical meanings of Hebrew letters expounded in the Bahir; and the moral structure of the divine spirit, as presented in the Zohar. My own, more conservative scholarly reading would lead me to follow the thread of Saadia’s commentary, because I believe Saadia correctly perceives the integration of Jewish scripture and Greek philosophy that lies at the heart of Sefer Yetzirah. As I noted in the introduction, however, each reader brings her or his own intellectual tools to Sefer Yetzirah and it is entirely possible that I am guilty of Judah Halevi’s charge: blinded by philosophy.
Afterword: Some Personal Mystical Interpretations
My mind speaks to me in many voices. This essay is written in my most conservative scholarly voice, a voice that makes a sharp distinction between philosophy and mysticism. For this voice, philosophy is the search for rationally defensible theories about the unseen; mysticism is the search for a direct engagement with the divine, confirmed not by rationality but by intensity of sensory or emotional experience.
One other voice, perhaps my favorite philosophical voice, tried hard to assert itself as I studied Sefer Yetzirah. This is the voice in which I teach and publish, the voice that relentlessly chases abstract theories back down to earth. When this voice speaks within me, that is, when I think in this voice, I try to find concrete experiences that fulfill abstract concepts. What sort of experience could have led the philosopher to spin her or his abstract theory, I ask. I recognize that the question is not always entirely appropriate, because philosophers often write in direct response to the abstract writings of others. Nonetheless, it is a question I always raise, even if I don’t always follow its thread. During my initial reading of Sefer Yetzirah, I tried hard not to follow this thread, in an attempt to read the Sefer in its own voice before translating it into mine.
My preferred philosophical voice does not accept the same sharp distinction between philosophy and mysticism. This voice, in fact, sees the two meeting in the attempt to fulfill metaphysical ideas in experience. Sefer Yetzirah is an exciting book because it invites this attempt. It is one of those barely accessible philosophical works that presents a reader with just enough comprehensible fragments to engage him or her. The reader’s mind and spirit soar with an intuition of greatness, the belief that here is an idea that could unlock a whole new way of thinking – if the reader could only unlock the text! So the reader searches for connections – Biblical verses, mythological stories, cosmological theories, mystical experiences, whatever works. The more sweeping the implications of the connection, the better, for they help to explain that giddy soaring feeling the work brings.
Many years ago, when I was a college student, my practice was to give each of these two philosophical voices a separate time in which to study and speak. After dinner, and until midnight my more conservative voice had its turn. I sat in the university library, hunching over texts, reading and rereading sentences, copying them verbatim, struggling to break through a barrier until I could think in the voice of a text’s author. But at midnight, the library closed, and I walked home to my apartment. There life was just beginning for the night, as my fellow students and I talked and played; danced, sang, and laughed. We considered our friends, our teachers, our studies. And in that relaxed atmosphere, the information I had absorbed earlier that night would begin to find expression in different ways. A theory of perception would give us a silly way of looking at a friend’s wall; a metaphysical theory would help a roommate interpret a dream; a quarrel between neighbors would seem to undermine a political theory. Although I am now many years older, with more responsibilities than simply interpreting my studies, I still try to give both kinds of hermeneutics equal time. And so in reading Sefer Yetzirah, I found myself moving back and forth between these two ways of working with philosophical ideas.
Late one night, very late, at an hour when any sane person who had to wake children before dawn would be resting, my husband and I sat on the floor by an open window trying to make sense of Sefer Yetzirah. Outside the window, human sounds had quieted to a minimum, and the sounds of night animals swelled. Cicadas hummed and hushed, hummed and hushed. Crickets chirped frantically. An owl or two hooted in search of company; some unidentified night birds sang back. With most of nearby humanity asleep, it was as if the barriers to really hearing the world had been lifted. Finally, it seemed, we were hearing the rest of creation speak in its own voice. We imitated the sounds. It wasn’t hard; they were familiar. Clicks and shushes, hums and chirps, shrieks and whistles. Animal sounds, night sounds, were composed of the same building blocks as our language. If God created the world using sound, then these elemental sounds, these units of language, belong equally to all creation. For thousands of years, philosophers have taught that language distinguishes humans from animals, that language is a mark of our intellect, a special gift given by God to our species alone. But, it seemed to me that night, Sefer Yetzirah shows that line of reasoning to be false. Every creature is made from, every creature shares the same elemental language. This language is the voice of God.
(Sefer Yetzirah, of course, says nothing whatsoever about the creation of animals. But my mystical moment and my philosophical insight flow from my study of it nonetheless.)
So taken was I with the image of God breathing the world into existence through speech, that I made other connections with the idea as well. As I read the Sefer’s opening chapters, I was reminded of a myth I encountered in my training as a Hatha Yoga teacher. This is a story about Brahman, the god whose spirit is the very stuff of the universe. Every 35,000 years, Brahman breathes out, and a universe comes into being. The universe contains matter in various shapes – animals, plants, planets, solar systems. At the end of 35,000 years, Brahman breathes in – and nothing is left but darkness. After a 35,000-year pause, Brahman breathes out again, generating a world of forms unutterably different from the previous one, filled with elements in combinations that we, with our present experience, could not even begin to imagine.
In yoga, the fundamental spiritual practice is the practice of breathing. Because thought and emotions run parallel with the breath, structured breathing exercises teach practitioners first to observe, and later to control, their thoughts, feelings, and bodies. According to Sefer Yetzirah, certain sounds, or in other words, certain forms of breath create the connections between the human body, the human psyche, and the time and the space in which they unfold. Perhaps Sefer Yetzirah can be used as the foundation for creating a set of structured breathing exercises, that give practitioners the opportunity to observe, and later to control, these connections. Abraham Abulafia (1240-1292) did in fact take off from Sefer Yetzirah in this direction.
Perhaps my next step in tracing the trajectory of Sefer Yetzirah’s interpretations is the study of his commentary, even though I know it will require many long sessions of trying to understand it on its own terms.
Aristotle, “Physics, Book II,” in Classics of Western Philosophy, ed. Steven M. Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977, 113-129.
Bokser, Ben Zion. The Jewish Mystical Tradition. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993.
Dan, Joseph. The Ancient Jewish Mysticism. Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1993.
Dan, Joseph. “Three Phases of the History of the Sefer Yetzira.” FJB 21 (1994): 7-29.
Guthrie, W.K.C. The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. New York: Harpercollins, 1986.
Halevi, Judah. The Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel. Introduction by H. Slonimsky. New York: Shocken, 1964.
Margolis, Max, ed. The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text. Philadelphia; Jewish Publication Society, 1955
Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice. Revised edition. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997.
Kaplan, Aryeh, trans. and commentary. The Bahir. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1979.
Malter, Henry. Saadia Gaon, His Life and Works. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1942.
Reeves, John C., trans. Sefer Yetzirah. unpublished manuscript.
Saadia ben Joseph (al-Fayyumi), Commentaire sur le Sefer Yesira ou Livre de la Creation par Le Gaon Saadya de Fayyoum, trans. and ed. M. Lambert.. Paris: Emile Bouillon, 1891. Translated in English from the French and Hebrew by Scott Thompson and Dominique Marson, San Francisco, 1985. Excerpts posted at Walter Benjamin Research Institute website, http://www.wbenjamin.org/saadia.html#commentary.
Scholem, Gershom, ed. Zohar: The Book of Splendor. New York: Schocken Books, 1949.
— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2000. Image: kser.org