YEẒIRAH, SEFER (
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V12p602001.jpg = "Book of Creation"):
The title of two esoteric books. Of these the older is also called "Hilkot Yeẓirah" (Rules of Creation), and is a thaumaturgical work that was popular in the Talmudic period. "On the eve of every Sabbath, Judah ha-Nasi's pupils, Rab Ḥanina and Rab Hoshaiah, who devoted themselves especially to cosmogony, used to create a three-year-old calf by means of the 'Sefer Yeẓirah,' and ate it on the Sabbath" (Sanh. 65b, 67b). According to the tradition given by Rashi on both passages, this miracle was accomplished by the letters of the Holy Name ("ẓeruf otiyyot"), and not by witchcraft. In like manner, according to Rab, Bezaleel, the architect of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, worked by the permutations of the letters with which God created heaven and earth (Ber. 55a). All the miraculous creations attributed to other amoraim in Sanh. 65b and Yer. Sanh. 52d are ascribed by the commentators to the use of the same thaumaturgical book. Such a work, entitled Κοσμοποιία ("Creation of the World"), circulated in many forms among the Gnostics of the second century
While the mystic use of letters and numbers undoubtedly points to a Babylonian origin, the idea of the creative power of the various sounds is Egyptian, as well as the division of the letters into the three classes of vowels, mutes, and sonants is Hellenic, although this classification necessarily underwent certain changes when applied to the Hebrew letters. The origin of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" is accordingly placed by Reizenstein (l.c. p. 291) in the second century
It is noteworthy that in a manuscript (see Margoliouth, "Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts of the British Museum," part II., p. 190) the "Sefer Yeẓirah" is called "Hilkot Yeẓirah" and declared to be treated as esoteric lore not accessible to any but the really pious (comp. ib. p. 255, where it is mentioned as being used by Naḥmanides for cabalistic purposes).
The later "Sefer Yeẓirah" is devoted to speculations concerning God and the angels. The ascription of its authorship to R. 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 Aristotelian Saadia, the Neoplatonist Ibn Gabirol, the speculative cabalists of France, and the mystics of Germany deemed themselves justified in deriving their doctrines from this remarkable work, although it often suffered the same treatment as other sacred books, since its commentators read into it far more than the text implied. The "Sefer Yeẓirah" is exceedingly difficult to understand on account of its obscure, half-mystical style, and the difficulty is rendered still greater by the lack of a critical edition, the present text being admittedly 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.
As the book is the first speculative treatise in Hebrew, and at the same time the earliest known work on the Hebrew language, the philological part may be 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 Yeẓirah" 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 linguistic theories of the author of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" are an integral component of his philosophy, its other parts being astrological and Gnostic cosmogony. The three letters
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 Yeẓirah" 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
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 Yeẓirah." 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
Far more important is the similarity of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" to various Gnostic systems, to which Grätz has called special attention. As the "Sefer Yeẓirah" 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 (comp. Irenæus, "Adversus Hæreses," i. 16). The Clementine writings present another form of gnosis which agrees in many points with the "Sefer Yeẓirah." 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 and τέλος of all that exists; and the Clementine writings furthermore teach that the spirit of God is transformed into πνεῦμα (=
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 of the book, as regards its present form, resolves itself, therefore, into a problem of literature; for the contents were certainly derived from ancient sources. It must be borne in mind, however, that the Talmudic period contains absolutely nothing to show how abstract philosophical questions were treated in Hebrew; and since, moreover, the "Sefer Yeẓirah" contains many new expressions that are not found in the earlier literature, there is nothing to disprove that the book was written in the sixth century. It may be noted that Ḳalir, who certainly lived before the ninth century, used not only the "Sefer Yeẓirah," but also the Baraita of Samuel, which was written about the same time. Saadia advanced the view (end of the preface to his commentary on the "Sefer Yeẓirah") that the book was circulated orally for a long time before it was reduced to writing, his statement being somewhat more than an excuse for his free treatment of the text.History of the Text.
As already stated, 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 Naḥmanides, 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 Yeẓirah" 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.Jewish Study of the Book.
The history of the study of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" 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. Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Talmudists, and cabalists have used the book as a source, or at least thought they did so. Two points must be taken into consideration in judging the importance of the work: the influence which it exerted on the development of Jewish philosophy, especially on its mystic side, and the reputation which it enjoyed for more than a thousand years in most Jewish circles. This may best be illustrated by the following chronological list of authors who have interpreted the book or tried to do so: Saadia; Isaac Israeli; Dunash ibn Tamim (Jacob b. Nissim); Donnolo; Judah b. Barzillai; Judah ha-Levi; Abraham ibn Ezra; Eleazar of Worms; pseudo-Saadia (time and school of Eleazar); Abraham Abulatia; (pseudo-?) Abraham b. David; Naḥmanides (although the work may be ascribed to him incorrectly); Judah b. Nissim of Fez; Moses Botarel; Moses b. Jacob ha-Goleh; Moses b. Jacob Cordovero; Isaac Luria; Elijah b. Solomon of Wilna; Isaac Ḥaber; and Gershon Enoch b. Jacob. To these twenty commentators, who represent the period from the beginning of the tenth to the end of the nineteenth century and include scholars of the highest rank, must be added men like Hai Gaon, Rashi, and others who diligently studied the book.
If Botarel's statement may be credited, many commentaries were written on the "Sefer Yeẓirah" in the geonic period. It is far more difficult, however, to decide how many of the opinions and doctrines contained in the book influenced the views of later Jewish thinkers. The fact that scholars of so many different views quoted it in support of their theories justifies the assumption that none of them really based his hypotheses on it, and this view is adopted by most modern scholars. It must be borne in mind, however, that an intimate relation exists between the "Sefer Yeẓirah" and the later mystics, and that, although there is a marked difference between the Cabala and the "Sefer Yeẓirah" as regards the theory of emanations, yet the system laid down in the latter is the first visible link in the development of cabalistic 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 cabalists do not correspond to those of the "Sefer Yeẓirah," yet the underlying problem is identical in both. The importance of the "Sefer Yeẓirah" 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 cabalists to reflect on "God," and not merely on the "Ruler of Israel."
A book of the same name, which, however, had nothing else in common with the "Sefer Yeẓirah," was circulated among German mystics between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Judging from the examples collected by Epstein in "Ha-Ḥoḳer," ii. 1-5, it was a mystic and haggadic work on the six days of creation, and corresponded in part to the small Midrash Seder Rabbah de-Bereshit which was edited by Wertheimer ("Batte Midrashot," i. 1-31).
- Editions and translations: Editio princeps, Mantua, 1562;
- other important editions: Amsterdam, 1642;
- Zolkiev, 1745;
- Korzec, 1779;
- Constantinople, 1791;
- Grodno, 1806 (five commentaries);
- Warsaw, 1884 (nine commentaries);
- Goldschmidt, Das Buch der Schöpfung . . . Kritisch Redigirter Text, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1894 (the edition, however, by no means represents a critical text).
- Translations: Latin: Postell, Abraham Patriarchœ Liber Iezirah, Paris, 1552;
- Pistor, Liber Iezirah, in Ars Cabalistica, Basel, 1557;
- Rittangel in the Amsterdam edition of 1642;
- German: Johann F. von Meyer, Das Buch Yezira, Leipsic, 1830;
- English: I. Kalisch, A Sketch of the Talmud, New York, 1877;
- W. W. Westcott, Sepher Yezirah, London, 1893;
- French: Karppe, Etude sur les Origines . . . du Zohar, pp. 139-158, Paris, 1901.
- Literature: Castelli, Il Commento di Sabbatai Donnolo, Florence, 1880;
- Epstein, Studien zum Jezira-Buche, in Monatsschrift, xxxvii.;
- idem, Pseudo-Saadia, ib.;
- idem, Recherches sur le Sefer Yeçira, in R. E. J. xxviii.-xxix. (both articles also published separately);
- idem, in Monatsschrift, xxxix. 46-48, 134-136;
- Grätz, Gnosticismus und Judenthum, pp. 102-132, Breslau, 1846;
- Franck, La Kabbale, pp. 53-66, 102-118, Paris, 1843 (German translation by Jellinek, pp. 57-65, Leipsic, 1844);
- Hamburger, R. B. T. Supplement, iii. 98-102;
- Jellinek, Beiträge, i. 3-16;
- Rosenthal, in Keneset Yisrael, ii. 29-68;
- Steinschneider, in Berliner's Magazin, xix. 79-85;
- idem, Cat. Bodl. cols. 552-554;
- Zedner, Cat. Hebr. Books Brit. Mus. p. 13;
- Fürst, Bibl. Jud. i. 27-28;
- Bacher, Die Anfänge der Hebräischen Grammatik, pp. 20-23, Leipsic, 1895.