Sefer Yetzirah: Life, the Universe and Everything

WHILST Merkabah and Hekhalot mysticism deal with themes relating to chariots, thrones and divine palaces, there is a body of work relating specifically to the opening chapter of Genesis. Known as Ma’aseh Bereshit (‘Work of Creation’), this important mystical source concentrates solely upon God’s construction of the universe.

By examining the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible in such great detail, the Ma’aseh Bereshit arrives at the conclusion that Creation represents an essential separation between the ‘upper’ world of God and the ‘lower’ world of human beings. On the other hand, the Ma’aseh Bereshit does not speculate upon what may or may not have existed prior to this divine, six-day formation, and this is part of the reason the Kabbalah later appeared to address these very issues. The Ma’aseh Bereshit, believing that every word of the Torah is sacred, attempts to delve into the hidden meanings of Genesis by concerning itself with every minute detail contained in the text.

It is but a short step, therefore, between the Ma’aseh Bereshit and the Sefer Yetzirah (‘Book of Formation’) and both concern themselves with creative themes. The latter, which may be regarded as the first real Kabbalistic text, is just 1,300 words long and stands outside the Merkabah-Hekhalot tradition because it is comprised, not of prophecies and visions, but of letters and numbers. Indeed, the Sefer Yetzirah claims that all reality is contained within ten primary numbers and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Whilst the book may seem less mystical than some of the works we have examined thus far, it was an attempt to gain insight into some of the Jewish mysteries and is nonetheless brimming with esoteric wisdom and ancient magic.

Written down in either Palestine or Babylonia between the third and sixth centuries CE, and believed by some to have been written by Abraham himself, the first commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah did not appear until the tenth century. The Islamic Qur’an, for example, refers to a lost holy text known as the Suhuf ʾIbrāhīm (‘Scrolls of Abraham’) ‎and it is this which is thought to be a direct Arabic reference to the Sefer Yetzirah and, by default, proves the authenticity of the patriarch’s authorship. In addition, the very last section of the Sefer Yetzirah indicates that

Abraham had already mastered the mysteries of Sefer Yetzirah.[1]

Unlike the later Sefer ha-Zohar, which deals with souls, angels and mystical realms, the Sefer Yetzirah is a form of Meditative Kabbalah and therefore specialises in the kind of theoretical magic that is designed to propel the student towards future experimentation. As Aryeh Kaplan explains:

Meditative Kabbalah deals with the use of divine names, letter permutations, and similar methods to reach higher states of consciousness, and as such, comprises a kind of yoga. Most of the main texts have never been published, but remain scattered in manuscripts in the great libraries and museums. Some of these methods enjoyed a brief renaissance in the mid 1700s with the rise of the Hasidic movement, but within a half century they were once again largely forgotten.[2]

Seen from an entirely profane perspective, the Sefer Yetzirah is little more than a study on mathematics and linguistics, but in a far deeper sense the book is an attempt to explain the creation of the universe in a concise and systematic fashion. Apart from the Talmud, it has also had more influence upon the development of Jewish religiosity than any other text.

Apart from attributing the formation of the universe to ‘the God of Israel’ and providing a list of the Deity’s names at the beginning of the book, the Sefer Yetzirah provides a detailed discussion of the Ten Numbers that later provided the names of the Kabbalistic sefirot (‘attributes’). These not only include the three ‘Mother’ letters – Aleph, Mem and Shin – but the seven ‘Doubles’ (Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaph, Pe, Resh and Taw) and the twelve ‘Simples,’ or ‘Elementals’ (He, Waw, Zayin, Heth, Teth, Yodh, Lamedh, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Tsade and Qoph).

It is fairly easy to see why the work is dismissed by modern scholars as a cross between mathematics and linguistics, but the book itself cannot be divorced from its more spiritual dimension. The many calculations, after all, relate to the seven days of the Jewish week, the twelve months of the Hebrew calendar, the legendary Twelve Tribes of Israel, the seven planets and twelve constellations, and the four natural elements. God, or so it is believed, revealed these hidden secrets to Abraham as part of a mystical covenant. In addition, the teachings of the Sefer Yetzirah adopt a Hermetic stance in the sense that the universe is perceived as the vast macrocosm and man the corresponding microcosm.

The Sefer Yetzirah also contains a complex system of phonetics in which the position of the vocal organs during the pronunciation of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are said to enhance or diminish the intensity of sound. The wide-ranging effects achieved by this process, during which various sounds are produced by the position of the tongue, are divided into three categories: (a) Mutes, such as Mem, (b) Sibilants, such as the ‘hissing’ Shin, and (c) Aspirates, like Aleph, which maintain their position midway between the Mutes and Sibilants as a way of denoting harmony and balance.

The three sounds used in the preceding example, of course, belong to the crucial trio of foundational ‘Mother’ letters that denote the primordial elements that underlie all existence. The first thing to emanate from God was the ruach (‘air’ or ‘spirit’) which, in turn, produced water and then fire. It is these three elements that are formed from Aleph, Mem and Shin, meaning that speech led to the creative process itself.

The Jewish cosmos is also made up of three parts: the world, the year and mankind. These primordial factors each contain the threefold combination of air, water and fire: (i) the world was formed by water, produced from fire and then balanced by the air in between, (ii) the three segments of the Jewish year – Winter, Summer and the rainy season – correspond to air, fire and water, and finally (iii) the human head, torso and various other parts of the body may be compared to fire, air and water respectively.

The number seven is also significant in that the seven ‘Double’ letters are said to have produced the seven planets that elate to seven apertures in man: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth). The twelve letters that led to the formation of the twelve signs of the zodiac also correspond to man’s internal organs such as the hands, feet, kidneys, gall bladder, intestines, stomach, liver, pancreas, and spleen. As a result, we ourselves are said to be governed by the constellations and this is another example of the Sefer Yetzirah placing great importance on the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

The sefirot – a collective term for the ten positions on the Kabbalistic tree – is a manifestation of God’s own essence and, at least for the present, must not be regarded as a process of divine emanation. The emphasis on creation, rather than emanation, is due to the fact that the latter is a clear reference to Neoplatonism and thus invites a degree of controversy. The Sefer Yetzirah is certainly a proto-Kabbalistic system and yet it contains no in-depth analysis of each particular sefirah, or corresponding ‘attribute,’ and it was only later that they came to be more fully defined as Keter (‘Crown’), Chochmah (‘Wisdom’), Binah (‘Understanding’), Chesed (‘Kindness’), Gevurah (‘Severity’), Tiferet (‘Beauty’), Netzach (‘Eternity’), Hod (‘Splendour’), Yesod (‘Foundation’) and Malchut (‘Kingship’). These will be discussed in due course.

The ten-point sefirot is a manifestation of God’s will. This begins with air, turns into water and then becomes fire. This is not a hierarchy, but a diverse complementarity that has been forged by God’s will alone. This may seem like something of an abstraction, but prior to the creation of the universe each sefirah was united in a state of perfection. Indeed, whilst Isaac Luria would later develop this system in his own unique manner (of which more later), the Early Kabbalah contained within the Sefer Yetzirah merely repeats the Talmudic notion that God created everything by way of letters. At this stage, too, it is uncertain how the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet relate to just ten positions on the Kabbalistic tree. Indeed, as the book’s opening sentence demonstrates, all we really know is that both the twenty-two letters and the ten sefirot come together as 32 mystical paths of Wisdom.

Jews believe that the quality of any given thing may be described by words that have been formed out of letters, whilst their actual quantity is expressed numerologically. The numbers themselves, however, could only be defined once the creative process had enabled the unity of the Absolute to expand into a plurality. Herein lies the great esoteric bond between linguistics and mathematics.

Like various other Jewish mystical texts, the Sefer Yetzirah was hugely influenced by Gnostic theology. By dividing the Hebrew alphabet into three categories, the book imitates the three emanatory facets of the higher powers that were developed by Marcus, founder of the mysterious Marcosian sect active in both France and southern Europe from the second century onwards. They, too, believed in a primordial father-deity whose very words formed the universe. In the Clementine Homilies, for example, possible Jewish convert Titus Flavius Clemens – a nephew of the Roman Emperor, Vespasian – sets forth a romantic narrative in which he airs his personal doubts about immortality and love for sexual purity. The work also concentrates on the combinations and consequences of various alphabetical conundrums, not to mention a creative formula based on elemental factors, that each provide a tangible link between Gnosticism and the Sefer Yetzirah itself.

A further link to Gnosticism appears in the Sefer Yetzirah‘s allusions to dragon symbolism, which relate to an ancient Semitic belief that the constellation Draco is the cosmic axis that lies equidistant between the north and south poles. Indeed, when section 6:1 of the Sefer Yetzirah refers to something known as the Teli, it is thought to be either a ‘sword’ or a weapon used to snare animals. The fact that such a device was a ball on the end of a piece of string indicates that it was used to symbolise the axis around which the heavens rotate:

Many authorities identify the Teli with the “Pole Serpent” (Nachash Bare’ach) mentioned in the verse, “By his spirit, the heavens were calmed. His hand has pierced the “Pole Serpent” (Job 26.13). It is also mentioned in the verse, “On that day, with his great, harsh sword, God will visit and overcome the Leviathan, the Pole Serpent, and the Leviathan, the Coiled Serpent, and he will kill the dragon of the sea (Isaiah 27:1).[3]

The earth, therefore, like the ball attached to the string, is thought to ‘hang’ from the Pole Serpent in the way that the planets of the solar system orbit the sun. Furthermore, it is a fact that some 4,500 years ago a star in the tail of Draco – known as Thuban – was thought to be the pole star.

The idea that God’s essence is being imposed on the sefirot also relates to the Gnostic concept that aeons are sent out into the pleroma to facilitate a ‘divine fullness’. However, much of this found its way into the Sefer Yetzirah by way of the aforementioned Ma’aseh Bereshit.

Another fascinating concept outlined in the pages of the Sefer Yetzirah is that of the 231 Gates. The number 231 represents the manner in which two different letters of the Hebrew alphabet may be connected to one another and these combinations are arranged in the shape of a triangle known as the Logical Method. Gershom Scholem explains that 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 entirely is considered one mystical name.[4]

More interestingly, perhaps, the aspiring Kabbalist must visualise the twenty-two letters as a complex group of 231 lines that appear over his head in the form of a ‘ceiling’. This is the first step towards the creation of a golem.

Another Early Kabbalistic work which sought to build upon the mystical writings of the Sefer Yetzirah, is the ancient Midrash known as the Sefer ha-Bahir (‘Book of the Bright’). Whilst Kabbalists believe that the oral tradition of the work originated in the first century CE, from the hand of the Jewish sage Nehunya ben HaKanah, the manuscript was not published until 1174. It was then that the text began to be circulated by the Provence school of Kabbalists in south-eastern France, which we shall examine later, but the first actual commentary on the Sefer ha-Bahir – composed by Rabbi Meir ben Shalom Abi-Sahula (d. 1335) under the pseudonymous title Or HaGanuz – did not appear until 1331. Even then, it was not presented as a Kabbalistic text but as something that was part of the wider Merkabah school of Jewish mysticism.

Divided into sixty short paragraphs comprised of some one hundred and forty passages, it takes the form of a theological debate between a master and his disciples. The text examines the significance of Biblical verses and tries to explain the magical significance of the Sefer Yetzirah. More controversially, the Sefer ha-Bahir examines the thorny issue of reincarnation and suggests that there is a karmic dimension to why some people suffer and others prosper. Once again, however, there is a link to the spirituality of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era in the sense that the book’s frank discussion of the transmigration of souls relates to the Gnostic aeons.


1. Kaplan, Aryeh (Ed.); Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation (Weiser Books, 1997), p.256.

2. Ibid., p.ix.

3. Ibid., p.233.

4. Scholem, Gershom; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.25.

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