View Full Version : Chapter V. The Book 'Yetsirah'

June 22nd, 2008, 01:39 AM


THE date and origin of this extraordinary book--the oldest philosophical work in the Hebrew language--are shrouded in obscurity. There is as yet no critical edition of it, although there are several translations of it, both of the whole and of parts, into Latin, German, and French; and the numerous commentaries written on it in Arabic and Hebrew (and the subsequent translations of these into Latin, German, etc.) show, not only the high position which it held in the estimation of Jewish thinkers from the 10th century onward, but also the great influence which it wielded on the general development of Jewish mystical speculation.

The difficulties of fixing its date and origin are illustrated by the fact that whereas the voice of mediŠval Jewish scholarship assigned its authorship to the patriarch Abraham (on the grounds of some supposed internal evidence), individual writers here and there credited the book to Rabbi ‘Akiba (50-130 A.D.)--‘Akiba having been an adept in the mystic lore of numbers; and the Book Yetsirah is pervaded with the mystical significances of numbers. Others, again, without touching the question of authorship, give it an origin in the late Talmudic epoch--about the 6th century A.D. This theory is the likeliest of all, because the 6th century marks the beginning of what is known in Jewish history as the Gaonic epoch, when several Rabbinic-mystical works, second in importance only to the Book Yetsirah, were composed.

The latest theory is that of Reitzenstein (Poimandres, pp. 14, 56, 261, 291) who, arguing from the resemblances between the doctrines of letters and numbers in this book and the miraculous cosmic powers wielded by numbers and letters in the thaumaturgical books current among the Gnostics of the 2nd century B.C., concludes that it is a Hebrew production of the 2nd century B.C. The fatal objection to Reitzenstein's theory, however, seems to lie in the fact that his argument holds good of only one aspect of the work, viz. the philological part. The other part--the philosophical--although vitally connected with the philological and deduced from it--contains elements of thought and modes of expression which are many centuries later than the pre-Christian Gnosticism. But Reitzenstein's theory cuts very deeply and cannot be disposed of in a few words.

The clue to the particular nature of the Book Yetsirah lies in its two constituent elements which we have a moment ago contrasted. It is a mystical philosophy drawn from the sounds, shapes, relative positions, and numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The nucleus of much of this teaching is to be found in the Talmud, but the Rabbis were certainly not the originators of it. Just as Philo excelled in the art of clothing Grecian philosophy in a Hebraic dress, so did the Rabbis show a considerable capacity for 'naturalising' many an alien product. In the case of the mysticism under consideration they drew from older available sources--Egyptian, Babylonian, MandŠan--and adapted the idea to the framework of their own essential lore.

Thus in T.B. Berachoth, 55a, there occurs the remark, "Bezaleel [the architect of the Tabernacle in the desert] knew how to join together (lě-tsa-rěf) the letters by means of which the heavens and earth were created." This is because he was "filled with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding" (Exodus, xxxi. 3), and this wisdom is the same as that of Proverbs, iii. 19: "The Lord by wisdom founded the earth." This belief in the magic power of the letters of the alphabet can be traced to Zoroastrianism and ultimately to Chaldea--as Lenormant has shown in his Chaldean Magic. It was by means of the combination of letters comprising the Holy Name of God that the disciples of Judah the Prince (c. 135-220 A.D.), who were keen on cosmogony, used to create a three-year-old calf on the eve of every Sabbath and used to eat it on the Sabbath. So says a passage in T.B. Sanhedrin, 65b. There is a strong flavour of old Semitic witchcraft here. It is an exotic notion introduced for the purpose of intensifying an essentially Jewish belief--the belief in the wonder-working powers bestowed by the Sabbath on those who scrupulously uphold it. The practice of magic and witchcraft was sternly repro-bated by the Old Testament, and the Rabbis were equally severe in its condemnation.

One quotation from the book will suffice to give us a glimpse into the supernatural importance of the forms, sounds, and relative positions of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It says: "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). Each of the actions here mentioned, viz. 'drawing,' 'hewing,' 'combining,' 'weighing,' 'interchanging,' is described with a fulness which is as bizarre as it is bewildering; and although the interest is mainly a philological one, it is an indispensable part of the book's philosophy.

As it would be impossible to give the reader any tangible notion of these involved stretches of philological reasoning, without introducing a considerable amount of Hebrew words and Hebrew grammatical terminology, the subject can only be dealt with fragmentarily. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are pressed into the service of a doctrine which is an element of ancient Semitic theosophy, and which passed thence into Greek philosophy. It is the doctrine of the three primordial substances--water, fire, and air. These three substances underlie all creation, and are the fountain-head of all existence. The three Hebrew letters playing the principal part in connection with these three primal substances are Aleph (א), Mem (מ), and Shin (ש). Why just these letters? For two reasons.

Firstly, these three letters represent three cardinal divisions into which the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet naturally fall. The divisions are: (a) mutes unaccompanied by any sound in producing them (as can be seen by any one who tries the pronunciation of the sound of Mem--it is merely a compression of the lips); (b) sibilants, best represented by Shin; (c) aspirates, the class to which Aleph belongs--this class being, in the na´ve imagination of these theosophists, intermediate to the mutes and the sibilants and, as it were, holding the balance between them. Hence these three letters are called 'mothers' (ěm = mother) because all the other letters are, as it were, born from them. The mediŠval Kabbalah, as will be mentioned later on, likewise speaks of 'father' and 'mother' in somewhat similar connections.

Secondly, these three representative 'parent' letters--the mute, the sibilant, the aspirate--symbolise the three basic elements of all existing things, the three primordial substances. Thus water (the first letter of which word in Hebrew is Mem) is symbolised by the mute Mem. Why? Because the chief product of water is fish; and fish are the representatives of the mute creation. Fire (in Hebrew esh, most prominent in pronunciation is sh) is symbolised by the sibilant Shin. Why? Because the characteristic of fire is its hissing sound; and the equivalent in Hebrew for 'sibilant' is a word which means 'hissing.' Air (the first letter of which word in Hebrew is Aleph) is symbolised by the aspirate Aleph, which has an airy, vacant pronunciation. Just as Aleph holds the balance between the mute letters and the sibilants, so air is, in the natural world, intermediate to the water which always tends in a downward direction, and fire which by its nature always ascends. Of course it needs no hard reasoning here to see how an alien system of very early thought has been mechanically and arbitrarily foisted on to the Hebrew alphabet.

But, as was before mentioned, all the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet play a dominant r˘le in the book's philosophy. Thus we read (ii. 2):

"By means of the twenty-two letters, by giving them a form and a shape, by mixing them and combining them in different ways, God made the soul of all that which has been created and of all that which will be. It is upon these same letters that the Holy One (blessed be He) has founded B is high and holy Name."

This remark probably indicates that the existence of these letters and the impress which they leave in every particle of creation are the unfailing source of our knowledge of that supreme Intelligence which, while being immanent in the universe, is its guide and controller and holds all the different parts together. In short, the harmony of the cosmos is due to the Divine wisdom underlying the manipulations of the twenty-two letters.

These twenty-two letters are split up into three divisions. These are: (i.) The three which have just been considered, the three 'mothers' or 'parent' letters (Aleph, Mem, Shin) which symbolise the elements, air, fire, and water, which together make up the cosmos. The year (or time), which is part of the cosmos, also consists of three parts--three seasons, viz. summer, which corresponds to the element fire; winter, which corresponds to the element water; spring and autumn, which form a season intermediate to the other two, correspond to. the element air, which also is intermediate to the fire and the water. Again, the human body is likewise a trinity, composed of head, chest, and stomach, and likewise corresponds to the three elements. And the world is a trinity too. Fire is the substance of the heavens, water (condensed) is the basis of earth, air is the dividing medium necessary for preserving the peace between the two.

(ii.) The seven double letters typify the 'contraries' in the cosmos, the forces which serve two mutually opposed ends. Thus, there are seven planets which exercise at times a good and at times a bad influence upon men and things. There are seven days in the week; but there are also seven nights. And so on. It is all arbitrary and highly dubious. The seven 'double' letters are Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Caph, Pěh, Resh, Tau. They are 'double' because they express two different sounds according as they possess dagesh or not. The letter Resh is not usually classed among these by Hebrew grammarians. By deducting these seven and the three 'parent' letters, we get the remaining twelve 'simple' letters.

(iii.) The twelve 'simple' letters are emblematic of the twelve signs of the zodiac, the twelve months of the year, the twelve organs in the human body which perform their work independently of the outside world and are subject to the twelve signs of the zodiac. A strong Gnostic colouring pervades the whole.

Thus the cosmos--embraced ideally in the twenty-two letters--is an expression of the Divine Intelligence. Man, the world, time--these three constitute the cosmos, and out-side them there is but one great existence, the Infinite.

This brings us to two doctrines of Jewish mysticism which appear for the first time in the Book Yetsirah, and which were developed subsequently on diverse lines. These are: (a) the doctrine of emanation; (b) the Ten Sefirot.

In the general literature of mysticism, the doctrine (or rather doctrines) of emanation is usually associated for the first time with the great name of Plotinus (born at Lycopolis, in Egypt, about 205 A.D.). This remark raises a twofold reflection which is of the highest interest. Firstly, it shows how one particularly influential aspect of mysticism, viz. emanation, is a feature common to the theologies of both the early Church and the early Synagogue--sundered as these two were from one another by so many other irreconcilable points of disagreement. Secondly, it shows how both Jewish and Christian mysticism are alike indebted to one and the same set of sources, viz. Gnosticism and its development--the Alexandrian Neoplatonism. The latter is the pith and core of the emanation doctrines of Plotinus. It is equally the root of the emanation doctrines of the Book Yetsirah, the Zohar, and, in fact, all branches of the mediŠval Kabbalah.

Emanation implies that all existing things are successive outflowings or outgoings of God. God contains within Himself all. He is perfect, incomprehensible, indivisible, de-pendent on nothing, in need of nothing. Everything in the cosmos, all finite creatures animate and inanimate, flow out, radiate, in a successive series, from God, the Perfect One. The motif of this teaching is that of explaining the difficulties involved in the inevitable assumption of all religion, viz. that there is a bond of relationship between God and His creation. How can there be any connecting link between a Being who is self-sufficient, unchangeable, infinite, perfect, and matter which is finite, changeable, imperfect, etc.? This is the difficulty. All doctrines of emanation answer it in more or less the same way, by saying that God is not really external to any one or anything. Everything is originally comprehended in Him, "with no contrasts of here or there, no oppositions of this and that, no separation into change and variation" (Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, p. 73). On this understanding there is no necessity for hunting after 'the missing link' between the Divine and the human. The multiplicity that one beholds in the cosmos, the whole panorama of thought, action, goodness, badness, the soul, the mind--all things that go to make up the pageant of man's life in the universe, are emanations, radiations from the one Unity, manifestations of the God from whom all things flow and to whom they must all finally return because they are ultimately one with the One, just as the flame is one with the candle from which it issues.

In the Book Yetsirah, the teaching about emanation is intertwined with the doctrine of the Ten Sefirot. The object of this inter-twining is that of giving a more decidedly Jewish colouring to the Neoplatonic conceptions of emanations. The Jewish mystics, however far they may have wandered into other fields for their views about God, always felt that the Hebrew Bible and God as preached by the Hebrew Bible must be the core of their message. There, thought they, lies the final Truth. Final Truth, taught they, is but a commentary on the Hebrew Bible.

Where did the idea of the Sefirot originate? In all probability it originated with the Rabbis of the Talmud in the first three centuries of the Christian era. Thus, a passage in T.B. Ḥaggigah, 12a, speaks of the "Ten agencies through which God created the world, viz. wisdom, insight, cognition, strength, power, inexorableness, justice, right, love, mercy."

There are, as will be shown more fully in a later chapter, some obvious resemblances between these ten creative potentialities of the Talmud, and the Ten Sefirot of our Book and of the mediŠval Kabbalah (though the resemblances between those of the Talmud and of the Kabbalah are considerably stronger than the resemblances between those of the Talmud and our Book Yetsirah). To these facts must be added also the personification of Wisdom as well as of Torah by the early Rabbis, and their doctrine about the creation of the world by two Middot (Attributes), viz. the Attribute of Mercy and the Attribute of Justice.

Let us turn to the description of the Ten Sefirot as given by the Book Yetsirah (i. 9):

"There are Ten Sefirot--ten, not nine; ten, not eleven. Act in order to understand them in thy wisdom and thy intelligence; so that thy investigations exercise themselves continually upon them; also thy speculations, thy knowledge, thy thought, thy imagination; make things to rest upon their principle and re-establish the Creator upon his foundation."

Again (i. 8):

"The Ten Sefirot are like the fingers of the hand, ten in number, five corresponding to five. But in the middle of them is the knot of the Unity."

There is a tantalising vagueness about these descriptions, and, as modern scholars always hasten to point out, the Sefirot of the Book Yetsirah differ from those of the Zohar and the mediŠval Kabbalah generally in one cardinal respect, viz. that whereas in the two latter systems the Sefirot have the fullest possible mystical connotation, in the Yetsirah Book they cluster mainly round the mysticism of numbers. Numbers and letters (of the Hebrew alphabet, as we have seen) give the main impetus to the peculiar teaching. Divine action in its relation to the universe is conceived in the form of abstract numbers. But yet the following quotation from the book shows a clear foreshadowing of a real mystical system such as is seen in the Zohar.

"The first of the Sefirot, one, is the spirit (Ruaḥ) of the living God (blessed be His Name, blessed be the Name of Him who inhabits eternity!). The spirit, the voice, and the word, these are the Holy Spirit."

The second of the Sefirot, two, is the air which comes from the spirit. On it are hewn and engraven the twenty-two letters which form altogether but one breath.

The third of the Sefirot, three, is the water which comes from the air [i.e. condensed vapour]. It is in the water that He has dug the darknesses and the chaos, that He has formed the earth and the clay, which was spread out afterwards in the form of a carpet, hewn out like a wall and covered as though by a roof.

The fourth of the Sefirot, four, is the fire which comes from the water, and with which He has made the throne of His glory, the heavenly Ophanim (Wheels), the Seraphim, and the ministering angels. With the three together He has built his dwelling, as it is written, "He maketh the winds his messengers, his ministers a flaming fire" (Psalm, civ. 4).

The remaining six Sefirot are the six dimensions of space--the four cardinal points of the compass, in addition to height and depth.

The difficulties here are many, and some are insuperable. Are the Sefirot really a piece of Jewish mysticism (as was suggested before) or are they nothing more than echoes of the Gnostic systems of number-manipulations?

What is the relation between the cosmic powers of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the cosmic powers of the Sefirot?

What bearing has the doctrine of the three primal elements upon the first four Sefirot which seem to contain very much the same thought?

In the answer to the first of these queries lies the clue to the nature of the book. The Book Yetsirah is syncretic, and while the emphasised significance of the number 'ten,' as well as the importance of the idea of the world as the scene of Divine Agencies (or Middot), is in its native origin Jewish, the teaching about the creative powers of letters and numbers is only Jewish by adoption, and whether the word 'Sefirot' is originally Jewish or alien is a moot point; the notion of the three primal substances is clearly an exotic foisted on to the book to give it the appearance of the philosophic completeness which the age demanded. Viewing the book, therefore, as a mosaic rather than a concrete and continuous whole, it is futile to ask questions about the consistency of its parts. What, however, we can do, and ought to do, is to try to see how the author pieced his mosaic together so as to give to his readers what, in his opinion, was a presentation of the doctrine of emanation as interpreted by the spirit of Judaism.

It will be noticed that the three primal substances, air, fire, water, are identical with the second, third, and fourth of the Sefirot, but whereas each of these is produced from the preceding one, the three primal substances seem to be all independent of one another as regards production. And again, the second, third, and fourth of the Sefirot all emanate originally from the first, viz. the Ruaḥ--the Spirit of the living God. No such notion attaches to the three primal substances. The object in all this seems to be that of giving an essentially Jewish colouring to cosmogony. Everything was brought forth by the Spirit of God. As the Psalmist says: "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth" (xxxiii. 6). It is a counterblast to the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of matter which to the Jewish mediŠval mind was rank blasphemy. To say that everything emanates originally from the Spirit of God is tantamount to the assertion that the prototypes of matter are all of them aspects or modifications of the Divine Spirit. This, again, is to put a more Jewish complexion on the doctrine of emanation, which, when carried out to its logical conclusion in the philosophy of Neoplatonism, leads to pantheism--another pitfall which our author apparently wanted to avoid.

That such a construction is a tenable one is seen from the book's remark, "The last of the Sefirot unites itself to its first just like a flame is joined to the candle, for God is one and there is no second" (i. 5). The offence of recognising 'two Divine powers' (shŕtÚ-rě-shooy˘t) was always a terrible one to the Jewish mind. Again, all the numbers from two to ten are derived from the unit, one. Even so does all the multiplicity and variety of forms, types, etc., in the cosmos find its highest consummation, its ultimate home and goal, in the Unity, viz. God. Here, again, we see how an alien system of number-mysticism is drafted into the fold of an essentially Jewish type of mysticism, viz. that clustering round the cardinal notion of the Unity of God. This theme, after being elaborated by the Talmudic Rabbis of the opening centuries of Christianity, was again taken up by the mediŠval Jewish theologians, and reached the zenith of its mystical development in the pages of the Zohar and the mediŠval Kabbalah generally.

But what is the relation between the cosmic powers of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the cosmic parts played by the Ten Sefirot? The answer would seem to lie in the peculiar description which the book itself, in one place, gives to the Sefirot. The latter are, it says, 'Ten Sefirot without anything' (bŕlēē mā). In other words 'abstracts.' They are the categories of the universe, the forms or moulds into which all created things were originally cast. They are form, as distinguished from matter. Whereas the Sefirot are responsible for the first production of form, so the twenty-two letters are the prime cause of matter. All existence and development are due to the creative powers of the letters, but they are inconceivable apart from the form with which the Sefirot has invested them.

The Book Yetsirah lands us into the heart of Jewish mysticism and prepares the way for the ramified literature of the Zohar. It does this by teaching that God and the world are a unity rather than a dualism. The Sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, or, in other words, the forms and essences which make up the visible universe, are all an unfolding of the Divine, all emanations from the Spirit. God is at one and the same time both the matter and form of the universe. But He is something more. He is not identical with the universe. He is greater than it, transcends it. Nothing exists or can exist outside Him. Though immanent, He is also and at the same time transcendent. This insistence upon the Divine transcendence runs like a golden thread throughout all branches of Jewish mysticism, thus enabling it, both as a system of thought and as a phase of practical religion, to do justice at once to the 'legal' and spiritual elements which are inextricably intertwined in Judaism.

But if the Book Yetsirah gave the impulse to the great books of mediŠval Jewish mysticism, it was eclipsed by them in one great particular. The na´ve conception of the mysterious powers of letters and numbers was superseded by the introduction of theological and moral ideas. The object of discussion became not so much the relationship between the Creator and His cosmos as the relationship between God and that inner surging world of thought and emotion which we term man. How man can ascend to God whilst bound in the trammels of the flesh or after having shuffled off this 'muddy vesture of decay,' how God communicates Himself to man, imparting to him the knowledge which has its fountain-head in His own inexhaustible Being and the love which is the seal of His abiding goodness and nearness,--these themes form, roughly speaking, the staple of the Zohar mysticism which presents itself for brief consideration in the coming pages.