The Mysteries of a Founding Text of Jewish Mysticism

April 8, 2019 | Shai Secunda
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Sefer Y’tsirah (“The Book of Creation”) is one of the oldest works of Jewish mysticism, the first to introduce the doctrine of the ten emanations (in Hebrew, sfirot) of the godhead, and a major influence on all later kabbalistic works. Tradition attributes it to the biblical Abraham, and a book with the same title is mentioned in the Talmud. But among academic scholars there is no consensus about its authorship, except that it was composed no later than the 9th century CE. Reviewing a new book by Tzahi Weiss about Sefer Y’tsirah’s origins, Shai Secunda writes:

[Sefer Y’tsirah] was creatively read against the grain by determined rationalists such as the 10th-century Babylonian rabbi Saadia Gaon, who understood it as disciplined cosmological speculation. And it inspired Gentiles, too, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco.

What attracted this readership of kabbalists, philosophers, writers, and dreamers? For one, it was the book’s arresting thesis that the basic components of mathematical and verbal language, the letters and numbers that make up human speech and equations, are the very elements through which God fashioned the universe. At least as important is Sefer Y’tsirah’s idiom, which helped this obscure and extremely concise text—it weighs in at just a couple thousand words—secure a permanent place in the canon of Hebrew literature. . . .

[A]s Weiss demonstrates, classical rabbinic literature does not share this text’s alphabetology, where all of the letters, from aleph to tav, make up a kind of divine periodic table. In the religious writings of late antiquity, this [sort of thinking] can only be found in the Syriac Christian literature of northern Mesopotamia, where an ancient interest in the generative powers of the divine alphabet flourished, having overcome earlier opposition by Neoplatonists and Church Fathers.

Weiss contends that Sefer Y’tsirah applies the Syriac Christian alphabetology to the singular language of Hebrew. He argues that the text emerged from a barely known northern Mesopotamian Jewish community at some remove from rabbinic Babylonia, located to the south. . . . The thesis seems compelling, and Weiss may indeed have finally solved the problem of Sefer Y’tsirah’s original context. Yet, one cannot avoid the sense that Weiss’s straightforward scholarly detective work is a poor interpretive fit for a text that revels in mystery, repeatedly invoking its “ciphers of restraint” and “substance from Nothing.”

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