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Leo Baeck


Sefer Yetzirah

translated by Scott J. Thompson*


Translator's Preface

I. Basic Concepts of the Book Yetzirah

II. The Ten Sefirot in the Sefer Yetzirah


* [Translated from: Aus Drei Jahrtausenden, Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1958, pp. 256-271; Part One originally appeared in Monatsschrift für die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (MGWJ) LXX (1926), 371 ff. and Part Two appeared in MGWJ, LXXVIII (1934), 448-455]


Translator's Preface


Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was one of the outstanding German-Jewish scholars of the 20th Century and a leader of Progressive Judaism. Born in Lezno, Poland, Baeck began his studies near Warsaw in Breslau, Germany at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in 1894. During this period he also studied philosophy in Berlin with Wilhelm Dilthey. From 1897 to 1912 and on, Baeck served as a rabbi in Oppeln, Duesseldorf and Berlin. During WWI he was an army chaplain. A scholar and a lecturer, Baeck published numerous articles in the leading German-Jewish journals of his time, such as Der Morgen and Jüdische Rundschau. When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Baeck devoted himself to defending the Jewish community as president of the Reichvertretung. In 1943 he was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp where he was named honorary president of the Ältestenrat. Surviving the holocaust, Baeck moved to London and eventually became Chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Between 1948 and 1956, Baeck visted and lectured at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. The The Leo Baeck Institute was created in 1954 as an institute for the study of the history of German-Judaism.

Baeck was an historian of religion and a philosopher, as well as a rabbi. His most famous work, Wesen des Judentums (Essence of Judaism), was published in 1905 and went through many editions in different languages. Its originally rationalist bent was subsequently revised to incorporate a place for 'mystery' and the mystical. In his entry on Leo Baeck in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1974), A. E. Simon calls Baeck's view of Judaism essentially "a dialectical polarity between 'mystery' and 'command'":

The commands, according to Baeck, do not necessarily form a system of commandments like the established halakhah, which imposes a required and fixed way of life; rather, they appear from time to time like flashes of lightning that break through the cloud covering divine 'mystery.' [Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 4, Jerusalem, Keter Publishing House, 1971, 77-78].

'[L]ike flashes of lightning' (Heb. k'mareh ha-bazaq) is a central concept in Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), concerning which Leo Baeck devoted two concise and challenging essays written between 1926-1934, testimony to the importance this work had for him. Baeck's volume of essays Aus drei Jahrtausende (From Three Millenia, 1938) containing Baeck's essays on Sefer Yetzirah was thrown into the fire by the Nazis. This urgent context of world-historical conflagration and holocaust (Baeck's second essay on "The Ten Sefirot in the Sefer Yetzirah" was written the same year as the Röhm putsch) makes Baeck's penetrating analysis of this mystical-magical text all the more poignant and intriguing.


In his seminal work Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), creator of modern Kabbalah scholarship, Gershom Scholem dismissed Leo Baeck's work on Sefer Yetzirah as unconvincing:

L. Baeck has tried to show that the Book of Creation is a Jewish adaptation of certain basic ideas of Proclus, much as the books of Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite are a Christian one, cf. MGWJ vol. 70 (1926) p. 371 - 376; vol. 78 (1934) p.448 - 455. But his reasoning is not convincing, although his thesis looks fascinating enough... [Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York, Schocken Books (5th printing), 1971, p. 368]

Scholem's Kabbalah (1974) was even briefer in dismissing Baeck's analysis:

Leo Baeck tried to prove that Sefer Yetzirah was written under the Neoplatonic influence of Proclus, possibly in the sixth century. The Hebrew style, however, points to an earlier period. [Scholem, Kabbalah, New York, New York Times Book Company, 1974, p. 26].

In his Origins of the Kabbalah (1962, English trans. 1987), however, Scholem's dismissal of Baeck has been tempered with second thoughts, and it is clear that Scholem has been carefully considering Baeck's ideas:

Leo Baeck's hypothesis that the author wished to reproduce in Hebrew garb Proclus's doctrine of Henads, seems unsubstantiated, and its author has to resort to forced interpretations. Nevertheless, on some points of detail Baeck's interpretations appear plausible and valuable. [Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, trans. Allan Arkush, Princeton, 1987, p.29, note #46].

Pointing to the lack of detail in the arguments put forth against Baeck by unspecified 'Hebräisten,' classical scholar Philip Merlan called attention to Scholem's ambiguity vis-a-vis Baeck regarding the Greek influences on Sefer Yetzirah:

Immerhim gibt Scholem zu, dass Sefer Yezira von griechischen Quellen beeinflusst ist ["Nonetheless, Scholem admits that Sefer Yetzirah has been influenced by Greek sources," Philip Merlan, "Zur Zahlenlehre im Platonismus (Neuplatonismus) und im Sefer Yezira," Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. III, 2, 1965, 167-179].

Merlan's own analysis of Sefer Yetzirah in the context of Neoplatonic number theory leads him to the conclusion that:

Ersetzen wir das Wort "Proclus" durch "Proclus und seine Gesinnungsgenossen im Neuplatonismus," so scheint die These Baecks im wesentlichen richtig zu sein. ["If we were to replace 'Proclus' with 'Proclus and his like-minded compatriots in Neoplatonism,' Baeck's thesis would seem to be essentially correct," op. cit., 181].

Whether Baeck's thesis is correct or not concerning Proclus and his school as the historical origin of Sefer Yetzirah, the value and plausibility of his detailed analysis has been acknowledged by both Merlan and Scholem, and the essay deserves to be read by those for whom the German remains inaccessible. Readers familiar with Scholem's work will find it particularly valuable as a contribution toward the clarification of what may be Greek terms dressed in biblical imagery, for as Scholem himself has noted, "Various peculiarities of the terminology employed in the book, including some curious neologisms which find no natural explanation in Hebrew phraseology, suggest a paraphrase of Greek terms..."

On the transliteration of the Hebrew:

The Greek and Hebrew characters were kept in the original version of this translation and are essential to understanding the text. To put the text on-line, however, I have temporarily resorted to transliteration. Hebrew transliteration has yet to be successfully standardized. The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Alef, can also be written as Aleph. Bet can be written Bayt or Beit. The very title of our book in question here has appeared in a very wide array of variations: Sefer Yetsira, Sepher Yetzirah, Sepher Jetzira, The Book Yetzirah, Book of Formation, Book of Creation, to name some of the most frequent. The present transliteration is entirely provisional and will no doubt be frequently revised. ----SJT

I. Basic Concepts of the Book Yetzirah

The Sefer Yetzirah has a peculiar place in the history of Jewish mysticism. It marks the first attempt to form a system of mystical natural philosophy. It also has an equally important place in the history of the Hebrew language. For the first time, concepts from Greek philosophy were independently fashioned and expressed through the medium of the Hebrew tongue. The vividness characterizing mystical speech in general and allowing it to creatively regenerate the language also proves itself in this book.

A few examples ought to illustrate and at the same time explain that Sefer Yetzirah, in its thought as well as in its terminology, is dependent upon the teaching of Proclus, the last great Neoplatonist. Furthermore, the decisive passages of the Sefer Yetzirah are none other than the transference of this Greek scholastic's system into Jewish thought and biblical language.


In the first chapter of the book, ten Sefirot b'limah are named with the twenty-two letters, which together trace the paths [n'tivot] [1] through which the Creation comes to fulfillment, and many of the paragraphs in this first chapter begin emphatically with the words "ten Sefirot b'limah". What are these ten Sefirot, which appear as something already familiar in Midrash Bemidbar Rabba [VII,14], and which became a permanent concept of Jewish mysticism? In his edition of Sefer Yetzirah, Lazarus Goldschmidt explains them as "the abstract numbers which are both a Nothing and a Something at the same time." [2] Bloch translates it as: "Numbers closed in themselves" and elucidates this as: "without anything and thus abstract, purely for themselves alone."[3]

The neologism Sefirah, which replaces the customary mispar (number), indicates that the numbers mentioned here are not the numbers of mathematics.[4] We can infer that this term is meant to render a special concept. As the peculiar word, Sefirah [5], it names a very particular kind of number. The identity of the concept transferred to this new word comes into view when we focus on the meaning of the ten Sefirot in our book. They are depicted here as the highest principles manifesting the Godhead's activity in the world. Proclus himself speaks of the "miraculous numbers," [überwesentlichen Zahlen] which are a determining part of his system. He locates them between the primal essence [Urwesen] and the Intelligible and gives them the special term autoteleis henádes. The henáds depict the mediating transition from the original unity to multiplicity, like the ten Sefirot in our book. It is all the more likely, then, that to render these henáds in a definite expression, our author constructed the term Sefirot.[6] When the epithet b'limah [7] is attached to the word Sefirot it is evidently intended to render the attributes of absolute simplicity which Proclus uses in his attempt to elucidate the essence of these henáds: autoteleis amigeis, autaì kath' eautás. [8] The word b'limah corresponds quite literally to amigeis [pure or unmixed]. The selection of a biblical term [Job XXVI,7] [9] to render this concept fully accords with the style of the rest of the book, for which the following example can also serve as evidence.


The sixth paragraph of the first chapter contains one of the most important statements: eser Sefirot b'limah tsviyatan k'mareh ha-bazak v'takhlitan ain l'hen qetz u'dvaro va'hen b'ratsoh va-shov ulma-amarov k'sufah irdofu v'lifneh kiso hem mishtahavim. Goldschmidt translates: "Ten numbers without something, their appearance is like a lightning flash, their destination is endless, His word is with them in their running and returning and they hurry after His command like a whirlwind; and they prostrate themselves before His throne."[10] Bloch translates this paragraph in the following manner: "Ten numbers closed in themselves --their appearance like the occurrence of a lightning flash and their destination has no limit; He leads them in a circular path and they pursue His word like the storm, and before His throne they prostrate themselves."[11] To bolster his interpretation, Bloch adds the remark that u'dvaro ["and His word"--SJT] is derived from the Aramaic dabar [to lead], and that ratsoh va-shov is to be understoood as "outward and return," or in other words as an expression for 'circular.' Neither translation is able to explain what is being expressed by this sentence.

Its meaning will be grasped only when it is realized that here, too, our author is trying to express a particular concept from the philosophy of Proclus through the words taken from the Merkabah [chariot] chapter of Ezekiel [I,14]: ratsoh va-shov.[12] Proclus's system is modelled upon the doctrine of triadic development which had already been prefigured in the philosophy of Plotinus. According to this triadic development, the utterance [Hervorgebrachte] is just as much connected to as it is differentiated from the one who utters it [Hervorbringenden].[13] On the one hand it 'remains' in its cause, on the other hand it 'emerges' from it, and yet again, because the cause has imparted itself to the utterance, the utterance 'turns toward' its cause. It is a characteristic of this system that all formation [Werden, growth] is in this circular movement of the emergence from the cause and the return to it. All formation of things from the first principle occurs in this triadic law of the moné,the Being of the utterance in the utterer, the próodos, the emergence from the cause, and the epistrophé, the return to the cause. All cognition is a cognition of this triad.

This, and nothing more, is what is being said in our sentence of the Sefer Yetzirah. The próodos and the epistrophé appear here as ratsoh va-shov. The words d'varo v'hen ["His word is with them"] designate the self-imparting in which the moné is given. The utterer imparts himself to the utterance; his creative power is in it. With a penchant for pictorial synonyms, which is a hallmark of our book, the most important concept of the triadic system, the epistrophé, has been reformulated in the biblical phrase and once more brought to expression in the poetic sentence: "His creative word they pursue like a whirlwind,"[14] and then with the other image which says the same thing, "and before His throne they bow themselves." [15]

All that is now in need of explanation are the words v'takhlitan ain l'hen qetz ["Their destination is to them no end."]. A motion whose destination means no end is circular motion. It is the circular motion of the triad in which, for Proclus, all development comes to pass. The image for this, which was supplied by the Merkabah passage in Ezekiel [I, 14], is presented by the flash of lightning; it emerges from the originating cause and yet abides in it and returns to it again. To represent the continuity of this motion more definitively, our book directly adds the other likeness drawn from the Merkabah chapter: "Their end is infused in their beginning and their beginning in their end like a flame attached to a glowing ember."[16] Once again it is the image of a circle which emanates from God and returns to Him.[17]

At this stage the translation of our sentence that now emerges is the following: "The ten unmixed [unvermischten] numbers are to be looked upon[18] as the appearance of the lightning flash: their destination is to them no end. God's creative thought remains in them so that they emerge from it and return to it; His creative word they strive after like the whirlwind and before His throne they bow themselves."


Understanding our paragraph in the preceding discussion will also clarify the meaning of the one that follows it: [19] "Ten numbers, unmixed, that is closed and to you means: close your mouth, that it not speak, and your heart, that it not ponder. And if the word of your mouth runs to speak and the thought of your heart to ponder, then return to the 'place'; for the biblical sentence has said: 'the hayyot ran and returned,' and concerning this [20] the covenant was made."

Just as the law of growth was the subject of the preceding discussion, these sentences represent the law of knowledge. For Proclus, all dialectical cognition is a cognition of the triadic movement, i.e. maqom ratsoh va'shov; it is thus based on the fact that the understanding which issues forth into the manifold always returns again [21] to the first origin, to the 'place' [22]; that it leads the manifold back to the unity and thus comprehends the 'covenant', the union with the One.

Above this knowledge, however, above what he calls this 'truth', there is for Proclus something even higher, the pistis, faith, [23] which is a silence, a mystical quietude within the ineffable; for it is through faith that the soul is placed in God. This faith is signified by the words blom pikha ["close your mouth"], and the last chapter of the book which glorifies Abraham is a reference to them, i.e. that Abraham had this faith and that he acquired creative power through it. [24] What our paragraph is thus trying to say clearly emerges as the following: if you would possess the highest knowledge, have faith in silence. If you are not yet capable of it and would seek the 'truth', you will find it by leading everything back to its origin.


The third paragraph of the first chapter has always given the interpretors particular difficulty. To solve it, the meaning of the words brit yahid mekhuvenet b'emtsa must first be understood. First of all, just who is referred to by yahid ['sole' or 'single'] is shown in the comparison with parallel phrases in our book: v'Adon yahid El Melekh n'eman moshel b'khulam Mimon Qadsho ("And the sole Master and lofty King faithfully governs them all from His holy dwelling"---SJT) as well as sh'Adon yahid v'ain lo sheni [25]("And the Master is solitary, and without a second"---SJT). The comparison indicates that it is God who is denominated by these words. To indicate the absolute unity of God, in contrast to the unity of the first number [26], our author, following a phrase from the Haggadah [27], chose the word yahid to refer to the primordial one or autóen [28] of Proclus. The phrase brit yahid accordingly refers to the union with the primordial one.[29]

In addition, what has been declared concerning brit yahid, that it is mekhuvenet b'emtsa ["to be determined in the center"], also becomes clearer, especially when a parallel passage is referred to which speaks of the six extensions and the holy temple in the center which carries them all. [30] Following the example of Plotinus on this point, Proclus had referred to the primordial essence as the kéntron, the central point [31] which rules and determines the entire circle of that which exists. [32] A connection with the primordial One is therefore a connection to the central point, and this is the subject of our sentence.

Our author wants to exhibit it in the form of a symbol. Just as the macrocosmic decad finds its microcosmic analogue in the human body with its ten fingers above and ten toes below, by the same token this determining central point has its analogue in the organ of the word, the center above, and the organ of the circumcision, the center below. Both of these are also designated by the word brit (covenant, connection). [33]

Our sentence is therefore to be translated as follows: "The ten unmixed numbers correspond to the number of the ten fingers, five against five, and the connection with the primordial one, which being firmly fixed by the central point corresponds to the word of the tongue and the circumcision of the nakedness."[34]

The sense to which the basic concepts of our book lead thus demonstrate how the Sefer Yetzirah has been influenced in a decisive manner by the philosophy of Proclus. If this evidence has been adduced, then the time when our book originated has been answered. The terminus ad quem is firmly established since Aaron ben Asher used it and Sa'adia had already written a commentary on it. The furthest terminus a quo would therefore be the time of Proclus, i.e., the fifth century C.E. It is the last rather than the first of these two time periods which will allow us to draw closer to the book. This also proves to be approximately the same epoch in which Zunz had placed it on the basis of its linguistic characteristics. [35]

This dependence of our book is also significant in terms of intellectual history. At the waning of the ancient world, and casting his shadow far into the distance, stands the figure of Proclus. By way of the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, Proclus had an influence on the Christian Middle Ages. In the Jewish Middle Ages, however, the influence of Proclus was felt in Sefer Yetzirah.


II. The Ten Sefirot in the Sefer Yetzirah

It has been shown how the fundamental teachings of the Sefer Yetzirah, such as those regarding the Sefirah, the law of the triad, the path of knowledge and the central point, have been decisively influenced by the philosophy of Proclus. In the following exposition this argument is resumed with the individual Sefirot as its focus.


Speaking in an emphatic-liturgical style so characteristic of our book, the ninth and tenth paragraphs of the first chapter concern the first two Sefirot. The Sefirah 'One' is called 'Spirit of the Living God'(Ruach Elohim Hayyim) and 'Holy Spirit' (Ruach ha-Qodesh). Sefirah 'Two' is called 'Spirit of Spirit'(Ruach m'Ruach). [36] This bifurcation of the spirit cannot be derived from a chain of reasoning within Judaism, whether the sources be Haggadic or mystical. By comparison, the philosophy of Proclus, and it alone, can make the significance of these two concepts and the reason for distinguishing between them clearly identifiable.

One aspect of Proclus's teaching particularly characterizes his philosophy, and in this he diverges from his predecessors: he posits above reason still another special faculty of the soul. The consideration which led to this idea is the following. Since like can only be known by like, according to the well-known principle of Empedocles, that which in the Divinity [Göttliche] is highest cannot be grasped by the actual powers of thought, but only by a power which exceeds thought. Now since the first Divinity is equivalent to the highest Unity, it can only present itself to a particularly undivided aspect of the soul. Proclus gives this undivided aspect a vivid name. Sometimes it is called the 'flower of the intellect,' a phrase from the so-called Chaldean Oracles, 'anthos tou nou,' other times it is called 'summit of the soul,' akrotes tes psyches [37]. Only by virtue of 'what is undivided in our nature' ["Einheitliche unseres Wesens"], 'to en tes ousias emon,' do we reach up to the Divine; it alone mediates the union with the primordial One.[38]

It is to this conceptual separation of a higher intelligence from the actual intellect that our author's work corresponds here when he separates a higher Spirit from the Spirit which emerges from it. That he should refer to this first 'summit of the Spirit' as the 'Holy Spirit,' the 'Spirit of the Living God' is in accord with his unique task of translating concepts of Greek philosophy into biblical thought and language. The Jewish tradition was accommodating to this nomenclature; in the 'Holy Spirit' of both the Bible and the Targum was contained the power of prophecy, the highest revelatory knowledge, in which the One, God, was revealed to man.[39]


Actual intellect is called 'Spirit from Spirit' (Ruach m'Ruach) by our author, and this term fits well with the principle in Proclus that the second always takes part in (participates) the first. [40] Regarding this intellect it is said: [41] "Ten numbers closed in themselves, transcendent [überwesentlich] --- Two is Spirit from Spirit. In it He ordained twenty-two primeval signs [42] [to] be inscribed and decisively engraved: [43] three mothers, seven doubles and twelve simples." This sentence, too, leads back to Proclus.

According to the system of Proclus, a plurality first emerges from the oneness within the nous, this actual intellect which is a thinking of the first. It is a plurality encircled by unity. This is the world of the paradigms, of the intelligible ideas or, what amounts to the same thing, of the intelligible numbers, which represent the connecting link between unitary, intelligible and intellectual worlds. [44] This is precisely what our sentence says as well: a first plurality comprised of the intelligible number-ideas was inscribed in the 'Spirit from Spirit.' Our author calls it by the name Autiot, which can be defined as numbers and paradigms as well as letters and ciphers. When he gives the name 'mothers' to the first three of this Autiot, this can be referred back to Proclus also. Following his customary practice of positing metaphysical suppositions and religious representations in one another, according to which numbers are at the same time gods, Proclus refers to those primordial numbers [Urzahlen] for which the próodos [45] [the bringing forth] is decisive (in contrast to the abiding center and the return to it) as three goddesses, the maternal forces. [46] Likewise, our author could have modelled the seven doubles of the Hebrew alphabet on the planetary hebdomad, which for Proclus is the basis for the order of the intellectual gods who mediate the transition of the Intelligible to divided Being.[47]


It is said of the following Sefirah that,"Three is Water from Spirit. He ordained a Tohu and Bohu, mud and clay to be hewed and engraved. He ordained them be engraved like a garden bed, positioned like a wall and covered like a kind of fortification."[48]

The philosophy of Proclus is the first to lead to an understanding of this sentence. The triadic order of his system, which proceeds uninterruptedly to the point of monotony, is also introduced into the totality of the thought process. What his predecessor, Plotinus, considered the one Intellect, nous, Proclus divides into three spheres: the Intelligible, the noetón, which he equates with Being; the Intellectual-Intelligible, the noetón ama kaì noerón, which he also refers to as Life; and the Intellectual, which he equates with Thought.[49] Concerning Life, which for Proclus is "that which is brought forth," tò próion apò ton archon [50], he says that its symbol is water. [51] Our author's phrase 'Water from Spirit' could have been selected to correspond to the Intelligible Life which follows from Intelligible Being. At the same time, he could have been following a haggadic sentence, according to which water, spirit and fire were created before the world.[52] He also concurs with Haggadic interpretations of the Genesis verse on "the Spirit that hovered upon the water."[53] By the same token, Proclus himself could have found support in the predecessor whose words he occasionally cites, i.e. Numenius of Apamea, who once cited the same verse of Genesis mentioned above; [54] the same Numenius for whom his master Plato had been "an Attic-speaking Moses," Mouses attikízon. [55]

The philosophy of Proclus also makes it possible to comprehend what our author, following the primordial signs in the Spirit, has now had correspondingly categorized in the 'Water'. Our sentence calls it "Tohu and Bohu, mud and clay." As such it is clear that the point of comparison here should be something which is mingled (mixed). Proclus's teaching makes it perfectly clear what is intended here. It refers to what is the first actual thing [das erste Wirkliche], the first which is [das zuerst Seiende], tò prótos ón, which may therefore be called ousia, substance [Wesen] [56] , as the mingled, tò miktón. It is the result of bound and infinity [limit - unlimited] [57] , and it belongs with both of these to the first intelligible triad. [58] What Proclus calls the 'mingled' appears in our sentence as "Tohu and Bohu, mud and clay," and 'garden bed,' 'wall,' and 'building' are presented as similes for the product of boundary and infinity. It is now unmistakable what this simile signifies.


The twelfth sentence refers to the following Sefirah: "Four is Fire from Water. He ordained to be engraved and hewed from it a Throne of Glory, seraphim and ophanim, hayyot and angels His ministry."[59]

A Haggadic tradition has something to say about this first of all; the higher substance was thought to have been fire according to an ancient perception. [60] This could be connected to an idea found in Proclus, and associated with the old Stoic teaching about fire, that the bodies of the gods are to have been taken from the finest immaterial light [61] , which was capable of penetrating everything.[62]

The decisive factor here, however, is something else: the division of the Sefirot is once again consistent with the system in Proclus, for whom the first triad pertained to the intellectual-intelligible gods (and here he believed that he was following in the footsteps of Plato's Phaedrus), the region above the heavens [63] which was called the 'Throne of Glory' by the Jews. What was a reference to the uppermost Intelligible in the preceding sentences, now refers in this sentence to the uppermost heights of the Intellectual-Intelligible.


The last six Sefirot are referred to in the thirteenth paragraph: "Five---He sealed the height and He caused to issue above. . .; Six---He sealed the depth and He caused to issue below. . .; Seven---He sealed the east and He caused to issue forwards. . .; Eight---He sealed the West and He caused to issue backwards. . .; Nine---He sealed the south and He caused to issue to the right. . .; Ten---He sealed the north and He caused to issue to the left. . ."[64]

Everything in this paragraph acquires its definite character from the teaching of Proclus. To begin with, the idea of sealing. It is Proclus's intention to explain in an image the méthexis, the participation in the higher realms by which means something is filled with the idea. In addition to having recourse to the old platonic image of the mirror, he makes use of that image which Philo and Plotinus had already been fond of using, [65] the seal. The ideas are what is sealing [das Siegelnde]; they give 'a trace and impression of themselves,' íchnos ti eauton kaì typon. [66] The image in our book is used in precisely the same way. The Sefirot are the transcendent unities of spacial extension; they are its seals which have been imprinted by the Creator so that "His word is in them," as was said in an earlier passage. [67] They are not equivalent to space itself in its six extensions, but as its transcendent unities they are simply its seals. That which in earlier sentences had been designated as 'inscribe' and 'engrave' is referred to here by the word for extension, 'turn towards,' extend, or cause to issue, ph'neh. The basis of the conception of space in this passage likewise refers back to Proclus, for whom space was something divine and animated, a finest light, the spherically-shaped, all-pervading and undivided body of light of the cosmos. [68] This is exactly what space is for our author: it is from Fire, [69] issuing from the transcendent unities, the Sefirot. [70]

With the teaching of the Sefirot, which the Sefer Yetzirah introduced to Judaism, a problem entered Jewish mysticism which has remained a perennial one ever since, namely, the problem of how the One, the Creator, released from Himself the opposites and differences. However much the content and nomenclature of the Sefirot changed in later ages, the problem was always the same. Regarding this problem, one feature and defining characteristic of our book has remained a constant in the tradition of Jewish mysticism: its thought has adhered unswervingly to the one sole God, as He has been proclaimed in the Bible, and this applies equally to the problem in the present case. Because of this adherence, the dangers of pantheism and pancosmism have remained distant ones.

Another idea to which our book testifies was later firmly adhered to within the totality of Jewish mysticism: the idea of Israel as chosen. It is Abraham who was called to mystical knowledge, as our book concludes. He is the one to whom the Sefirot were revealed and who reached the point in the center. It is with him and his descendents that God made a covenant. In so doing, a danger of mysticism was averted. All mysticism emphasizes the individual in isolation from the community, and this can easily lead to an antagonistic relationship. [71] Through clear and constant emphasis upon this idea of 'the chosen,' the individual was made aware of his place within the community and his intimate connection to it.


[1] Sefer Yetzirah I,1: "In thirty-two marvelous paths of wisdom Yah, Lord of Hosts,...traced"). It is possible that the word n'tivot ("paths") is a translation of the Greek stoicheion , which depicts the Urprinzipien [primary or first principles] as well as the letters and the signs of the zodiac. The root word of stoicheion, stoichos or "line" and its verb form stoichein, or "to advance in a row," could have meant the same to the Greek and Hebrew initiates as the word n'tivot.

[2] "die abstrakten Zahlen, die ein Nichts und zugleich ein Etwas sind," Lazarus Goldschmidt, Das Buch der Schöpfung, p. 80, n.7.

[3] "Zahlen, in sich geschlossen," "ohne irgend etwas, also abstrakt, rein für sich allein," Phillip Bloch, "Die jüdische Mystik und Kabbala" in Winter und Wünsche, Die jüdische Litteratur, III, 245.

[4] It is possible that the shloshah sefarim, the otherwise nearly incomprehensible threefold formulation of the root word sefar, are meant to designate the three classes of number distinguished by Proclus; see Zeller, Philosophie der Griechen 2, p. 862, n.5.

[5] Sefirah is the root sapir with the feminine singular ending [of the Hebrew letter Heh]. The word Sefirot is the feminine plural form with the ending [Vav-Tav]. On the connection between Sefirot and "sapphire" in the book Bahir, see Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, trans. A. Arkush, Princeton Univ. Press, 1987, p. 81.--[S.T.].

[6] A reconstruction of the word ehad ["one"], which would have been the perfect analogue to the expression henads, was dismissed because this name of the one God with respect to God's spirit obliged the book's author to preserve it unconditionally. Compare this to Sefer Yetzirah I,7 and I,9.

[7] This is a construction of b'li [without] and mah [what]. In his book Kabbalah [Jerusalem, 1974], G. Scholem writes: "According to some views, the obscure word belimah, which always accompanies the word Sefirot, is simply a composite, beli mah-- without anything, without actuality, ideal. However, judging from the literal meaning, it would seem that it should be understood as signifying 'closed', i.e. closed within itself." This idea is not original with either Scholem or P. Bloch. It can be found in the earliest extant Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah from Saadiah Gaon in the 10th Century.--[SJT].

[8] Zeller has collected a large number of examples. See op.cit. (p. 853ff.), and compare with Sefer Yetzirah I, 5: eser sh'ain l'hen ("ten without [limit] to them"). [The Greek can be translated as "teleologically autonomous, pure or unmixed, absolutely in and by themselves."--SJT].

[9] Job XXVI,7: "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place and hangeth the earth upon nothing" [noteh tsarphan al-Tohu, toleh eretz al-b'limah].

[10]Goldschmidt (p.50): "Zehn Zahlen ohne etwas, ihr Aussehen wie die Erscheinung des Blitzes, ihr Ziel ist endlos, sein Wort ist in ihnen in Hin- und Herlaufen und auf sein Befehl eilen sie wie ein Sturmwind; und vor seinen Thron werfen sie sich nieder."

[11] Bloch (op. cit., p.246): "Zehn Zahlen, in sich geschlossen--ihr Anblick wie die Erscheinung des Blitzes und ihr Ziel hat keine Grenze, er führt sie in kreisförmigen Lauf und auf sein Wort jagen sie dahin wie der Sturm, und vor seinem throne verneigen sie sich."

[12]Ezekiel I, 14: "And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning." [v'ha-hayyot ratsoh va-shov k'mareh ha-bazak].

[13]"Das Hervorgebrachte" is literally 'that which is brought forth' and can refer to 'the begotten,' 'the engendered' or 'the (word) uttered,' i.e. the object of the Hervorbringenden [lit. 'that which brings forth']---SJT]

[14] The phrase ma'amaro ['His saying"] corresponds to d'varo ["His word"] as its synonym. The creative word abides in the henáds, and they turn back towards Him. 'radaf' has the meaning which is occasionally given to it in Talmudic speech: "to strive after," "pursue," "throng," or "flock towards." Regarding the phrase k'sufah ["like a whirlwind"], see Isaiah V, 28; LXVI, 15. The self-propelling round wheel is compared to the whirlwind.

[15] What is especially noteworthy is the masculine plural form hem mishtahavim ["they prostrate themselves"] which is separated by a long sentence from "Sefirot" [fem. plural]. It would therefore be possible that the verb refers instead to davar ["word"] and ma'amar ["saying"]; the creative word emerges from God and returns to Him.

[16] Ezekiel [I,13]: ud'mut ha-hayyot mareihem k'ga'halei esh ["As for the likeness of the living creatures, there appearance was like burning coals of fire." The Holy Scriptures, A Jewish Bible According to the Masoretic Text, Tel Aviv, Sinai Publishing House, 1977, p.1131.---SJT]

[17] Sefer Yetzirah I,7: eser Sefirot b'limah na-utz sofan b'tilatan u'tilatan b'sofan k'shalhevet q'shurah b'galhelet ["Ten Sefirot b'limah: their end infused with their beginning and their beginning with their end like a flame attached to a glowing ember." Our sentence has been used by Samuel ibn Motot in his translation of the 'pictorial circle' which comprises a part of his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, Meshovev Netivot: 'sefer ha-agullot ha-ra'yoniyyot,' ed. Kaufmann, p. 2b: 'dumah l'agullot makhashavit shana-utz sufah b'takhlitah.'

[18] Regarding the meaning of the word ts'fiyah which is to be found in the book Hekhalot Rabbati as 'view' or 'appearance,' see Bloch (op. cit., p. 244, note #1). It is also possible, however, that ts'fiyah has the neoplatonic meaning here of 'flowing' or 'streaming forth.'

[19] Sefer Yetzirah I, 7: "eser Sefirot b'limah blom pikhah mildaber v'libkhah milharher v'im rahts pikhah l'daber v'libkhah milharher shuv l'maqom shelkakh n'emar v'ha-hayyot ratsoh va-shov v'al davar zeh nikhrat brit" ["Ten closed Sefirot: stop your mouth from speaking and your heart from thinking, and if your mouth runs to speak and your heart to think, return to a place of which it was said, 'and the creatures ran and returned,' and concerning this the covenant was made."---SJT]

[20] The wordplay between b'limah and blom is derived from the Haggadah Hullin 89a. See also Arukh sub voce balam [Bet-Lamed-Mem] as well as Bahya ben Asher ben Hlava regarding Deut. 33:27; his explanation of b'limah is certainly a citation from our book.

[21] Our sentence also explains a passage in a poem by Judah Halevi: "Divan," (ed. Brody III 231, Strophe 4): v'ya'aritsu shuv v'ratsoh. Just how conversant with our book Judah Halevi was can be seen in Kusari III, 17 (ed.Cassel, p. 230) and especially IV, 25. This should be compred to V,14 (ed. Cassel, 406) as well.

[22] Wordplay is involved in the meanings of maqom: on the one hand it signifies 'place', 'point of departure' and on the other 'the omnipresent', God. The meaning expressed through the words shuv l'maqom is expressed in I,4 through the words: v'hoshev yotser al-mekhono ("let the creator be seated upon his foundation"). Compare I,5: moshel b'khulam mimon kadsho ["governs them all from His holy dwelling"] with I,6: v'lifneh kiso hem mishtahavim["and before His throne they bow themselves"].

[23] Proclus, Theologia Platonis, I, 24ff. [The Theology of Plato, On-line English Translation]

[24] Sefer Yetzirah VI,15. It is worth noting that the predicate applied to Abraham in this passage, hatsav v'haqaq [hewed and engraved], is the same as that which is applied to God the Creator in I,1 and many other passages of our book.

[25] Sefer Yetzirah I,5 and I,7; compare this also with VI,2: melekh yahid b'olamo ("solitary King in His universe"), the authenticity of which has been disputed.

[26] Sefer Yetzirah I,9 and I,14: ehat Ruach Elohim Hayyim ("One: Spirit-breath of the living Elohim"---SJT).

[27] "yahidu shel olam": Bereshit Rabba XXI, 5 to 3:22, Pessikta de-Rav Kahana 29b and elsewhere.

[28] Proclus, Theologia Platonis: 2,4.

[29] The term brit yahid in Abraham ibn Ezra's commentary on Lev. I,1 is perhaps reminiscent of our book, but in his commentary it is given a stylistic sense.

[30] Sefer Yetzirah IV, 4: ma'alah u'matah mizrakh u'ma'arav tsorphan v'darom v'heikhal ha-qodesh m'khuvan b'emtsah. ("above and below, east and west, north and south, and the Holy Palace stands in the center"---SJT) In itself it would be possible to interpret the word m'khuvenet in the sense of 'analogous' [or 'respective'], as it is used in Jer Berahat 8c in the sentence bayt qodesh ha-qodeshim shel matah mekhuvan k'negid bayt qodesh ha-qodeshim shel ma'alah. But the use of the same word in this other passage of our book [IV,4], where the meaning is undoubtedly 'erected, established,' demands this same meaning here, too: "The connection with the primordial One, which is established in the central point."

[31] See the passages cited in Zeller, op.cit., p. 554, note 3 and p. 570, note 7. Regarding mekhuvenet b'emtsa, compare Plotinus, Enneads I, 7:1 dei oun ménein autò (tagathón), pròs autò d' episréphein pánta ósper kúklon prós kentron aph' ou pasai grammaí ["It must be unmoved, while all circles around it, as a circumference around a centre from which all the radii proceed," trans. S.MacKenna and B.S.Page, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.,1952, p.26].

[32] Compare this to Sefer Yetzirah I,5: moshel b'khulan Mimon Qadsho and IV,4: v'hu noseh et khulan. This kéntron (= emtsa) is analogous to m'khono in I,4; m'on qadsho in I,5; kiso in I,6; maqon in I,8; and Heikhal ha-Qodesh in IV,4. All of these expressions, therefore, are synonyms.

[33] See VI,15: v'kharat lo vrit ben eser etsba'ot yadav v'hu vrit ha-lashon u'ven eser etsba'ot raglav v'hu ha-milah ("And He made a covenant with him between the ten fingers of his hands. This is the covenant of the tongue; and among the ten toes of his feet, and this is the circumcision.")

[34] Compare p. 387, note 5.

[35] See Zunz, Gottesdienstliche Vorträge, p. 165f. Compare this to Bloch, op.cit., p. 244. This was the time during which the Hebrew language was revived as a literary language.

[36] Sefer Yetzirah: "eser Sefirot b'limah ehat Ruach Elohim Hayyim barukh shmo hu Ruach ha-Qodesh shtaim Ruach m'Ruach"

[37] Platonis Theologia I,3: tèn dè akróteta tou nou kaì ós phasi, tò ánthos kaì tèn hyparxin synáptesthai pròs tàs hénadas ton ónton kaì dià toúton pròs autèn tèn pason ton theíon henádon apókryphon hénosin. [Thomas Taylor, the English Platonist, has translated this passage in the following way: "the summit, and, as they say, flower of intellect and hyparxis, is conjoined wit the unities of beings, and through these, with the occult union of all the divine unities," The Platonic Theology, Vol. I (Books I - III], Kew Gardens, NY, Selene Books (Reprint), 1985.--SJT]

[38] In Cratylum, p. 51: tàs gàr ousías auton ---- sc. ton theon - os arrétous kaì agnóstous móno to ánthei tou nou theorein kataleípei. Ibid., p. 70: to gar ánthei tou nou kai te hyparxei tes ousías emon autois synáptesthai pephykamen. De prov. et fato, cp. 24: fiat igitur unum, ut videat to unum, magis autem, ut non videat tounum; videns enim intellectuale videbit et non supra intellectum et quoddam unum intelliget et non to autounum.

[39] Compare with In Parmenidem VI, 52: katà tàs eauton akrótetas kaì henoteas enthoustiosi perì to hen kaì eisi theiai psychaí. Regarding the 'Holy Spirit,' see Moore, Judaism I, 237f.

[40] See Zeller, Philosophie der Griechen III, 2 (5), p. 858.

[41] Sefer Yetzirah I,10: shtaim: Ruach m'Ruach haqaq v'hatsav bah esrim u'shtaim Autiot yesod shalosh imot v'sheva k'phulot u'shtem esreh ph'shutot.

[42] In our book, the term yesod refers to what is paradigmatic; that from which subsequent being [das Folgende] issues.

[43] In addition to the plays on words like milah [word, speech] and milah [circumcision] (I,3) or beli mah = closed in itself, sufficient unto itself, transcendent and b'limah = taciturnity and mysticism (I,8), double entendres are also one of our author's characteristic loves. In this case haqaq= engrave and the giving of laws, and hatsav=to hew, carve, engrave and to determine. See Spr. 8, 27f.

[44] Plat. Theol. III, 14/ IV, 28. As shown above, op. cit. (p. 382f.), the Sephirot are the transcendent numbers, the absolutely simple unities which, being differentiated according to qualities and powers, connect the One which is above existence with what exists, or to express it in other words, the primordial principle and its revelation. The Autiot yesod are the ideas, the world of the paradigms.

[45] See above, p.384f.

[46] Plat. Theol. IV,1f.

[47] Plat. Theol. V, 1f. Compare with Zeller, op.cit, p. 863.--It is also possible that the terms k'phulot and ph'shutot are ambiguously connected to the thought of Proclus in a manner characteristic of our author. For Proclus, movement is threefold, in accordance with the triadic process of growth: the circular, which befits the uppermost of what emerges, the spiral-shape of the turning back, and finally the straight line of the abiding. Compare with Hugo Koch, Ps. Dionysius Areopagita, p. 83ff. and 151f. The word k'phulot thus designates not only 'double' and 'twofold' [see Sefer Yetzirah IV, 2], but also 'surrounded,' 'curved,' i.e., spiral-shaped; and ph'shutot would therefore mean not only 'simple' but also straight-lined.

[48] I, 11: shalosh: maim m'Ruach haqaq v'khatsav bahem Tohu va-Vohu rephesh v'tit haqeqon k'min arugah khitsivan k'min khomah sakhekhen k'min ma'azivah. The word sakhekhen in this passage has its own ambiguity as well: to interweave and to effect as well as to cover and to protect.

[49] Compare with Zeller, op.cit.,p. 857f.

[50] Plat. Theol. III, 9.

[51] In Timeum 318 A: zoes gàr tò hygròn symbolon diò kaì libáda kalousin autèn (sc. the world soul) tes hóles zoogonías. Plat. Theol. IV, 15: oí leimones tes zoogonías phérousi tò hydor symbolon.

[52 ] Shmot Rabba XV, 22. Beginning.

[53] Bereshit Rabba II, 5f.; Hagigah 12a and 14b; Jer Hagigah 77a and c.

[54] Numenius cited in Porphyry, De antro Nymph. 10: prosíxanen (sc. Plato) to hydati tàs psychàs theopnóo ónti. dià touto kaì tòn prophéten eirékena emphéresthai epáno tou hydatos theou pneuma. ["They believed that souls settled upon the water, which was 'god-inspired' as Numenius says, adding that is for this reason that the prophet said, 'The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters,'" Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, trans. R. Lamberton, Barrytown, NY, Station Hill Press, 1983, p. 27.--SJT]

[55] Clemens Al., Strom. I, 342C.

[56] Plat. Theol. III, 9.

[57] Plat. Theol. III, 9. It is possible that in connection with what is said about the three mothers, Alef, Mem, Shin [III, 8ff.]: qashar lo kheter ["He placed a crown upon it"], that this refers to the boundary (limit); verb. katar = surround, circumscribe.

[58] Plat. Theol. III, 12: toiaute mèn oun . . . ton noeton é protíste triás, péras, ápeiron, miktón. Compare with Zeller op. cit. p. 855 note. Over the miktón stands the amigeis; regarding this point, see the aforementioned, p. 383.

[59] Sefer Yetzirah: arba: esh m'maim haqaq v'hatsav bah kiseh ha-kavod seraphim v'ophanim v'hayyot ha-qodesh u'malakhei ha-shuret ("Four: fire from water. He engraved and hewed a throne of glory from it: seraphim and ophanim, living creatures (hayyot) and angels, his ministry..." ---SJT).

[60] Bereshit Rabba 78,1; Shmot Rabba 15,7; Jer. Rosh ha-Shanna 58a. Compare with II Enoch 29; II Baruch 59,11.

[61] See Zeller, op.cit., p. 872. Dionysius Areopagita, whose philosophy derives from Proclus, saw God and the angels in images of fire and represented as fire forms, empyrioi schematismoi --Ep. 9, 2--.

[62] Zeller, op.cit., Notes 1. and 2. Compare this with the Stoic krasis di' ólon. From this point on, the words of Sefer Yetzirah II,6: avir she'enu nitpas are interpreted to refer to "air, that cannot be held fast."

[63] Plat. Theol. IV, 37.

[64] Sefer Yetzirah: hamesh hatam rum u'phana l'ma'alah v'hotmo b' Yod-He-Vav; shesh: hatam takhat u'phana l'matah v'hotmo b' Yod-Vav-He; shiva: hatam mizrach u'phana l'phanav v'hotmo b'He-Yod-Vav; shmona: hatam ma'arav u'phana l'aharav v'hotmo b' He-Vav-Yod; tesha: hatam darom u'phana limino v'hotmo b' Vav-Yod-He; eser: hatam zorphan u'phana lishmolo v'hotmo b'Vav-He-Yod. These six permutations of the Tetragrammaton embody the idea that a different seal of God is in the extensions of space, i.e., a different power issues from God, but it is not the entire power of God. In our book, the terms for combination with respect to permutability and variation with respect to variability are: tsaraph, hamir = interchange, combine, exchange; shaqal= balance, adjust; see II,4 and IV,6.

[65] Philo, de Mundi opificio I, 17; de migratione Abrahami I, 451 and 466; legum allegoriarum. I, 107 (Mangey); Plotinus, Enneads I, 1,7; III, 6,9.

[66] In Parmenidem V, 71ff.

[67] See above, p. 385. Compare with Sefer Yetzirah III,2: v'hatum b'shesh taba'ot ("sealed in six rings").

[68] In Rem publicam II, 197f. Compare with Zeller, op.cit., p. 71f.

[69] The derivation of the Sefirot --summarized in I, 14: elu eser Sefirot b'limah Ruach Elohim Hayyim, Ruach m'Ruach, maim m'Ruach, Esh m'maim, rum v'takhat mizrakh u'ma'arav tsaphon v'darom--corresponds to the system of Proclus when the fifth Sefirah and all the others following it are derived from the fourth = rum m'esh ["height from fire"].

[70] The Autiot of space are differentiated from the Sefirot of space; see IV,4.

[71] See Elbogen, Der jüdische Gottesdienst, supplement to the editorial remarks of the 2nd Edition, Paragraph 44, 5ff


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