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Situating the Text

  • Marla Segol
Chapter
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Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

The Sefer Yetsirah (SY), Book of Creation, is a mystical cosmogony that describes the creation of the universe with the letters of the alphabet and the sefirot, a term that the book never does define. The book was written as a narrative response to Genesis 1 and to other late-antique accounts of letter magic.1 Genesis begins with a spoken decree, and the SY narrates the construction of the letters necessary for speech and describes their function in the creative process. It is, therefore, an account of the mechanics of creation. The SY is an unadorned book, with few words (from 1,300–2,500, depending on the version), written in very simple Hebrew. Yet Moshe Cordovero, a famous sixteenth-century kabbalist,2 wrote of this work: “The words of this book are deep, high, and hidden from the stare of those who study it, notwithstanding that many have tried to explain it.”3

Keywords

Sacred Text Early Commentator Hebrew Letter Interpretive Tradition Hebrew Alphabet 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For more information on the late-antique context of letter magic, see Naomi Janowitz, Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Pardes Rimonim, Gate 1: Chapter 1. Fabrizio Lanza, trans. (Colombo, Italy: Providence University, 2007).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    A. Peter Hayman, ed., Sefer Yesira: Edition, Translation and Text-Critical Commentary. Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2004. SY61, 183.Google Scholar
  4. 22.
    Elliot Wolfson, The Theosophy of Shabbetai Donnolo. Jewish History 6, no. 1/2 (1992: 281–316, 287.Google Scholar
  5. 25.
    Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice (Boston: Weiser Books, 1997), xv.Google Scholar
  6. 26.
    Joseph Dan, The Early Jewish Mysticism (Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1993), 39–40.Google Scholar
  7. 27.
    The dating of the poetry of Elazar ben Kallir is far from resolved. Some place him as early as the fifth century, while others say he lived as late as the ninth. Saadyah Gaon mentions Kallir in his first work, a Hebrew dictionary which he called Agron, composed in 902 (Saadya Gaon, Agron, ed. N. Allony [Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1969], 23, 154). He mentions ben Kallir again as an “ancient” poet in his commentary to the SY (written in 931) entitled Kitab al-Mabadd (Kafab, ed. [Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1972], 49), (ibid., 86). See also Ronald Kiener, “ The Saadian Paraphrase,” 12, n43. Most accept a seventh century date, while those advocating a sixth-century date include Joseph Dan and J. L. Fleischer. For the periodization of the piyyu literature,Google Scholar
  8. see Ezra Fleischer, Hebrew Liturgical Poetry in the Middle Ages (Jerusalem: Keter, 1975), 10–13.Google Scholar
  9. See also L. J. Weinberger, Jewish Hymnography: A Literary History (London and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1998), 7–9.Google Scholar
  10. See also Michael Rand’s article, “Clouds, Rain, and the Upper Waters: From Bereshit Rabbah to the Piyyutim of Eleazar be-rabbi Kallir,” Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism, 9, no. 1 (2009): 13–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 31.
    J. L. Fleischer, “On the Antiquity of Sefer Yezirah: The Qilirian Testimony Revisited,” Tarbiz 71 (2001–2002): 405–432 (in Hebrew).Google Scholar
  12. 37.
    Why this insistence on Saadya’s part to show that both the SY and his commentary are philosophical works? The answer may be sought in the area of polemics, namely, that this insistence is a response to some challenge, in the form of some other commentary or commentaries. (Ruth Link-Sallinger, ed. A Straight Path [Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988], 6.)Google Scholar
  13. 39.
    George Vajda’s French reads: “mais nous avons deja qu’il pouvait y avoir dans ce livre es passages alteres que le patriarche Abraham [n’a jamais enonces] provenant des commentaires en hebreu, auxquels des gens ignorants ont ajoute posterieurement un autre commentaire et la verite se perdait entretemps.” Le Commentaire sur La Livre de Creation de Dusnas ben Tamim de Kairouan (Xe Siecle). Nouvelle edition revue et augmentee par Paul Fenton, 2002, Collection de la Revue des Études Juives (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), 129. Hebrew text, 242, andGoogle Scholar
  14. Manasseh Grossberg, Sefer Yetzirah ascribed to the Patriarch Abraham with commentary by Dunash Ben Tamim, published from MS Oxford 2250 London: 1902, 65. See also Kaplan, who quotes Rabbi Yaakov ben Nissim, who also wrote in the tenth century: “People write Hebrew comments on the book, and other foolish people come later and comment on the commentary. Between them, the truth is lost.”Google Scholar
  15. Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah, Weiser Books, New York: 1997 xxiii.Google Scholar
  16. 41.
    He also attributes the work to Abraham in his “Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah,” MS Jerusalem, National and University Library, 8, 2646, fol. 42a. Idel, “Golem,” 198, 202. In Adolphe Franck’s edition, Saadia Gaon begins his Arabic preface with the following words: “This book is called: Book of the Beginnings; it is attributed to our father Abraham (peace be with him).” (Salomon Munk, Notice sur R. Saadia Gaon, Paris, 1858, 20–29).Google Scholar
  17. 42.
    According to Scholem, the SY is attributed to Rabbi Akiva from the thirteenth century onward. See Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah Plume Publishers, New York: 1995, 28. Phineas Mordell argues that some thirteenth-century commentators (Bodleian Codex 1947) attributed the SY itself to Joseph ben Uziel, grandson of Ben Sirach. Mordell also argues that Ben Uziel was himself the author of the Sefer Yetsirah. This is based on a misunderstanding by the thirteenth-century Italian scribe and kabbalist, Menachem Recanati.Google Scholar
  18. Phineas Mordell, “The Origins of Letters and Numbers,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 2 [April 1912]: 517–544). The article is continued in the next volume, 3 (April 1913): 479–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 43.
    See Raphael Jospe, “Early Philosophical Commentaries on the Sefer Yezira: Some Comments,” Revue des etudes juives 149 (1990): 369–415, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Elliot Wolfson, The Theosophy of Shabbetai Donnolo. Jewish History 6, no. 1/2, (1992): 281–316.Google Scholar
  21. 44.
    See Eitan Fishbane, “Authority, Tradition, and the Creation of Meaning in Medieval Kabbalah: Isaac of Acre’s Illumination of the Eyes,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72, no. 1 (2004): 59–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 45.
    See Colette Sirat, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages, ed. and trans. Nicholas de Lange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002).Google Scholar
  23. 46.
    Also included is a lost work by Isaac Israeli. Fragments of this work appear in ibn Ezra’s commentary. See R. Jospe, “Early Philosophical Commentaries on the Sefer Yezira: Some Comments,” Revue des Etudes Juives 149 (1990): 369–415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 49.
    Talmud, Sanhedrin 67a, cited in J. Neusner, There We Sat Down (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), 80.Google Scholar
  25. 53.
    See Moshe Idel’s foreword to the 2004 ed. of Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). On page xiv, Idel writes that “the performative nature of the vast majority of the forms of Judaism facilitated the acceptance of magic as another form of performance, as an interpretation of the efficacy of rabbinic rituals.” In it he defines as intrinsic magic those forms of effective action that are recognized by institutions, and as alien magic those that are not.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 54.
    For more information on this, see Harry Austyn Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  27. 65.
    See Elliot Wolfson, “The Theosophy of Shabbetai Donnolo, with Special Emphasis on the Doctrine of Sefirot in Sefer Hakhmoni,” Jewish History 6 (1992): 281–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 66.
    See Gershom Scholem’s and Moshe Idel’s distinction between ecstatic, theosophic, and magical streams of the kabbalah. Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, 4, still uses these distinctions, but because theosophical and practical texts share similar worldviews, it seems necessary to reconsider these categories. Scholem proposes them in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1946), 124. Moshe Idel examines these attitudes in his essay, “The Contribution of Abraham Abulafia’s Kabblaah to the Understanding of Jewish Mysticism,” in Joseph Dan and Peter Schaefer, eds., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: 50 Years After, Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1993, 127.Google Scholar
  29. 67.
    See Rachel, Elior, Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom (London: Littman, 2007), 115.Google Scholar

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© Marla Segol 2012

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  • Marla Segol

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