The Letter forms: How Did He Combine Them?

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


This chapter explores the function of the letterforms in the Sefer Yetsirah (SY). As discussed in the previous chapters, letter combination performs a practical function in the SY. They are the building blocks of creation, used by both human and divine actors. The SY situates the powers of the letters both in the divine and in astrological forces, so that letter combination acts upon God and the cosmos at large. The primary texts vary in crucial details, so they tell different stories about the significance of the act; for human operators, letter combination earns divine favor, salvific knowledge, and/or prophecy. Yet the text does not explain well why or how this works, or the role of astrological forces in the efficacy of letter combination. As such, this chapter aims to better understand the nature of the letters, the source of their power, and their intended application by examining the texts of the SY, relevant Biblical and postbiblical scriptural literature, and the early commentaries on the work.


Human Operator Human Language Letter Combination Divine Action Human Destiny 
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  1. 1.
    See A. Peter Hayman “Was God a Magician? Sefer Yesira and Jewish Magic,” Journal of Jewish Studies 40, no. 2 (1989): 225–237. He argues that in the SY, there are two principal images of God, as an artist and as a magician. He argues that at the end of the text, “Abraham functions like a magician who by his knowledge of the correct formulas can compel the gods to appear and do his bidding.” Hayman, “Was God a Magician?,” 234. Thus human magicians emulate the divine and actually become capable of exercising influence over God.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Job 38 uses many architectural metaphors to describe the creation of the world. In 38:4, God asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In 38:6 it is asked: “Who laid its cornerstone?” (JPS translation). For a history of the narrative of the even shetiyah, the foundation stone, see D. Sperber, “On Sealing the Abysses,” Journal of Semitic Studies 11 (1966): 168 f.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 6.
    A. Peter Hayman, ed., Sefer Yesira: Edition, Translation and Text-Critical Commentary (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2004), SY13, 85; SY40, 135.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Naomi Janowitz, Icons of Power: Ritual Practices in Late Antiquity (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002), 24.Google Scholar
  5. 19.
    Bruce Lincoln. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 6.Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    The letters become powerful when people pronounce them because it is a speech act. See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).Google Scholar
  7. 46.
    Piergabriele Mancuso, Shabbetai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Marla Segol 2012

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  • Marla Segol

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