The Book of Creation: Sefer Yetzirah

Sefer Yetzirah is a unique creation in the body of Jewish literature. It's a small book in terms of its actual number of words. (It was printed in two versions, but even the longer version has no more than 2,000 words.) Its influence, however, was immense. It inspired an abundance of commentaries from Kabbalists and philosophers, both of whom found in it inspiration and corroboration for their views.

Sefer Yetzirah is written in a very cryptic style, and for that reason is difficult to understand. It's composed in the form of the Mishnah, but is a mystical Mishnah. It coins terms that never appeared before in Hebrew literature. A key term in Kabbalistic literature, Sefirot, occurs for the first time in Sefer Yetzirah.

It was not uncommon for religious texts to be attributed to earlier well-known spiritual leaders who were not the actual historical authors. These works are called pseudepigrapha. Modern scholars attempt to discover the true identities of the authors by comparing the language and concepts in numerous texts.

The time of the book's composition is a matter of controversy. Until recently, scholars believed it was written in the third century C.E., but the latest research indicates it was probably created before the destruction of the Second Temple. Its author is anonymous, though it was ascribed to the patriarch Abraham. Others in the Middle Ages thought its author was Rabbi Akiva.

The book opens with the following passage: “With 32 wondrous paths of Wisdom Yah [a name of God], YHVH of Hosts, the God of Israel, the Living God and Eternal Ruler, God Almighty, Compassionate, Merciful, Sublime, Elevated, Dwelling in Eternity on High whose name is Holy engraved and created his universe… .” (Though the translation keeps repeating the word “God” in English, each Hebrew name of God is slightly different.)

The next passage elaborates on the thirty-two wondrous paths: “Ten Sefirot Bli Mah [of Nothing-ness] and twenty two letters of Foundation.” Contained in this passage are the two fundamental orientations of Kabbalah. One school focuses on the Ten Sefirot (divine emanations) primarily and the other on the Hebrew alphabet (which has twenty-two letters). We should not forget that thirty-two is also the gematria (the numerical equivalent) for lev, the Hebrew word for heart.

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