Carlo Suares: The Sepher Yetsira: Framework of the Book

THE SEPHER YETSIRA is composcd of about 250 lines divided into six chapters. The first has 14 verses; the second, 6; the\ third, 8; the fourth, 12; the fifth, 4; and the sixth, 4.

The first 8 verses of the first chapter deal with the Sephirot (transformers of energy) in general. The following verses, to the end of the chapter, deal individually with the concept of "transformers" of infinite energy on all planes of existence.

The second chapter, in its six verses, describes the function of the twenty-two letters, known as the Autiot. The fifth verse, in particular, says that the states of living energy designated by Aleph and Bayt are contained in and contain everything that exists.

The third chapter establishes the basis of the letters (or Autiot). It describes the nature of three of them, Aleph-Mem- Sheen, called "Mothers."

The fourth chapter concerns the seven double letters. These are: Bayt-Vayt, Ghimel-Gimel, Dallet-Thalet, Kaf-Khaf, Pay- Phay, Raysh-Raysh and Tav-Thav. (The doubles differ from one another according to whether they have a dot or not, and generally are pronounced differently.) These 7 doubles "trace" 7 extremities, 7 "days" of the year, 7 planets, as well as the 7 orifices of the face.

The fifth chapter deals with the 12 simples which complete the alphabet. They connect with the different functions of the human body as well as with the 12 ridges of the space-cube which "open and go towards eternity and are the world's arms," and with the 12 signs of the Zodiac.

Finally, the sixth chapter is about the "Three Fathers" and associates them with fire, air and water. It refers back to the 7 doubles and the 12 simples , and finishes with the verse concerning Abraham, which has been cited above.

It is useful and interesting to note what different authors have said about The Sepher Yetsira.

According to Mr. Enel (Trilogie de la Rota ou Roue celeste, Editions Paul Derain, 1960), The Sepher Yetsira is "A superhuman work" (p. 121), because "in its allegories, numbers and correspondences it contains all the cosmological sciences and their reflection in man, the prototype of the uni- verse.

In writing (p. 59) that The Sepher Yetsira is about "the creation of the world," Mr. Enel commits a grave error in his premises: this work deals with the "formation," or structura- tion, of energy and does not mention the creation of the world.

Besides, it is difficult to see how Mr. Enel can assert that "The Cabbala is a philosophical system upon which all the sciences are based, and whose laws it formulates" (op. cit., p. 60). It seems more exact to say that the Qabala could (and no doubt should) be the base of the unifying epistemology that is missing from our physical sciences and from our attempts at an ontology. The concept of unity, which was the original source of primitive knowledge, got lost during the beneficial process of evolution. It is true that we could, by detaching ourselves from certain archaic mental habits, re- discover this unity in the Qabala, in Genesis and in The Sepher Yetsira. But Mr. Enel, who comes so close to the cor- rect perception of the ciphered code, drowns us again in a dubious theology, from the fact that instead of deciphering, by means of the code, the equation Elohim, he translates it God, "thinking" it God, and remains in the myth of "a divine individual spirit incarnated in matter."

According to Mr. Henri Serouya ( La Kabbale, Grasset 1947): "The language of The Sepher Yetsira is very obscure. Its propositions are aphoristic" (p. 41). However, he does recognise its inmportance: ' 'This fundamental work has given rise to numerous commentaries, some of which are most penetrating, on Judaic literature ... ideas coming from this doctine have much relevance to metaphysics ... its expressions tend to be too abstract, even too detailed, in deliberately and radically brushing Anthropomorphism aside. It appears to have no resemblance to Pythagoras' ideas ... Its inspiration seems to come directly from the Bible (especially from Genesis and Job) and not from Greek philosophy" (p. 129). "The Sepher Yetsira is not ... the simple symbolism of ten numbers and twenty-two letters of the alphabet . . . Neither is it a simple homily: it is a philosophical system. However analogous its cosmogony is with Clement's and the Gnostics' its gnosticism is no more harmful than theirs, because it does not propound any religious or philosophical dogma, and it protects itself from all the extravagances of the Gnostics" (p. 137).

The "innocent" character of this gnosis, its radical and deliberate rejection of all anthropomorphism, its distinctness from religious doctrine are well brought out by Mr. Serouya.

Jn his excellent little book, Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai et la Cabbale (Editions du Seuil, 1961), Mr. Guy Casaril gives a succinct and accurate exposition of the Qabala, enlightening the reader on its aim if not on its knowledge: "Through the intermediary of The Sepher Yetsira (Book of Formation) the cabbala studies by letters the ancient doctrine of the genesis of the world, as well as the concept of the hierarchy of the Sephirot" (p. 39). From pages 43-49 Mr. Casaril gives a partial translation of The Sepher Yetsira, differing from the one upon which we are relying. Thus, he translates the verse we have cited, Adon Hakol, as "Master of All." (In the present degraded condition of our language he is not to be reproached for this.) His version ends thus; "and he said of him: 'Before even having formed you in the womb I knew you' " (Jeremiah 1,5). This interpolation is not in the least astonishing. Never having been a canonical work The Sepher Yetsira has undergone so many versions that not one of them can claim to be the original. Let us acknowledge that Mr. Casaril gives Yetsira its real meaning: Formation.

The different versions of The Sepher Yetsira are not really a hindrance. Mr. S. Karpe explains this in his Eludes sur les origines et la nature du Zohar (Alcan, Paris 1901): "There have always been very divergent texts of The Sepher Yetsira. The one translated and commented on by Saadyah is far from being identical with Sabbatai Donolo's, which, in turn, is widely different from Jehudah bar Barzilai's. Given these divergencies we adopt the prevailing version in the Jewish tradition, although it is probably not the original version. For us it is more a philosophical than a philological study; in this connection the version we have adopted is of very great interest. To confront all the variations would require a volume to itself. That is not our aim . . ." (p. 138). Nor is it ours. We have glanced at two or three versions and chosen the one that seems to be best known; its imprint is: Copyright by Lewin- Epstein Ltd., Printed and Published in Israel, Jerusalem P O B 1020. But the choice is of little importance. Does not the text invite the cabalist "to understand, to meditate, to examine, to experiment, to speak to the Creator" and "to restore the moulder of forms to his rightful place"? (1,4).

The cabalist is someone who, without preconceived ideas freely "plays the game" of Aleph-Bayt without an intermediary: "He speaks to the creator of the Sephirot." In other words qbe joins in the unique creative movement. But we must understand that contact is where our "name" is, in "the rightful place" of our structure. It is up to the cabalist to discover his "name," to know his "sphere." He is a psychologist, or an artist, or philosopher, or interested in social questions. In short, entrance to "the game" begins when the cabalist becomes aware of his own individuality. At the same time he must stop reiterating religious or other teachings. The "game" will reveal itself to him from the way he treats its elements: it is a movement, a vibration of the different living forms which "come and go" (Sephcr Yelsira 1,8), and the cabalist can become the receiver and transmitter of this cosmic movement. Then the Qabala, in all its comnplexity, becomes comprehensible.

One sees why the Qabala camc to be synonymous with obscurity. Its source has been polluted by everything foreign to it -- Mosaism, Christianism or scholasticism. Probably unprejudiced people did not wish, or were unable, to reveal it.

The elements of the "game," we now know, are letters and numbers. Concerning this S. Karppe states (op. cit. p. 161): "There are no clear traces of Pythagorism in The Sepher Yetsira. Pythagorism makes number itself the material and form of the world. But in The Sepher Yetsira number in itself is nothing; it is neither the material nor the form of number; it does not determine the quality of number; it determines only the Sephirot and the letters, and it is the Sephirot and the letters which are the essence of things."

This seems to be a correct but incomplete explanation. It is true that numbers define the meaning of the letters and the Sephirot, but each number has a name and these names have their meanings. Karppe's analysis ends on a confused note: "The Sepher Yetsira contains no trace of pantheism; The Sephirot are 'bound to one another,' but in their entirety are cut off from God" (p. 162).

The last assertion contradicts the very basis of the Qabala which considers that the universe and its life are a single endogenous phenomenon, Introducing monotheism, in default of finding pantheism in it, is equivalent to separating life from living beings. Not much is known of this "God" mentioned here, "entirely cut off" from the Sephirot, which are states of life.

In his work Le Miroir de la magie (Editions Fasquelle), Kurt Seligrnan, quoting froxn Judas Halevi on The Sepher Yetsira, writes: "This book teaches us that only one God exists, by showing that amidst variety and multiplicity there are a harmony and a sequence which derive from a single ordinator. The Sepher Yetsira reveals the formation of the Universe created and maintained by the One, and of every- thing emanating from him" (p. 270).

That is true, provided that the word God, which ("mythifies" the Name without explaining it), is suppressed, for it inevitably transforms it into a person. As for the Qabala, one can write down the equations Ayn-Sof, Yah, YHWH, and many other complex ones, without giving them a thought, just as in mathematics one automatically writes the sign 00 of infinity.

The works of Professor G. G. Scholem must now be mentioned: Les Grands Courants de la mystique juive (Payot, Paris, 1950), and La Kabbale et sa symbolique (Payot, Paris, 1960). Representing "enlightened Judaism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries," and siding with "rational theology," Mr. Scholem provoked the exaggerations to which this way of thinking gave rise, classifying everything under the false category of "mysticism."

Mr. Francis Warrain, in the preface to La Theodiqee de la Kabbaie (Vega, 1949) begins by examining this mode of ex- pression and thought as objectively as possible: "The ancients expressed themselves in concrete terms; their knowledge was more intuitive than ours and automatically they had a tendency towards synthesis, the natural end of thought fore it is necessary to discover an equivalent abstract conception n concrete terms, and in images conforming to those in the ancient doctrines. Attempting to find a parallel does not imply that the ancients wished to disguise an abstract conception under a concrete symbol. It does not claim to discover how the ancients thought about the metaphysics winch they were describing; "it seeks for an abstract idea, conforming to our mental attitudes, which correspond with things they have indicated."

Cabalists and alchemists often disguised their thoughts from fear of being an arrested and condemned as heretics, but that sublime experience felt by the mystic once he was absorbed In thc mystery of the alphabetical combinations described in 'The Book of Creation' (sic)." No doubt he means "The Book of Formation."

In Le Nombre d'or (Gallimard, 13th edition, 1959), Matila C. Ghyka writes: "Dating from the Xth century one can find the legend of the creation by 'geometrical greatness' of an homunculus with the help of the Sepher letzirah, expressed in letters taken from the 'Schem Hamephoras' (divine names in the sephirotic triangle)" (note on page 155 T: l.) and (ditto, pp. 153-154). "The technique of creating the 'homunculus' by the inbreathing of 'pneuma' and by the insertion of a magic written word into the clay doll has gone without alteration into the hebraic Kabbalah through the Sepher letzirah, or Book of Creation (sic), and has been the source of the legends of the creation of an homunculus in the Middle Ages, especially of the whole 'Golem' cycle in Prague."

These anecdotes have no connection with our subject. What is important is to become aware of a very ancient knowledge and see to what extent it has qualities of perception which we lack. Thus, Mr. Francis Warrain writes: "Ancient knowledge and modern knowledge are somewhat as opposite as are geo- metrical drawings and mathematical analysis. What the one expresses with lines the other defines abstractly ... only by reading the texts and, above all, by meditating on them could we enter into communion with the idea in the ancient doctrine trine. It is by re-thinking the text, and not by following the literal meaning that this assimilation will come about ... conceptions having more or less the same narrow parentage as the scphirot are to be found throughout all the esoteric doctrines of antiquity ... If this parentage has an identical source, the fact that this doctrine has been universally accepted shows that it offers the most satisfactory solution to the problem of the Absolute" (p. 70). This reasoning is not satisfying. But even this "solution" (a perplexing word) should be understandable and intelligent.