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‘Sefer Yesira,’ the Story of a Text in Search of Commentary

An ancient, tiny book cataloging the components of the cosmos: was it magic, Kabbalah, a philosophical treatise, or something else?

Tzvi Langermann
October 18, 2017
Inset photo: YouTube
Aryeh Kaplan in 1979.Inset photo: YouTube
Inset photo: YouTube
Aryeh Kaplan in 1979.Inset photo: YouTube

The minuscule composition known as Sefer Yesira (SY), so tiny some thought it to be meant as an amulet, is a challenging text, begging for commentary. Though the Hebrew text is very short (about 1,000 words), it has played an important role in Jewish thought, and in more recent times, in the academic study of Jewish thought. The “book” itself contains very little prose; it consists mostly of catalogs of the components of the cosmos, in groups of two (pairs of opposites), three, and seven, and their sums—10, 12, 22, and 32. The cataloged components are those making up the physical universe, the human body, and time. The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are very significant as well and are matched to the other components of the universe. The original intent of the author or authors is not known.

A book of this sort cannot be understood without commentary, and SY has been interpreted in very different ways. Some claim that it was originally meant to be a work of mystical magic, but this reading is clearly prejudiced by the kabbalistic appropriation of the text, a process which began in the 12th century, and, even more so, by a fierce turf defense by academic specialists in the Kabbalah.

I do not know if at it is at all possible to assert anything about the original authorial intent behind the text. One can, however, speak with a great deal of certainty about the way the first interpreters of SY read the book. We possess extensive commentaries, in Judaeo-Arabic and in Hebrew, written by individuals throughout the Jewish diaspora in the early medieval period. Some are famous, others are familiar mainly to specialists. Each of the following glossed Sefer Yesira, reading it as a book of science:

• Saadya Gaon (882-942), born in Egypt, made his way to the ancient Talmudic academies in Babylonia, where he headed for a time the Sura yeshiva; translated the Torah into Arabic, and wrote extensively on philosophy, language, law, and other topics.

• Shabbetai Donnolo (913- ca. 982), from Apulia in southern Italy, where Byzantine culture was still strongly felt; engaged in medicine, and astrology, and according to his own account, drew upon Greek, Arab, Babylonian, and Indian sources.

• Isaac Israeli (c. 832-c.932)-Dunash ibn Tamim. Like Saadya, Israeli was born in Egypt, but he moved west, settling in what is now Tunisia, where he achieved great fame as a physician and medical writer. His pupil Dunash also contributed to the commentary, and is named as its author in many manuscripts. The best efforts of scholars have not succeeded in disentangling the contribution of Dunash from that of his teacher.

• Yehudah ha-Levi (c. 1075-1141), consummate poet, and author of the Kuzari, still one of the most repercussive defenses of Judaism. Born in Spain, he felt he could not be true to himself unless he personally visited the Land of Israel, which played a pivotal role in his thought. It is very likely that he succeeded in making the journey, though the circumstances of his demise are unknown.

• Elhanan ben Eiyahu, working ca. 1200 in far-off London. Though he was influenced by the early German pietists (“Hasidei Ashkenaz”), his lengthy commentary on SY, like those of the others in this list, reads SY as a book of science.

Note that all the people named above read into SY the science of their own day, even where SY clearly builds upon a theory different from theirs. Most notable in this regard are the theories of the elements. SY recognizes three, though all the medieval interpreters insist upon finding in SY the four Empedoclean elements universally accepted in the medieval period.

A mammoth sea change in the interpretation of SY was initiated by the Isaac the Blind (“Sagi Nahor,” of late 12th-century Provence), certainly one of the seminal figures in the spread of the Kabbalah. Isaac was the son of Abraham ben David of Posquières, wealthy head of a yeshiva, the initiator of learned criticism of Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, and someone with a serious interest in mystical experience.

Isaac’s commentary on SY is the subject of a brilliant, and as yet unpublished, dissertation by Marc Sendor (Harvard, 1994). Though Sendor’s thesis is mentioned here and there in the academic literature, its overall impact on scholarship has been minimal. Yet Sendor has contributed immensely to the study of some pivotal issues, and I find the lack of recognition infuriating. In the paragraph that follows I exhibit the salient points of his thesis:

Isaac the Blind was the first person to identify the 10 sefirot, usually translated as “emanations,” mentioned at the beginning of SY with the sefirot of the Kabbalah. It is not at all clear just what the original intent of that term was, but all agree that it did not refer to the sefirot that feature so prominently in the Kabbalah itself. At the same time, however, Isaac did not reject the philosophical-scientific reading established by earlier commentators. Instead, he built upon it; in his day, Kabbalah and philosophy were alternatives, not enemies, as they would later become.

From the point of view of hermeneutics, Isaac ascribed to the authors of SY a very high degree of intentionality, thus justifying his “atomic” reading, squeezing loads of meaning out of every word. This stands in contrast to the earlier strand of commentators, who as a rule saw SY as a textual coat rack upon which they could hang the science of their day.

Appealing to the theories of Paul Ricouer, Sendor argues that Isaac successfully executed the task of negotiating the dissonance between the ancient text and the “mystical” geist of his own time. In this way, he sealed the appropriation of SY by the Kabbalah.

Meanwhile, the Jewish philosophers had increasingly less reason to pay attention to SY. With a huge corpus of Hebrew books on sciences now at their disposal, made up of translations of from Arabic and Latin as well as a considerable number of original works by Jewish authors, they could safely put aside the sparse and enigmatic text of SY. From the 13th century on, SY was more or less the sole property of the Kabbalists.

Sendor’s assertion that Isaac the Blind’s exegesis was so complete and successful that it left nothing more for others to do should be tested. However, the full and successful appropriation of SY by the kabbalists cannot be doubted. How could anyone, especially after the “rediscovery” of the Zohar, look at a tract whose first two words in the second paragraph are “10 Sefirot” and see there anything but Kabbalah?


Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) too saw SY as a book of Kabbalah. Leonard Martin Kaplan was born in the Bronx and brought up in a nonobservant home—so detached, indeed, from Jewish tradition, that young Len was unable to say kaddish for his parents because he could not read Hebrew. Eventually, he mastered the language so well as to be able translate many works, including SY, and write a book of his own philosophy in the holy tongue. Kaplan earned a degree in physics and worked for a while as a project director at the National Bureau of Standards. He left that employment for a series of positions in the rabbinate; he also abandoned “Len” to write under his Hebrew name, Aryeh. Though he died before he reached the age of 50, his literary output was enormous (it is listed in a two-part annotated bibliography by Baruch Rabinowitz).

Kaplan brought to his study of SY a skillset not possessed by earlier Kabbalists, and lacked by many in academia as well, especially advanced training in mathematics. He had a knack for textual research as well, delving into the various versions of SY and their printings; he also consulted some manuscripts. His commentary makes use of his diggings in libraries as well as his mathematical prowess.

With regard to the latter, Kaplan found the five-dimensional hypercube a useful tool for fleshing out deeper meanings. That particular form suits SY because it has 32 vertices. Thirty-two is a very significant number in SY. The sum of the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 numerals (or Sefirot; are they the same?), it is the number of “paths of wisdom” according to the opening paragraph in SY. Added significance is found in the fact that the alphanumerical value of lev, “heart,” is 32. Three dimensions of the hypercube are those found in our material world, the fourth is time, and the fifth serves as an interface between the material world and the spiritual world.

Not all of Kaplan’s mathematical insights are original. He drew some of them from a little-known, unpublished commentary to SY, Even Shoham, written by Isaac Ibn Sayyah, who worked in Jerusalem and Damascus early in the 16th century, shortly before the Ari (the kabbalist Isaac Luria). The unique manuscript is housed at the Israel National Library in Jerusalem. In a television interview aired in 1979, Kaplan said that he turned to manuscripts to learn about meditative Kabbalah because he couldn’t find what he needed in printed books. During his studies at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, I suspect, he made the short trip to the National Library in the pursuit of manuscripts.

I believe that Kaplan was drawn to Even Shoham by the description given by Gershom Scholem in his catalog of kabbalistic manuscripts at the Israel National Library in Jerusalem. Scholem heaps praise on Ibn Sayyah’s study of permutations, dubbing it “things not be found in any other book.” Ibn Sayyah fleshes out the intimate connections between the permutations of letters and the doctrine of emanation, observes Scholem, adding that “his method is far removed from the superficial writers like Cordovero; everything that he [Sayyah] writes about this is interesting.”

It is perhaps illuminating to recall that Scholem himself had a strong background in mathematics; at one point, he even considered making his career in that discipline. Kaplan shared with the great pioneer in the study of Kabbalah mathematical training, certainly useful knowledge when examining permutations. The only contemporary academic scholar of Kabbalah to have similar training in mathematics I know of is Michael Schneider of Bar Ilan.

Kaplan’s book on Sefer Yesira has been studiously ignored by academic specialists in the Kabbalah. His “academic” research into manuscripts, editions, and textual variants is certainly not cutting-edge but it is still useful. If he is considered a commentator, his exposition is no less worthy of study, and possibly no less influential, than other 20th-century glossators, such as Rabbi Ashlag. Kaplan, in fact, seems to be as alert, or more so, than many professors about the nature of commentary. In the preface to his Book of Creation, he observes:

The earliest commentators tried to interpret it [SY] as a philosophical treatise, but their efforts shed more light on their own systems than on the text. The same is true of efforts to fit it into the system of the Zohar or the later Kabbalists.

Yes, the commentator always brings something of himself to the commentary; and when glossing a text as sparse and enigmatic as SY, the commentary will reflect, nearly in its entirety, the views, affiliations, and education of the commentator. This holds just as true for Aryeh Kaplan as it does for the earlier philosophers and later kabbalists; they all reveal more about their own systems than they do about SY. However, and this is a very sensitive point in academia, it equally true for Yehuda Liebes, professor emeritus at Hebrew University, renowned scholar of the Kabbalah and author of a repercussive book-length study on SY. As I have shown in a review essay, his claims about context and meaning are supported by a very shaky methodology, and much of what he says can easily be dismissed. Nonetheless, as a statement of Professor Liebes’ weltanschauung filtered through the lens of SY, his Ars Poetica in Sefer Yetsira is an exquisite addition to the literature.

Unfortunately, though, the academic establishment does not look at things in that way. In their view, any comparisons between Liebes and Kaplan is near heresy. True, Kaplan’s hypercubes seem much more far-fetched that Liebes’ parallels with Philo of Alexandria. Neither claim, however, stands up to the close scrutiny of the historian; both, however, are precious specimens of 20th-century Jewish thought. Both Liebes and Kaplan, each in his own way, arrive at the conclusion that SY is a meditative text.

When Isaac the Blind first groomed SY for the Kabbalistic stall, as we have seen, he neither ignored nor rejected earlier philosophical commentary. He did not claim any proprietary rights to the book. Instead, he artfully applied his hermeneutical talents to ease SY, along with some of its philosophical baggage, into the kabbalistic camp. Academicians of our own day would be well-advised to follow his lead. All serious attempts to ferret out the original meaning of this challenging text, or to instill it with new meaning—most writers attempt to do the former, but succeed mainly in the latter—should be given a fair hearing.


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Y. Tzvi Langermann is a Professor in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University.