The Sefer Yetzira

HaVaYaH our Ruler, How glorious is Your Name throughout the earth, while Your majesty is expressed above the heavens. You have put strength into the mouths of little babies and children [i.e. the power of speech given to man] in order to still your enemies and adversaries. When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established: What is man that You remember him and the son of man that You take account of him? Yet You made him only a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him power over the works of Your hands. You have put all things under his feet. Sheep and oxen, all of them, and also the beasts of the field. The fowl of the air and the fish of the sea; whatever passes through the paths of the seas. HaVaYaH our Master, How glorious is Your Name throughout the earth!

Psalm 8

Abraham gave expression to his perceptions in his Sefer Yetzira, the "Book of Creation (or Formation)", the most ancient of all known kabbalistic texts. (For full English translation and commentary, see Sefer Yetzira: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser Inc. 1990.)

The Sefer Yetzira is a short work of six chapters, each consisting of an average of about ten paragraphs in the style of mishneh -- concisely-expressed oral traditions handed down from generation to generation (presumably with some editing on the way.) The original Hebrew is terse, intense, vivid and pregnant with allusions and overtones.

While the Sefer Yetzira can be studied as a teaching about how to look at nature, it is many, many other things besides. It is one of the most important of all kabbalistic works, providing the keys to the entire kabbalah system both as a way to view the world and as a practical pathway of meditation, prayer and devotion leading to supreme levels of divine connection, prophecy and spiritual power.

Underlying the scheme of the Sefer Yetzira is the idea that "from my flesh I see God" (Job 19:26): namely, the structure and functioning of the human form gives us insight into God's relationship with creation as a whole. For man is "made in the image of God", and therefore features of our very bodily make-up -- such as the bipolarity of right and left, the design and arrangement of the brain, heart, lungs, stomach, liver, kidneys and other organs, etc. -- reflect in microcosm key aspects of the macrocosmic universe.

Man is distinguished from all other creatures by the complexity and subtlety of his vocal apparatus. Man's ability to build a limited number of basic sounds into innumerable different meaningful words and thought-structures has enabled him to develop the most amazing array of social, cultural, economic, technological, scientific, intellectual, artistic and other products of human inventiveness and creativity throughout the ages. Not only is speech the basis for our interactions with each other. It is also the basis for our ability to communicate with our very selves and with God.

Abraham's insight was that speech is actually the foundation of the entire creation. In the words of the Psalms: "By the word of HaVaYaH the heavens were made and through the air (wind, spirit) of His mouth all their hosts..." (Psalms 33:6).

When a human being performs a willful action, underlying the visible outward behavior is an inner intention or idea in his mind that gives this action meaning. The person may express his intention to others in words, or it may remain concealed within his mind. Even within our minds, our thoughts are expressed on some subtle level in words. The words of thought are built out of "letters" just as are the words of human speech.

Abraham grasped that just as all this applies on the level of the microcosm -- individual human thought and action -- so it must apply on the level of the macrocosm as well. The physical "actions" manifest in the creation all around us are outward expressions of meaningful Divine intentions. Just as human thoughts and intentions are expressed in letters, the building blocks of words, so too are the thoughts and intentions of God. The fundamental building blocks of the creation are the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The entire creation is a communication from God to man. The universe is thus a SePheR ("book"): the "book" is the medium through which the communication is made. The book has its SoPheR, the Writer. He is both source of the actual "book" and Author of the message of the book, which is the SiPPuR, the "story."

The entire SiPPuR or "story" comes about because underlying forces emanating from God begin to interact with one another to bring about the Creation. These fundamental forces are the SePhiRot, the root spiritual forces underlying all creation, spiritual and physical. The power of the Sephirot radiates to the creation through the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These are the building blocks of creation. Innumerable different combinations of letters govern the structure and functioning of all of the different aspects of creation.

The underlying spiritual structure or essence of anything is in Hebrew called its TzuRa, "form" -- as opposed to its ChoMeR, "substance". Thus the potter takes primal, formless matter -- clay -- and shapes it into a vessel having form, purpose and utility. The potter who creates the form and inscribes it in the clay is in Hebrew called the YoTzeR. The act of formation or creation is called YeTziRa.

Abraham's SePher YeTziRa is a quest for the inner wisdom underlying the TzuRa, the form of creation as a whole, as designed by the Master Artist, God, Creator of all the worlds. For when man discovers the secrets of the letters that power the spiritual and physical creation, man himself gains the power both to influence the existing creation and to bring new creations of his own into being.

God struck His Covenant with Abraham and commanded him to cut the sign of the Covenant into his very flesh by removing the foreskin of the membrum (Genesis 17, 1-27). Circumcision is a sign of our willingness to control our innate materialism and selfishness in order to elevate ourselves so as to become co-creators with God. On the physical level this includes curbing the sexual urge and elevating it in order to bring pure, holy children into the world so as to bring humanity to its destiny.

But Abraham grasped that God's Covenant applies not only to man's sexual creativity but even more to his mental and spiritual creativity through the organ that distinguishes him from all other creatures: his mouth. When man is willing to train and discipline his mouth and dedicate it to the work of holy speech, prayer and devotion, He becomes God's partner in creation as a whole.

From the Sefer Yetzira

Chapter 1:

Invocation of God; Basic concepts of the "Book", the "Writer", the "Story" and the Ten Sefirot corresponding to the ten fingers/ten toes.

With thirty-two mystical paths of Wisdom engraved Yah the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, the Living God, King of the Universe, El Shaddai, Merciful and Gracious, High and Exalted, Dwelling in eternity, Whose name is Holy -- He is lofty and holy -- and He created His universe with three books: with A Book, A Writer and A Story.

Ten sefirot of nothingness and twenty-two foundation letters: three Mothers, Seven Doubles and twelve Elementals.

Ten sefirot of nothingness, in the number of ten fingers, five opposite five, with a singular covenant precisely in the middle, in the circumcision of the tongue and in the circumcision of the membrum.

Ten Sefirot of Nothingness, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven. Understand with Wisdom, Be wise with Understanding, Examine with them and probe from them. Make each thing stand on its essence, and make the Creator sit on His base.

Ten sefirot of nothingness. Their measure is ten which have no end. A depth of beginning, a depth of end; a depth of good, a depth of evil; a depth of above, a depth of below; a depth of east, a depth of west, a depth of north, a depth of south. The singular Master, God, faithful King dominates over them all from His holy dwelling until eternity of eternities.

Ten sefirot of nothingness, their vision is like the "appearance of lightning", their limit has no end, And His Word in them is "running and returning". They rush to His saying like a whirlwind and before His throne they prostrate themselves.

Ten sefirot of Nothingness. Their end is imbedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end, like a flame in a burning coal. For the Master is singular, He has no second, and before One, what do you count?

Ten Sefirot of Nothingness. Bridle your mouth from speaking and your heart from thinking. And if your heart runs, return to the place. It is therefore written, "The Chayot running and returning" (Ezekiel 1:24). Regarding this a covenant was made.

Chapter 2:

The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, elemental powers of Creation. These consist of three "mother" letters (see Chapter 3), seven "doubles" (these are the seven letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are sometimes hard, sometimes soft, such as Beit/Veit or Pe/Phe, see Chapter 4), and the remaining twelve "simple" letters (see Chapter 5). Combination and permutation of letters.

Twenty-two foundation letters: three mothers, seven doubles and twelve elementals. The Three Mothers are Aleph Mem Shin. Their foundation is a [scales with a] pan of merit, a pan of liablility, and the tongue of decree deciding between them. Three mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin. Mem hums. Shin hisses and Aleph is the Breath of Air deciding between them.

Twenty-two foundation letters: He engraved them, He carved them, He permuted them, He weighed them, He transformed them, and with them He depicted (TzaR) all that was formed (yeTzuR) and all that would be formed.

Twenty-two foundation letters. He engraved them with voice, He carved them with breath, He set them in the mouth in five places: Alef, Chet, He, Ayin, in the throat; Gimel, Yud, Kaf, Kuf in the palate; Dalet, Tet, Lamed, Nun, Tav in the tongue; Zayin, Samekh, Shin, Resh Tzadi in the teeth; Bet, Vav, Mem, Peh in the lips....

He permuted them, weighed them, and transformed them, Alef with them all and all of them with Alef, Bet with them all and all of them with Bet. They repeat in a cycle and exist in 231 Gates. It comes out that all that is formed and all that is spoken emanates from one Name.

He formed substance out of chaos and made nonexistence from existence.

Chapter 3:

The three mother letters, corresponding to the underlying Chessed (Right) vs. Gevurah (Left) polarity of the sefirotic tree, with Tiferet (Center) mediating between the two. The roots of the Chessed-Gevurah-Tiferet triad lie in the first three sefirot, Chokhmah, Binah and Daat/Keter. This root triad corresponds to the three main elements of creation, Water, Fire and Air, which are expressed through the medium of the Earth element.

Three Mothers: Alef, Mem, Shin. Their foundation is a pan of merit a pan of liability and the tongue of decree deciding between them.

Three Mothers: Alef, Mem, Shin. A great mystical secret covered and sealed with six rings, and from them emanated Air, Water and Fire and from them are born Fathers and from the Fathers, descendants.

Three Mothers: Alef, Mem, Shin. He engraved them, He carved them, He permuted them, He weighed them, He transformed them, and with them He depicted three mothers AMSh in the Universe, Three Mothers AMSh in the Year, Three Mothers AMSh in the Soul. ["Universe" and "Year" are respectively the Time and Space coordinates of Creation, while "Soul" is the inner vitality of the living creatures within that creation.]

Three Mothers AMaSh in the Universe are Air, Water, Fire: Heaven was created from Fire, Earth was created from Water, and Air from Breath decides between them.

Three Mothers AMaSh in the Year are the hot, the cold and the temperate. The hot is created from fire, the cold is created from water, and the temperate from Breath decides between them.

Three mothers AMSh in the Soul, male and female, are the head, belly and chest. The head is created from fire, the belly is created from water, and the chest, from breath, decides between them....

Chapter 4:

The seven "double" letters correspond to the seven "lower" sefirot (Chessed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malkhut). These sometimes express themselves in a mode of Chessed (soft), at other times in a mode of Gevurah (hard).

Seven doubles: Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Peh, Resh, Tav: they direct themselves with two tongues, Bet-Bhet, Gimel-Ghimel, Dalet-Dhalet, Kaf-Khaf, Peh-Pheh, Resh-Rhesh, Tav-Thav, a structure of soft and hard, strong and weak.

Seven doubles: BGD KPRT, their foundation is Wisdom, Wealth, Seed, Life, Dominance, Peace and Grace.

Seven doubles: BGD KPRT in speech and in transposition. The transpose of Wisdom is Folly. The transpose of Wealth is Poverty. The transpose of Seed is Desolation. The transpose of Life is Death. The transpose of Dominance is Subjugation. The transpose of Peace is War. The transpose of Grace is Ugliness.

Seven Doubles: BGD KPRT, Up and Down, East and West, North and South, and the Holy Palace precisely in the center and it supports them all....

Seven Doubles, BGD KPRT, Seven and not six, Seven and not eight, Examine with them and probe with them, Make each thing stand on its essence and make the Creator sit on His base.

Seven doubles: He engraved them, He carved them, He permuted them, He weighed them, He transformed them, and with them He formed Seven Planets in the Universe, Seven days in the Year, Seven gates in the Soul, male and female.

Seven planets in the Universe: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon; Seven days in the Year [i.e. time]: the Seven days of the week. The seven gates in the Soul, male and female, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth....

[The Sefer Yetzira goes on to detail the individual "double" letters and their corresponding planet, day of the week and human attributes. See original text.]

Seven Doubles BGD KPRT: with them were engraved Seven universes, seven firmaments, seven lands, seven seas, seven rivers, seven deserts, seven days, seven weeks, seven years, seven sabbaticals, seven jubilees and the Holy Palace. Therefore He made sevens beloved under all the heavens.

Chapter Five:

The twelve simple letters corresponding to the twelve constellations of the Zodiac, the twelve months of the year, and twelve basic human functions.

Twelve Elementals: Heh, Vav, Zayin, Chet, Tet, Yud, Lamed, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Tzadi, Kuf. Their foundation is speech, thought, motion, sight, hearing, action, coition, smell, sleep, anger, taste, laughter.

Twelve Elementals: H V Z Ch T Y L N S O Tz Q: Their foundation is that He engraved them, carved them, permuted them, weighed them and transformed them, and with them He formed twelve constellations in the Universe, twelve months in the Year and twelve directions in the Soul, male and female.

Twelve constellations in the Universe: T'leh (the Ram, Aries), Shor (the Bull, Taurus), Te'umim (the Twins, Gemini), Sartan (the Crab, Cancer) Arieh (the Lion, Leo) Betulah (the Virgin, Virgo), Maznayim (Scales, Libra), Akrav (the Scorpion, Scorpio), Keshet (the Bow, Sagittarius) Gedi (the Kid, Capricorn), D'li (the Water Drawer, Aquarius), Dagim (the Fish, Pisces).

Twelve months in the year: Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar.

Twelve directions in the soul, male and female: the two hands, the two feet, the two kidneys, the gall bladder, the intestines, the liver, the esophagus, the stomach, the spleen.

[The Sefer Yetzira continues detailing each of the twelve simple letters in relation to its corresponding constellation, month of the year and "direction" of the soul. See original text.]

Houses of Prayer

Dedicated study and contemplation of the profound teachings in the Sefer Yetzira will open many horizons in understanding the view of Creation brought into the world by Abraham. The schema of the Water, Fire and Air elements as expressed through the Earth element is found throughout later biblical, talmudic, midrashic, kabbalistic, chassidic, philosophical and other Judaic writings. Abraham's astrological system is implicit in many important Jewish religious practices throughout the year [see the classic 18th century text, B'ney Yissaschar.]

Yet the Sefer Yetzira is far more than a book of "spiritual science", unveiling the mysteries of the Universe. First and foremost it is a book with a practical purpose. It sets forth the basis of the Jewish system of prayer, which uses letter-combinations in the form of words and sentences to actually influence and change the creative process.

When we pray to God -- as Abraham did many times -- we become co-creators with God, building the world with letters and words. Thus the Sefer Yetzira states:

Two stones build 2 houses. Three stones build 6 houses. Four stones build 24 houses. Five stones build 120 houses. Six stones build 720 Houses. Seven stones build 5040 houses. From here on go out and calculate that which the mouth cannot speak and the ear cannot hear (4:16).

The "stones" are the letters of speech: the building blocks that make up our words, especially those of our prayers. Two letters can be permuted in two ways: for example, Aleph-Bet (AV, father) or Bet-Aleph (BO, Come). Three letters can produce six permutations, four can produce one hundred and twenty, and so on... When we combine letters into words and express ourselves in multiple different ways in prayer, we are able to bring immeasurable blessing into the world.

Being alone, Abraham never had a teacher: he lived before the Torah -- the "teaching" -- came in the world. Since he was the first, Abraham's only way to find God was through the yearnings of his heart, which he poured out in prayer. Abraham is the archetypal Cohen (Priest), who serves God through prayer, service of the heart. Abraham laid the foundation of this pathway for all time -- for his descendants and for all humanity.

Abraham was the pioneer. The end goal and purpose was to build the House, the place where mankind will unite in the service of God through prayer. But before it would be possible to build the House, it was first necessary to prepare the building blocks and stones. These are the letters that build the words, the "Houses of Prayer".

Abraham was the first. He was the one to hew the stones out of the mountain-rock in order to build the House.



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