A passing remark in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) states that two rabbis created and ate a three year old calf. They did this by studying something called The Book of Creation, Sefer Yetsirah in Hebrew. One might wonder why, having gone to the trouble of performing such a feat, the two rabbis simply ate the calf. But the Talmud tells us nothing more about it.
This brief reference is the earliest mention of Sefer Yetsirah. Several hundred years were to pass before it was mentioned again. When it did resurface, in the tenth century, it was presented by its commentators as a scientific treatise on the creation of the world.
The book starts with an explanation of how the world was created, in which it expands the biblical narrative. In the biblical account of creation, in the book of Genesis, God commanded things into existence. Each time he spoke something new was created. The first creation was light, the tenth was humanity. The whole of creation was accomplished in ten acts of speech. We still regard speech as a creative activity; the magical invocation abracadabra; a word of Aramaic origin, means ‘I create as I speak’.
Speech is the instrument that creates, but speech is made up of words and words are comprised of letters. Letters therefore are the building blocks of creation. The Hebrew alphabet, the biblical language of creation, contains twenty two letters. So the world was created through twenty two letters and ten acts of speech, thirty two elements altogether. The Sefer Yetsirah calls each element a path of wisdom. Most of the book is devoted to explaining, in enigmatic language, how these different paths of wisdom combine to ensure the proper functioning of the universe.
The ten commands that God issues at creation are given a special identity in the Sefer Yetsirah. Rather than calling them commands or sayings, it calls them ‘countings’. Speaking and counting are connected in English too; the word recount means to count again, or to tell. Someone who counts money in a bank is called a teller.
The Hebrew word that Sefer Yetsirah uses for ‘a counting’ is sefira, plural sefirot. Sefira will eventually become a key term in later Kabbalah, although it will refer to concepts apparently very different to acts of divine speech. But that was centuries later. The Sefer Yetsirah just wants to contemplate the idea of sefirot as verbal and mathematical commands issued by God to bring the world into being. Not that it provides clear instructions, nor makes our task easy:
Ten sefirot without substance, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven, understand in wisdom and be wise in understanding, examine within them and search in them and place each word upon its base and set the Creator on his foundation.
Understanding these sefirot with wisdom, or being wise in them with understanding, is no mean challenge:
Ten sefirot without substance, their end is pierced into their beginning and their beginning into their end, as a flame is connected to a coal, for the Master is singular, and he has no second, and before One what can you say?
Later in the book the author introduces the secret properties of each letter, variously attributing powers to them. These powers encompass the whole of the physical and metaphysical worlds, from the planets in the sky to the orifices of the human face, from the passage of time to human emotion.
He made the letter Resh king over Peace and bound a crown to it and joined them one to another, and with them formed Saturn in the universe, Friday in the year and the left nostril in the soul, male and female.
Sefer Yetsirah is completely different to any other Jewish mystical work known to us. It concerned itself with the mechanics of the creation, how the universe was brought into being. It foreshadowed later Kabbalah, which took over many of its concepts, redefining them as it did so. For, although the quest to experience the mysteries of heaven never fully disappeared, increasingly mystics began to concern themselves with the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of the cosmos. In Jewish mysticism, Sefer Yetsirah represents the first step on this journey.