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Sefer Yetzirah

The Book of Formation

A short and enigmatic Judaeo-Gnostic text (no more than 2000 words in even the longest version), known from the tenth century, and quite probably dating back much earlier, the Sefer Yetzirah is concerned with the symbolism of numbers and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  While not directly influential in the origin of Kabbalah, it later came to be given much status, and is still one of the central texts of modern Hermetic Qabalah


The Sefer Yetzirah

Professor Bryan Griffith Dobbs

posted on the Donmeh mail list

The SEFER YETZIRAH exists in more manuscript copies than any other work in Hebrew, apart from the scrolls of the Torah.  Essentially, the manuscripts may be arranged into four families from which derive four distinct printed versions.  When considering the work in translation, it is essential to know upon which printed version the translation is made and from which manuscript or family of manuscripts the printed version derives.  Three of the versions were in existence as early as the 10th century.  Variants are the result of the usual scribal errors, misreadings and the confusion of marginal glosses with portions of the text proper.

The first version, usually called the Saadia version, dates from the 10th century and exists in Saadia's Arabic translation [with commentary, translated into French by Lambert and thence into English by Scott Thompson].  The earliest surviving manuscript is a Geniza fragment dating from the 11th century.  This version, its translation and the commentaries based on it are primarily philosophical in nature, rather than mystical.  The version and commentaries had virtually no impact on subsequent kabbalists.

The second version, generally called the Short Version [it contains 1300 words], with commentary by Donash ibn Tamim, formed the basis of the first printed Hebrew edition, printed in Mantua in 1562 and most frequently reprinted thereafter.

The third version, generally called the Long Version [it contains 2500 words] is present with a commentary by Shabbatai Donnelo and is frequently printed with the commentary as an appendix to editions of the Short Version.

In the middle of the 16th century, the leader of the Safed kabbalists, Moses Cordovero [the ReMaK], established a working text based on 10 separate manuscripts.  This was modified a decade later by his student and successor, Isaac Luria [the ARI].  This is the version which has been used by the kabbalists since that time.  Late in the 18th century, Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna [the GRA] produced a final recension of the ARI's version and the ARI-GRA version or simply the GRA version is the one selected by Kaplan as the basis of his edition and translation.

In 1642, Rittangel published the third Latin translation of the SEFER YETZIRAH, based on the 1562 Mantua edition.  This was the translation used by Westcott who made his English translation in 1887.  Wescott's Hebrew was somewhat less significant than Shakespeare small Latin and less Greek.  He compared the Rittangel translation to a relatively corrupt and late British Museum manuscript, adopted most of the erroneous variants and thereby set the Golden Dawn and its followers on a misdirected adventure.  Two observations:  the validity of mystical and magic[k]al systems derived from the Westcott translation depends on their internal consistency.  That a number of erroneous choices were made during the course of the translation has met that practitioners of the  Hermetic Kabbalah have long recognized difficulties in the interpretation of this work and have generally explained these or tried to explain them away as 'mysteries'.  Although MacGregor Mathers's wife, Moira, the sister of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, has a good command of Hebrew [and was responsible for most of the work for which her husband took credit] neither Mathers himself nor Westcott nor Crowley, for that matter, had anything more than a smattering of Hebrew, at best the equivalent today of four undergraduate semesters of Beginning Biblical Hebrew: adequate for picking one's way through a text word for word but hardly sufficient for producing accurate translations. Once again, the general xenophobia of the time in England, coupled with both anti-Judaism and antisemitism, meant that the last people to be consulted about what their tradition actually meant were the Jews.

Moira and S. L. MacGregor Mathers and the Kabbalah

It should be noted then that Jewish Kabbalists work with the 1800 word  ARI-GRA text and that English-speaking Qabbalists work with an English translation from Latin from Hebrew of the 1300 word Short Version.

There is a chasm contained in the 500 word difference, far broader and deeper than the so-called abyss which resulted from the faulty use by Athanasius Kircher of an early glyph of the Tree of Life.

Yisrael Weinstock published a critical edition of the first chapter of the SEFER YETZIRAH in 1972 in TEMIRIN.  As previously noted on this list the text, apparatus and commentary are all in Hebrew.

In 1992, Leonard R. Glotzer published The Fundamentals of Jewish Mysticism: The Book of Creation and Its Commentaries which is indispensable reading for those seeking an understanding of the text and the numerous commentaries on it.  Glotzer's work contains many lengthy translations from the most important of the commentaries.  [The volume is currently available at a discount through amazon.com].

The question of the translatability of the ZOHAR has also arisen.  That work, written in its final form by Moses de Leon and others in a pseudo-historico-literary Aramaic is notoriously difficult to translate into any language.  However, Tishby did extremely well in his three-volume WISDOM OF THE ZOHAR, now available in English translation, Daniel Matt has captured the poetry of the text in his English translation of excerpts, making his complete translation an eagerly awaited event and Charles Mopsik has produced a five volume translation of the Pentateuchal portion of the ZOHAR as well as a translation of the Zoharic Midrash on Ruth, the MIDRASH HA NE'ELAM in sparkling French. Whatever the untranslatability of Zoharic pseudo-Aramaic, there has been no problem in rendering the Hebrew of the SEFER YETZIRAH into any number of languages.

I would venture that the language of the ZOHAR is fundamentally mystagogic, while that of the SEFER YETZIRAH is essentially pedagogic: the one conceals, the other reveals.


Numerology and Classification in Sefer Yezirah and in the Chinese Tradition.


Web links Links Web links

online text SEFER YETZIRAH - complete text, plus excerpts of Saadia's Commentary [From Saadia ben Joseph (al-Fayyumi), Commentaire sur le Séfer Yesira ou Livre de la Création par Le Gaon Saadya de Fayyoum, trans. & ed., M. Lambert, Paris, Emile Bouillon, Editeur, 1891); translated into English by Scott Thompson and Dominique Marson

web site The Sepher Yetzirah - The Book of Formation - Adapted from Manly P. Hall in "The Secret Teachings of All Ages"

web pageON THE SEFER YETZIRAH - An excerpt of: Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, p.23


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