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


It is well known that different kinds of classifications and numerology (as symbolical and non-mathematical operations with numbers and geometrical structures) play extremely important role in various systems of the Jewish mystical tradition (i.e. Kabbalah). This aspect of  the Kabbalistic mysticism was a subject of a number of scholarly researches (first of all I mean Gershom Scholem’s works)1), but the researches in the field of typology of the Kabbalistic numerology and classifications are extremely rare. Nevertheless there is one great cultural tradition in the world, which pays great attention to numerology, attention, which may be compared only with the Kabbalistic one. I mean the Chinese tradition, partially based on the "Canon of Changes" (Yi jing) and partially on various cosmological and cosmogonical concepts of different origin. So, it is quite natural and desirable to try to compare these two (Jewish and Chinese) numerological traditions in their structural as well as ideological aspects.

It is clear, that a number of special researches is necessary to solve such a fundamental problem and it can not be solved in this brief communication. So, here I prefer to chose the only task: to compare some essentials of the Chinese cosmological classifications with the material of such important for the Kabbalistic tradition text as Sefer Yezirah – The Book of Creation.

Strictly speaking, Sefer Yezirah  is not a Kabbalistic text, though it exerted an enormous influence on the formatting and development of the Kabbalah in 12-13 centuries CE But the text itself was written much earlier (the religious tradition regards Abraham himself to be the author of it, but academic point of view dates it as appearing between 2 and 6 centuries; probably, as Gershom Scholem points, in 3 century)2). The book is written in Hebrew with some elements of Aramaic. The name of Patriarch Abraham, associated, as has been pointed above, with the authorship of this text is a testimony of its great importance for the esoteric tradition of Judaism.

The author of "The Book of Creation" suggested principally new cosmogonical pattern, the main role in which play "32 mysterious ways of wisdom", i.e. 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (which are the carriers of the creative information) and 10 sefiroth.

The last term has become one of the key terms of the Kabbalah where it means the system of theophanies of the divine attributes of the transcendent apophatic Absolute – Ein-Sof (the Unlimited) which constitute the pleroma, the completion of the divine life. But in Sefer Yezirah this term has, probably, the meaning "number" or "cipher". Nevertheless these sefiroth are very mysterious: the author of the text describing them uses the image of the hayoth ("animals") from the prophet Yehezqel (Ezechiel); this fact relates Sefer Yezirah with the Merkabah tradition, i.e. with that kind of early Jewish mysticism, which concentrates on the mystical Chariot of the Divine Being of the same prophet.

The text describes these ten sefiroth as beli mah  – literally: "nothing", "without anything", "sefiroth of no-thing"; such a definition may be understood as pointing to the formal and paradigmatical character of these transcendental "numbers" in their function of the universal marks of the cosmological classificational rows. It is important, so, that these ten "sefiroth of no-thing" together with 22 letters construct the structural foundation of all multiplicity of creation.

The central point of Sefer Yezirah is the interpretation of 32 primordial structure of existence as universal classificational rows. Thus, sefiroth correlate with four elements of creation (Spirit of the God, ether, water and fire) and six world directions (including up and down). It may be said that sefiroth not only designate or mark classificatory rows, but play role of the first paradigmatic member of each row as well.

The same (and even in a greater degree) can be noted about «letters» of  The Book of Creation. It is also important that every cosmogonic and cosmological process can be seen as linguistical by its intrinsic nature. This doctrine received its further development in classical Kabbalah where the process of the divine explication in the sefirothic worlds of pleroma can be understood as a process of the divine self-description by means of the transcendent «letters», i.e. – linguisical units of the divine Mind.

The author of Sefer Yezirah compares division or classification of the letters according to their phonetic origin with the division of the creation in three spheres, establishing the corresponding correlation between them. These three spheres of creation are World (space or place – locus), Year (time) and Soul (nefesh; here – structure of the human body as microcosm). All the creation has been «sealed» by the great sacred Name of Yaho – YHV, which is the abbreviated form of the great Tetragrammaton  – YHVH, deciphered in contemporary academic works as Yahveh. According to the concluding passage of the text, Abraham obtained divine revelation due to the mystical contemplation of the Letters and Sefiroth. Because of this, the text is sometimes titled as «The letters of our Father Abraham».

The reading of Sefer Yezirah by the person, connected with the Chinese studies constantly provoke in his\her mind some very clear Chinese associations and he\she can not do it without thinking of the rich Chinese lore of numerology and classificationism (xiang shu zhi xue, i.e. "the teaching about images and numbers").

The character of ancient Chinese numerology was closely related with the using of the different rows of correspondences (first of all, of the cosmological nature) inside the region of philosophical and scientifical activities. This classificationism of the Chinese culture was introduced in it by the great authority of  the "Canon of Changes" (Yi jing), playing the role of the fundamental text of the Chinese culture and not occasionally because of this called by Russian Sinologist Dr. A.Kobzev "The Chinese Bible"3).

As Dr. A.Kobzev has established in his works, the basic numerologically meaningful numbers in China were 2 (the symbol of the negative in cosmological, but not in ethical, sense energy of yin) and 3 (the symbol of the positive energy of yang)4). The rest symbolic numbers were the results of different combinations of these two principal numbers. The main of these secondary numbers was 5, marked the universal system of classificatory rows known as «five elements» (wu xing). These elements were connected with each other not substantially, but in functional way, being the first or the principal unit of their classificatory rows.

Let us look at the part of the classificatory row of the element "metal" (jin), taken by me as example:

     Metal – west – autumn – justice – white – Venus (planet) – lungs.

Here we have a row, which is marked by its first\main member, which establishes correspondence between the element, world direction, season, ethical quality, colour, planet, principal organ of the body (the row may be continued). One of the aspects of this classification is the establishing of the correspondences between homomorphic micro- and macrocosm.

Let us now analyze the following passages from Sefer Yezirah:

  1. "He gave the kingdom to the letter fe and crowned it and tied it with Venus in the world, with the fifth day (Thursday) in a year and with the right nostril in a person (nefesh)" (1Y, 9).
  2. "He gave the kingdom to the letter teth and crowned  it and tied it with the constellation of  Leo in the world, with the month of Av in a year and with the right kidney in a person" (Y, 2).

Here we also (like in the Chinese cosmological row) can see the row marked by its first\main member (letter); this row establishes correspondences between letter, planet\ Zodiacal constellation, day of the week or month of a year and organ of the body. It can be seen that the letters of Sefer Yezirah  (as well as sefiroth) have the same function as the elements of the Chinese classificatory cosmological rows, i.e. they are codes of the rows as their first or main members. It can be noted as well, that the rows of Sefer Yezirah establish correlation between the elements of micro- and macrocosm (as their Chinese counterparts also do).

It must be said, that in Sefer Yezirah 22 letters have been divided into lesser groupes; it gave the opportunity to establish two different classificatory sets of rows: consisting of seven members (days of the week and planets – here we have 7 planets and not 5 as in the Chinese texts) and consisting of twelve members (months of a year, Zodiacal constellations). The Chinese counterparts of these two sets are (in formal aspect) calendar rows of ten «celestial branches» and twelve «earthly roots». It is rather important, that Chinese cyclical signs of these two rows especially akin (in structural and functional sense) to the sefiroth of no-thing of "The Book of Creation".

Thus, we can speak the complete similarity of the Chinese and the Kabbalistic rows of classifications. It must be only added that because of the pictographic, symbolic and non-phonetic nature of the Chinese writing characters, Chinese basic classificators by their essence have more similarity not with the letters of the Hebrew text, but with the sefiroth as they are treated in Sefer Yezirah (i.e. some primordial divine numbers).

Nevertheless it is also crucial to understand one principal difference in the worldview of the Chinese texts and Sefer Yezirah : the difference between Judaistic theism and Chinese immanent naturalism.

Sefer Yezirah constantly underlines the idea of God-Creator as a source and agent of all universal processes, but the Chinese thinkers without exception understand the cosmogonic process as natural and immanent. It is quite clear because of the fact, that China did not know the Biblical monotheism.

But just this difference produces the question of the great culterological importance: how such divergent worldviews as Chinese naturalist and Judeo-Biblical transcendent-monotheistic could create such surprisingly identical way of thinking, represented by the classificatory rows and numerological symbolism of  these two traditions? May we conclude that the unity of human mind and thinking appears not only in logical and discursive intellectual activities but in the numerological operations as well? These questions, of course, demand further deep and detailed studies.

And for conclusion I should like to cite one passage from the works of M. Buber. He writes in his "Conversations about Jewery":

The obtaining of the wholeness of the soul is the most ancient inner state of the Jew, that inner state, which in all its force of Asiatic genius has appeared in the personal life of the great Jews, in whom the profound spirit of Judaism was living. The Great Asia predominated in them over the West, this Asia of unlimitness and of holy completeness, Asia of Lao-tzu and Buddha, which is the same Asia as Asia of Moses and Isaiah, of John, Jesus and Paul 5).
                                              N O T E S

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1)  E. g. see: Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1941; Idem. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York: Schocken, 1969.
2)  Idem. "Jezirabuch". In: Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol. 9 (1932). S. 104 -111. Idem. "Kabbalah". In: Encyclopedia Judaica (1971-1972). P. 507; Idem. "The Idea of the Golem". In: On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York: Schoken, 1969. p. 166.
3)  (Kobzev A.I. Chinese book of the books) –  (In: Stchutsky Yu.K. Chinese Classical Book of Changes), 2nd edition. Moscow: Nauka, 1993. p. 8.
4)  A.I.Kobzev’s researches into the Chinese numerology have been summarized in his book:

(The Teaching about Symbols and Numbers in the Chinese Classical Philosophy). Moscow: Nauka – Vostochnaya Literatura, 1994.
5)  (Buber M. Conversations about Jewery). In:
(Buber M. Selected Writings). Jerusalem:
(Library-Aliyah), 1979. P. 48-49.

(c) E.A.Tortchinov   1998
Evgueni Tortchinov

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page uploaded 27 October 1998