The Sefer Yezirah - or ‘Book of Creation’ - is one of the oldest existent texts of jewish mysticism although the debate on its age has yet to be authoritatively resolved: however to the present author the case for it being mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud is the most convincing. This would date the work to the years after the nominal fall of Rome and the rise of the Byzantine incarnation of the Empire. The traditional claim is that the work was composed by Abraham itself, but this is obviously faulty in line with the time-line briefly outlined above.
Another claim - although more plausible if not less fantastic - is that the work was authored by Rabbi Akiva around the same time that he supposedly composed the Sefer ha-Zohar (the ‘Book of Splendour’), while up to his neck in nothing but sand in a cave hiding from the vengeful Romans (Akiva had been a prominent supporter of the revolt of Bar Kochba against the Romans). (1)
The work was, in fact, more likely authored by some obscure and now totally unknown jewish mystic who wished to engage in some irrational speculation based on the then understood text of the Torah with elucidation by quotation provided by selections from what are now understood to be the Ketuvim (Major Prophets). This is probably why it has been ignored by some jewish scholars of the same era such as Yuval. (2)
The Sefer Yezirah itself is very short text compared to other jewish philosophical and metaphysical work - for example Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s ‘Mesillat Yesharim’ - and is more comparable in being somewhat ‘coded’ thought with the tales of Rabbah bar-bar Hannah or the poems of Solomon ibn Gabriol. It is never-the-less usually divided into chapters and sections, like most other jewish religious works, for the purposes of referencing and on this score I have elected to utilise the most common English translation available which is that of Isidor Kalisch originally published in 1877. (3) Readers will find the easiest edition of Kalisch’s work to find is that published ironically enough by the American Rosicrucian Order as part of their ‘Rosicrucian Library’ series. (4) I have elected to replace the spelling used by Kalisch of the Hebrew word for book ‘Sepher’ with the more correct ‘Sefer’ as the academic linguistic custom in regard to Hebrew has changed since Kalisch published the work nearly a century and a half ago.
The part of the work I wish to concentrate on is the implicit anti-gentilism found in the Sefer Yezirah as in most other jewish religious works as it has - like much else - been missed by critics of jewry and Judaism.
The Sefer Yezirah begins with the tried and true forms; although blasphemous to later jews, of explicitly naming Yahweh (rather than simply ‘G-d’ or ‘Hashem’) to be the ‘King of the Universe’, ‘Omnipotent’, ‘All Kind’, ‘Eternal’ and so forth. Yahweh is also explicitly stated to have ‘created the universe’. (5) We are also told slightly later that Yahweh is both responsible for creating the universe and also bringing about its ultimate end. (6) Although one can tell that the author of the Sefer Yezirah is writing to convince other jews of the truth of the almighty jew in the sky from the reference made to the fact that the reader should, in the author of the Sefer Yezirah’s opinion, ‘comprehend this great wisdom’ so that Yahweh can be lead to ‘his throne once again’. (7)
This tells us that while Yahweh is supposedly omnipotent over all things: he requires the assistance of the faithful to retain his power over the world. Somewhat similarly to how the devil was developed in Christian thought to somehow have considerable power in a world ruled by an omnipotent and omniscient creator god. (8)
Contradictions have historically been no bar to belief systems if they can be rationalised sufficiently, but it does tend to leave them open to later rationalist/sceptical attack. The identification of the faithful alluded to by the author of the Sefer Yezirah is made crystal clear - after much mystical mumbo-jumbo - when he talks of the first person to comprehend the alleged mystical truisms of which he writes being the jewish patriarch: Abraham. This pleased Yahweh so much that he called Abraham ‘friend’ and made a covenant with him. (9)
The covenant referred to is, of course, the central claim of Judaism that Yahweh - omnipotent, omnipresent and generally homicidal - has made a direct contract with the jewish people - note not simply those of ‘the jewish religion’ - who are those descended from Abraham and later Moses.
When we say the jewish people it would perhaps be best to refer to the entity as it is understood in Judaism: Israel. Israel in Judaism is not a state per se, but rather a direct reference to ‘the children of Israel’ aka Abraham’s progeny. One can thus begin to see the implication of both what Judaism and the Sefer Yezirah are saying: one biological nation has been chosen above all others, because of whom they are descended from not what they believe.
In essence then it becomes a question of lineage not one of confession: this has been unfortunately confused by the advent of Christianity and Islam both of which use the confession of faith as the prime genus for their identity, while Judaism uses biological heritage. This informs a sense of superiority in Judaism - reinforced by the biological class system outlined explicitly in the Mishnah - that a born jew is far superior to a mere convert who at the very best is a ‘jewish soul born into a non-jewish body’ and therefore impure.
This superiority is also implied by the suggestion in the Sefer Yezirah that Yahweh knew Abraham and thus the jews before ‘he formed them in his belly’. (10) This implies the special relationship further described by the Sefer Yezirah to the effect that Yahweh made the covenant of the ‘ten fingers’ with Abraham - which is a separate one from the orthodox covenant represented by circumcision (the ‘covenant of the toes’) - which is also called the covenant of the tongue.
To understand what the ‘covenant of the tongue’ means we have to recall that the author of the Sefer Yezirah is trying to bring jews back to either his specific form of Judaism or Judaism in general (per his earlier statement that Yahweh should be returned to his throne) (11) and looking at the world as one dominated by the unclean gentiles. The Sefer Yezirah is quite clear - although somewhat roundabout - on its requirement for the world. As Yahweh created all things and is the lord of the world (12), but in did so symbolically using the apparently intrinsic power of the Hebrew alphabet as the ‘language of creation’. (13)
Yahweh also created ‘the decade out of nothing’ (14) by which it is meant that before Yahweh there was nothing: no protons, neutrons or electrons. The Sefer Yezirah assigns this act of complete creation (not accounting for how Yahweh himself existed in the first place) to be analogous with two body parts: the ten toes and ten fingers. The author of the Sefer Yezirah also manages to anticipate the ‘holy hand grenade’ sketch of Monty Python fame by a millennia and some loose change when they assert: ‘Ten are the numbers out of nothing, and not the number nine, ten and not eleven.’ (15)
The centre of this (i.e. between the ‘fingers’ and ‘toes’) is held to be the covenant of Abraham (i.e. between Yahweh and Israel) and is thus to rule the decade. The decade itself is outlined as a series of opposites assigned a number in sequence. (16) The sequence is defined by what is ‘infinite’ and supposed to indicate the continuous attributes of this world (i.e. good and evil plus the odd additions of ‘the beginning’, ‘the end’, ‘height’ and ‘depth’). (17) The author then goes on to claim that Yahweh rules over each of these absolutely and that the world is Yahweh’s ‘holy habitation’ with presumably Israel (i.e. the jews) as its guardians and stewards. (18)
The Sefer Yezirah also gives Yahweh the credit for all natural phenomena as all forces of the world ‘humble themselves’ before him, and therefore the ‘natural forces of the world’ (the gentiles) should ‘humble themselves’ before his chosen people (the jews). (19) This interpretation confirmed by a quotation from Ezekiel to the effect that all living creatures should return to Yahweh and therefore gentiles should also pay homage to the jewish god, (20) but presumably through his earthly priesthood unless Yahweh presents himself as a ‘whirlwind’ or some such. (21)
This is again confirmed by the Sefer Yezirah’s statement of the ‘articulate word’ (hence the ‘covenant of tongues’) of holy power being the holy spirit meaning both the jewish tradition that Yahweh, in essence, spoke the world into existence and also that the speech of Yahweh (of which are the jews are guardians and stewards) is the ‘holy spirit’ that governs the world. (22)
The Sefer Yezirah also offers an origin for the tetragrammaton (the ‘four lettered name’ of G-d [YHWH: remember that Hebrew historically hasn’t used vowel sounds]) when it claims that Yahweh bound the power of creation and thus magical power in that name by using the power of the Hebrew language. (23) This is, of course, why so much jewish magical and spell lore focuses on the power of names, letters and numbers as opposed to the more sympathetic forms of magical and spell lore used by non-jews. (24) That Yahweh bound up the power of ‘air, water, ether and fire’ in the tetragrammaton (‘his great name’) (25) is indicative of the power the author of the Sefer Yezirah feels the jews to have as a people: for they are the custodians - as the covenanted people of Yahweh - of this great power which only they can rightfully unleash as only they have the key to doing so (the mastery of the Hebrew language and the Torah).
This great power, of course, can be used to place Yahweh once more on this throne that sits astride both the people of Israel (the jews) and the peoples of non-Israel (the gentiles). In a sense then the power the jews have been invested with by Yahweh is something they can, and should according to them, use to bring the gentiles back to worshipping Yahweh and by extension his chosen people (the jews).
The tetragrammaton is even given the power of new creation by the author of the Sefer Yezirah when he states that ‘every creature and every word emanated from (the) one name’. (26) Indeed this ability to create anew is found in jewish literature in the legend of the golem of Prague which supposedly had the ability to sort truth and fiction and also punished the gentiles who asserted - supposedly untruthfully - that the jews could murder children as part of their rites. The golem itself was created using a profound knowledge of jewish mystical lore - the creator usually being ascribed as the legendary Rabbi Jehudah Leow - and the secret of the tetragrammaton (i.e. Yahweh’s name). (27)
This is obviously legend, but the belief in the singular jewish ability to create new life from nothing (i.e. a literal act of deistic creation) points to the idea of the covenant and the special chosen nature of the jews in Judaism. As after all - as Hole pointed out long ago in relationship to European witchcraft - (28) it is not so much whether such a thing could really work, but rather that it was believed to do so. So in this sense intent is actually more important than the lack of substance to the attempt.
The author of the Sefer Yezirah - as well as many learned and unlearned jews after him - seriously believed that the use of the Tetragrammaton could (and should) be used to produce magical and supernatural effects that should be used for either the benefit of Judaism, jews in general or an individual jew in particular. That they sought to use these magical powers against gentiles is shown by the legend of the golem of Prague as well as the Hebrew Chronicle of Prague which asserts that whatever happened in the world to the jews was their fault and that Yahweh punished them and the gentiles solely for what the jews had or had not done. (29) This attitude is directly akin to the idea of the jews as being the centre of all things in this world and the next which is announced by the Sefer Yezirah. (30)
The Sefer Yezirah does manage to somewhat anticipate Calvin’s well-known ideas of predestination (31) when it states that Yahweh ‘predetermined’ every creature (32), but Calvin and the author of the Sefer Yezirah differ slightly in the end envisioned with the Sefer Yezirah asserting that while Yahweh knows the fate of all (he is after all asserted numerous times to be omnipresent) he allows jews as his covenanted nation to change their individual fate. Calvin, of course, allowed nothing of the kind and logically reasoned in his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ that as God is omnipresent and omnipotent he must know the fate of all men before they are all born.
The author of the Sefer Yezirah doesn’t have intellectual courage of Calvin - who in spite of rumours past and present was not jewish as far as any scholar can ascertain - as he avoids the necessary consequences of the idea of the omnipresent, omnipotent god he posits; which Calvin endorsed, and merely uses the covenant with Yahweh to assert the jews have a special status with Yahweh. While the gentiles - being lower beings in the eyes of Judaism - are in a predestined mould much like the sheep of the field and the fish in the sea. It is incorrect to assert that the jews look upon the gentiles as actual beasts of the field, but it is not incorrect to assert that jews in practice believe them to be.
All-in-all the Sefer Yezirah is a fairly despicable document, but it has been missed by critics of jews and Judaism in part because it is somewhat obscure. However at the same time obscurer quotations and facts have been brought to light and used by anti-Semites in the past so I see no reason to exclude the Sefer Yezirah from the growing corpus of the anti-Semitic critique of the jews and Judaism.
(1) Martin Goodman, 2009, ‘Rome & Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations’, 1st Edition, Penguin: London, pp. 501-503
(2) Israel Jacob Yuval, Barbara Harshav (Trans.), Jonathan Chipman (Trans.), 2008, ‘Two Nations in your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages’, 2nd Edition, University of California Press: Berkeley
(3) Isidor Kalisch, 1877, ‘Sepher Yezirah: A Book on Creation’, 1st Edition, L. H. Frank: Bowery
(4) Isidor Kalisch, 1948, , ‘Sepher Yezirah: A Book on Creation’, 1st Edition, Rosicrucian Supply Bureau: San Jose
(5) Sefer Yezirah 1:1
(6) Ibid. 1:6
(7) Ibid. 1:3
(8) Discussed by, for example, Brian Levack, 1994, ‘The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe’, 2nd Edition, Longman: New York, pp. 29-35 and Robert Thurston, 2001, ‘Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of Witch Hunts in Europe and North America’, 1st Edition, Longman: New York, pp. 27-39.
(9) Sefer Yezirah 6: 10
(11) Ibid. 1:3
(12) Ibid. 6:9
(13) Ibid. 1:1
(14) Ibid. 1:2
(15) Ibid. 1:3
(16) Ibid. 1:4; a similar list of ‘opposites’ is given later in Ibid 4:2-3
(17) The obvious reasons for these being regarded as ‘infinite’ are firstly that the time of the end is to be chosen by Yahweh and only he knows when that will be so it is therefore effectively infinite. Where-as ‘height’ and ‘depth’ is more of a bad translation of the Hebrew text which would be better loosely translated as ‘sky’ to give a sense of the meaning. What the author of the Sefer Yezirah means is that the height to the sky is infinite as the sky is, because one cannot see the end of it.
(18) Sefer Yezirah 1:4
(19) Ibid 1:5
(20) Ibid 1:7
(21) Ibid 1:5
(22) Ibid 1:8
(24) In the relatively small scholarly field of the history and practice of jewish magic one of the classics still remains Alexander Trachtenberg’s, 1938, ‘Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion’, 1st Edition, Behrman’s Jewish Book House: New York. Other more modern commentaries still do not rival the clarity and wealth of detail presented by Trachtenberg who ironically enough was a jew with a sense of humour when writing about the absurd and often hilarious theories of his fellow members of the tribe.
(25) Sefer Yezirah 1:8; 2:1
(26) Ibid 2:5
(27) Moshe Idel, 1990, ‘Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions of the Artificial Anthropoid’, 1st Edition, State University of New York Press: New York, pp. 295-297
(28) Christina Hole, 1945, ‘Witchcraft in England’, 1st Edition, B. T. Batsford: London, p. 16
(29) Abraham David (Ed.), Leon Weinberger (Trans.), Dena Orden (Trans.), 1993, ‘A Hebrew Chronicle from Prague, c. 1615’, 1st Edition, University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa, for example folio 4a:3 (p.22), which declares that Yahweh forced the King of Prague to punish the jews ‘for their iniquities’.
(30) Sefer Yezirah 1:2
(31) For an excellent summary of Calvin’s ideas in and around the concept of predestination see Bruce Gordon, 2009, ‘John Calvin’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven.
(32) Sefer Yezirah 2:6