[NB] Sefer Yetzirah historical notes: trees and recensions

I realized recently that I didn’t have a solid grasp on the historical horizon of the SY’s transmission, so I thought to do a little more digging. That is where I came across Segol’s Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalism. It is a compact work of scholarship—a fair amount of information and argument in a very brief monograph. I’ve already talked a little about what that has set me to thinking about, but I want to flag a few other details that might be useful and/or interesting in thinking about the SY.

(1) First up, a little context for what I was talking about in the last post, this in answer to Blogos’s question about which version she is using for her analysis of the ring structure in the SY:

“Given the variability in the manuscripts, as well as the differences between versions, it was not easy to examine this as a ‘text.’ Neither was it possible to consider all the manuscripts with all their variants….To get as close as possible to this, I chose to examine A. Peter Hayman’s best, earliest MSS of all three recensions of the SY….Therefore, I have relied on MSS A, K, and C. MS A is a tenth-century copy of the Long Version. MS C is a tenth-century copy of the Saadyan Version, and MS K is a thirteenth-century copy of the Short Version….In each verse I identified the words and themes appearing in all three versions. Then I chose the one that best typified the group and used it to establish the theme of the verse of that number.”—Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalism (46)

(2) I also discovered an intriguing feature of the SY tradition through Segol. I knew that the SY is famous for having many variations, which can be grouped around a few basic patterns. What I didn’t realize is that most of the exemplars we have of a given version appear in volumes collecting other versions. For at least the last seven or eight hundred years or so, most people studying the SY were studying multiple versions of it:

“It is rare that the SY appears independently. Instead it is usually found in kabbalistic varia….It is also unusual that a single version or commentary appears without any of the others. Kabbalistic varia often include more than one version of the SY and numerous commentaries.”—Ibid. (29)

Keeping in mind that most of these kabbalists are doing what people like me are doing now, which is seeking through the noise of variations for something more fundamental, this helps to explain the degree of variations that develop. Each of these collected recensions are tools being used to form a revised and personal syntheses. As I have said, I suspect the production of variations is part of the generative aspect of working with the text, that the task of undertaking the work and giving order to it constitutes part of the work itself.

(3) Images are not part of the text nor are they directly referenced by the text but they are frequently inserted into recensions. The visual work parallels the study of the multiple recensions, providing some structure en route. The diagrammatic tradition itself seems to be medieval, which Segol suggests might have quite a bit to do with the way in which people (not just Jewish kabbalists) are beginning to relate to and compose texts differently than before:

“…early texts are often without visual markers that we now take for granted such as space between words, margins, page numbers, and punctuation. As the ‘visual grammar’ of the book develops, books become easier to read, and scribes add diagrams and illustrations as they become increasingly skilled in using visual cues to make their material understood. This can be seen as part of the technological advances leading to the invention of printing.”—Ibid. (7)

Speaking of comics, right? And the way in which new forms of illustration might also foster novel forms of spiritual interaction, laying some of the groundwork for what will come to define the early modern grimoire.

It is worth noting the context of these new images, though, before getting too carried away with their historical ties to other magical technologies:

“Unlike other kinds of Jewish books…kabbalistic books were not sent out to workshops for illustration….we can see this when the diagrams are poorly executed and labeled in the same hand as the text….In almost every case the diagram is drawn in the same hand as the text it accompanies. They are rarely colored, and rarely graphically elaborate or impressive.”—Ibid.

So, again, we are looking at materials that have been sustained by individuals and small groups, which further explains why there are so many variations in the SY materials. This kind of preservation ought to be familiar to most of us, since it is likely the manner in which our own materials are generated and in a form similar to the manner in which they might be preserved.


2 thoughts on “[NB] Sefer Yetzirah historical notes: trees and recensions

  1. Simon Tomasi

    Another argument that I have heard for why there are multiple versions us deliberate obfuscation by the original editor(s) of the texts.

    Pictographic depictions in Hebrew texts have been historically forbidden. The inclusion of any diagrams could be due to scribes copying the text and including the teacher’s notes. This is one theory that questions whether chapters 6 and beyond are part of the core text or not.

    If I remember correctly, Rabbi Kaplan mentions that the early chaptets of the text only make sense via references to later chapters and vice versa. For this reason my studies focus on integrating chapter 1 with each following chapter to tie the text together.

  2. Pingback: Dirt, Klippot, What is Being Worked | Disrupt & Repair

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