I have been fidgeting with a post on the sefirah/sefirot (using sefirah for plural; we’ll see if it sticks), and to do that I need to start toward the beginning of things.
So, let me take a moment and start from scratch, or scratch-ish, with walking through my thinking about section 1 of the <i>Sefer Yetzirah</i>. The first section is essential for talking about the sefirah, but it is awfully meaty. This post hits 1.1 -1.8, the next should finish off the rest of part one.
This will be eccentric, but I’m hoping useful to others; maybe I’m just crazy? I’m using Kaplan’s Gra translation as basis for this one, in part to shake up my own reliance on the Saadia account and in part because it allows me to point readers to this website to read along. Each section gets a quick summary, then me sharing notes around it. Some of the summaries are utterly redundant, but it’s part of that thinking through work I’m doing. This is all sketch work, so nothing final.
If I do this with later sections, the Gra translation might be more problematic since assignments get very tricky. I’m not borrowing that trouble at the moment.
God created everything and he did so utilizing the mysteries we are going to explore in this book here. To understand creation, we need to understand that God makes use of measure, letters, and recitation.
The original Hebrew terms for number/letter/recitation are all linked here to the same root that gives us the “sefer” of the title <i>Sefer Yetzirah</i>. There is a deliberately polymorphous relationship between these elements, suggesting that the sefirah themselves partake of all three elements. While they are dominated by their role of number/measure, they do that through the letters and the recitations. This bears witness to the mystery of God throughout the text both as that which is differentiated and that which is what is differentiated through formation.
I chose measure instead of numbers to reflect that ‘numbers’ doesn’t capture as well how the sefirah will be characterized. The sefirah are not just numerical things (like the depths of east and west) but moral things (right and wrong). That sefirah are the taking of a measure seems a better way of thinking. Of course, could also mean number as in enumeration, numbering the good things, numbering the bad things, numbering the east things.
I chose to translate sippur as recitation here to emphasize a connection with how I have seen the “sippur” in “sippur yetziyas Mitzrayim” (the recitation of the departure from Egypt) translated. That suggests “sippur” preserves and transmits, because a recitation repeats, but it repeats to an audience who receives and responds to it.
I’m also curious if there is a play going on between Yetzirah in terms of formation and Yetziyas in terms of departure. Folks who know Hebrew will have to judge for themselves, but the interplay of forming and departing is a potent element of the process for me. Joining the work to Exodus also helps link more tightly the two works of the chariot and creation without eliding their distinctiveness from each other. It also helps me make sense of what is going on in the book of Revelation.
An assessment and account are produced through the operation which is then transmitted by a recitation.
The 32 mysteries are detailed, 10 sefirah and 22 letters, with the sefirah described as ‘of nothingness’ and the letters divided into 3 groups, mothers, doubles, and elementals.
I’m interested in the fact that immediately after identifying three expressions (measure, letters, recitation), we only see two mentioned here, unless we take the characterization of the sefirah and the letters to be an element of the recitation. In other words, the way in which the sefirah are recited as being of nothingness and the letters are recited as being divided into three groups is sippur.
The sefirah are described as being found in the hands through the fingers, two sets of five that oppose each other, but are joined by the ‘covenant’ of the tongue and the circumcised penis.
I take this movement to be directed at the person who is working the text. By directing the person to their sacralized Hebrew body, the worker is able to begin undertaking the contemplation of creation and departure in the substance of their own body. i.e., start where you are; it’s here. The hands are important as that which we use so often to act. The way in which we ‘lay hold’ of things is also a kind of taking of their measure.
Bilateral symmetry is important, but it also sounds to me like the bringing together of the hands in prayer along the center of the body, gathering the force of the work to the two aspects of generation, the generation of culture through the recitation and the generation of actual people through reproduction. Again, that references to the recitation of Exodus is important as that which links the family.
So, fourfold gesture: hands come together to join the two sides of the body along the axis defined by the up and down sexual organs and mouth. The body is gendered here, but I don’t think the gendering to be essential, more of a presumed rabbinic practitioner. Maybe not?
The precise number of sefirah is affirmed (10) and the reader is enjoined to proceed by joining wisdom and understanding in order to discern things in their essence and “make the creator stand on his base.”
The joining of wisdom and understanding is repeated chiasmatically. Understand with wisdom and be wise with understanding. Whereas the previous verse defines a center, this verse defines a movement back and forth across this center. In other words, you move or rock back and forth in prayer. Whether this is a continuous motion or a series of more or less well-defined motions is left open.
It also transmits the spatial operation of taking the measure into the conceptual. Where we were looking at our hands and body, now we dwell upon our capacity to discern and make proper use of that discernment. The back and forth of wisdom and understanding suggests a degree of experimentation and error, that we will no immediately be able to make the divine manifest.
That such experimental work is necessary also suggests to me that setting the creator on his base is a personal activity, one undertaken by an individual who must discover how the creator will sit on their base.
Here we have the kinds of measure made my the sefirah elucidated (beginning, end, good, evil, up, down, east, west, north, and south) and it is made clear that God rules over them from a dwelling that lies beyond them in eternity.
Each sefirot embodies one of these measures (i.e., there is a sefirot of east) and possesses a special potency thereby which can be summoned and sealed for the spiritual work. The text again underlines God’s superiority, as encompassing and transcending the sefirot. I keep toying with the idea that these measures aren’t referring to specific sefirot, that each sefirot has all measures, but…well, it doesn’t seem to hold water. Maybe something to it in a qualified way?
The sefirah are described in their mode of manifestion, as both lightning and whirlwind, in response to the word of God.
Despite being depths, through the work of enunciation the depths are brought to the surface, appearing suddenly and gathering powers to themselves like a whirlwind. This imagery is key to understanding the operation. Though identified with the depths, what arises from the depths takes on an immediate and local character. It flashes like lightning, illuminating the concrete world in which it appears, and it pulls together disparate elements from that world like a whirlwind to acquire a body.
This is the nature of formation, the nature of the work of the text. The spirits that appear under its auspices are from the depths but take shape upon ‘our’ surface. The animating force of these spirits are the word, highlighting how the sefirah become manifest through the letters and bear letters within themselves, without entirely being the letters. Here, it seems, some of the mysteries that give birth to the golem as a practical operation, so too the complex of operations for consecrating and installing spiritual powers.
The end of each sefirah is inscribed in its beginning as a flame in a burning coal. This is contrasted with God who has no beginning.
The sefirah consume themselves. As they are drawn into manifest form upon the surface, they begin to consume the material through which they manifest until there is nothing left. The comparison to whirlwinds and lightning is instructive here, too. Those are phenomena that exhaust themselves quickly.
I think this is both a practical description of the invocation and an ontological description regarding the world as it exists in its formed character. The work will bring about sudden inrushes of presence, but those cannot endure long because they are so destructive. Similarly, the passage of our consciousness throug the world is similarly temporary.
That’s one of the hard edges. You can slow, you can modulate, but eventually you have to leave what you bring together behind. The centrality of death appears here (perhaps under the auspices of translation). Could end up being quite a cosmology if you think of the ways in which sefirah are microcosms of the system…
Instructions are made to bridle the mouth and restrain the heart. If restraint fails, the person is called upon to call back what runs, this being linked to the running and returning of the Chayot in Ezekiel.
It’s hard to not see the meditational dimension of this. Learn to be quiet, learn to not let yourself get carried away. I don’t think that is wrong, but the context suggests an additional reading. Read with the previous verse, it says, “hey, this might be scary, you might want to cry out or panic; don’t. If you do, pull yourself back together.”
The reference to the covenant is a form of moral support (“these things are frightening, but the covenant with God will keep you safe”), but it isn’t just that. Part of the implication, too, is that you might run from this undertaking, but if you do, you need merely return yourself to the work and the covenant will have preserved the space temporarily lost to your awareness.
Unlike some forms of meditation, this work does not depend strictly upon your awareness, but on the spiritual forces that gather to this work. Though you run, you may return. Perhaps over the course of your life, or perhaps over the course of lifetimes or afterlives. The invocation of the Chayot is also one of the points where the potential connection to the book of Revelation is most clear; the four beasts providing the point of transmission, but so, too, the bridling of the mouth alongside “come and see.”
The recitation is key to Revelation; note especially the warnings against modifying any portion of Revelation in its transmission.