This metaphysical essay, called "Sepher Yezirah," (book on creation, or cosmogony,) which I have endeavored to render into English, with explanatory notes, is considered by all modem literati as the first philosophical book that ever was written in the Hebrew language. But the time of its composition and the name of its author have not yet been ascertained, despite of the most elaborate researches of renowned archaeologists. Some maintain that this essay is mentioned in the Talmud treatise Sanhedrin, p. 66 b. and ibid. 67 b. which passage is according to the commentary of Rashi, to treatise Erubin, p. 63 a., a reliable historical notice. Hence this book was known already in the second or at the beginning of the third century of the Christian Era. The historian, Dr. Graetz, tries to show very ingeniously in his work, entitled "Gnosticism," p. 104 and 110, that it was written in the early centuries of the Christian Church, especially when the ideas and views of the Gnostics were in vogue. This opinion, however, he afterwards revoked. (See Dr. Graetz's "History of the Jews," Vol. V, p. 315 in a note.)
Dr. Zunz, the Nestor of the Jewish Rabbis in Europe, maintains that we have to look for the genesis of the book "Yezirah" in the Geonic period, (700-1000), and that it was consequently composed in a post-talmudical time. But if so, it is very strange
that Saadjah Gaon, who lived in the tenth, and Judah Halevi, who lived in the twelfth century, represented the book "Yezirah" as a very ancient work. Therefore it seems to me, that Dr. Graetz had no sufficient cause to repudiate his assertion concerning the age of this book; because all the difficulties which he himself and others raised against his supposition, fall to the ground, when we consider that the most ancient works, holy as well as profane, had one and the same fate, namely, that from age to age more or less interpolations were made by copyists and commentators. Compare also Prof. Tenneman's "Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie," improved by Prof. Wendt, p. 207.
Tradition, which ascribes the authorship of this book to the patriarch Abraham, is fabulous, as can be proved by many reasons; but the idea that Rabbi Akiba, who lived about the beginning of the second century, composed the book "Yezirah," is very likely possible. Be this as it may, it is worth while to know the extravagant hypotheses which ancient Jewish philosophers and theologians framed as soon as they began to contemplate and to reason, endeavoring to combine oriental and Greek theories. Although there is an exuberance of weeds, we will find, nevertheless, many germs of truisms, which are of the greatest importance. A Christian theologian, Johann Friedrich von Meyer D. D., remarked very truly in his German preface to the book "Yezirah," published in Leipzig, 1830: "This book is for two reasons highly important: in the first place, that the real Cabala, or mystical
doctrine of the Jews, which must be carefully distinguished from its excrescences, is in close connection and perfect accord with the Old and New Testaments; and in the second place, that the knowledge of it is of great importance to the philosophical inquirers, and can not be put aside. Like a cloud permeated by beams of light which makes one infer that there is more light behind it, so do the contents of this book, enveloped in obscurity, abound in coruscations of thought, reveal to the mind that there is a still more effulgent light lurking somewhere, and thus inviting us to a further contemplation and investigation, and at the same time demonstrating the danger of a superficial investigation, which is so prevalent in modem times, rejecting that which can not be understood at first sight."
I shall now try to give a sketch of the system as it is displayed in the book "Yezirah," which forms a link in the chain of the ancient theoretical speculations of philosophers, who were striving to ascertain the truth mainly by reasoning a-priori, and who imagined that it is thus possible to permeate all the secrets of nature. It teaches that a first cause, eternal, all-wise, almighty and holy, is the origin and the centre of the whole universe, from whom gradually all beings emanated. Thought, speech and action are an inseparable unity in the divine being; God made or created, is metaphorically expressed by the word: writing. The Hebrew language and its characters correspond mostly with the things they designate, and thus holy thoughts, Hebrew language
and its reduction to writing, form a unity which produce a creative effect. 1
The self-existing first cause called the creation into existence by quantity and quality; the former represented by ten numbers, (Sephiroth,) the latter by twenty-two letters, which form together thirty-two ways of the divine wisdom. Three of the twenty-two letters, namely, Aleph, Mem, Sheen, are the mothers, or the first elements, from which came forth the primitive matter of the world: air, water and fire, that have their parallel in man, (male and female): breast, body and head, and in the year: moisture, cold and heat. The other seven double and twelve 2 simple letters are then represented as stamina, from which other spheres or media of existence emanated.
Man is a microcosm, as the neck separates rationality from vitality, so does diaphragm the vitality from the vegetativeness.
[paragraph continues] God stands in close connection with the Universe, and just so is Tali connected with the world, that is, an invisible, celestial or universal axis carries the whole fabric. In the year by the sphere, in man by the heart, and thus is the ruling spirit of God everywhere. Notwithstanding the decay of the individual, the genus is produced by the antithesis of man and wife.
Hebrew commentaries on the book "Yezirah" were composed by: first, Saadjah Gaon, of Fajum in Egypt, (892-942); second, Rabbi Abraham ben Dior Halevi; third, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman; fourth, Elieser of Germisa; fifth, Moses Botarel; sixth, Rabbi Eliah Wilna: The book "Yezirah," together with all these commentaries, was published in 1860, in the city of Lemberg. But although the commentator Saadjah was a sober minded scholar in a superstitious age, a good Hebrew grammarian, a renowned theologian and a good translator of the Hebrew Pentateuch, Isaiah and Job into the Arabian language, his ideas and views were, nevertheless, very often much benighted. See his comments on Yez. Chap. I, etc., etc.; his notes on "Yezirah" Chap. III, 2, prove undoubtedly that he had no knowledge whatever of natural science, and therefore his annotations on the book "Yezirah" are of little or no use at all. All the other commentaries mentioned above, together with all quotations of other expounders of the same book, contain nothing but a medley of arbitrary, mystical explanations and sophistical distortions of scriptural verses, astrological notions, oriental
superstitions, a metaphysical jargon, a poor knowledge of physics and not a correct elucidation of the ancient book; they drew mostly from their own imagination, and credited the author of "Yezirah" with saying very strange things which he never thought of. I must not omit to mention two other Hebrew commentaries, one by Judah Halevi, and the other by Ebn Ezra, who lived in the first part of the twelfth century. They succeeded in explaining the book "Yezirah" in a sound scientific manner, but failed in making themselves generally understood, on account of the superstitious age in which they lived, and the tenacity with which the people in that period adhered to the marvelous and supernatural; they found, therefore, but few followers, and the 'book "Yezirah" remained to the public an enigma and an ancient curiosity, giving rise to a system of metaphysical delirium, called Cabala.
Translations of the book "Yezirah" and comments thereon by learned Christian authors are: first, a translation of the book "Yezirah" with explanatory notes in the Latin language, by Wilhelm Postellus, Paris, France, 1552; second, another Latin version is contained in Jo. Pistorii artis cabalistical scriptorum, Tom I, p. 869, sqq., differing from that of Postellus. Some are of the opinion that John Reuchlin, while others maintain that Paul Riccius was the author of it. (See Wolfii Biblioth. Hebr. Tom., I, Chap. 1.) Third, Rittangel published the book "Yezirah," 1642, at Amsterdam, entitled: "Liber Yezirah qui Abrahamo patriarchae adscribitur, una cum commentario
[paragraph continues] Rabbi Abraham F. D. (filii Dior) super 32 Semitis Sapientiae, a quibus liber Yezirah incipit. Translatus et notis illustrates, a Joanne Stephano Rittangelio, ling. Orient. in Elect. Acad. Regiomontana Prof. extraord. Amstelodami ap. Jo. and Jodoc. Janssonios," 1642, in quarto; fourth, Johann Friedrich von Mayer, D. D., published the book "Yezirah" in Hebrew with a translation and explanatory notes in the German language, Leipzig, 1830.
All these translations are out of print and are rarely found even in well regulated libraries. I was so fortunate as to obtain a copy of Dr. Mayer's edition of the book "Yezirah." He states in the preface to it, that he had a copy of Postellus' translation in manuscript as well as some others, and compared them. The explanatory notes given by this author are, nevertheless, insufficient and sometimes very incorrect. The present translation is, as far as I could ascertain, the first that was ever published in the English language. Again, I have to add that I have not only endeavored to correct a great many mistakes and erroneous ideas of my predecessors, but I have also endeavored to give more complete annotations. I therefore hope that the candid reader will consider the great difficulties I had to overcome in this still unbeaten way of the ancient Jewish spiritual region, and will receive with indulgence this new contribution to archaeological knowledge.
DR. ISIDOR KALISCH.
7:1 Thus for instance, they imagined that the name of Jehovah, יהוי, is by reversing the alphabet; מצפץ (mzpz); mem signifies the letter jod, zaddi, the letter he, and pe, the letter wav. These unmeaning sounds, they said, have magic power. Some maintained that the Hebrew language consists of twenty-two consonants, because being the complex of all beings, its number is equal to the most perfect figure, namely, of the periphery, as it is well known that the diameter is always to the periphery as seven to twenty-two.
7:2 It was frequently observed by Jewish and Christian theologians, that the Marcosianio Gnostic system, as well as that of the Clementinians of the second century, contain many analogies and parallels with the book "Yezirah." Marcus divides the Greek alphabet into three parts, namely: nine mute consonants ἀφωνα, eight half vowels ἡμιφωνα, and seven vowels φωνηεντα, in order to give a clear idea of the peculiar constitution of his "Aeons." (Irenaeus Haer, I, 16.)