Creation Mysticism: Fashioning the World From Letters

An early group of Jewish mystics conceived of the Hebrew alphabet as the building blocks of creation.

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Sefer Yetsirah (The Book of Creation), is a short but enormously influential book of Jewish mysticism. It describes God's creation of the world through the manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet and ten numbers or sefirot. The following article includes excerpts from Sefer Yetsirah. How are we to understand a text that describes a world emerging from an alphabet? There is no simple answer to this question, but at the very least, we can appreciate the power these mystics attributed to the Hebrew language and the interest they had in re-imaging the creation story of Genesis. The following is reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

Closely associated with speculation about the Merkavah [the divine throne] were mystical theories about creation (Ma'aseh Bereshit). Within aggadic sources [rabbinic narrative legend] the rabbis discussed the hidden meanings of the Genesis narrative. The most important early treatise, possibly from the second century AD, which describes the process of creation is The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetsirah). According to this cosmological text, God created the universe by 32 mysterious paths consisting of 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet together with ten sefirot [ten primordial numbers/powers, associated with the attributes of God]. Of these 22 letters we read:

creation mysticism"He drew them, hewed them, combined them, weighed them, interchanged them, and through them produced the whole creation and everything that is destined to come into being."

The Sefer Yetsirah asserts that all of these letters play an important role in the creation of the cosmos:

"By means of the twenty two letters, by giving them a form and shape, by mixing them and combining them in different ways, God made the soul of all that which has been created and all of that which will be. It is upon these same letters that the Holy One (blessed be he) has founded his high and holy name."

The letters are of three types: mothers, doubles and singles. The mothers (aleph, mem, shin) symbolize the three primordial elements of all existing things: water (the first letter of which is mem in Hebrew) is symbolized by mem; fire (of which shin is the most prominent sound) is represented by shin; air (the first letter of which is aleph) is designated by aleph. The year also consists of three parts related to these elements: summer is linked with the element fire; winter with water, and spring to air. Further these three mothers represent in the microcosm (the human form) the head, the belly and the chest--the head from fire, the belly from water, and the chest from the air that is in between.

"Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin: he engraved them, he hewed them out, he combined them, he weighed them, and he set them at opposites, and he formed through them: Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin in the universe, and Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin in the year, and Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin in the body of male and female…"

"Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin: The product of Fire is the Heavens, the product of Air is Air, and the product of Water is Earth. Fire is above, Water is below, and Air tips the balance between them. From them the Fathers are generated and from them, everything is created."

"Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin are in the universe: Air, Water and Fire: Heavens were created first from Fire, Earth was created from Water, Air was created from Air and it tips the balance between them."

"Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin are in the year: Cold, Heat and Temperate‑state: Heat was created from Fire, Cold was created from Water, Temperate‑state was created from Air and it tips the balance between them."

"Three Mothers: Aleph, Mem, Shin are in the body of male and female: Head, Belly and Chest: Head was created from Fire, Belly was created from Water, Chest was created from Air and it tips the balance between them."

In addition to these three mother letters, there are seven double letters (Bet, Gimel, Dalet, Kaf, Pey, Resh, Tav) which signify the contraries in the universe (forces which serve two mutually opposed ends):

"He caused the letter Bet to reign over Life, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another, and He formed through them: Saturn in the universe, the first day in the year, and the right eye in the body of male and female."

"He caused the letter Gimel to reign over Peace, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another, and He formed through them: Jupiter in the universe, the second day in the year, and the left eye in the body of male and female."

"He caused the letter Dalet to reign over Wisdom, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another, and He formed through them: Mars in the universe, the third day in the year, and the right ear in the body of male and female."

"He caused the letter Kaf to reign over Wealth, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another, and He formed through them: Sun in the universe, the fourth day in the year, and the left ear in the body of male and female."

"He caused the letter Pey to reign over Gracefulness, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another, and He formed through them: Venus in the universe, the fifth day in the year, and the right nostril of the body of male and female."

"He caused the letter Resh to reign over Seed, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another, and He formed through them: Mercury in the universe, the sixth day in the year, and the left nostril on the body of male and female."

"He caused the letter Tav to reign over Dominion, and He tied a crown to it, and He combined them with one another. He formed through them: Moon in the universe, the Sabbath day in the year, and the mouth in the body of male and female."

Finally there are the twelve simple letters (Hey, Vav, Zayin, Chet, Tet, Yod, Lamed, Nun, Samek, Ayin, Tzade, Kof) which correspond to humans' chief activities--sight, hearing, smell, speech, desire for food, the sexual appetite, movement, anger, mirth, thought, sleep and work. The letters are emblematic of the twelve signs of the zodiac in the heavenly sphere, the twelve months, and the chief limbs of the body. Thus, human beings, world and time are linked to one another through the process of creation by means of the Hebrew alphabet.

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Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a widely published and eminent scholar of Judaism, and is currently Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.