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.

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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.