THE "Sepher Yetzirah,"or "Book of Formation,"is perhaps the oldest philosophical treatise which is yet extant in the Hebrew language. The great interest which has been evinced of late years in the Hebrew Kabalah, and the modes of thought and doctrine allied to it, has induced me to translate this volume from the original Hebrew texts, and to collate with them the Latin versions of mediaeval authorities. Three important books of the " Zohar," or " Splendour," which is the great storehouse of Kabalistic teaching, have been for the first time translated into English by that skillful and erudite Kabalist, my fellow student in occult science, Mac Gregor Mathers, and the " Sepher Yetzirah " in an English translation is almost a necessary companion to these even more abstruse disquisitions: the two books indeed mutually explain each other.
The "Sepher Yetzirah " although this name means (( The Book of Formation," is not in any sense a narrative of Creation, or a substitute Genesis, but it is a very ancient and instructive philosophical treatise upon one aspect of the origin of the universe and mankind; an aspect at once archaic and essentially Hebrew. The grouping of the processes of origin into an arrangement, at once alphabetic and numeral, is one only t6 be found in Semitic authors.
Attention must be called to the essential peculiarity of Hebrew Doctrines, the inextricable and necessary association of numbers and letters; every letter suggesting a number and every group of letters having a numerical signification, as vital as its literal meaning.
The Kabalistic principles involved in the reversal of Hebrew letters, and their substitution by others, on definite schemes, should also be studied and borne in mind.
It is exactly on these principles that the " groundwork idea" of this disquisition rests; and these principles may be traced throughout the Kabalistic volumes which have succeeded it in point of time, and development, and which are now associated together in one volume and known as the " Zohar," or " Book of Splendour," a collection of treaties which is in the main concerned with the essential dignities of the God-head, and with the emanations which have sprung therefrom, with the doctrine of the Sephiruth, and the ideals of Macroprosopus and Microprosopus.
The " Sepher Yetzirah," on the other hand is mainly concerned with our universe and with the Microcosm. The opinions of Hebrew Kabalistic Rabbis and of two French mystics may be fitly introduced here.
The following interesting comment is from Rabbi Moses Botarel:--" It was Abraham our Father--blessed be he--who wrote this book to condemn the doctrine 6f the sages of his time, who were incredulous of the supreme dogma of the Unity. At least, this was the opinion of Rabbi Saadiah--blessed be he-- as written in the first chapter of his book 'The Philosopher's Stone." These are his words: The sages of Babylon attacked Abraham on account of his faith; for they were all against him although themselves separable into three sects. The First thought that the Universe was subject to the control of two opposing forces, the one existing but to destroy the other, this is dualism ; they held that there was nothing in common between the author of evil and the author of good. The Second sect admitted Three great Powers; two of them as in the first case, the two others, a supreme arbitrator. The Third sect recognised no god beside the Sun, in which it recognised the sole principle Of existence."
Rabbi Judah Ha Levi, In his critical description of this treatise, wrote: "The Sepher Yetzirah teaches us the existence of a Single Divine Power by shewing us that in the bosom of variety and multiplicity, there is a Unity and Harmony, and that such universal concord could only arise from the rule of a Supreme Unity."
Eliphas Levi, the famous French Occultist, thus wrote of the " Sepher Yetzirah," in his " Histoire de la MIagie," p. 54 : '' The Zohar is a Genesis of illumination, the Sepher Jezirah is a ladder formed of truths. Therein are explained the thirty-two absolute signs of sounds, numbers and letters : each letter reproduces a number, an idea and a form ; so that mathematics are capable of application to idea's and to forms not less rigorously than to numbers, by exact proportion and perfect correspondence. By the science of the Sepher Jezirah the human spirit is fixed to truth, and in reason, and is able to take account of the possible development of intelligence by the evolutions of numbers. The Zohar represents absolute truth, and the Sepher-Jezirah provides the means by which we may seize, appropriate and make use of it."
Upon another page Eliphas Levi writes: " The Sepher Jezirah and the Apocalypse are the masterpieces of Occultism; they contain more wisdom than words ; their expression is as figurative as poetry, and at the same time it is as exact as mathematics."
In the volume entitled "La I~abbale" by the eminent French scholar and Membre de L'Institut, Adolphe Franck, there is a chapter on the " Sepher Yetzirah." He writes as follows:--
"The Book of Formation contains, I will not say a system of physics, but of cosmology such as could be conceived at an age and in a country where the habit of explaining all phenomena by the immediate action of the First Cause, tended to check the spirit of observation, and where in consequence certain general and superficial relations perceived in the natural world passed for the science of Nature."......."Its form is simple and grave; there is nothing like a demonstration nor an argument; but it consists rather of a series of aphorisms, reqularly grouped, and which have all the conciseness of the most ancient oracles."
In his analysis of the " Sepher Yetzirah," he adds:-" The Book of Formation, even if it be not very voluminous, and if it do not altogether raise us to very elevated reg~ons of thought, yet offers us at least a composition which is very homogeneous and of a rare originality. The clouds which the imagination of commentators have gathered around it, will be dissipated, if we look for, in it, not mysteries of ineffable wisdom, but an attempt at a reasonable doctrine, made when reason arose, an effort to grasp the plan of the universe, and to secure the link which binds to one common principle, all the elements which are around us."
" The last word of this system is the substitution of the absolute divine Unity for every idea of Dualism, for that pagan philosophy which saw in matter an eternal substance whose laws were not in accord with Divine Will ; and for the Biblical doctrine, which by its idea of Creation, postulates two things, the Universe and God, as two substances absolutely distinct one from the other."
" In fact, in the "Sepher Yetzirah,"' God considered as the Infinite and consequently the indefinable Being, extended throughout all things by his power and existence, is while above, yet not outside of numbers, sounds and letters,--the Principles and general laws which we recognise."
"Every element has its source from a higher form, and all things have their common origin from the Word (Logos), the Holy Spirit........So God is at once, in the highest sense, both the matter and the form of the universe. Yet He is not only that form; for nothing can or does exist outside of Himself; His substance is the foundation of all, and all things bear His imprint and are symbols of His intelligence."
Hebrew tradition assigns the doctrines of the oldest portions of the " Zohar " to a date antecedent to the building of the Second Temple, but Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, who lived in the reign of the Emperor Titus, ;\.D. 70180, is considered to have been the first to commit these to writing, and Rabbi Moses de Leon, of Gaudalaxara, in Spain, who died in 1305 certainly reproduced and published the " Zohar."
Ginsburg, speaking of the Zoharic doctrines of the Ain Suph, says that they were unknown until the I3th century,
but he does not deny the great antiquity of the Sepher Yetzirah, in which it will be noticed the "Ain Suph
Aur " and " Ain Suph " are not mentioned.
I suggest, however, that this omission is no proof that the doctrines of "Ain Suph Aur" and "Ain Suph" did not then exist, because it is a reasonable supposition, that the " Sepher Yetzirah " was the volume assigned to the Yetziratic world, the third of the four Kabalistic Worlds of Emanation, while the "Asch Metzareph " is concerned with the Assiatic, fourth, or lowest World of Shells, and is on the face of it an alchemical treatise; and again the " Siphra Dtzenioutha- " mav be fittingly considered to be an Aziluthic work, treating of the Emanations of Deity alone; and there was doubtless a fourth work assigned to the World of Briah--the second type, but I have not been able to identify this treatise.
Both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds refer to the " Sepher Yetzirah." Their treatise named " Sanhedrin," certainly mentions the "Book of Formation," and another similar work; and Rashi in his commentary on the treatise " Erubin," considers this a reliable historical notice. This work then, or a similar predecessor, is at least as old as AD 200.
Other positive historical notices are those of Saadjah Gaon, who died A.D. 940, and Judah Halevi, A.D. 1150; both these Hebrew classics speak of it as a very ancient work.
The most generally accepted modern opinion is that the author was Rabbi Akiba, who lived in the time of the Emperor Hadrian, A.D. 120.
Graetz, however, assigns it to early Gnostic times, third or fourth century, and Zunz speaks of it as post Talmudical, and belonging to the Geonic period 700 to 800 A.D.; Rubinsohn, in the "Bibliotheca Sacra," speaks of this latter idea as having no real basis.
The Talmuds were first collected into a concrete whole, and printed in Venice, 1520 A.D.
The " Zohar " was first printed in RiIantua in IjgS, again in Cremona, 1560, and at Lublin, 1623, and a fourth edition by Knorr von Rosenroth, at Sulzbach in 1651. Some parts are not very ancient, since some versions mention the Crusades.
Six extant Hebrew editions of the " Sepher Yetzirah " were collected and printed at Lemberg in 1680. The oldest of these six recensions was that of Saadjah Gaon. Commentaries by Judah Halevi, and by Eben Ezra, of the I2th century, are also known.
There are now to be found in the best libraries, several Latin versions, viz., that of Gulielmus Postellus, 1552, Paris; one by Johann Pistorius, in his ''Artis Cabalistica Tomus," 1587, Basle; and a third by Joannes Stephanus Rittangeliu's, 1642, Amsterdam; this latter gives both Hebrew and Latin, and also the Thirty-Two Paths as a supplement.
There is also a good German translation, by Johann Friedrich von Meyer, dated 1830. Quite recently, and since the completion of my translation, my attention has been drawn to a version by Isidor Kalisch, in which he has reproduced many of the valuable annotations of Meyer. - The edition which I now offer is fundamentally that of the ancient Hebrew codices translated into English, and collated with the Latin versions of Pistorius,. Postellus, and Rittangelius.
The following copies of. the "Sepher Yetzirah"in Hebrew, I have also examined:
I. A Version by Saadiah, ab. ben David, and three others, Mantua, 1562, 4to.
2. A Version with the commentary of Rabbi Abraham F. Dior, Amsterdam, 1642, 4to.
3. A Version with preface - by M. ben J. Chagiz, Amsterdam, 17'3, I6m0.
4. A Version, Constantinople, 1719, 8VO.
5. "..........." Zolkiew, 1745, 4to.
6. "..........." by Moses ben Jacob, Zozec, 1779, qto.
7. "............ "Grodno, ISo6, 4tO
8. "............." Dyhernfurth, 1812, 8VO.
9. "............" Salonica, 1831, Svo.
10. MSS. copy dated 1719, in the British Museum.
I add here the full titles of the three Latin versions; they are all to be found in the British 3luseum Library.
"Abrahami Patriarch~e Liber Jezirah sive Formationis Mundi, Patribus quidem Abrahami tempora pracedentibus revelatus, sed ab ipso etiam Abrahamo' errpositus Isaaco, et per prophetarum manus posteritati conservatus, ipsis autem 72. Moses auditoribus in secundo divin~e veritatis loco, hoc est in rations quce est posterior authoritate, habitus." Parisiis, 1552 . Gulielmus Postellus.
" Id est Liber Jezirah, qui Abrahamos, Patriarchs adscribitur, unacum Commentario Rabi Abraham F.D. super 32 semitis Sapientia, a quibusliber Jezirah incipit: Translatus et notis illustratus a Joanne Stephano Rittangelio Ling. Orient. in Elect. Acad. Regiomontana Prof. Extraord," Amstelodami, 1642.
In Tomus Primus of "Artis Cabalisticae hoc est reconditae theolo,aiae et philosophia: scriptorum." Basilea 1587, is found " Liber de Creatione Cabalistinis, Hebraice Sepher Jezira ; Authore Abrahamo. Successive. filiis ore traditus. Hine jam rebus Israel inclinatis ne deficeret per sapientes Hierusalem arcanis et' profundissimis sensibus literis commendatus." Johannes Pistorius .
The "Sepher Yetzirah" consists of six chapters, having 33 paragraphs distributed among them, in this manner, the first has 12, then follow 5, 5, 4, 3, and 4. The oldest title has, as an addition, the words, " The Letters of our Father Abraham " or " ascribed to the patriarch Abraham ", and it is spoken of as such, by many mediaeval authorities: but this origin is doubtless fabulous although perhaps not more improbable than the supposed authorship of the "Book of Enoch," mentioned by St. Jude, and rescued in modern times from the wilds of Ethiopia by the great traveller Bruce.
In essence the work was, doubtless, the crystallization of centuries of tradition by one writer, and it has been added to from time to time, by later authors, who have also revised it. Some of the additions, which were rejected even .by mediaeval students, I have not incorporated with the text at all, and I present in this volume only the undoubted kernel of this occult nut, upon which many great authorities, Hebrew, German, Jesuit and others have written long commentaries, and yet have failed to explain satisfactorily.
I find Kalisch speaking of these Commentaries says, "they contain nothing but a medley of arbitrary 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 this ancient book." Kalisch, however, was not an occultist ; these commentaries are, however, so extensive as to demand years of study, and I feel no hesitation in confessing that my researches into them have been but superficial.
For convenience of study I have placed the Notes in a separate form at the end of the work, and I have made a short definition of the 'subject-matter of each chapter.
The substance of this little volume was read as a Lecture before the Hermetic Society of London in the summer of 1886, Dr. Anna Kingsford, President, in the chair. Some of the Notes were the explanations given verbally, and subsequently in writing, to members of the Society who asked for information upon abstruse points in the "Sepher," and for collateral doctrines; others, of later date, are answers which have been given to enquiring Theosophists, and members of the Hermetic G. D.
The late Madame Blavatsky, my esteemed teacher of Theosophy, and my personal friend, at whose suggestion a friendly alliance between the Hermetic Order of the G. D. and the Inner Group of Theosophic students was made, expressed to me her recognition of the value of the "Sepher Yetzirah" as a mystical treatise on cosmic origin, and her approval of my work in its translation, and of my notes and explanations.