Translated from the Hebrew by Wm. Wynn Westcott.
(NOTE: The Sepher Yetzirah is one of the most famous of the ancient Qabalistic texts. It was first put into writing around 200 C.E. Westcott’s Translation of the Sepher Yetzirah was a primary source for the rituals and Knowledge Lectures of the Golden Dawn. This is the Third Edition of Westcottís translation, first published in 1887. A Fourth Revised Edition by Darcy Kúntz, complete with Hebrew text, notes and bibliography, is available from Holmes Publishing Group, P.O. 623, Edmonds, WA 98020.)
The “Sepher Yetzirah,” or “Book of Formation,” is perhaps the oldest Rabbinical treatise of Kabalistic philosophy which is still extant. 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 tractate from the original Hebrew texts, and to collate with them the Latin versions of mediaeval authorities; and I have also published An Introduction to the Kabalah which may be found useful to students.
Three important books of the “Zohar,” or “Book of Splendour,” which is a great storehouse of Kabalistic teaching, have been translated into English by S. L. MacGregor Mathers, and the “Sepher Yetzirah” in an English translation is almost a necessary companion to these 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 is an 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 to be found in Semitic authors.
Attention must be called to the essential peculiarity of the Hebrew language, 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 “ground-work idea” ‘of this disquisition rests; and these principles may be traced throughout the Kabalistic tractates which have succeeded it in point of time and development, many of which are associated together in one volume known as the “Zohar,” which is in the main concerned with the essential dignities of the Godhead, with the Emanations which have sprung therefrom, with the doctrine of the Sephiroth, the ideals of Macroprosopus and Microprosopus, and the doctrine of Re-incarnation.
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 modern mystics may be fitly introduced here.
The following interesting quotation is from Rabbi Moses Botarel, who wrote his famous Commentary in 1409:–“It was Abraham our Father–blessed be he–who wrote this book to condemn the doctrine of 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, and a third Power whose function was to decide between 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 Lévi (who flourished about 1120), 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.”
According to Isaac Myer, in his Quabbalah (p. 159), the “Sepher Yetzirah” was referred to in the writings of Ibn Gebirol of Cordova, commonly called Avicebron, who died in A.D. 1070.
Eliphas Levi, the famous French Occultist, thus wrote of the “Sepher Yetzirah,” in his Histoire de la Magie, 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 ideas 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 Lévi 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 Kabbale by the eminent French scholar, Adolphe Franck, there is a chapter on the “Sepher Yetzirah.” He writes as follows:–
“The Book of Formation contains, I will not say 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.”Ö”Its form is simple and grave; there is nothing like a demonstration nor an argument; but it consists rather of a series of aphorisms, regularly 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 regions 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 SpiritÖ. 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, A.D. 70-80, is considered to have been the first to commit these to writing, and Rabbi Moses de Leon, of Guadalaxara, 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 thirteenth 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” may 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.Other historical notices are those of Saadya Gaon, who died A.D. 940, and Judah Ha Levi, A.D. 1150; both these Hebrew classics speak of it as a very ancient work. Some modern critics have attributed the authorship to the Rabbi Akiba, who lived in the time of the Emperor Hadrian, A.D. 120, and lost his life in supporting the claims of Barchocheba, a false messiah: others suggest it was first written about A.D. 200.
Graetz however assigns it to early Gnostic times, third or fourth century, and Zunz speaks of it as post Talmudical, and belonging to the Geonim period 700-800 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 Mantua in 1558; again in Cremona, 1560; and at Lublin, 1623; and a fourth edition by Knorr von Rosenroth, at Sulzbach in 1684. Some parts are not very ancient, because the Crusades are mentioned in one chapter. 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 (by some critics called spurious).There are still extant three Latin versions, viz., that of Gulielmus Postellus; one by Johann Pistorius; and a third by Joannes Stephanus Rittangelius; this latter gives both Hebrew and Latin versions, and also “The Thirty-Two Paths” as a supplement.
There is a German translation, by Johann Friedrich von Meyer, dated 1830; a version by Isidor Kalisch, in which he has reproduced many of the valuable annotations of Meyer; an edition in French by Papus, 1888; an edition in French by Mayer Lambert, 1891, with the Arabic Commentary of Saadya Gaon; and an English edition by Peter Davidson, 1896, to which are added “The Fifty Gates of Intelligence” and “The Thirty-Two Ways of Wisdom.” 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, following the latter, rather than the former commentators. As to the authenticity of “The Sepher Yetzirah,” students may refer to the Bibliotheca magna Rabbinica of Bartoloccio de Cellerio, Rome, 1678-1692; to Basnage, History of the Jews, 1708; and to The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah, by A. B. Waite, 1902.The following copies of the “Sepher Yetzirah” in Hebrew, I have also examined, but only in a superficial manner:–
1. 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, 1713, 16mo.4. A Version, Constantinople, 1719, 8vo.
5. ” ” Zolkiew, 1745, 4to.
6. ” ” by Moses ben Jacob, Zozec, 1779, 4to.
7. ” ” Grodno, 1806, 4to.
8. ” ” Dyhernfurth, 1812, 8vo.
9. ” ” Salonica, 1831, 8vo.
10. A MS. 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 Museum Library.
“Abrahami Patriarchae Liber Jezirah sive Formationis Mundi, Patribus quidem Abrahami tempora praecedentibus revelatus, sed ab ipso etiam Abrahamo expositus Isaaco, et per pro prophetarum manus posteritati conservatus, ipsis autem 72 Mosis auditoribus in secundo divinae veritatis loco, hoc est in ratione, quoe est posterior authoritate, habitus.” Parisiis, 1552. Gulielmus Postellus.”Id est Liber Jezirah, qui Abrahamo, Patriarchae adscribitur, una cum Commentario Rabbi Abraham F.D. super 32 semitis Sapientiae, a quibus Liber Jezirah incipit: Translatus et notis illustratus a Joanne Stephano Rittangelio, Ling. Orient. in Elect. Acad. Regiomontana Prof. Extraord,” Amstelodami, 1642.In Tomas Primus of “Artis Cabalisticae hoc est reconditae theologiae et philosophiae scriptorum.” Basileae 1587, is found “Liber de Creatione Cabalistinis, Hebraice Sepher Jezira; Authore Abrahamo. Successive filiis ore traditus. Hinc 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.
Yet in some versions the paragraphs and subject-matter are found in a different arrangement. 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, of which two MSS. copies in the Ethiopic language were rescued from the wilds of Abyssinia in 1773 by the great traveller James Bruce. In essence this work was, doubtless, the crystallisation 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 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 students of Theosophy and Hermetic philosophy, and to my pupils of the Study Groups of the Rosicrucian Society of England.
Authors Details: Translated from the Hebrew by Wm. Wynn Westcott