Friday, February 21, 2014
Book Review: The Sepher Yetzirah: The Book of Creation: Understanding the Gra Tree and the Kabbalah translated from the Hebrew by Wm. Wynn Wescott (first published 1887- third ed)
Here it is noted that the Sepher Yetzirah was first put into writing around 200 C.E. and that Westcott’s edition was a key source for the rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Sepher Yetzirah, also called the Book of Formation, is thought to possibly be “the oldest Rabbinical treatise of Kabalistic philosophy which is still extant.” This small book explores the “origins” of what I like to call the symbolatry (the magickal attributions of symbols) of the Hebrew letters and numbers. According to Wescott it is a very good companion to other key Kabalistic texts such as the Zohar (The Book of Splendour). He says these two books are quite complementary. Kabbalah can be a system of correspondences (the most famous such system) or an exposition of the manifestation of the Divine into matter and re-absorption of the Divine back into Spirit. The lightning bolt path down the Tree of Life is the former while the serpent path up the Tree of Life is the latter.
The Hebrew language, the origin of all alphabetic languages, involves a necessary association of letters and numbers. Every letter has a number and groups of letters as well as words have associated numbers. Westcott notes that the Zohar is an exposition of the emanations from the Godhead, the Sephera, the ideals of the Macroprosopus and Microprosopus, as well as reincarnation. The Sepher Yetzirah deals mainly with the microcosm, he says. As the Book of Formation it can be seen as treatise on cosmology, an account of creation.
Westcott also gives a bit of commentary from rabbis of the Middle Ages. One saw Abraham as the author of the Sepher Yetzirah as a rebuttal of the incorrect dogmas of Babylonian sages. Others saw it as proof of monotheism since it is from unity that multiplicity arises. The 19th century French occultist Eliphas Levi wrote that, “ The Zohar represents absolute truth, and the Sepher Jezirah provides the means by which we may seize, appropriate, and make use of it.”
Both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds mention the Sepher Yetzirah. It has been said that the Sepher Yetzirah refers to the third of the four Kabalistic worlds of emanation, the Yetziratic world, with other texts attributed to the other worlds. It has also been suggested that there is no textual evidence referring to the Ain Soph and Ain Soph Aur until the 13th century although others think such references simply may have been lost. Westcott gives a survey and bibliography of the printed versions of Sephira Yetzirah from Renaissance times to his own time, both in Hebrew and Latin. He also mentions that there are many detailed commentaries and that he is not familiar with them all. His interest is from the standpoint of an occultist rather than as a rabbinical Jew.
The book begins by noting that it is about the thirty-two mysterious paths of wisdom – being the ten sephira (spheres) and the twenty-two letters and the association of numbers, letters, and sounds. The ten sephira were said to give rise to the ten numbers. First there was Spirit, second Air, third the waters and clay and the foundation of things, fourth the fire and a throne with angels as well as the great name IHV. This is the Tetragrammaton IHVH without the final heh. It is called the trigrammaton and is said to be more suitable to the Yetziratic plane. The next six numbers refer to the six possible permutations of these three letters associated with the six directions. So from the “one Spirit of the Gods of the living” arise air, water, fire, height, depth, east, west, south, and north.
Next come the twenty-two sounds and letters. They are said to be the foundation of all things. They are called three mothers, seven doubles, and twelve simples. The three mothers are Aleph, Mem, and Shin, equated to air, water, and fire respectively. The twenty-two letters are said to be arranged on a sphere with two hundred and thirty-one gates. All the possible combinations of the twenty-two letters in pairs (without reversal) make two hundred thirty-one, thus the two hundred thirty-one gates of knowledge. From the three mothers come the three fathers and from them come all things of the world. The heavens came from fire, the earth from water, and the air from spirit. Air (Aleph) is seen as the mediator, or reconciler, between the extremes of water (Mem) and fire (Shin). From fire came the head, from water the belly, and from air the chest between them.
The seven double letters – Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Kaph, Peh, Resh, and Tau, each have two sounds associated with them – one hard and one soft. They are called double since each represents an opposition: life and death, peace and war, wisdom and folly, riches and poverty, grace and indignation, fertility and solitude, and power and servitude. They point out the six directions and the “palace of holiness that sustains them. These seven also correspond to the seven days of the week, the seven planets, the seven days of creation, and the seven gates of the soul (the seven orifices of perception in man). Further correspondences are given in a supplemental chapter that was apparently added in more modern times.
The twelve simple letters: He’, Vau, Zain, Cheth, Teth, Yod, Lamed, Nun, Samech, Oin, Tzaddi, and Qoph, are considered the foundations of the properties: sight, hearing, smell, speech, taste, sexual love, work, movement, anger, mirth, imagination, and sleep. They are also equated to directions in space. They are further corresponded to the twelve signs of the zodiac, the twelve months of the solar year, and the twelve organs of humans. Westcott notes that medieval and modern correspondences for these vary considerably.
The three, the seven, and the twelve are corresponded with the universe, the year, and man.
“2. The Celestial Dragon, TLI, is placed over the universe like a king upon the throne; the revolution of the year is as a king over his dominion; the heart of man is as a king in warfare.”
TLI (Tali or Theli) may referr to the constellation Draco, the ecliptic, or the Milky Way. Theli may be an Arabic word.
The Sepher Yetzirah is quite a short text but there are many commentaries as well as typical additions. One addition is called – The Fifty Gates of Intelligence. This is a classification of knowledge emanating from the Sephiroth, Binah – Understanding. This seems to me to be a later addition with Neoplatonic characteristics but I am not sure of this. It is said that one must pass through these gates to attain the thirty-two paths of wisdom. Six orders are given: 1) elementary order – includes chaos, void, and elements; 2) decad of evolution – includes minerals, vegetables, insects, reptiles, fishes, vertebrates, birds, and quadrapeds; 3) decad of humanity – includes human body, human soul, microcosmic man, and heavenly man (Adam Kadmon); 4) world of spheres – includes the planets, the firmament, the Primum Mobile, and the Empyrean Heaven; 5) the Angelic world – includes various angels, powers, principalities, and arch-angels; 6) the Archetype – God, Ain Suph.
Next comes a section called – The Thirty-two Paths of Wisdom – translated from the Hebrew text of Joannes Stephanus Rittangelius. It also appears in the Oedipus Aegypticus of famed Jesuit collector of alchemical lore Athanasius Kircher. Here given are names of each of the thirty-two paths in a list as a sort of descending hierarchy of creation.
Westcott gives a sort of occulstist’s commentary to Sepher Yetzirah as notes to the text.
“ This book may be considered to be an Allegorical Parallel between the idealism of Numbers and Letters and the various parts of the Universe …”
He suggests that it sheds light on mystical knowledge and is complementary to Masonic and Hermetic teachings with which it should be studied.
Westcott sees the word “Sephiroth” as SPIRUT being allied to the Latin spiritus.
To be honest – for me – I have always found Kabalah to be a bit dry, abstract, and cryptic but have learned it somewhat as it is a big part of the Western Esoteric tradition.
The Sepher Yetzirah is a foundational root text to the understanding of Kabalah and probably should be studied with other texts and commentaries. The thirty-two paths represent types or attributes of divine power and have become a key part of classifying the world and the psyche and their aspects into correspondences that can be compared. One scheme is the correspondences of the twenty-two paths of the Hebrew letters with the twenty-two Tarot trumps. These are given as paths connecting the ten Sephira of the Tree of Life in a few different schemes. One might see these Sephira and letters, the paths, as being the multiplicity of the One – the one becoming many. Typically various qualities, particularly deities of other systems, are compared on the basis of these thirty-two paths of the Kabalah as a classifying scheme.