Scholem on the Kabbalistic Elements
“The ten primordial numbers are called sefiroth—a Hebrew noun, newly formed here, that bears no relation to the Greek word sphaira, but is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to count.”
Steinschneider’s contention (Mathematik bei den Juden [Hildesheim, 1965], p. 148) that the original term acquired its specific kabbalistic meaning as a result of the similarity to the Greek word is not borne out by an analysis of the oldest kabbalistic texts. By introducing a new term, sefirah, in place of the usual mispar, the author seems to indicate that it is not simply a question of ordinary numbers, but of metaphysical principles of the universe or stages in the creation of the world.
The possibility that the term refers to emanations from God himself can be excluded in view of both the wording and the context; it could only be read into the text by later reinterpretation. Each of these primordial numbers is associated with a particular category of creation, the first four sefiroth undoubtedly emanating from each other.
The first one is the pneuma of the living God, ruah ‘elohim hayyim (the book continues to use the word ruah in its triple meaning of breath, air, and spirit). From the ruah comes forth, by way of condensation, as it were, the “breath of breath,” that is, the primordial element of the air, identified in later chapters with the ether, which is divided into material and immaterial either (SIC, should probably be ether).
The idea of an “immaterial ether,” ‘awir she’eno nithpas, like the other Hebrew neologisms in the book, seems to correspond to Greek conceptions. From the primordial air come forth the water and the fire, the third and the fourth sefiroth. Out of the primordial air God created the twenty-two letters; out of the primordial fire, the Throne of Glory and the hosts of angels.
The nature of this secondary creation is not sufficiently clear, for the precise terminological meaning that the author gave to the verbs haqaq and hasab, which belong to the vocabulary of architecture, can be interpreted in different ways. He does not utilize the Hebrew word for “create,” but words that mean “engrave” (is this to designate the contours or the form?) and “hew,” as one hews a stone out of the rock. The Aristotelian element of the earth is not known to the author as a primordial element.”
–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 26-7.