The 32 Paths of the Sophia
“Besides these literary monuments of the Merkabah gnosis, there was another, extremely curious text which circulated widely during the Middle Ages, excercising a great influence in many lands and in diverse circles: the “Book of Creation,” Sefer Yesirah. Concerning the origin and spiritual home of this work, which numbers only a few pages, divergent opinions have been voiced, although to date it has been impossible to come to any reliable and definitive conclusions.
This uncertainty is also reflected in the various estimates of the date of its composition, which fluctuate between the second and the sixth centuries. This slender work is also designated in the oldest manuscripts as a collection of “halakhoth on the Creation,” and it is not at all impossible that it is referred to by this name in the Talmud. In the two different versions that have come down to us, it is divided into chapters whose individual paragraphs were likewise regarded by medieval tradition as mishnaic.
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The book’s strong link with Jewish speculations concerning divine wisdom, hokhmah or Sophia, is evident from the first sentence:
“In thirty-two wondrous paths of wisdom God . . . [there follows a series of biblical epithets for God] engraved and created His world.”
These thirty-two paths of the Sophia are the ten primordial numbers, which are discussed in the first chapter, and the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, which are described in a general way in chapter 2 and more particularly in the following chapters as elements and building blocks of the cosmos.
The “paths of the Sophia” are thus fundamental forces that emanate from her or in which she manifests herself. They are, as in the old conception of the Sophia herself, the instruments of creation. In her or through her—the Hebrew preposition permits both translations—God, the master of the Sophia, “engraved” Creation. The symbolism of the number thirty-two reappears also in some Christian gnostic documents, but it is in this text that it seems to be established for the first time and in the most natural manner.
Mention should, however, be made of Agrippa von Nettesheim, who informs us (De occulta philosophia 2:15) that thirty-two was considered by the Pythagoreans as the number of righteousness because of its well-nigh unlimited divisibility. More recently Nicholas Sed has discussed in a remarkable essay the relationship of the symbolism of the Book Yesirah with the Samaritan Memar of Marqah.
–Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 1987, pp. 24-6.