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Category: Sefer Yezira

The Book Bahir

The Book Bahir, (anonymous, 1185), attributed to Rabbi Nehunia ben ha-Kanah, “begins with a few statements concerning the creation. In the first part of the book there are many discussions of the letters of the alphabet, their shapes, and the meaning of their names.”

“This work is the first Jewish treatise that presents in a positive manner the concept of transmigration of souls, the reincarnation or rebirth of the same souls again and again.”

(I had no idea that reincarnation had any place in Jewish Kabbalah).

 This work is technically the earliest work of the Kabbalah, based on three major concepts which are not found in earlier Jewish sources. 

The first is the description of the divine world consisting of ten hypostases, ten divine powers, which are called ma’amarot (utterances), which were known in later kabbalalistic writings as the ten sefirot

The second is the identification of one of the ten divine powers as feminine, separate from the other nine, and thus introducing gender dualism into the image of the divine realms. 

The third is the description of the divine world as a tree (ilan); the work states that the divine powers are positioned one above the other like the branches of a tree. But the image was one of an upside-down tree, its roots above and its branches growing downward, toward the earth.

These three concepts became characteristic of Kabbalah as a whole, (excepting Abraham Abulafia, who rejected the concept of the ten sefirot), and the presence of these three concepts identifies works as part of the tradition of Kabbalah. 

“In addition to these three concepts there is in the Book Bahir a more dramatic description of the realm of evil than those usually found in earlier Jewish sources, but there is no final separation between God and Satan. The powers of evil are described as the fingers of God’s left hand.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 20-2.

More on Creation Through the Powers of the Alphabet.

“The Sefer Yezira (The Book of Creation) describes the process of creation mainly by the power of the letters of the alphabet. It dates to the 10th Century AD, though it was regarded as an ancient work. It was clearly developed and edited for several generations before it emerged into view. The exact date of its origin is unknown. Some assert that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, while others claim that it was written in the 9th century, with Islamic influences. The consensus seems to be that it dates to the third or fourth century, but there is no definitive evidence.

The concluding sentences state that Abraham knew the secrets of this work, so it is traditionally ascribed to Abraham the Patriarch.

The Book of Creation describes a system of cosmogony and cosmology different from Genesis, yet cites no authority and rarely refers to Bible verses.

“The universe was hewed, according to the first paragraph, by thirty-two “wondrous paths of wisdom,” and engraved in “three books.” The “paths” are described as ten sefirot and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These sefirot are not divine powers….” They are “described as the directions or dimensions of the cosmos, (north, south, east, west, up, down, beginning, end, good, and evil), as well as the holy beasts of Ezekiel’s chariot, the stages of the emergence of the three elements (divine spirit, air or wind, and water and fire), and other characteristics that are unclear.”

“Early commentators interpreted the sefirot as the ten basic numbers from one to ten.”

“The central concept … is harmonia mundi, (harmony of the universe). There are three layers of existence, the cosmic, that of time, and that of man. Each letter, or group of letters, is in charge of one aspect of each layer.”

“Thus … the Hebrew letters that can be pronounced in two different ways–whose number, according to this work, is seven–in the cosmos, are in charge of the seven planets; in “time,” are in charge of the seven days of the week; and, in man, are in charge of the seven orifices in the head (eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth).

“The twelve letters that the author describes as “simple” are in charge of the twelve zodiac signs, the twelve months, and the twelve principal limbs, and so on. This model was used by subsequent thinkers to develop the concept of human beings as microcosmos, reflecting the characteristics of the cosmos as a whole (especially by Shabbatai Donolo, who used it to interpret the the verse in Genesis 1:27, indicating that man was created in the image of God).”

“The concept that the universe was created by the power of divine speech is an ancient one in Judaism, and the Sefer Yezira developed this idea systematically. The guiding principle seems to have been that if creation is accomplished by language, then the laws of creation are the laws of language. Grammar thus was conceived as the basic law of nature. The author developed a Hebrew grammar based on 231 “roots”–the number of possible combinations of 22 letters. He explained the existence of good and evil in the universe as a grammatical process: if the letter ayin is added to the “root” ng as a prefix, it gives ong, great pleasure, but if it is added as a suffix, it means infliction, malady. The author also insisted that everything in the universe, following grammatical principles, has two aspects, parallel to the gender duality of masculine and feminine.”

“The kabbalists … positioned this work in the heart of Jewish sacred tradition, a source of divine wisdom parallel to that of the Hebrew Bible.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, 2006, pp. 16-18.

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